Wednesday, February 4, 2009

America's Architectural Face

I have been really lax on reading all the magazines that come through my mail drop lately. But, little by little I am changing that and catching up on all my back issues of East Dallas' Advocate, UT's Alcalde, and Dwell. I'll eventually get to my Bon Appetits. :)

In Dwell magazine, one of the monthly columns is "In the Modern World," and the the Super Structure section of the December issue discusses the future architecture of the United States Embassies across the globe. (I wish I could give you a link, but unfortunately, they don't post articles from the print magazine on their website.) Our buildings have gone from the beautiful, open Saarinens, Breuers, and glass paned Neutras to walled off stone fortresses. Of course, since the 50's, a lot has happened to give the US concern for the safety of their diplomats and employees abroad. This immediately made me think of our recent trip to Madrid. We happened to walk by the US Embassy which not only was a large, stone building itself, but had a tall, iron gate surrounding it. Furthermore, an armored personnel carrier sat out front with a heavily police presence all around the block. Not at all welcoming. We took one photo, before I thought to ask if we were even allowed to be taking pictures at all. Fortunately, it was New Year's Day and the officer was in a generous mood. Here is a picture of what most MadrileƱos see when walking down the sidewalk:

*Photo by Chad Hannon
After the 1998 bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, safety has taken precedent over design. And reasonably so, over 220 people were killed that day. Embassies are now moving toward a pre-fabricated and standardized design called "The Standard Embassy Design" or SED. This eliminates some of the issues of getting employees computer access and plumbing in parts of the world where this is not always easy. And more importantly, it allows for the buildings to be more secure and predictable for traveling embassy employees. As we speak, 22 of the 29 embassies that are currently under construction are using the SED model. There are plenty of good arguments for SED. And granted they will all look a little different on the outside, but are we just expanding our mass-produced cookie-cutter housing and corporate park techniques into embassies and distributing them around the world? What does this say to our global architecture community?

Personally, I believe that SED embassies demonstrate us unimaginative, unwilling to work with the local built environment (albeit in some cases that could be next to impossible), and flat out paranoid. Surely there are local design groups that could have responded to a RFP for designs that are both unique, open, and secure, all while maintaining a budget. Being that they have Knoll office furniture, the budget can't be so tight to not allow for a little hi-tech design.

1 comment: