As militant Sunni fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) continue their assault on Iraq, following their recent take-over of Baquba, President Barack Obama has ordered the deployment of 275 combat-ready troops to help defend Baghdad and, in particular, the new and expensive embassy there. At 4,700,000 sq ft, the Yaeger Architecture-designed embassy is the largest in the world and, with a cost exceeding $700 million, it was the most expensive to construct. Its multiple gyms, conference rooms, pools, private gardens, department stores, and fortified apartments are all protected by blast-resistant walls and multiple security checks. An American working at the embassy has no real need to venture beyond its walls. The complex is a city-within-a-city –– or, more accurately, a city-within-a-city-within-a-city, as the embassy is situated in the heavily-fortified “Green Zone” that harbors Baghdad’s international population.
The urgent rush to protect the supposedly impenetrable embassy brings renewed scrutiny to a building complex that has been plagued by controversy and delays since the State Department unveiled designs for it in 2004, a year after the initial invasion that toppled the reign of Saddam Hussein. Immediately, congress balked at the cost; critics at the design. In 2007, Oxford art historian and critic Martin Kemp described it as a “a hideous modernist bunker, devoid even of the residual classical motifs favoured for totalitarian architecture.” A Vanity Fair article from around the same time was titled “The Mega-Bunker of Baghdad,” and described the Baghdad embassy and similar embassies elsewhere as “artifacts of fear.”
Like all embassies, the one in Baghdad was designed to serve as marketing material for the United States – one cog in the great visual machine that produces the United States’ international “brand” – but also as the home for its real-life presence in a highly troubled state. To put this another way, the architects of the complex, Berger Devine Yaeger of Kansas, were tasked with designing a structure that could serve both as a billboard for their country and as a literal shield to protect US countrymen from attacks. That today, in the first decades of the 21st century, the latter concern takes constitutive precedence over the former isn’t particularly surprising for a waning superpower coming out of decades of deadly attacks on its diplomatic complexes.
In fact, the history of embassy design in the United States is rather short-lived; it was only after World War II that the US undertook the massive project of installing a diplomatic base in nearly every country. At first, these embassies were chiefly designed in the International Style with lots of glass and open access to the street. Like the Abstract Expressionist exhibits that were toured around the world to project an image of America as open, democratic, and free, these buildings were encoded to serve a symbolic as well as practical function. Security came second (or perhaps it just wasn’t as much of a concern at the time) to advertising.
The original American embassy in Baghdad is just one example of this design typology. Designed by Josep Lluís Sert in 1955, the embassy was active during the tumultuous second half of the 20th century before being abandoned in 1991. Unsurprisingly, it was the Sert embassy rather than the current complex that was chosen to be commemorated in OfficeUS, the large – but by no means exhaustive – survey of architectural exports from the United States that is currently on display at the American pavilion of the Venice Biennale. In their catalog, the curators state:
“The last century of US architecture is a story of its export. Today, five out of the ten largest global architectural firms are based in the United States, making the US the world’s biggest exporter of architecture... Together, the elements of OfficeUS create a historical record of the US contribution to global architectural thought, pessimism, and optimism.”
While acknowledging not only the “optimism” of this export but also its “pessimism,” the exhibition, like all exhibitions, still remains the result of a curated process of selection and refusal of distinct architectural objects. By showcasing the Sert-designed embassy rather than the contemporary one, the curators maintain the normative framework of architectural thought that isolates a building’s “architectural importance” from political, social and other considerations. Fundamentally, the Sert embassy is formally closer to the aesthetics of the corporate office – which the exhibit curator’s designate to be the “center of the story” of American architectural exportations – than the Berger Devine Yaeger complex. With the omission of the latter embassy, the full story of the former is washed over; the optimism of American diplomatic architecture at the mid-century did not simply fade away but was violently shattered.
Just two decades after the end of World War II, the image of the United States abroad had already radically shifted. For many of the people actually living in the host countries, American embassies symbolized imperialistic power rather than democratic values. In 1968, the Tet offensive in Vietnam nearly overran the embassy in Saigon. Then, there were the attacks on American embassies in Guatemala City in 1968; Khartoum in 1973; Nicosia in 1974; Beirut in 1976; Tehran and Kabul in 1979; Beirut, again, in 1983 and another in 1984. By the mid 1980s, the State Department had issued a series of new design guidelines for American embassies which championed safety concerns over any other, calling for bunker-like constructions that could be well-defended and were isolated from urban centers.
The events of September 2001 furthered the perceived urgency of implementing a fortress typology for diplomatic buildings. The call was answered with the “Standard Embassy Design” published by the the State Department’s Bureau of Overseas
Buildings Operations. The brief guidelines read something like an Ikea catalogue for impenetrable fortresses, which are offered in three sizes: small, medium, and large. While the resultant buildings have not held up well against architectural criticism, they certainly follow their mandate to be secure and imposing.
But as the recent re-deployment of American troops to Baghdad suggests, even an extra-large fortress couldn’t defend its interior against all threats. As years of foreign intervention have only escalated resentment and inculcated insurgency, discourses surrounding embassy-design are shifting again. Many question the symbolic impression given by these mega-fortresses or reject them on an aesthetic basis alone. In 2009, even Secretary of State John Kerry said, “We are building some of the ugliest embassies I've ever seen…I cringe when I see what we're doing.”
Only a few years after its completion, the poster-child for the Standard Embassy Design – and correspondent diplomacy – faces its greatest threat yet, and requires buttressing by military support. It is not particularly surprising, then, that the Bureau of Overseas Building Operation’s new operating guidelines – entitled “Design Excellence” – stress sensitivity to local contexts and symbolic functioning as much as safety concerns. Jane Loeffler, a historian and the author of the Architecture of Diplomacy, commented, “For the Design Excellence program to realize its potential, there will have to be a shared commitment to enhancing America’s foreign presence, maintaining engagement – and finding that balance.”
However, finding that balance is proving to be a significant challenge, at least in the case of the new American embassy in London, which is the State Department’s most notable response to the failures of the Standard Embassy Design. Designed by the Philadelphia firm of KieranTimberlake, the building was preemptively described by Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times as “a bland glass cube clad in an overly elaborate, quiltlike scrim.” The project has already been disturbed by technical and financial troubles. Essentially, ensuring that glass is blast resistant is not only a costly affair, it also reduces to ironic pretense such efforts as rendering “political transparency” into an architectural form.
Assumedly, the centrality of the corporate office in the current American pavilion at the Venice Biennale is an attempt to comprehend the contemporary moment through globalization. Missing in that equation, however, is the particular importance of the United States military in facilitating the global economy. Not only does the military serve to help maintain the stability required for international trade but it also opens up new terrains for capital and for construction, literally replacing a wrecking ball with a bomb. In the lived reality of many, the main architecture of the US and of modernity is not a corporate office – inaccessible to all but a few – but the looming walls of a military barracks.
On the second page of the US State Department guidelines for “Design Excellence”, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is quoted in large text: “Architecture is inescapable as a political art, and it reports faithfully for ages to come what the political values of a particular age were.” The US Embassy in Baghdad reports with startling clarity the confused values of the last couple decades in American politics. But neither the new embassy design guidelines nor the plans for the London embassy seem to promise a future without this schism between image and function that has haunted American diplomacy and its architecture for decades.