Summoned to a tense congressional hearing last month, two U.S. Department of State officials dressed entirely in black, as if anticipating a somber occasion. Sure enough, as soon as they had taken their seats facing members of the House of Representatives, they encountered a barrage of criticism lambasting and ridiculing the department's policies.
The title of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing signaled what they were up against: "Are New Administration Policies Putting Americans Overseas in Danger?" At stake was the architectural design of United States embassies abroad, and the officials—the State Department's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) director Lydia Muniz and deputy director Casey Jones—had scant chance to defend their approach. When they tried, congressmen repeatedly interrupted or cut them off.
"It was more of a lecturing than a hearing," says John Ruble, FAIA, of Santa Monica, Calif.–based Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners, in a telephone interview with ARCHITECT after the session. Ruble has designed half a dozen U.S. embassies, and watched the July 10 proceedings online. "It was a sobering reminder of how challenging it is for architects to communicate the value of what they do to the public."
The committee chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., charged that recent State Department efforts to elevate the quality of embassy architecture were frivolous and imperiled the lives of U.S. diplomats. To illustrate his point, he played segments of a department promotional video featuring architects Tod Williams, FAIA, Elizabeth Diller, and Thom Mayne, FAIA, advocating good design to project a welcoming, open U.S. image abroad. Issa then took aim at the department's concern with "looking pretty." Embassies, he said, now "look better and cost more … they may be visually attractive but the new design process does not prioritize security. It prioritizes appearance."
In contrast to the Standard Embassy Design program pursued under the administration of President George W. Bush, Issa and other critics blasted the current approach for higher costs and delays in construction of new diplomatic missions while U.S. personnel continue to work out of dilapidated older facilities that do not meet current security standards and are left open to risk of violent attack.
"I'm sorry to have to say this," Issa said in opening the hearing, mocking the promotional video's language, "but were our diplomats in Benghazi murdered because their building felt hostile in its context and didn't welcome the population there?" Another Republican committee member, Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, derided the department for its construction of "fancy buildings to enhance U.S. reputation around the world" and what he called a belief "that aesthetics alone can further U.S. diplomatic relations."
The congressional hearing followed publication by Al Jazeera in May of an internal State Department report that said that the new design program could increase the risks for overseas U.S. personnel. The report said fewer embassies would be built and design and construction would take longer, "leaving more personnel exposed in inadequate facilities for longer periods of time." The hearing also came after the January departure of OBO's longtime director of design and engineering, William Miner, AIA, who left his post for personal career reasons and misgivings about the new design program's implementation.
The 2012 attacks by Islamic militants on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed the ambassador and three other Americans, heightened concerns about diplomatic security in the post-9/11 world. Even before the 2012 attacks, lethal bombings in 1983 outside the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and then in 1998 at embassies in Kenya and Tanzania led Congress to mandate changes in design, including 100-foot setbacks from the street and the use of blast-resistant materials.
In 1999, Congress authorized the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act, which led to an unprecedented effort to replace unsafe and aging embassies around the world at an overall projected cost of $17.5 billion by 2018. Many of these new embassy compounds—in capitals including Quito, Ecuador; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Bamako, Mali, and Astana, Kazakhstan—were built in quick succession and at budget according to a standardized, one-size-fits-all template.
These compounds, however, eventually sparked criticism for their unappealing, fortress-like contours. In 2009, four years before then Sen. John Kerry became secretary of state, he lamented that Washington was building "some of the ugliest embassies I've ever seen." His and other objections brought a policy change in 2011, when the State Department adopted a tailor-made program similar to the General Services Administration (GSA) Design Excellence Program, which the agency uses to select the architects for federal courthouses and border stations. The State Department also brought on Jones, who was then in charge of the GSA's program, to work as Muniz's deputy. The State Department argued that good design, high security, and cost efficiency went hand in hand, and originally adopted the same "design excellence" term, but in 2013 dropped the word design in favor of "Excellence in Diplomatic Facilities."
In his July 10 testimony, Jones said that the initiative was renamed to "more accurately" describe it. But design, the hearing made clear, has become the word that dare not speak its name in an era when American diplomats fear being targets around the world.
Ever since the U.S. became a major power, American officials have debated the appropriate architectural styles for their embassies. These have varied from classical to modernist, and the architects who have worked for the State Department range from Cass Gilbert and Delano & Aldrich to Eero Saarinen and Marcel Breuer. Even Frank Gehry, FAIA, was enlisted in 1980 to design a never-built embassy in Damascus, Syria.
