August 03, 2003

U.S. Embassies Overseas U.S. embassies

U.S. Embassies Overseas

U.S. embassies are not just physical structures that merely provide a workplace for our diplomats while they are on tour overseas. They also serve to project a certain image of America to the host country. Therefore, for a while now, I've been worried about the rise of "fortress embassies" resulting from security concerns. And recently, after my latest walk by our heavily barricaded and blocked off Embassy in London (with all the attendant "set-backs," in sharp contrast, for instance, to the German and Spanish embassies just around the corner from my flat), I decided to blog about the phenomenon. Over vacation, however, I saw an excellent treatment by someone much better qualified to address the topic. Check it out.

Of course, it's easy to say we've "flinched" in terms of our embassies' design overseas from an architectural perspective. But the author doesn't really address the very real security concerns per incidents like Tanzania and Kenya in the 90's. The reality is that too many individuals and groups are seeking to inflict harm on U.S. interests given how America's hyperpower role will inevitably fuel myriad grievances in far-flung spots. An attack on a U.S. embassy provides a particularly dramatic backdrop for terror attacks and typically kill U.S. government individuals while providing much publicity for the perpetrators (unlike commercial targets like, say, a Citibank or McDonalds).

My point? We need to strike some kind of balance. We can't withdraw from downtowns completely and set up shop in the suburbs removed from the embassy districts, foot traffic past the embassy showcasing our presence to locals, easy proximity to host government officials, and the like. And yet, of course, our highest priority must be the protection of our diplomats posted overseas.

So it looks like we're going to have more London-looking presences. Smack in the middle of Mayfair to be sure--but with major security, fences and blocked roads around the compound. That said, all efforts must be made to maximize efficient access to the embassy buildings for non-VIPs having (often) their initial interaction with a U.S. governmental entity (often for mundane matters like visas and the like).

In other words, horrifically long lines and stone-faced marines staring down the locals is not the kind of image we should portray at our Embassies--or Jerry Bremer's HQ in Baghdad. But transparent, welcoming majority-glass structures just off the street that look good to an architect's eyes aren't going to cut it in this perilous era either.

UPDATE: A reader writes in:

"I'm sitting in a "pre-Inman" embassy. It's got lots and lots of glass that is going to turn into projectiles in the event of a blast. All the glass is
Mylar-sealed, to prevent it from simply shattering and flying about, but the result is that each pane turns into a 300 lb. flexible sheet that goes
flying across the room, depending on the size/proximity of a blast.

The Inman legislation followed the bombings of the Embassy in Beirut (and other attendent USG disasters). On its face, it's not filled with bad ideas.
Implementation, however, is the key.

The U.S. Embassy building in Manama--actually several buildings--were the relics of a former palace of a minor royal. Funky traditional architecture, to be sure: my ceilings were made of palm beams with mosaics in between. The US Embassy in Sanaa was in a
similar collection of old Yemeni buildings: essentially mud on wooden beams, three and four stories high.

Both buildings were very accessible, treats to the eyes. But both would have been gone completely if anyone cared to bomb them with anything larger than a hand grenade.

Both Sanaa and Manama are in Inman buildings now. In both cases, though they were originally constructed on the fringes of the city--a distance much moaned-about by then residents--the cities have now grown around them.

[There is also] New Delhi's American Center [not the Embassy per se], smack downtown and a fairly well designed building, though the architectural style left a bit to be desired IMO. But it was right on a major street, one favored for all sorts of Indian demonstrations against just about anything. The volatility of Indian crowds made the building a true hazard. In my [time] there, we got locked down four times because it was just too dangerous to venture outside the building. (BTW, none of the demonstrations were against the US.)

It's a hard choice to make between accessibility and security. It's not easy to get USG employees (who are, contrary to popular opinion, people) to say
that security should take second place to accessibility or style. Who, really, wants to work in a building that looks and acts like a bullseye?"

Indeed.

Posted by Gregory at August 3, 2003 09:24 PM
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