Diplomacy through Architecture

The National Building Museum hosted a symposium on “The Architecture of Diplomacy,” which covered both Danish and American approaches to embassy design. Friis Arne Petersen, Ambassador of Denmark, said buildings are a critical diplomatic tool, especially for small countries. The Danes, he argued, do buildings well and have some of the most climate-friendly, energy-efficient buildings in the world. “You can see how we are, as a people, through our architecture.”

An emphasis on design in Danish society

The Crown Prince of Denmark, one of members of the Danish royal family at the event, said architecture is a reflection of a country’s history and culture. For example, the Danish royal residence in Copenhagen, originally built in the 18th century, includes four identical palaces centered around an octagonal courtyard, which can be accessed from four streets by all citizens. “The design shows the connection between our family and the rest of society, and our role in preserving the stability of Denmark.”

“Washington, D.C. exudes grandeur and there is a clear link between politics and architecture in the city,” said the Crown Prince. So, in D.C., embassies must also convey values. In the past, embassies were used to convey wealth and power. Increasingly, though, embassies must convey the contemporary, cultural side of countries.

The Danish embassy, built in 1960 by famed Danish architect Vilhelm Lauritzen with the design input of Walter Gropius, one of the Bauhaus masters, was the first modern embassy in Washington, D.C. “The new embassy laid the foundation for a new relationship with the U.S.” While older embassies used to be refurbished mansions, Denmark went in a new direction, creating a modern building that “reflects transparency and openness.” The Crown Prince added that the building is purposefully designed to “not be overwhelming, but to put people at ease. This way we can create the coziness, comfort needed for real dialogue.”

The former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, Richard N. Swett, one of the few architects to ever serve as a member of Congress, added that Denmark is also one of the only countries to successfully integrate best practice design into society. The Danish parliament includes a design review committee, which reviews all pending legislation to ensure it  “improves the quality of life for all Danes” and has the broadest impact on society. Swett said Denmark is a model for how to integrate design into national policy.

A focus on security in the U.S.

Jane Loeffler, author of “The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America’s Embassies,” gave an overview of the design philosophy behind U.S. embassies. Prior to the 1950’s, U.S. embassies were built in grand old mansions, as the Danish Crown Prince explained. Then, starting in the 1950’s, the State department’s foreign building office, which was led by a “committed modernist,” began building open, approachable sites. Eero Saarinen’s embassy in London is a key example of this era of U.S. embassies.

With increased concerns about security beginning in the late 1970’s, embassies had to follow new rules. “Planters were added, and side doors had to be locked.” This also meant that “no more glass boxes or architecture as art.” Then, in the mid-1980’s, the Inman report called for buildings to be set back 100 feet from the street, and a 7-foot high perimeter wall to surround all compounds. “This increased the difficulty in finding suitable sites.”

Escalating attacks on embassies during 1994 and 1995 led to the development of the Standard Embassy Design (SED) model. From 2001 to 2010, 52 new embassies were created using the SED model, with 34 more in the works. The assumption now is that “every embassy is a terrorist target.” In effect, this means embassies are no longer “representational buildings;” they now actually “impede public diplomacy.”

Still, there remain some exceptions. Panama City’s new embassy may be a fortress but at least it’s LEED-certified. In Beijing and Berlin, the embassies were designed by well-known architects. The embassy in Beijing also features the “art in embassies” program. London’s new embassy by Kieren Timberlake / OLIN will be the first under the new design excellence program. Unlike the old Saarinen embassy, which neighbors complained was “a hazard in our midst,” the new embassy will be better insulated from the surrounding neighborhood. The new OLIN-designed landscape is the first to embed security features into landscape architecture; bioswales double as blast walls (see earlier post).

Loeffler concluded that outstanding design creates goodwill overseas and that goodwill “may enhance our security.”

Image credit: Danish Embassy, Washington, D.C.

2 thoughts on “Diplomacy through Architecture

  1. Colleen Thornton 06/18/2010 / 12:54 pm

    You failed to credit the great Danish architect who designed the Danish embassy in DC – Vilhelm Lauritzen. His firm continues to produce state-of-the-art architecture and should not be ignored in favor of Gropius, who played a minor role. This event was a celebration of the building’s 50th anniversary and Denmark’s contributions to international “design diplomacy”.

  2. Dariel 08/09/2010 / 12:13 pm

    It’s worth pointing out that the places where the US is willing to spend some money on embassy design, China, the UK and Germany, are not the places where the US most needs to represent the values of democratic society, such as in the Middle East, Africa, or South Asia. The right intentions are too costly to extend to the wrong places, I suppose.

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