In the mid-20th century, after the United States emerged triumphantly from World War II, the State Department launched an ambitious architecture program for new U.S. embassies that expressed the nation’s forward-looking role on the world stage. Leading American architects were tapped for these commissions, including Eero Saarinen, who designed the chancery on Grosvenor Square in London; Edward Durell Stone, who created what may be his finest work in New Delhi; and Richard Neutra, who built the embassy in Karachi, Pakistan. Other architects in the program included Walter Gropius (Athens), John Johansen (Dublin), Marcel Breuer (the Hague) and Jose Luis Sert, whose elegant mission in Baghdad was decommissioned; a new embassy complex was eventually built in 2007—a massive $750 million fortified compound on 104 acres designed by the Kansas City firm Berger Devine Yaeger. It is the largest embassy in the world.
As the century wore on, State Department buildings were often more utilitarian than innovative, and security concerns became paramount. The attacks on U.S. properties abroad, particularly the simultaneous 1998 suicide truck bombings of the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, which killed more than 200 people, had demonstrated the new dangers of diplomacy. After 9/11, security demands became even more urgent.
But in 2010, a new State Department initiative, Excellence in Diplomatic Facilities, sought to bring superior design once more to America’s global outposts, without compromising safety. That year, KieranTimberlake won the much-publicized competition to replace Saarinen’s outmoded embassy with a new one elsewhere in London. The design incorporates sustainability and security measures without turning the complex into a walled fortress. Scheduled to open this summer, the embassy employs a moatlike feature (as part of a landscape designed by OLIN) among elements to thwart attacks.
Casey Jones, who had led the Design Excellence Program at the General Services Administration (GSA), moved to the State Department as Deputy Director of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO). In helping supervise the program, he engaged contemporary American architects such as Morphosis, Tod Williams Billie Tsien, and Ennead to design new embassies and consulates. Though both Jones and Lydia Muniz, director of the OBO, left the State Department in January during the transition to the new administration, the legacy of design excellence remains for now. What follows are many of the current designs, which have been approved and are in the process of implementation. Such projects, as Muniz said in a Congressional hearing, “are symbols of American culture and values.” We hope that they inspire the State Department to continue to seek the best in architecture when building for the future.