Terrorist attacks, however, and perhaps the potential for scoring political points out of them, have made Congress impatient with discussion of aesthetic strategies for the representation of U.S. might and innovation. At the hearing, Issa urged a return to the standardized approach, sharply warning OBO's Muniz and Jones that his panel's session was just the start of legislative scrutiny of new embassy construction and admonishing them for "stonewalling" against committee requests for data on the current program.
"You are not the messenger who will be shot," Issa said, "but you will be back again and again as more documents arrive."
Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., accused his Republican colleagues of a "double standard" since they advocated high embassy security but had voted to cut appropriations in the fiscal year 2012 budget for that very purpose. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., conceded the panel was "beating up on the State Department," but Democrats and Republicans alike requested quantitative proof of new program's efficiency in terms of cost and construction time.
Muniz replied that it was too early to provide such evidence since the first project entirely developed under the program's auspices—the new embassy in Vientiane, Laos, designed by the firm of Page Southerland Page—won't be completed until this October. Other still-to-be-finished excellence initiative embassy projects include one for Mexico City designed by Williams and partner Billie Tsien, AIA, and another by Pritzker Prize–winner Mayne's firm Morphosis Architects for Beirut. But Muniz insisted that security was still paramount and cost and delivery times were unchanged.
Although the new London embassy was planned prior to the excellence initiative, Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, R-Mich., sought to dispute Muniz by seizing on the extraordinarily high cost of the glass-cubed embassy designed by Philadelphia-based KieranTimberlake. "A billion dollars!" he exclaimed, when Muniz testified the building would cost nearly that amount, paid for by selling State Department property in the British capital, including the existing 1960 Saarinen-designed embassy.
Muniz says in a telephone interview following the hearing that while designing embassies under the excellence initiative may take longer in some cases than using the standard template, the overall time to complete the new projects will be no longer than it had been previously, and she denies that any diplomats were being put at risk by the process. Responding to the congressional accusation that the State Department was overly focused the new embassies' appearances, she says, "Great design is about building functional facilities that are meaningful in their context. It's reductive in my mind to say a building is just about aesthetics or to say aesthetics are a priority. Great design is the collective effort to solve the requirements of the client."
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) says it will follow up on the hearing by seeking to better educate some congressmen on architects' roles in ensuring that buildings achieve many goals. AIA spokesman John Schneidawind says that the Institute is trying to arrange for architects based in Issa's and Chaffetz's districts to meet with the congressmen or their staffs on the embassy design issue.
Grant S. Green, Jr., former under secretary of state for management who prepared the internal department report on diplomatic security, also testified at the hearing. He told the committee that he was worried about higher costs for the latest embassies, and the diplomatic staff interviewed for his 41-page report "felt the pendulum had shifted from security to design." But Green added that "we didn't make a determination that Design Excellence should be tossed out the window."
Congress is not alone in voicing concern about new embassies, with more temperate questions coming from those who previously criticized standardized designs for looking like they were heedlessly imposed from abroad. Architectural historian Jane Loeffler, author of The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America's Embassies (Princeton Architectural Press, Revised Second Edition 2010), told Congress at a 2008 hearing that the standard designs were "dotting the global landscape with embassies that resemble big box stores," only far bigger and more forbidding than Walmarts.
But six years later, Loeffler acknowledges in an interview with ARCHITECT that things may have gone too far in the other direction. She suggests that the State Department was overly eager to hire prominent architects insufficiently experienced in embassy work.
"You can take risks with an art museum," she says, "but it's not the same thing with a building that's not really a public destination, one that people can't easily go and visit and one that most will never see." While embassies in a major capital like London often remain prominent urban landmarks, she argues that many U.S. missions abroad are being built today on remote and publicly inaccessible sites, so that their architecture matters less.
Security expert Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA, who chaired an AIA embassy task force that produced a 2009 report used to develop the current State Department program, also expresses concern in an interview. She says that new embassies were being done "by a whole new crop of firms that don't typically do high-security projects in high threat areas, and this may indicate there's more of a learning curve for meeting OBO's stringent security requirements."
The July hearing concluded with Chaffetz saying the committee would request that the Government Accountability Office audit the embassy program. While further hearings are planned, no date has yet been set.
Miner, who served for 11 years as OBO's director of design and engineering and is now the building director for the city of Coral Gables, Fla., tells ARCHITECT that the congressional inquiry into the program could ideally lead to State Department adjustments to ensure lower cost and on-time project completion.
"What bothers me about it," Miner says, "is that the intentions are good, but the metrics have got to be watched so that it's not vulnerable to cheap shots."