The Washington Diplomat had an article on embassy architecture versus security the other day (America’s Embassy Building Boom Fortifies Diplomacy, Security Abroad), which I thought was only mildly interesting until I got to the obligatory quote from Jane Loeffler. She is our foremost - only? - historian of diplomatic architecture, and premier critic of Fortress Embassies, and no article on the subject would be complete without her remarks.
Normally in an article of this sort, Dr. Loeffler provides unrelenting criticism of defensive embassy architecture, and then it's left to some poor Department spokesman or project architect to put up a weak rebuttal about the need for security. But this time, Dr. Loeffler played for the other team. After others had made the customary attacks, she had the concluding statement:
The 2012 fiscal year budget for new construction is about $1 billion. So why should taxpayers support the construction of secure new embassies in low-threat countries like Latvia or Malta?
"People shouldn't have to work in high-risk situations doing such important work for our country," Loeffler said. "Diplomacy is our most important initiative and it's so much less expensive than war. We need to make the buildings attractive and functional, but they're also targets so they need to be secure."
"People shouldn't have to work in high-risk situations doing such important work for our country." Damn straight. I will add that the risks of terrorism can be high even in purportedly low-threat countries such as Latvia and Malta. For example, that new secure embassy in Malta replaced one that was located inside a multi-tenant commercial office building, a type of property in which it would never have been able to achieve satisfactory security.
If we are serious about moving our people out of high-risk situations and into better and more secure buildings, then our new embassies will inevitably have to have certain fortress-y characteristics. I'm not saying we need to go medieval and do the whole castle-on-an-island, but our embassies will need features such as setback distance from surrounding streets if they are to be reasonably well-protected against physical attack.
That is why I am 100 percent in agreement with the new Design Excellence initiative for new embassies. I say, turn the architects loose to do what they do best, which is to satisfy the client's needs in a better way than the client himself is capable of imagining.
Incidentally, you can see what the old not-so-excellent embassy construction program created over the past ten years by checking out these architectural mugshots that the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations has made publicly accessible for your information.