Design Excellence of U.S. Embassies: Openness and Security

U.S. Embassy in / Architects

“The works of our artists, architects, and preservationists provide us with another language of diplomacy. A transcendent language that allows us to convey values that are at once uniquely American yet speak to all of humanity.  Increasingly in this world, art and architecture help us maintain our sense of openness and liberation.” — Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, April 12, 2010 

An embassy is much more than a building or a work of architecture; it functions as a symbolic representation of countries’ relationships to one another.  It represents the universal language of diplomacy – “communicating values and ideals, extending well beyond any moment in time”.  An embassy has the difficult task of representing two diametrically opposed concepts: security and openness.  The former typically overpowers the latter in importance, which is most probably why when we think of foreign embassies, it conjures up images of stately monolithic buildings surrounded by tall fences and menacing guards or “bunkers, bland cubes, lifeless compounds”, according to Tanya Ballard Brown of NPR’s All Things Considered.

More on the design excellence of embassies after the break…

As this promotional video – featuring Thom Mayne, Jeanne Gang, Elizabeth Diller, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, released by Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations of the U.S. State Department - “Another Language of Diplomacy”  describes, it is important to channel diplomatic principles into the architectural representation of United States and ensure a balance that speaks to the openness of the U.S. to diplomatic relations with foreign lands, while keeping security intact.  The task of the architect becomes to use his or her voice to integrate the notions of purpose, function, flexibility, art, safety, security, sustainability, and maintainability in a conceptual framework that is a symbol for the country on foreign land.

As the recent attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi indicate, security should be developed as the top priority to protect the staff and visitors on foreign land.  Yet diplomacy also requires trust, facilitated by openness and optimism on the part of negotiators. How can architecture accomplish both – delivering a sense generosity of diplomacy while ensuring protection?

U.S. Embassy in London / KieranTimberlake Architects

The Guidelines produced for the Design Excellence program of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations provide a holistic approach to design, drawing upon expertise in many areas: project management, architecture, engineering, construction, security, urban design, landscape architecture, interior design, art, sustainability, maintenance, and operations.  This collaboration guided by an architectural vision has the capacity to produce relevant, functional and lasting architecture that represents the U.S. government to the host nation while protecting the staff and visitors.

Building security expert Barbara Nadel, FAIA says that the implementation of the Design Excellence program “will produce a new generation of secure, sustainable, high-performance buildings that take into account life-cycle costs along the local context and conditions of each host country” according to an article by Sara Fernandez Cendon for the AIA.

According to the Design Excellence Program, one of the main components of the architectural aesthetic and representation is ensuring respect for the context of the building, and creating surrounding grounds that are not oppressive either to the citizens of the host nation or the workers within the embassy.  It is a symbol of respect for the host nation, as well as for its own people.

U.S. Embassy in London / KieranTimberlake Architects

The first projects to be constructed after the implementation of the Design Excellence program includes U.S. embassy in London designed by KieranTimberlake and the consulate in Guangzhou, China by SOM.  Their respective designs are considerate of the guides in that the buildings are sited in urban contexts, fitting within and contributing to the existing fabric of the host cities.  The work spaces are designed to provide high quality working environments with mental, environmental and social health in mind, while also providing secure facilities.

With the incorporation of the Design Excellence program, we may be well on our way to seeing U.S. Embassies as true places of negotiation that are both sensitive to the context and the environment, while spirited in its architectural representation of U.S. diplomacy with regard for the host nation.

See an overview of the Design Excellence guidelines here.

Cite: Vinnitskaya, Irina. "Design Excellence of U.S. Embassies: Openness and Security" 04 Mar 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 May 2015. <>
  • felipe


  • Rory Stott

    I have to disagree with the conclusions of this article, at least with respect to the London Embassy. Firstly, it respects the local context only inasmuch as a large portion of London’s South Bank is being entirely redesigned in its wake. Secondly, as highlighted by this blog post by Leopold Lambert , it perhaps leans more towards the ‘security’ side of the see-saw, with openness and diplomacy acting as an illusory facade.

    Personally, I do not consider the building to be all that bad. Whilst it may be true, as Lambert says, that the appearance of openness and the true essence of the building are contradictory, perhaps this is the correct way to deal with the issue, provided you are not too dogmatic over the Ruskinian Lamp of Truth. However I do feel that the outcomes of the Design Excellence Program need to be discussed critically rather than presenting the US Government’s discourse at face value.

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