When U.S. embassies are under attack around the world, it may seem like an odd time to talk about architecture. But this week's events have highlighted the degree to which U.S. embassies are America's foremost symbolic representatives abroad, and the way the United States presents itself in foreign capitals includes the design of the embassy buildings themselves. Over the last three decades, the design of U.S. embassies has been a balancing act between the need to protect diplomats and staff and the desire to project a positive image of the United States: welcoming buildings that showcase transparency and openness versus imposing and intimidating fortresses. But attacks on U.S. facilities, especially in the post-9/11 era, have tended to tilt the conversation toward the latter, and it remains to be seen whether this week's attacks in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere will have a similar effect.
"It's really a tradeoff that a lot of diplomats will accept, accepting more risk to make it easier to do their jobs," says Jane Loeffler, an architectural historian and author of The Architecture of Diplomacy, a history of U.S. embassy design. "But we're not always willing to make that tradeoff on their behalf."
The State Department didn't put much thought into embassy design for most of its early history; it usually simply bought existing buildings in foreign capitals. In 1926, the Foreign Service Buildings Office -- later renamed the Overseas Buildings Office (OBO) -- was formed to oversee the construction of U.S. embassies. According to architecture critic Martin Filler, "the results were hardly distinguished and ran to Beaux-Arts Classical or Colonial Revival clichés."
In 1954, the OBO instituted a new embassy design program that embraced the emerging architectural modernist movement in order to give its facilities what Loeffler calls "a distinguishable American flavor." The legacy of that era can be seen today in buildings like the Athens embassy built in 1959 by famed Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius and the New Delhi embassy built the same year by Edward Durell Stone, best known for Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center. These facilities may look a bit run-down today, but at the time, they were considered architectural milestones and an emblem of American swagger at the height of the Cold War.
This age of relative innocence in embassy design ended in 1983 with the suicide bombing that killed 63 people at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. At the time, it was the deadliest attack ever against a U.S. mission overseas and, following closely on the heels of the 1979 embassy siege in Tehran, underscored the dangers facing U.S. diplomats in lightly protected overseas facilities.
Following the bombing, the State Department formed a panel on diplomatic security led by retired admiral and former National Security Agency director Bobby Ray Inman. The 1985 Inman Report, as it came to be known, led to the creation of the department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security and laid out a new set of guidelines for embassy construction. According to the new standards, embassies were required to be built behind a 9-foot security wall, the building itself set back from the street by at least 100 feet and with a maximum window-to-wall ratio of 15 percent. It also recommended sites of 15 acres or more located far from city centers. The report suggested substantial renovations or complete replacements of 126 diplomatic posts, but due to a lack of funding from Congress -- only about $880 million was allocated of the estimated $3.5 billion needed -- only 15 embassies were ever upgraded to the new standards over the next decade.