Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Obituary For A Consulate Office Building

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Domani Spero's post about the decommissioning of the old U.S Consulate office building in Karachi, Pakistan, put me in a reflective mood. My little niche in the Department has long been involved in the Department's efforts to better protect the old building and its occupants until it could be replaced with new and more secure facilities, and I find I have a tiny bit of nostalgia for the place now that it's finally been vacated. So I feel like saying a few words over the architectural remains, as it were.

When the modern state of Pakistan was established in 1947, it's capitol was in Karachi. (The current capitol, Islamabad, was created in the early 1960s as a planned city.) The U.S. Mission to Pakistan was then housed in a few rooms above an auto store, a place so disreputable that a visiting U.S. Congressman insisted it should be replaced with a purpose-built embassy.

In 1955, the Department hired a Modernist architect, Richard Neutra, to design a new U.S Embassy in Karachi, one of a series of glass-and-concrete modern embassies it was then commissioning by top-tier architects such as Walter Gropius and Eero Saarinen. The new embassy office building was completed in 1959, and it consisted of a simple concrete rectangle raised on piers, with an eccentric out-sized portico entrance. It was in the middle of the downtown city core, and was set back 60 feet from a major road. Its only security feature was a steel picket fence between the building and the street. You can see it in the undated photo below, exactly as Neutra built it in the late 1950s.














The Department performed the first big security upgrade to the building in the late 1990s, which was to pour concrete over the picket fence, a quick and dirty way to turn the fence into a solid wall. A wall would be a more protective barrier than a fence in the event of a large car-bomb on the street.

The car-bomb came in 2002, a suicide attack that blew out a big hunk of the perimeter wall, but did no significant damage to the building. By chance, a large Banyan tree inside the compound caught most of the flying concrete chunks.














All the building's windows were blown in, but because the window glass had been treated with shatter-resistant film, that wasn't highly dangerous (as you can see from the post-blast photo of the consulate lobby, below). No one inside the consulate or its grounds was injured, but a dozen people on the street outside - guards, police, and passersby - were killed.
















After that incident, the main consulate office building was given up as impossible to protect. All staff were moved into new offices that were created inside a former warehouse that is located behind the main building and a bit farther away from the street. The cost to fit out and harden that warehouse was over $10 million.

In 2003 and 2004 there were more terrorist attacks on the consulate, including an unsuccessful attempted vehicle bomb and a successful attack on the police who guarded the vehicle approaches. During those years the Department sought to acquire a site outside the downtown core on which a new consulate could be constructed, but it was blocked by a lack of cooperation on the part of the Pakistani government.

In 2006 two consulate employees, a local driver and Facility Maintenance Officer David Foy, were killed when a suicide bomber attacked their car as it stopped at the last checkpoint before entering the consulate perimeter. A Pakistani Army Ranger detailed to the checkpoint was also killed. After their deaths, the Pakistani government finally approved the Department's purchase of a new construction site, on which the Office of Overseas Buildings Operations subsequently built the new consulate office and housing complex that opened this week.

The U.S. Mission in Karachi at last has a reasonably safe place in which to live and work, and that's a huge accomplishment. But we ought to be mindful that that result came about only after many years of effort and sacrifice by Americans and Pakistanis alike.

9 comments:

diplopundit said...

Thanks for this post, TSB.

TSB said...

I walked around the old consulate building during a visit last October, just to take a trip down memory lane and recall all the emergencies and hasty security upgrades and agonizing decisions that Karachi generated over the ten years that I've been the Pakistan desk officer for my office.

I'm tremendously pleased that we're finally rid of the place. And yet, that building is also kind of a monument to the people who carried out the USG's work there, year after year, in what was arguably our most risky diplomatic premise.

Arif Belgaumi said...

Thanks for the brief history of the US Consulate in Karachi. Do you know what is to become of it now that the consulate has moved into the new facility

TSB said...

Arif,

The old building has been 'decommissioned' and it will be made available for sale, probably later this year. It has such a desirable location that I expect it will sell quickly.

Architecturally speaking, the building is not terribly interesting except to fans of Richard Neutra (and I think most of them are in California). Physically, the building has exceeded its lifespan and probably should be demolished.

If Neutra fans are interested enough, I suggest the building ought to be given a detailed architectural survey and recorded for posterity before it is replaced with something else.

Thanks for your interest!

Anonymous said...

My name is Bob and I was stationed in Karachi from 79-81 as a regional tech. There was a derived benefit to being in the middle of town as opposed a separate "compound" on the outskirts of town as the Embassy in is Islamabad was. When the riots started after the false report about Mecca, the police in Karachi were able to contain the rioters by blocking the streets with Buses, however because Islamabad was a walled compound the rioters just went into the fields and scaled the walls by using "bike racks" as ladders. I know as I went to Islamabad the next day to help clean up and move the the function to the old AID building.
So a walled compound is not always the best solution, especially if the housing is in the same place as this puts the dependents in the same box.

TSB said...

Bob,

Thanks very much for your comment! I hadn't heard before from anyone who had been in Karachi during the events of 1979. I've always wished that State would collect more oral histories from employees who lived through such significant events overseas.

You may have lived in the Frere Hall housing area (or maybe in Clifton?), so you might be interested to know that we still occupy those same houses in Frere Hall as well as the same CMR. They will remain in use for a few more years dspite the move of all other housing into the new compound.

Thanks again.

Regards,

Asim said...

TSB, do you know who I should talk to in State Department in order to photograph this building for posterity? Yes I am a Neutra lover from California :)

TSB said...

Asim,

The owner of the property is the Office of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO), State Department, Washington. But you might direct a request to Consul-General William Martin (who is from California, incidentally) via the Consulate's Facebook page:

http://www.facebook.com/karachi.usconsulate

I believe he stills controls access to the property, and could give you permission to tour it. Taking photographs should be fine, since it is no longer an active diplomatic facility.

Also, the Public Affairs Officer in Karachi might help. He or she would be interested to learn that there is a community of people who appreciate the architect who designed the former consulate building.

If you can't connect with them over the Consulate's Facebook page, please let me know and I'll get you a point of contact within OBO.

Good luck!

barbara lamprecht said...

Hello, I am a Neutra scholar (also based in southern California) who is assisting DOCOMOMO, an international organization dedicated to the documentation and conservation of buildings of the Modern Movement. I have tried to contact the OBO about this property, designed by Richard J. Neutra and his then-partner Robert E. Alexander, but it would be very helpful to have a direct contact with someone with access to the archives of the building for documentation purposes, e.g. the name of the "Pakistani British" partnering contractor; the date of opening/dedication, the actual size of the site, perhaps other information about its history. Thank you for any assistance, Barbara Lamprecht, M.Arch., architectural historian and author, Richard Neutra - Complete Works and Neutra - Selected Projects (Taschen 2000, 2004.) bmlamprecht@gmail.com