Friday, March 13, 2009

Fortress Embassies, the Domestic Version

My old friend the "Fortress Embassy" trope is in the news again, but this time the hoopla is over a domestic U.S. State Department office building, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York City.

The Washington Post story that ran Thursday (Hardened U.S. Embassies Symbolic of Old Fears, Critics Say) had a perfectly accurate headline, but the reporter, and the critics, seemed to be confused about which particular old fears are pertinent to a domestic government building vice an overseas embassy, and about where the impetus for more secure domestic buildings came from.

UNITED NATIONS, March 12 -- Across the Manhattan street from the landmark buildings of the United Nations, a new architectural symbol of American outreach to the world is rising: an impenetrable concrete tower with 30-inch-thick concrete walls and no windows on its first seven floors. Built to endure a chemical- or biological-weapon attack or an explosives-laden truck careening up Manhattan's First Avenue, the new U.S. mission to the United Nations will offer the most secure diplomatic quarters in history when it is completed next year.

The 26-story building is one of a new generation of hardened U.S. diplomatic outposts. More than 60 high-security embassies and consulates have been constructed in the Middle East, Europe, Asia and Africa over the past eight years.

The primary goal is greater protection for the 20,000 American officials serving in those facilities, but the buildings have also been criticized as enduring symbols of the fears and anxieties that gripped the United States in the wake of the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"The attacks of 9/11 are not a sufficient excuse for this bizarre edifice. [TSB Note: they seem like a pretty good excuse to me, however, they are actually not the reason for the secure design of this particular edifice.] I think the building sends an entirely wrong signal to the United Nations, and the world," said Stephen Schlesinger, an author who has written extensively on the United Nations. "Rather than being an approachable, beckoning embassy -- emphasizing America's desire to open up to the rest of the globe and convey our historically optimistic and progressive values -- it sits across from the U.N. headquarters like a dark, forbidding fortress, saying, 'Go away.' "

The latest quest to better guard America's diplomats began in 1998, when members of al-Qaeda simultaneously bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people and injuring more than 5,000. A review of U.S. diplomatic security in the wake of the bombings concluded that more than 180 U.S. embassies and consulates were vulnerable to terrorist attacks, and Congress mandated an unprecedented construction spree to replace those structures. The 9/11 attacks, which felled two Manhattan skyscrapers, only reinforced the need for safer buildings.

The Bush administration appointed Charles E. Williams, a retired major general from the Army Corps of Engineers, to lead the construction. Williams's Bureau of Overseas Building Operations developed a Standard Embassy Design, a one-size-fits-all blueprint that has produced dozens of high-security look-alike embassies and consulates for the State Department. Williams won praise for the speed with which the buildings went up, but also criticism that his approach sometimes resulted in shoddy work and, in the building of the $730 million embassy in Baghdad, contracting irregularities.

State Department officials defend the program, saying that a car bomb attack against the U.S. Embassy in Yemen last August underscored the threats still facing American personnel. "We wish the world was a safer place," said Jonathan Blyth, a spokesman for the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations. "However, in the last 10 years since the bombings in East Africa, the world is a more dangerous place. We need to construct facilities to put American diplomats in safe and functional facilities for them to advance foreign policy and ultimately, hopefully, make the world better, safer and more secure for all citizens of the world."

Blyth said that State has drawn on some of the world's best architects to build high-profile U.S. embassies in cities like Berlin and Beijing. The architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was recently awarded the American Institute of Architects' Excellence in Architecture Design Citation Award for the Beijing complex, perhaps the most elegant embassy.

But Richard J. Shinnick, who replaced Williams, has conceded that many of the U.S. buildings lack grace. In a talk to industry advisers in September, Shinnick described the past eight years as "the dark ages as far as the design culture was concerned."

Foreign critics have been hostile to the Standard Embassy Design. "There is hardly a modern building in existence -- with the exception of nuclear bunkers and pesticide-testing centers -- that is so hysterically closed off from public space as this embassy," Germany's conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said of the Berlin building.

John Rubell, whose firm Moore Ruble Yudell Architects built that embassy, was taken aback by the lashing it received in the German news media, which he thought was unfair. But he said that it may be time for embassy architects to address the critics.

"We have to deal with certain realities," Rubell said. "The security issues are real, but at the same time we need to design buildings that don't primarily express that fact."

A glance at the U.N. mission makes it hard to think of anything else. Its rough concrete exterior contrasts with gleaming glass luxury towers that sprang up around Manhattan in the boom years that followed Sept. 11.

