Jane C. Loeffler is a graduate of Wellesley College (1968) and holds a Master’s in City and Regional Planning from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (1971)
. She earned a PhD in American Civilization from The George Washington University (1996). This is a first-person narrative summary of her work and key publications. Further description of professional work follows.
Most of the professional success I’ve enjoyed can be traced one way or another back to that association with “Fritz” Gutheim, who believed in me long before I had a clue of where I was headed and introduced me to scores of remarkable people, places, and opportunities. My long association with him began when we worked together to organize the national celebration marking Frederick Law Olmsted’s Sesquicentennial in 1972—when major urban parks were routinely neglected and Olmsted and his landscape legacy were largely unappreciated.In 1973, thanks to Gutheim’s recommendation, I became a curator for Frederick Law Olmsted/U.S.A., the first exhibition at the National Gallery of Art to feature landscape plans for urban parks, suburban subdivisions, and private estates as art objects. I wrote the exhibition booklet (shown here).
I later reviewed many of the books published as a result of new interest in Olmsted sparked by the Sesquicentennial—including Laura Wood Roper’s definitive Olmsted biography, published in 1973; an Alliance Letter review of Olmsted Papers; and an AIA Journal review of White, Olmsted South.For the Journal of the American Institute of Architects and other publications, I also reviewed books on landscape history, architecture, and planning. Examples: AIA Journal review of Safdie’s For Everyone a Garden; AIA Journal review of Jellicoe’s The Landscape of Man; AIA Journal review of Seargeant’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses; Architecture review of Friedman’s Florentine New Towns; Architecture review of Moorhouse’s Helsinki Jugendstil; DBR review of Creese’s TVA’s Public Planning; and American Studies International review of Miller’s Lewis Mumford
In 1979, I joined Bates Lowry to plan an inaugural exhibition for Washington’s new National Building Museum. I had worked earlier with Lowry and his wife Isabel on their Dunlap Society project that documented Washington architectural landmarks for teaching purposes. It was Gutheim who had recommended me to them. My work for the Dunlap Society included documenting the history of the Mall and Octagon House. When Bates Lowry was named director of the National Building Museum, he invited me to become its first curator and to organize what he and State Department officials hoped would be a celebration of U.S. embassy architecture.As the historic Pension Building was being renovated to accommodate the new museum, I began the daunting task of assembling a history for a major federal building program that had never been studied, let alone presented to the public. Working closely with the Office of Foreign Buildings Operations (FBO) at the State Department and its director William Slayton, I started to compile lists of completed (and also suspended) embassy projects, their dates, and the architects who won these coveted commissions. As FBO had paid no particular attention to its history and the Office of the Historian at the State Department had made no effort to include foreign buildings within its historical purview, records were incomplete (and lost) and it was a challenge trying to establish a context for high-profile design decisions. At the same time, terrorists had seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held fifty-two American diplomats hostage. It seemed to me that the time was not right for a celebration of work by fashionable architects, including Frank Gehry, Harry Wolf, and James Polshek, whom Slayton had recently retained to design new embassies. Nor did it seem wise to focus on this sort of architecture as solely art or cultural expression when it was so evidently political, as well.
While the Building Museum continued its efforts to gather data and seek funding for its exhibition, I departed to pursue other interests. Plans for the exhibition were subsequently shelved. I entered the doctoral program in American Civilization at GWU with the intention becoming a more knowledgeable student of American history. In a course in modern architecture, I found a perfect opportunity to recap and expand upon some of my research into the history of postwar U.S. embassies. My term paper, written in 1989 for Prof. Richard Longstreth, was published in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians in 1990 as: “The Architecture of Diplomacy: Heyday of the United States Embassy-Building Program, 1954-1960.” This article established me as an architectural historian (I was told) and identified the subject of U.S. embassy history as an important area of scholarly inquiry. Not expecting to delve deeper into the subject of embassies myself, I turned my attention to landscape history. After discovering a trove of old photographs by Carleton Watkins in a Bakersfield, CA real estate office, I merged my interests in landscape and the history of photography in: “Landscape as Legend: Carleton E. Watkins in Kern County, California.” Using Watkins’s photographs to document the history of a region, I questioned the distinction between art and documentary or commercial work. That article was published in Landscape Journal in 1992.
I followed that with a review of William Truettner’s “The West as America,” companion volume to the controversial Smithsonian exhibition of the same name.Of all that I have written, nothing can compare in immediate impact to the cover story on the landscape of Wellesley College published in Wellesley Magazine in Spring, 1995 when expanding parking lots and years of neglect threatened the integrity of Wellesley’s historic campus landscape.
