“Embassies and consulates serve as the front door for US diplomacy. The safety and security they provide to our personnel are the first priority, but they must also reflect our national values of openness and ingenuity. Embassies and consulates must exemplify the best of American architecture, environmental stewardship, and innovation.” - Secretary of State John Kerry on the US Department of State’s Design Excellence program, November 2013
As the meeting point for diplomacy, embassies serve as the face of America abroad. Embassy location and architectural design have the potential to promote inclusion and openness, but when tucked behind tall fences and bunker-style architecture they can convey exclusion and hostility.
While protecting diplomatic personnel is critical, conveying core American values such as transparency, openness and equality is also key. But how do you balance security and openness? Does a focus on design put safety at risk?
These questions are currently at the center of debate, as the State Department’s embassy Design Excellence program is facing criticism for being too costly and jeopardizing security.
Launched in 2011, the Design Excellence program links architecture and diplomacy, putting an emphasis on designing embassies that reflect US values and represent “the best in American design, engineering, technology, sustainability, art, culture and construction execution.”
The program is a dramatic shift from the standardized design template in place since 1999, notorious for creating unapproachable, prison-like compounds.
However, aesthetically appealing embassy design is made complicated by a history of violent attacks. After deadly explosions outside US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Congress implemented a series of security constraints on design, including street setbacks and fortification against explosions.
Most recently, an internal State Department report, published by Al Jazeera, voiced concern that the new design program increases security risk. According to the report, the design program will result in fewer embassies being built and longer design and construction time "leaving more personnel exposed in inadequate facilities for longer periods of time.”
The new US embassy in London - designed by Philadelphia-based KieranTimberlake – is the program’s first embassy under construction.
“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,” a release by KieranTimberlake states.
The building also incorporates a transparent, crystalline blast-proof cube design for the façade, promoting openness yet guaranteeing security. However, manufacturing challenges with the six-inch-thick blast-proof glass have caused the project to be $100mn over its $1bn budget, further raising concerns from critics, a report by CBS News found.
While the State Department has denied that the new design program increases cost and project completion time, Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz is pushing for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to hold a hearing on the issue in the coming weeks.
Under the program, new embassies are being planned or under construction in over 35 cities, including London, England; the Hague, Netherlands; and Asuncion, Paraguay.