Embassy Architecture in the Post-9/11 Era

More

Relating to our current discussion about the fall-out from the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, our Cities site has a good piece by Henry Grabar on the history of embassy design and constant problem of weighing security against actual diplomacy:


Regardless, with a string of embassy disasters culminating in the East Africa bombings of 1998, fears of terrorism outweighed other concerns. In 1999, the State Department adopted a standard model of construction, which embassy historian Jane Loeffler describes as an "isolated walled compound." These spiritless shells are epitomized by the designs of PageSoutherlandPage, who have built 21 such embassies and consulates since 2001. From inside the walls of these fortified villas, you might mistake our embassies for social science buildings at a rural college. They are squat, unremarkable structures surrounded by green lawns; totally anti-urban, and, planners hope, totally secure. As Senator John Kerry put it in 2009, "We are building some of the ugliest embassies I've ever seen...I cringe when I see what we're doing." Harvard International Relations professor Stephen Walt wrote that our embassies were like the "vivid physical symbol of a powerful Empire striving to keep the outside world at bay." 

Generally, critics saw these isolated, pseudo-military structures as emblematic of Bush-era foreign policy. Not everyone was sure that they were really safer, either. The U.S. embassy in Tunis, built in 2002, is located far from the city center but was the site of a violent confrontation on Friday. The more isolated the embassies, the easier it is for observers to monitor comings and goings. Even as these models became official State Department policy under General Charles E. Williams -- who resigned after the notorious embassy debacle in Baghdad -- the government seemed to acknowledge the inadequacy of this model.

I wonder how much the need for American invincibility plays into these discussions. One way of approaching the challenge is to put safety at an absolute premium -- the "Fortress America" approach. But another might be to accept our vulnerability, to understans that the job -- particularly in unstable regions of the world -- is, in fact, dangerous. Diplomacy is the point, not the erection of a military outpost.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

From This Author

Just In