Long recognized for its beauty, the campus had no plan for restoration and no funds for creating or implementing such a plan. Conditions were dire when the article appeared. Shocked alumnae rallied to demand a speedy shift in fund-raising priorities. A stunned administration, surprised to see such an article in its own alumnae magazine, responded by creating a Visiting Committee, studying all options, and eventually allocating resources to far-reaching plans to restore and reinvigorate the landscape–now recognized once again as among the College’s greatest assets. Very satisfying.Widespread interest generated by my 1990 JSAH article on embassy architecture coupled with my own enthusiasm for the subject and a feeling that more of that story needed to be told, prompted me to expand upon earlier work as my doctoral dissertation. Current and former State Department officials were eager to talk about what had happened, and architects, still proud of major embassy commissions, some of which shaped their later careers, wanted to share what they remembered. And the Department was willing and able at that time to provide access to what records remained from the years between WWII and the early 1970s.
It took until 1996 to complete the dissertation, but I knew all the while that it had to be turned into a book once it was done. I wrote it with that purpose in mind. If the State Department was to recognize the importance of its diplomatic buildings as cultural and political symbols, I thought, it first needed to know the history. Only then could anyone assess the significance.I met remarkable people and visited wonderful places, including U.S. embassies and consulates in Tokyo, Rome, The Hague, London, Dublin, Brussels, Berlin, Munich, Helsinki, Oslo, and Athens while working on the dissertation. Taking issue with those who categorized 1950s architecture as ersatz modernism, I came to appreciate embassy buildings from that era and they became my friends. I also looked beyond the postwar years—both before and after—trying to examine the overall foreign building program in the context of America’s changing diplomatic outlook and its evolving foreign presence, so much more conspicuous in the aftermath of WWII, but first really evident in the 1920s with the enactment of the Foreign Service Buildings Act.
I tried consistently to weave diplomatic and design history into a single narrative bridging the wide gap that existed (and still exists) among the disparate academic disciplines associated with the study of art, architecture, politics, American history, and international relations. My goal was to find a single language that could make this history accessible to all. The beauty of American Civilization (or American Studies) as a “field” is that it accommodates an interdisciplinary approach. This study called for such an approach.While working on the dissertation, I also wrote more about issues related to export architecture, public buildings, and public policy. For Progressive Architecture, the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, and other publications, I reviewed Lawrence Vale’s Architecture, Power, and National Identity, Gwendolyn Wright’s The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism, Ron Robin’s Enclaves of America, and Forms of Dominance, edited by Nezar AlSayyad. See Progressive Architecture (combined review); GSD News (Vale); and JSAH (Robin).
And I published the second of two articles on my mentor Frederick Gutheim (cited above). I had been named his literary executor when he died in 1993. I wanted to write an article that outlined his key accomplishments and identified the location of his papers, deposited at the University of Wyoming, Laramie—not a place where local scholars would expect to find them.Turning my dissertation on U.S. embassy history into a book was not difficult but finding a publisher was. The problem, I was told, was that my subject did not fit conveniently into a publishing niche such as diplomatic history, architectural history, international relations, or even American history. Books that targeted more than one audience posed marketing and sales headaches that few publishers were prepared to handle. I knew that my work would be valuable to the State Department and those whose focus is the study of diplomacy and diplomatic practice, but I knew it would be especially valued, too, by those whose focus is on architecture as a reflection of political and cultural history. I wanted all readers to see that buildings are indeed central to our understanding of history—both diplomatic and architectural. Fortunately, Princeton Architectural Press shared this vision. PAP published the first edition of The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America’s Embassies in the late spring of 1998—with a strong endorsement (on the back cover) from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The book was also endorsed by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training and included in the ADST Diplomats and Diplomacy Series.
The timing was auspicious. In early August, terrorists attacked and destroyed U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The public knew little or nothing about these faraway outposts and reporters and others scrambled to find out more about those facilities and embassies, in general. Were they adequately protected? Why or why not? Were all U.S. embassies similarly vulnerable? What had happened to the so-called “Inman” program that called for replacement of scores of embassies after the Beirut bombings in 1983? Did Congress ever fully fund that program, and did the State Department really implement it? If so, how? If not, why not? How might increased security affect the practice of diplomacy, how would it affect planning and design, and could embassies ever be 100% secure?These and other urgent questions put the new book in the spotlight and brought me unexpected attention. I was asked to appear on television and radio on ABC’s Nightline, the BBC, CNN, the Voice of America, and other media outlets. Security, which had never been the focus of my inquiry, emerged as a theme running through the book. I was invited to write op-ed pieces for The New York Times and The Washington Post on that theme.
