Few buildings are more symbolically charged than an embassy, the tangible emblem of a
nation’s foreign presence. With complex programs, embassy office buildings, or
chanceries (not to be confused with ambassadorial residences), house diplomatic and
consular offices, some of which are open to the public and some not. They also host
numerous government agencies, including trade, agriculture, public health, law
enforcement, and defense. Thus, they serve many clients with varied agendas.
Historically speaking, no country has more expansively explored this building type as
a tool of cultural diplomacy than the United States, which, however, did not create its
own diplomatic architecture until the third decade of the 20th century. Embarrassing
comparisons between U.S. facilities and those of Germany, England, France, and Japan
and a feeling that independent wealth should not be a prerequisite for diplomatic service
prompted Congress to pass legislation authorizing construction of the first foreign
buildings in 1926. Until then, American diplomats lived abroad at their own expense, and
diplomatic properties were either leased or acquired by gift. Impressive embassies in
Tokyo (1931, Raymond and Magonigle) and Paris (1932, Delano and Aldrich) quickly
followed. Another, in Helsinki (1938, Harrie T.Lindeberg), was modeled after
“Westover,” an 18th-century plantation house in Virginia.
Following World War II, America’s need for overseas office space soared, and the
State Department’s Office of Foreign Buildings Operations (FBO) embarked on a vastly
expanded building program financed initially by foreign credits. [In 2001, FBO was
reorganized and renamed the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO).] What
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made the postwar embassies so striking was FBO’s daring decision to retain modernists
for high-profile projects in capitals such as Rio de Janeiro (1952, Harrison and
Abramovitz) and Stockholm (1954, Rapson and van der Meulen).
Critics in Congress reacted to the modern architecture and its International Style
association with dismay and called for a return to classical tradition. However, with the
Soviet Union building its own classically detailed embassies, FBO defended modern
architecture as an expression of American ideals. To promote its program, it created an
architectural advisory panel of experts in 1954. Spokesman for the panel, Massachusetts
Institute of Technology Dean Pietro Belluschi, called for designs that were both
“friendly” and “distinctly American,” urging respect for local history, climate, and
context. Thus, embassies challenged architects to combine newness with perceived
tradition and to reconcile modernism with the uniqueness of place. Architects coveted
FBO commissions as opportunities to try out new ideas, sample exotic themes, and create
recognized monuments.
The period from 1954 through 1960 was the heyday of the American foreign building
program in terms of scope and the quantity of new work on the boards. FBO retained
promising young architects for projects in, for example, Kobe (1958, Minoru Yamasaki),
Accra (1959, Harry Weese), and Tangier (1959, Hugh Stubbins) and also turned to wellknown
leaders of the profession for jobs in Athens (1959, Walter Gropius), Karachi
(1959, Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander), and The Hague (1959, Marcel Breuer).
Billboards for America and its foreign-policy aspirations, these prominent landmarks
welcomed the public with their libraries, exhibition halls, and other cultural attractions.
Edward Durell Stone’s design (1959) for the New Delhi embassy was among the most
memorable. Stone made a conscious effort to link his design metaphorically to Indian
tradition with a scheme that featured a pierced sunscreen and a temple-like plan. A
diplomatic success, the embassy was hailed as a symbol of American commitment to
India when it opened in 1959. Critical debate over the London building (1960, Eero
Saarinen) and congressional deadlock over the Dublin embassy (1964, John Johansen)
demonstrated clearly that embassy architecture was part of a larger political process.
As American facilities became targets of protest in the 1960s, security grew as a
concern. State Department officials considered the need first for perimeter fences and
then for walls. They barred architects from using devices such as sunscreens, limited the
use of glass, banned pilotis , and eventually closed or relocated embassies, such as Accra, that
could not be secured.
Suicide bombings in Beirut in 1983 prompted a major security overhaul. In 1985,
Admiral Bobby R.Inman chaired a review panel that called for strict new construction
standards. Projects designed to meet the so-called Inman standards included chancery
compounds in Amman (1992, Perry Dean Rogers), Nicosia (1993, Kohn Pedersen Fox),
Santiago (1994, Leonard Parker Associates), Lima (1996, Arquitectonica), and Bangkok
(1996, Kallmann, McKinnell, and Wood). Some resembled prisons, whereas others were
slightly more welcoming, but the openness once associated with these unique public
buildings was lost amid escalating fears.
Bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998 reinforced opinion
that such facilities should not be sited in densely built downtown areas and that they
needed better protection. In 1999, FBO hired Hellmuth, Obata, and Kassabaum to design
replacement embassies for the two East African capitals. Both are landscaped walled
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compounds away from traffic and away from other buildings, with structures designed to
look open but engineered to withstand a bomb blast.
