Over 15 years ago, the US embassy in Pakistan was an architectural feat to behold. Located in the capital city of Islamabad, the building featured hulking, heavy cement block walls, a ground level ‘moat’ and wire-rimmed fences. The US compound, as it was called colloquially, also had a mass of armed guards, bomb checks and artillery on the outside.
Inside, however, was a safe haven – a little piece of the US that included a cinema, a baseball field, fast food retailers, medical centres and a fully operational theatre.
While this image is not uncommon now when it comes to embassy architecture, the development was extreme in comparison to its international counterparts in a pre-9/11 world.
Australia’s own embassy was like any other public building. The High Commissioner’s own residence was under construction at the time by a team of foreign and national workers under the leadership of Australian construction company Kane Constructions. Extreme safety measures were limited to extensive onsite OH&S.
In light of the recent riots in front of US embassies in Muslim nations worldwide, embassy architecture is in the spotlight now more than ever before.
Embassy historian Jane Loeffler has describes the American interpretation of embassy architecture as ‘isolated walled compound’ units – a notion backed by anyone and everyone who has experienced them first hand.
Architecture critic Jonathan Glancey has called the US’ $700 million embassy in Baghdad a ‘monster of a modern fortress’ and US Senator John Kerry said the US is ‘building some of the ugliest embassies I’ve ever seen; I cringe when I see what we’re doing.’
Embassies are the embodiments of their home countries on foreign soil. They have been described by the Guardian as setting the tone ‘for the smooth engagement of two countries’ and offer a glimpse into the morals, values and cultural aspirations of their represented nation.
Why then, are certain US architects and government entities supporting the development of these alienating and unattractive buildings? Could their fortress-like nature incite discord, or is their form a response to discord already present?
The reason given by most government and architectural leaders who support the fortress form relates to the US’ long history of embassy disasters and safety breaches. In 1999, the US State Department implemented this fort-like form to optimise safety protocols and protect US diplomats.
While safety will always play a key role in the development of any government building, the dichotomy of US embassies and a majority of certain international counterparts are too great to go unnoticed.
In fact, some have likened US embassy architecture to the stereotype of America’s domineering nature and outright antagonism. Critics have also suggested that not only do these buildings incite conflict, but their isolation leaves them as a prime target for violence.
The concept of the fortress-style embassy is controversial, and with no black and white information stating whether the architecture is a success in improving US international relations or otherwise, there can be no denying that violence towards the US has not decreased since their development.