The New York Times told me I was not “op” enough because I tried at first to present both sides—they wanted me to take a strong stance on one side or the other while I tried to argue that the issues could not be seen as black or white. We resolved our differences.
But the tension between openness and security continued to concern me and I have spoken and written a lot more on that subject since 1998. I am still doing so. It only gets more depressing and difficult to analyze and understand because it is part of a larger battle of ideas being waged—at times and in various places—as an actual war. It is not even possible to precisely define terrorism, albeit a tactic of war. That is partly because it is not even possible to precisely define the enemy. For such a situation, there are no easy answers or solutions.
Reviews of the book pointed to its timeliness and to the broader significance of embassies as prominent public buildings and markers of public policy. The very first official review appeared in Metropolis where critic Philip Nobel compared the book to “a political thriller” and labeled it a “treasure to the historians—both architectural and political—who have awaited it so eagerly.”
As author, I was understandably elated when The New Yorker cited the book as a “conscientious, illuminating study.”
It was especially gratifying to see the review by retired U.S. Ambassador Fred Latimer Hadsel in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, where Amb. Hadsel wrote: “It is a happy coincidence when the right author deals with the right subject.” He concluded: “Loeffler has covered this complex history of a half-century of activity with great care, considerable sympathy, and remarkable understanding. Her judgments on men and buildings are sound. As she indicates in her conclusion, she regards this book as a pioneer in its field. And she has every right to consider it a formidable basis for future scholarship.”
When the second edition of the book was published in 2011, Thomas de Monchaux described it in Metropolis as “canonical” and cited it as the “definitive history” of the subject.In 1999, I wrote “Building Abroad, Borrowing Identity” for a special edition of Architectural Design titled: Architecture of the Borderlands.
I followed that with a Critique essay for Architectural Record with the lengthy title: “New designs of embassies and courthouses expose the politics of architecture. But, are architects political enough?”That essay asked whether stringent security standards were undermining the very purpose of the pubic buildings they were designed to protect—whether embassies abroad or courthouses or federal office buildings at home? “It’s a matter of finding a balance,” I wrote. I predicted, too, that architects would lose influence over the design of these high profile buildings unless they found ways to assert their expertise in the security realm. That year, too, the General Services Administration and the State Department joined together to sponsor the first major symposium on security and the design of public buildings. Keynote speakers included Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, both strong advocates for outstanding public architecture. Sen. Moynihan, who had also served abroad as U.S. Ambassador to India and had long championed the cause of design excellence, urged diplomats and designers to be bold and not to succumb to unwarranted fears. Participants addressed sweeping security upgrades made in response to the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995 Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building bombing, and the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa. Both GSA and the State Department had drafted and implemented new security standards after those events. “Balancing Security and Openness”
As a participant on one of the panels, I suggested that by further isolating our embassies, we could compromise diplomacy and ultimately our own security, as well. “As an element of foreign policy, our embassies need to be an expression of optimism,” I said. “Moving to the outskirts of town, building high walls, and investing in elaborate technology is not delivering the appropriate message.” I never called for less security, as some suggested, only security better designed to accomplish often competing aims.Just before Madeleine Albright ended her term as Secretary of State, she created the Secretary of State’s Register of Culturally Significant Property to call attention to the Department’s assets overseas. My book laid the groundwork for that effort, and I wrote the initial proposal for the register at the request of Bonnie Cohen, Undersecretary of State for Management, who conceived of it as a White House Millennium Project in 2000.
It was fortunate that the Register came about when it did because things changed quickly soon after, and the State Department’s welcome interest in its history quickly waned. Even at that time, it was becoming increasingly difficult for the Department to innovate or custom-tailor designs to sites. To speed production, control costs, and implement sweeping new security requirements, planners turned almost exclusively to standardization as a solution. They also set a minimum size for new embassy sites at ten acres—parcels that large were only available on the outskirts of cities or in formerly rural areas.
Ottawa was one exception. That project, which originally featured a glass-walled atrium, had been redesigned in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombings, but instead of moving the entire facility to the outskirts of the capital or beyond, the State Department built its new embassy in the middle of the city—a gesture that underscored America’s confidence in and regard for its northern neighbor. For World Architecture, I wrote a profile of architect David Childs, who designed the new Ottawa embassy for SOM.Soon after, architectural historian Isabelle Gournay and I collaborated on “Washington and Ottawa: A Tale of Two Embassies”, published in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (Dec. 2002). That article was a comparative study on the history of Canada’s representation in Washington and U.S. representation in Ottawa, Canada’s decision to build a flagship embassy at the foot of Capitol Hill on Pennsylvania Avenue, the only embassy in the vicinity, and the U.S. decision to build in downtown Ottawa near the historic Houses of Parliament. The article explored how both projects advanced city planning goals, as well.
