Embassy Architecture in the Post-9/11 Era

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/09/embassy-architecture-in-the-post-9-11-era/262478/