Monday, March 5, 2012

OBO's Excellent (Design) Adventure

Consumer Notice: This post is certified 100% free of Matters of Official Concern that are not referenced from publicly available sources of information

The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) has made its first official departure from the architectural diplo-kitsch of the Standard Embassy Design, and intends to replace the old U.S. Embassy in Mexico City (pictured above) with a bespoke masterpiece from the new Design Excellence program. All details about that masterpiece are still to be determined, so we'll have to trust OBO on that for now.

OBO announced the opening of a design competition for the Mexico City job on Friday:

The Department of State’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) has shortlisted nine design teams for the New Embassy Compound in Mexico City, Mexico.

The shortlisted teams, in no particular order, are:

Allied Works Architecture
Antoine Predock Architect / Moody-Nolan
Diller Scofidio + Renfro / Buro Happhold
Ennead Architects
Miller Hull Partnership
Morphosis Architects
Skidmore Owings and Merrill
Tod Williams/Billie Tsien Architects

Fifty-four firms responded to the public notification for prospective offerors [see it here] to compete. This initial shortlist of offerors will assemble their technical teams and submit detailed information on their organization and qualifications.

The Mexico City design/bid/build project, scheduled for construction award in fiscal year 2015, is the first solicited under OBO’s new Design Excellence program. This holistic approach to project development and delivery seeks to utilize the best methods, technologies, and staff abilities to produce facilities that are outstanding in all respects. The overall strategy focuses on the integration of purpose, function, flexibility, art, safety, security, sustainability, and maintainability.

That last sentence reads like it came straight out of an architectural charrette, which I'm sure it did. So, our project strategy will be to holistically integrate "purpose, function, flexibility, art, safety, security, sustainability, and maintainability" into a new office building. All that into the same building. Okay, but I think reality will set in at some point and OBO will need to make some unwanted trade-offs.

For starters, where in the enormous and densely-packed megalopolis of Mexico City is there a site that is large enough to build an Excellent Embassy on, but also close enough to the downtown business district and host government core to be highly functional for clients and embassy officers? That's trade-off Number 1 right there.

And there will be a trade-off on the program level, as well. An Excellent Embassy is going to cost more than a standard embassy design when all is said and done - yes, it will, despite the Design Excellence program stuff about higher first costs leading to lower life-cycle costs - and that means an old embassy at some less important post will not get replaced. OBO will choose to do one high-toned new building instead of two inelegant boxes.  

Regarding the design competition, I'm guessing that Skidmore Owings & Merrill has the inside track. SOM designed the new U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which was the second-largest overseas construction project ever undertaken by OBO and a Design Excellence project in all but name (see this for details), and also the late-1990s new U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. The Ottawa design was extremely un-fortressy, maybe too much so even for an embassy in Canada.

All reservations aside, I am looking forward to seeing how this excellent adventure turns out. If nothing else, it will be a refreshing change from the heavily standardized and regimented era of Major General (ret.) Charles C. Williams, Director and Chief Operating Officer, OBO, March 2001 to December 2007.


Anonymous said...

TSB: Any idea of the earthquake resistance of the current one vs the new one? There could be a "big one" there in the next couple years. gwb

TSB said...

GWB: I understand that the current embassy office building - which was built around 1960 - has a very successful 'floating' foundation system. It's held up beautifully to several severe quakes, even the 1985 earthquake that demolished huge sections of Mexico City.