The Embassy Fortress


So it seems the State Department’s office that regulates embassies’ design standards is once again returning to, well, design principles. Though for the US government that means much more than just architectural style: “design” for the bureau of Overseas Building Operations also means security issues, costs, and other factors that have made American embassies so drab and so evocative of tone-deaf, aggressive, and bunker-mentality foreign policy. But look at their website! The future London embassy might not be Edward Durell Stone in New Delhi, but it’s better than Baghdad… and certainly Cairo too.

I’m reminded of a paper I wrote as a modernism-loving undergraduate in Poughkeepsie, where I took up the challenge of not only defending, but praising the most ostracized building on campus: the 1959 foreign language building designed by Paul Schweikher. Here it is in its heyday. The building has aged badly, lost the purity of its concrete, vaulted barrel roofline, lost an Alvar Aalto-inspired auditorium, had AC units put in all the windows, and the Erwin Hauer-designed sculptural screens have been neglected. What does this have to do with American embassies? The building — a self-promoted island for foreign language study removed from the campus — was of a headier era of American design principles and international aspirations, often expressed through modernism. The building was raised on a plinth, the image of modernist (elevated) separation. English was not to be spoken inside; only foreign languages, especially Russian, sitting at booths in a state-of-the-art electronic language lab.

The ideas behind a facility dedicated to modern language learning techniques grew out of the design competition and construction of the new United Nations Headquarters in New York. The expression of these aims through modernist architecture had been set with the new “world headquarters” in New York, drafted by an international team of architects led by American Wallace Harrison and constantly prodded and berated by Le Corbusier. In addition, the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which boosted high school and higher education funding for mathematics, sciences and foreign languages, pointed to the political age of high-minded American ideals, like training for the foreign service and prosperity through modernization and development.

The foreign language building in question was inspired by an unrealized design for a new American embassy in Amman, Jordan in 1954, by Paul Rudolph. Rudolph’s Amman embassy was a kind of modernist tent, and not nearly the modernism-meets-the-Orient of Josep Lluis Sert’s American embassy in Baghdad. But Rudolph’s design was rejected, apparently for being designed too much like a “fortress.” In 1954 an embassy in Jordan could not be removed from the city; in 1959 the foreign language building that it inspired opened on the edge of a prestigious women’s college campus, asserting its concrete separation from all the brick, ivy, and quadrangles.

All this is to say that I have a soft-spot, or maybe a misplaced nostalgia, for concrete modernism, or at least for the illusion of American foreign policy ideals that they might represent. Or maybe I just like the irony of Rudolph’s Amman embassy being rejected for the very reason that has dictated American embassy design for decades. But before I get carried away with this bit of news from the State Department: a change toward design does not mean that good architecture will prevail. Just look at the runners-up for the London embassy contest. Eager praise for unforgiving, 1950s high modernism aside, would the US ever approve a great embassy design like this, today?

Designed by Richard Meier & Partners Architects.

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