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Ignorance is Bliss

In 1926, the United States’ Foreign Service Buildings Office was formed to oversee the construction of U.S. embassies. In 1954 they implemented an architectural design policy that made embassies worldwide as American as The International Style. This is a photograph circa 1960 of the US Embassy Eero Saarinen designed for Grosvenor Square, London.

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This is the 1959 US Embassy at The Hague, designed by Marcel Breuer.

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This is the 1961 US New Delhi embassy, designed by Edward Durell Stone.

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This is the US Embassy in Athens, completed in 1961 to a design by Walter Gropius and the other architects at TAC.

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You don’t see renderings or reflecting pools like these anymore.

A 1983 suicide bombing killed 63 people at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, prompting the State Department to form a panel to set out new guidelines for new embassy construction. It was known as the Inman Report, after the panel’s leader. It recommended

  • building behind a 9-foot security wall (for obvious reasons),
  • a street setback of at least 100 feet (to lessen blast shock waves?),
  • maximum window-to-wall ratio of 15% (to increase building integrity), and
  • ideally, a site of 15 acres or more away from the city centre.

Attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 led to a further tightening of site security precautions at all embassies including existing ones. This is the US Embassy in the UK, with its current assortment of security fences, bollards and resolutely three-dimensional hardscaping.

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Similar measures were put in place at the US embassy in Athens although the building itself hasn’t aged well.

“Over the seventy-year life span of the American Embassy in Athens, the building has endured the Mediterranean sun and temperatures, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and the daily activities of the government traffic. However, these aspects have begun to effect [!] the structure. In January 2013, a request for proposal was released by the United States’ government in search of a firm that will complete an entire renovation of the chancery building (Athens Chancery Renovation). Although the design by Walter Gropius and his colleagues at The Architects Collaborative was planned very openly in order to adjust with the changing needs of the embassy, it can no longer function properly as a contemporary office space. Modern systems, not even fathomable in the 1960s [?], need to be installed, structural systems repaired and upgraded, internal layouts reconfigured, and asbestos materials need to be removed and replaced with safer products.” [ref.]

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Meanwhile, the US New Delhi embassy is being given a complete refurbishment and re-imagining by Weiss/ Manfredi architects.

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The design of individual buildings, resilient gardens, and reflecting pools are inspired by India’s reciprocal tradition of architecture and landscape and will exemplify the spirit of openness, environmental stewardship, and innovation.”

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This 2008 photograph of the US Embassy in The Hague shows the usual countermeasures in place prior to a new embassy being commissioned.

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By Pvt pauline – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7185830

In Germany, the new US Berlin Embassy was eventually completed in 2008 but not without conflict.

 John C. Kornblum, US German ambassador from 1997 to 2001, said “For some reason, when we asked for our increased security enhancements a lot of people in this city went crazy. We endured all kinds of taunts and demands. ‘What do you Americans think you’re doing?’ ” [ref.]

In their presentation, Architects Moore Ruble Yudell of Santa Monica went for a watercoloured nostalgia to soften the effect of that 15% maximum window area recommendation.

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Berlin is at 52°N so the shading-device like elements seem incongruous on the south elevation and inappropriate on the west one. They could be ornamental, or they could be light shelves, or they could function to interrupt the trajectory of airborne projectiles in the same way eyelashes do. us-embassy_in_berlin_south-west

“The palette of materials and design features have been carefully considered to complement the setting and to provide an open, yet secure, presentation of America.” [ref.]

Moore Ruble Yudell have a way with US embassies.

They all feature a circuitous route from gatehouse to public entrance, as well as vast water features the primary purpose of which is not reflecting. The new US embassy in Beijing was designed by US global architectural ambassadors SOM.

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There’s a lot of reflecting going on but we’re being misled. Moats around Mediaeval castles were not trying to look beautiful.

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This is the new US Embassy in London, designed by Kieran Timberlake Architects.

“In contrast to high perimeter walls and fences, security requirements are achieved through landscape design—such as the large pond, low garden walls with bench seating, and differences in elevation that create natural, unobtrusive barriers.” [ref.]

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At first glance it looks like the rule for 15% maximum area of wall openings has been relaxed – and it has, but only because EFTE “can cope with large (200-300%) deformations beyond its elastic range before breakage, and can take extremely high short-term loading without risk of fracture, breakage or structural overload/collapse.” [ref.] In other words, its better than glass if you’re anticipating explosions. It’s not called an EFTE cushion for nothing – except nobody calls it that lest it give the game away and make people feel bad.

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Detailed information on vehicle security at US embassies in Afghanistan and Iraq is difficult to find and, moreover, these days one doesn’t want to be seen to be trying too hard to find it. However, when buildings are designed to withstand actual mortar attack, we’re no longer talking about bunker mentality – we’re talking actual bunkers, although technically they’re blockhouses as bunkers are typically underground.

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• • •

I think we can now state the sequence by which we learn to live with the threat of explosive detonations near public buildings.

1. Temporary Measures

These appear overnight in response to some perceived threat. This is outside NYC Trump Tower on 11/9/2016. To would-be perpetrators, the highly-visible ability to satisfy suddenly-necessary performance criteria send the message ‘don’t even think about it’.

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Photo courtesy of Chuck Choi.

2. Semi-Permanent Measures

Temporary measures have a habit of becoming semi-permanent. These high-spec flowerboxes grace the perimeter of the US Embassy in Moscow. (This is the stage airport security is currently at and seems destined to remain. Like airport security measures, nobody seems to be able to remember a time they weren’t there.

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3. Permanent Measures

Sooner or later, the permanance of semi-permanent measures is accepted and becomes architecturalized. This is when concrete blocks such as those above are re-designed as high-relief hard landscaping such as outside the US Embassy in London. The ability to satisfy performance criteria is still on display but, as is the way with architecture and building performance criteria in general, efforts are made to downplay it.

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Somewhat annoyingly for architecture, blast protection performance criteria are different from other building performance criteria such as thermal performance or sustainability. A well-constructed and well-performing green roof, for example, can produce many benefits but the reality is that green roofs get designed and built in order to represent those benefits without actually going to the trouble of delivering them. Architecture is about representation, not delivery.

Blast protection can’t be similarly sacrificed in the name of architectural representation for three reasons, all of them linked. The first is that architectural representation isn’t what’s wanted –some very real performance criteria have to be met if the building is to stay standing and its occupants alive. The second is that the systems of architectural representation we have are incapable of dealing with building performance criteria anyway. If they could, we would already be living in a world of buildings having the beauty of superior energy and ecological performance. The third is that, even if our systems of architectural representation were up to the task, nobody really wants architecture to represent or otherwise remind them of how unsafe this world we live in has become.

4. Forgetting

This is the final stage. Necessary performance criteria are completely assimilated into architecture so that our awareness of them disappears. Everyone is happy. A moat on one side and a trench on the other are nothing more than elements in a park-like space to walk your dog or child without having to think about vehicle-delivered fertilizer bombs and ensuing flying debris and shattered glass. And think about them we won’t. Ignorance is bliss. Architecture has colluded with the powers-that-be to desensitize us to ugly realities.

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• • •

This circa 2008 rendering may disingenuously hark back to kinder and gentler times but the realities it depicts are no more pleasant for being sugar-coated with a confident skill and understated elegance we also seem to have lost.

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• • • 

[22 Nov 2016] see also this

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