|Photo courtesy Art in Embassies Program|
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I'm trying to remember where I put my hardhat and steel-toe safety boots, because all the indications are that the State Department is about to go on another new embassy construction binge.
A key recommendation in the Benghazi Accountability Review Board report was that Congress revive the moribund Capital Security Construction Program by ramping up its funding to compensate for loss of purchasing power since the program was created in 2000. As Admiral Mullen noted during the ARB press briefing, since 2000 the new building program "fell off from 10 buildings - 10 new embassies a year to three, tied to budget constraints, et cetera," and the Board believes it should go back to that original target:
Recalling the recommendations of the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam ARBs, the State Department must work with Congress to restore the Capital Security Cost Sharing Program [here] at its full capacity, adjusted for inflation to approximately $2.2 billion in fiscal year 2015, including an up to ten-year program addressing that need, prioritized for construction of new facilities in high risk, high threat areas. It should also work with Congress to expand utilization of Overseas Contingency Operations funding to respond to emerging security threats and vulnerabilities and operational requirements in high risk, high threat posts.
We'll see whether or not Congress actually appropriates that $2.2 billion for more new embassy construction. The political winds are not blowing in the direction of more spending these days. It's just as likely Congress will instead allow reprogramming from other accounts, which would let them check the 'I-voted-to-improve-embassy-security' box while at the same time not giving the Department a budget increase.
If State really does get more money for embassy construction, I think it will come as a mixed blessing to many in OBO and to their fellow fans of embassy design in the larger architectural community. They were still celebrating the liberation of Art from the shackles of Security by means of OBO's new design excellence program when last September's embassy attacks occurred. Critics of Fortress Embassies could see the writing on the wall after that, and they didn't like it the least little bit.
Consider their disappointment. After twelve years of mass-producing standardized diplokitsch (see the mugshots here) they were finally about to get back into the real design business. And the cherry on top is that the incoming SecState is himself a leading critic of Fortresses who has said this of the post-2000 new embassy construction program:
“We are building some of the ugliest embassies I’ve ever seen,” Senator John F. Kerry said in 2009. “We’re building fortresses around the world. We’re separating ourselves from people in these countries. I cringe when I see what we’re doing.”
All the stars were lining up for a return to the sublime and mysterious architectural values of the era before the now-departed General Williams set OBO on a more mundane course after the East Africa embassy bombings. Now that we are back in post-disaster mode, OBO must once again turn out more new buildings, and I think design excellence will take a backseat to security and numbers. Less quality, more quantity.
Can OBO go back to grinding them out Williams-style after they've done Beijing? I'll be interested in seeing whether this subject comes up at Senator Kerry's confirmation hearing.