The State Department finds itself caught in the same dilemma facing other
government agencies; namely, how to use design to represent democracy in a high-risk
world. This situation is particularly apparent in Berlin, where the State Department has
planned an embassy of great symbolic significance. The site faces the Pariser Platz and is
also bordered by busy streets, and it is almost adjacent to the city’s foremost monument,
the Brandenburg Gate. The site belonged to the United States before World War II and
thus holds special meaning today. As an indication of the project’s importance, FBO held
a competition (only the second in its history) and selected a winning scheme by Moore
Ruble Yudell, and Gruen Associates in 1997. The design accents America’s democratic
heritage through carved inscriptions from the Declaration of Independence and artwork
inspired by the American flag, but given security concerns, its interiors will be seen by
few. Moreover, lacking a security setback, the project has been delayed as diplomats,
politicians, and security experts agree on how to proceed.
Less targeted by terrorists, other nations face fewer design constraints. Canada’s new
chancery (2001) in Berlin, for example, boasts a prime location, and the building itself is
designed to be inviting and accessible. It houses embassy offices in a ninestory mixed-use
structure that also features a pedestrian arcade, shops, and rental apartments. With walls
of Douglas fir from British Columbia and floors of Quebec maple, and with a design that
conveys quiet strength, the embassy is an expression of Canadian national identity,
according to its Toronto architects, Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg. Another of
Berlin’s many new architectural attractions is the Nordic Embassy complex, for which
Vienna-based Berger and Parkkinen Architekten prepared the master plan (1999). An
unusual (and diplomatic) departure from tradition, the complex includes chanceries of
Denmark (Nielsen Nielsen and Nielsen), Finland (Viiva Arkkitehtuura), Iceland (Palmer
Kristmundsson), Norway (Snøhetta), and Sweden (Wingårdh Arkitektkontor), all
designed together on a single site.
Like the United States, Great Britain oversees a worldwide building program. London
architects Allies and Morrison garnered critical acclaim for the new British embassy
(1995) in Dublin, as did Jestico and Whiles for the British embassy (1997), a restored
historic villa, in Riga.
The extent to which security shapes embassy design varies, depending on who is
building, and where. In the United States, for example, where the host government can
provide dependable protection, foreign missions can build embassies that they could not
build where such protection is lacking. On Washington’s Embassy Row, Finnish
architects Mikko Heikkinen and Markku Komonen designed Finland’s chancery (1994)
as a glass-walled showplace for Finnish design and craftsmanship. If security concerns
the Finns, it does not show in their architecture.
Nearby, at the entrance to Washington’s Rock Creek Park, Italian architects Piero
Sartogo, Nathalie Grenon, and Susanna Nobili, in association with Leo A.Daly of
Washington, have designed an Italian embassy (2000) that combines the grandeur of the
past with modern sensibility. An homage to the Italian palazzo, it is a major cultural statement of
Italy’s presence in the United States and features a spectacular glass-topped atrium,
brightly colored interiors, exterior walls of perfectly matched blocks of pink Italian
marble, and a display of Italian-made furnishings. Security is a priority, but the architects
have made a clear effort to downplay its impact.
No nation has a more prominent site in Washington than Canada, whose embassy sits
at the foot of Capitol Hill, directly across from the National Gallery of Art on
Pennsylvania Avenue. Canadian Arthur Erickson designed it in 1989 as a complement to
existing buildings in Washington’s Federal Triangle. Its formality and location
underscore the importance of U.S.-Canadian relations. The U.S. embassy (1999) in
Ottawa stands directly across from the Canadian houses of Parliament, making the same
point. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill designed the building to be “virtually accessible,” if
not actually so.
In Washington, numerous other nations have built smaller but no less distinctive
chanceries as part of the 28-acre International Center, an enclave of diplomatic buildings
northwest of downtown. The State Department helped these countries build modern
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buildings by offering low-cost, long-term leases. Israel, Jordan, Ghana, Bahrain, Egypt,
Kuwait, Singapore, Austria, and Ethiopia are among those with embassies there, each
supposedly representing its own design theme. Ethiopia, for example, hired RTKL to
design an embassy (2000) that emphasizes the country’s history and hospitality and
makes use of its best-known building material: stone. Eventually, 19 chanceries will be
located at the center.
Through their foreign buildings, nations large and small, rich and poor, support
building programs that reveal their political, economic, and cultural ambitions. With
nations more globally interconnected, embassy buildings will remain singularly important
on the international landscape. Moreover, the threat of transnational terrorism makes
outstanding architecture evermore precious, as evidence of a commitment to a shared

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