Charles Gwathmey, whose firm Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects designed the mission for the General Services Administration, said the building will feature an inviting glass entryway, set off by an Alexander Calder stabile, to passersby and visitors once the project is completed.

But the transparency ends at the lobby elevators. The windowless floors at the base of the building will be filled with computers and other high-tech equipment that cannot be described to the public.

Gwathmey was most proud of the building's concrete skin, noting that he had received a call from the renowned architect I.M. Pei, who asked him, " 'How did you get that beautiful concrete?' He thought it looked fantastic."

I was curious about Stephen Schlesinger, that critic of bizarre edifices, so I looked up his website and found out he's the son of historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and is a former director of the World Policy Institute. Unlike most critics of Fortress Embassies, he's not an architect or urban planner but just somebody who - judging by the events listed on his website - really, really, really likes the United Nations a whole lot. He even wrote a hymn of praise to the founding of the UN (Act Of Creation: A Story Of Superpowers, Secret Agents, Wartime Allies And Enemies And Their Quest For A Peaceful World) that is currently ranked #1,944,199 in sales by, where you can purchase a copy for as little as $1.49.

The most interesting thing I learned from his website is that Mr. Schlesinger appeared as an extra in the biopic Che. I will definitely have to check that movie out and see if I can spot Schlesinger. A thin balding elderly white guy with rimless spectacles who resembles a constipated Mr. Peepers (see his photo) ought to really stand out against a cast of South American revolutionaries. But more than that, I find it so revealing of a particular mindset that Schlesinger is thrilled by the vicarious excitement of pretending to kill Gringo imperialists, or at least of hanging around with people who pretend that they are killing Gringo imperialists. [Note to self: are there any right-wing counterparts to Schlesinger who ever appeared as extras in films that glamorized, say, the Argentinian military and police who carried out a 'dirty war' against subversives in the 1970's? And, if so, could any of them ever appear in polite society again? I'm just saying.]

But I digress. To get back to the new USUN Mission headquarters, it is indeed a physically secure building - see the photo below of the architect's model - although the only visual clue to that is the absence of windows on the lower six stories. Otherwise, it's just another concrete high-rise in a city full of concrete high-rises. In fact, it strongly resembles the ATT Sony building, which is probably not a coincidence since the same architectural firm worked on both buildings.

However, despite its security features, the USUN building should not be grouped together with overseas Fortress Embassies, since: (1) it was designed under contract to the General Services Administration, not the State Department's Office of Overseas Buildings, and (2) it does not follow the famously onerous security standards that apply to U.S. embassies. Consequently, it is not at all isolated or remote, and it has no setback from the street, being built on a third of an acre in Manhattan across from the UN and wedged between the Ugandan UN Mission, a glass-box hotel, and some office towers.

So, if the new USUN building isn't an OBO Standard Embassy Design, why does it have all that hardening against bomb blast and chem-bio attack? Because as a domestic U.S. government building of a certain type, the USUN Mission must meet applicable domestic security standards that are established by the Interagency Security Committee (ISC), which is an activity of the Department of Homeland Security.

Those domestic security standards did not originate with 9/11, but with the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City six years earlier. A federal government task force assembled after that incident recommended a set of protective requirements for government office buildings which the Clinton Administration immediately adopted. The USUN Mission is just another Federal agency that has to provide the level of office building security specified by the ISC and implemented by the General Services Administration. There is no reason to connect those security measures to 9/11, or to defend them by reference to attacks on U.S. embassies overseas.

Fortresses aren't just for embassies anymore. See this WaPo story on the new FBI Field Office going up on the far outskirts of Washington DC:

The new building will be about 40 miles from the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria, where agents frequently travel to meet with prosecutors, bring witnesses to grand jury sessions or testify before the grand jury or in court. Some Northern Virginia-based agents also frequently travel to the District and occasionally to Maryland, law enforcement officials said. To get back to Prince William, agents will have to navigate a 20-mile stretch of I-66 west from the Beltway, sometimes during rush hour, plus four miles on a mostly rural section of the Prince William Parkway near Manassas.

The FBI's Tysons office, by contrast, is about 17 miles from the U.S. attorney's office.

"It makes absolutely no sense," said one FBI agent, who is not an official spokesperson and requested anonymity. "We've all just been scratching our heads and thinking, 'How did they come up with this?' "

Hey, welcome to the club! U.S. diplomats have been asking themselves that question for many years now when new embassies are built. At least those FBI agents who will have longer travel times can take some satisfaction from knowing that their new Field Office complies with ISC standards and is secure against a repeat of the Oklahoma City bombing. Personally, I would regard that as worth some inconvenience.

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