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Designing for Diplomacy - The Challenges of Balancing Aesthetics and Security

This past August 7, 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of the bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, carried out by al Qaida. This was a dark day for the U.S. Foreign Service and the more than 250 souls lost and more than 5,000 who were injured that day.  As a result of those attacks the U.S. Congress passed the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999, and a new era in embassy design and construction was born. We at Mason & Hanger are proud that we have had the privilege to be on the cutting edge of the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) efforts to move personnel into safer and more secure facilities.

OBO’s mission statement is quite simple: “OBO’s mission is to provide safe, secure, and functional facilities that represent the U.S. government to host nations and support our staff in achieving U.S. foreign policy objectives. These facilities represent U.S. values and the best in U.S. architecture, engineering, technology, sustainability, art, culture, and construction execution.”  Nevertheless, how do you balance the design of so many objectives that are often in direct conflict with one another? 

As a free and open society, our U.S. embassies and consulates abroad should represent U.S. values to the people they serve, including a blend of diplomats, government personnel, and local nationals from the host nation. Most often, this is the only contact with the United States that many of the hosted guests and embassy staff may ever experience. In the design world we know well that first impressions are lasting impressions. Unfortunately, due to heightened security concerns in many locations around the world, high opposing opaque perimeter walls lined with concertina wire, security lights, and cameras greet most visitors. Individuals must pass through metal detectors monitored by armed guards and police dogs on the lookout for any hint of a terrorist attack.  The first impression to many is that the embassy looks like a fortress. The ongoing challenge is balancing our desire to design an embassy or consulate to look and feel open and inviting, yet provide the security required to prevent another Nairobi or Dar es Salaam.

I have been invited to serve as a guest lecturer in support of a U.S. Department of State program called Diplomacy Lab this fall semester at the University of Oklahoma College of International Studies and jointly the College of Architecture. The University of Oklahoma serves as the Secretariat of the Diplomacy Lab program and is one of a select group of schools around the country participating. The Diplomacy Lab allows university faculty and students to contribute to the policy-making process, while also helping the Department of State access intellectual capital from academia. The program enables OBO to “course-source” research and innovation related to foreign policy by harnessing the efforts of students and faculty at universities across the country to address these very real challenges. Working directly with the Department of State’s Secretary’s Office of Global Partnerships, OU serves as a leading institution among the Diplomacy Lab university participants.

Students participating in the Diplomacy Lab program work under the guidance of faculty experts to explore real-world challenges and develop innovative responses to those challenges. The students benefit from receiving real world problems with complex parameters, and are engaged in international design problems involving diplomacy and representational architecture.  Over the course of this semester, I will be writing additional blog articles as I relate the student’s experiences, progress, and solutions. As an alumni of the college with many years of experience working with OBO, I feel very honored to be asked to share my knowledge and experiences in this way. 

Stay tuned, this will be interesting.

Historic image of the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi

Huffington Post

A more recent file photo of the American Embassy in New Delhi with gates and barricades.

News Nation (India)

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