Diplomatic Briefing

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Newsline: New US embassies make an architectural statement

London’s new, $1-billion American embassy was designed by Philadelphia architects KieranTimberlake, and is expected to open later this year. Its façades are composed of blast-resistant glass with a polymer skin. The embassy now being replaced in London, for example, was designed by Eero Saarinen, better known for the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Saarinen’s embassy was in Grosvenor Square in central London, integrating US diplomacy into the heart of the city. The building even opened its library to members of the public. Then came the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, with a death toll of 63, and the 1998 terrorist attacks on embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people. Hardening the defenses at embassies and consulates around the world suddenly became a priority. To that end, in 2002 the State Department adopted the Standard Embassy Design, or SED, a boilerplate model that could be built fast anywhere in the world. It had small, medium, and large options, like a t-shirt. The result: dozens of new embassies and consulates completed quickly, but lacked individual character. The culmination of the SED was the massive, heavily fortified embassy in Baghdad, finished in 2009. “Our diplomats are engaged in heroic and difficult work every day,” Sen. John Kerry and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen wrote in a 2010 CNN op-ed lamenting “concrete bunker” embassies. “But too often, their buildings — cold concrete at a forbidding distance, hidden away from city life, with little regard for the local surroundings — undermine our diplomats’ message and even their mission.”



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