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.

Rosier US-Egyptian relations

A 1953 “Report from the Near East” via the Travel Film Archive on “how Egypt, Jordan and Iran were working with the U.S. to stabilize the Middle East in the early 1950s.” Through the lens of Julien Bryan. I have a soft spot for these old propaganda reels. Americans like to imagine their rosier relations with Egypt and the Arab world in the 1950s, signaled most of all by US intervention in Suez in 1956. Oh for the halcyon days of postwar aid and development! (Paging Daniel Lerner).

If the 58 years of foreboding in this film are any indicator, the Hashemites should be nervous, though I’m sure they already are.

new meetings

roy orbison’s syrian doppleganger was on the royal jordanian flight from new york. his wife was complaining of the delays; he tried calming her down enough so that he could step forward and rip into the sap behind the desk. on the airplane i heard a few guys gawking together as roy found his seat on the airplane. they thought he looked like elvis. the dark shades and the black toupee helmet, to me, were all orbison.

joseph is my new landlord. a teacher, he has a large grey moustache that would fit into gilbert and sullivan. he is charming, i don’t understand nearly everything he has told me about the new apartment, though i believe i retained the most important bits so far. the water shuts off for a few hours a day. “the whole city is using the same water,” he told me, so no surprise that it cuts out for some time each day. best of all he told me that the water from the sink in the kitchen, which is in the basement, is good to drink. the water for the shower, the hammam, which comes from a tank by the front door, however, is not. one of the bedrooms in the new place, which is on a quiet corner in the christian quarter, is covered is old movie posters that seem half-plastered to the wall and ceiling. one is of “scanners,” though not the image of the guy melting into nothing. david cronenberg’s 80s vision, on a wall in the old city of damascus.

after i got my keys and practiced closing and locking the door, joseph told me of the church nearby that he goes to, and he mimicked a cross across his chest. a few minutes later, joseph leaned in close as we pushed down another narrow alley that was not as quiet as the last one.

“syrian girls, so beautiful.” he motioned to two women walking steps ahead of us. “they are so beautiful, no?”

to Amman, to Sinai and back again

This time last week I was sleeping at the Holiday Inn near JFK. “Flight 93″ was playing on TNT earlier that night; the hotel was full of Jordanians and other Arabs, many with brand new biometric American passports like the new one I finally have. Royal Jordanian delayed the Sunday night flight, because of a hurricane we heard. Which one? The one that had mildly hit the northeast two days earlier, making Rafa Nadal wilt in swamp weather in Flushing? Or the one coming in two days?

Either way I landed in Amman early Tuesday morning. By Wednesday morning I was in a bus south to Aqaba to catch the ferry to Nuweiba in Egypt. “You want speed?” a ticket man asked me at the crumbling port building in Aqaba, which shares coastline with Eilat in Israel and Taba in Egypt. There are two ferries that run between Jordan and Egyot; the fast one is only supposed to take one hour, plus the casual but unclear waiting before leaving and after hitting port on the other side of the Gulf of Aqaba.

Amman and Aqaba share claims to possess the world’s tallest flagpoles. However I heard in the days since getting here and since seeing both flagpoles (impressive) that in fact Turkmenistan has the world’s tallest. And Azerbaijan, or perhaps Kazakhstan is about to out-do that. Sort of like the supertall skyscraper rivalries in Dubai, only a little thinner.

Returning to Egypt invited immediate haggling. Jordanian cabs use a meter and the drivers, besides each having unique knowledge of the best hotel in town (surely better and cheaper than the one you ask them to take you to), seem to share little with their surly Egyptian counterparts.

In a shared taxi ride from Aqaba to Amman last night, at a rest stop on the side of the highway for tea somewhere north of Kerak, the driver told me that he used to work in Baghdad. “I was a driver for KBR in Baghdad for four years. I was a driver between Amman and Baghdad for twenty years.”

I confessed I didn’t know much about KBR. He looked surprised, then annoyed, then was silent. We looked at each other and I asked if he was from Amman. He was. KBR is the major Ameican contractor in Iraq, building housing for soldiers. The driver said they work as police through the American army, and he was explaining this to the man from Madaba sitting shotgun next to him. He seemed stung that I didn’t ask him more about Baghdad, and I was embarassed that I didn’t know that KBR, among other things, employs more American private contractors and holds a larger contract with the U.S. government than does any other firm in Iraq.