Monday, April 30, 2012

U.S. Embassy In The Netherlands Will Be Replaced

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The State Department sent out a solicitation for construction of a new U.S. Embassy in The Netherlands today. The synopsis reads:

THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE (DOS), Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) is requesting submissions to pre-qualify firms for Construction services for the construction of a New Embassy Compound (NEC). This project will be executed under OBO's Design Excellence Program [program details here]. The project will consist of the construction of a compound to house U.S. Diplomatic functions at [The Hague, The Netherlands].


The solicitation estimates the construction cost to be between $170 million and $210 million. That  estimate is for construction costs alone, since the design is already completed. Pricey, but then, this will be an Excellent Embassy, and you don't find them in a discount bin.

To put the cost in context, it is less than half as much money as our new Ambassador-nominee to The Netherlands personally raised for President Obama's reelection campaign.

The current embassy office building was designed by the noted Modernist architect Marcel Breuer, which makes it a property of cultural significance. What will be done with that building once the new embassy is up?

The Dutch authorities, and appreciators of Modernism, have a few ideas about that:

In the area of historic preservation, the solitary Modern Movement building has always posed a problem for our field. An “oddity”, debate surrounds a perceived mismatch between Modern Architecture and their historical surroundings of ornamented 18th-19th century architecture. This is also the case with the American Embassy in The Hague, the Netherlands. The embassy was designed by Marcel Breuer from 1957-1959. Since the Gulf War, and especially after 9/11, the embassy became a defensive, "attack proof" building, heavily guarded by high fences and permanent police protections. It is expected that in the near future, the American embassy will leave Breuer's building and move to a new, more easily protected location.

These recent developments have stirred up several public debates about the embassy’s future. Some have argued for demolition, a sentiment that seems to be dictated by the current inaccessible character of the embassy. Others have opted for preservation, ranging from restoring it to its original state, to reuse in an adapted form. At the moment, current public opinion supports the preservation of Breuer’s building as an opportunity to celebrate this icon and research its possibilities for transformation. The Alderman for Culture of The Hague holds a corresponding view, and has announced a desire to investigate the possibility of conversion into a design hotel and museum for the 2018 event entitled: The Hague - Cultural Capital of Europe. It seems that even an iconic MoMo building like Breuer’s American Embassy at The Hague will have to face the 10th International Docomomo Conference mantra: “The Challenge of Change.”


"Docomomo" is an international non-profit organization dedicated to the documentation and conservation of buildings of the modernist movement.

I looked up some photos of the U.S. embassy in The Hague, and they show the progression of physical security measures that have been installed over time. 

Early 1960s

First and foremost, you see how the building sits right on the street. Completely accessible. There is almost zero setback distance between the building and those great 60s cars that are parked just a few feet away. Carbombs were not a concern back then, obviously.

Security aside, I rather like the design. Modernism wasn't decorative, and many people find the buildings ugly. But still, those are some clever window details. It reminds me of the many 1930s and 40s office buildings you see in Washington, and that seems an appropriate look for a U.S. embassy.    

Around 1980, I would guess














A wire fence and some low parking bollards - those little black metal posts - were added to the sidewalk in front of the embassy at some point after the 1960s. That provided a little bit of access control, probably by channeling visitors to a screening point.

Current Conditions


















In the current photos the wire fence has been replaced by a taller metal picket fence that would be harder for a mob to push down or climb over, and the bollards seem to have been replaced with stronger (higher, larger diameter, and more closely spaced) ones.

Current Conditions

 












The perimeter has also been supplemented with an elevated guard booth.

But the booth doesn't really matter, and neither do the fence and bollards. Given the fundamental lack of setback distance, there is nothing the USG could ever do with that building to make it reasonably well-protected against terrorism.  

The new embassy will be in a more remote location where it can be much better protected. But, what will it look like?

Here's an artist's rendering, which I found in a publicly available Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations briefing to industry.

New Embassy Project, artist's rendering










We gain in security, I'm sure, but we lose something in character.

Except for the Great Seal, that looks like any of a thousand community colleges. Or the FSI campus, if enough geese collect around that pond.

7 comments:

A Daring Adventure said...

I LOVE those geese. Those geese are total geesy AWESOMENESS.

And you are totally right about that looking exactly like any community college in the US. I actually hadn't realized that until you said it, and now it's glaringly obvious.

That place would be LUCKY to have some of those geese. Which it won't. Because do Canada geese hang out in the Netherlands? I DOUBT IT.

Anonymous said...

That is great longevity for an
embassy building. Forget the geese. How about a nice park like setting where people can enjoy their lunch break in the sun or the shade? gwb

TSB said...

Kolbi,

We have so many geese to spare here that the Netherlands is welcome to all they want. Their numbers seem to double every year. The Virginia fish and game people have extended the geese hunting season and raised the daily bag limit to TWENTY-FIVE (not that Arlington County allows hunting).

GWB,

I personally prefer park-like settings over downtown. But the tradeoff is that all the ten-acre sites are a long ways out from the city center, so its harder for the Dutch public to get there and more time-consuming for our officers to get to local business and government offices they have to visit.

Still, if someone is lucky enough to get assigned to The Hague, I don't think they're going to complain about where the embassy is located.

Dirk Munk said...

I may interest you to know that today the Dutch minister for cultural affairs made the US embassy a state monument, together with some 88 other buildings from 1959 to 1965.

TSB said...

Dirk,

Thanks for your comment. I'm pleased to learn about that designation. There must be many fans of modernist design in the Netherlands, I expect.

I hope the building will find an appropriate use as a cultural property once the U.S. diplomatic mission moves to its new site.

Anonymous said...

This is done due to preservation of Cold-war Heritage. Wonder if the near-by houses, where the tunnels go to, also become available.

TSB said...

Anonymous,

Thanks very much for your comment. Most interesting! Cold War history is a fascinating field (especially for those of us who are old enough to be surprised that it's already history). This makes me resolve to start a project that I've had in mind for a while: the documentation of abandoned anti-missile defense sites that we once had around Washington.

Most appreciated.