Interestingly, we had a heated exchange with the JSAH editor who objected to our use of the term terrorism to describe attacks such as the assault on the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, where hundreds died, most of them innocents—Kenyans working in adjacent buildings. The editor claimed that there was no precedent in scholarly literature for the use of that term, which was untrue. I think it was totally accurate to describe the attacks on U.S. embassies and neighboring buildings as terrorist attacks, and I regret that I had to reword the text to comply with a political agenda different from my own.At that time, I also wrote the first of several articles for Architectural Record on the new Italian Embassy in Washington, D.C., (second article), another on the same subject for World Architecture, and a piece for Interiors titled “Post-Terror Diplomacy.”
I also explored and analyzed the new International Chancery Center in Washington, D.C.—a planned enclave that now includes embassies of Austria, UAE, Nigeria, Malaysia, Brunei, Slovakia, Egypt, Pakistan, Israel, Ghana, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Singapore, and China (PRC).
And I reviewed a fascinating book on the history of America’s vast “atomic landscape”—the geography and culture of the Manhattan Project, where the atomic bombs were built and tested. As the book’s author Peter Bacon Hales notes with irony, that effort, aimed at protecting American values, actually eroded the nation’s faith in government.Continuing to explore the theme of security and its impact on embassy location and design, I wrote “The Identify Crisis of the American Embassy” for Foreign Service Journal in June, 2000.
At that time, too, I began teaching a course titled “From Glass Boxes to Bunkers: Architecture, Power, and Public Policy” in the Honors College at the University of Maryland. It was immensely popular and I taught it for a decade, modifying the content as the world constantly changed around us. At UMD, I also taught courses in landscape history and interpretation.
After the 2000 presidential election, President Bush selected Colin Powell to head the State Department. Powell installed Charles Williams as director of the foreign building program. Formerly known as the Office of Foreign Buildings Operations (FBO), the program was renamed and repositioned as the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO), and Williams moved quickly to win congressional approval for a much expanded construction program based on design/build methodology and standardized designs. Williams abolished the formerly influential architectural peer review panel, replacing it with a new entity, the Industry Advisory Panel. As predicted (AR, 1999), architects found themselves marginalized by a design/build agenda that awarded contracts directly to builders instead of hiring designers and putting projects out to bid.
It made sense to try to standardize projects that had so much in common, but much that was good was also lost in the effort to speed production, make use of standard components, cut costs, and maximize security. Williams was intensely secretive, as well, and compartmentalized the program in ways that weakened it. Still, he accomplished a lot and dozens of new walled embassy compounds (many at remote or inaccessible locations) were built in the years between 2001 and 2007. During that period, too, access to data at OBO was curtailed. It became next to impossible for scholars to access past or current records or photographic files.For my research, I had relied on many archival collections, not only records of the State Department—especially since so few State Department building records had been collectively saved or conveyed to the National Archives. Records at the Harvard Graduate School of Design were useful because they contained the papers of former Harvard dean José Lluis Sert and others. Sert designed a U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in the 1950s just before the revolution that toppled the monarchy and ended the U.S. diplomatic presence there for decades. The GSD figured prominently in my story, as well, because so many architects who went on to design U.S. embassies had studied or taught there. I welcomed Anthony Alofsin’s book on GSD history when it appeared in 2002 and spoke at a symposium honoring the book at the Architecture School at the University of Texas (Austin). I also reviewed the book for Harvard Magazine.
Before 9/11 2001, it had been possible to think of international terrorism as a distant threat and to regard incidents of domestic terrorism as isolated crimes. But after that date, both seemed more threatening. In response to these developments, I wrote a Commentary column for Architectural Record at the invitation of its editor, Bob Ivy, who wanted to call attention to what had already happened to embassies abroad and how it might shape domestic public buildings, as well. In that 2004 article, “The American Embassy: Design Excellence vs. Security”, I said: “We still need to prevent the security mandate from devouring a significant public program and turning our foreign buildings into bastions that are all but useless as diplomatic workplaces, let alone as symbols of democracy. And we need to apply the lessons learned overseas to a domestic landscape now ominously proliferating with bollards, fences, and jersey barriers.”I had first written about GSA’s ambitious courthouse construction program in 1999. Five years later, I focused again on the domestic scene when Architectural Record sent me to Oklahoma City to see the new Federal Building and interview its architect, Carol Ross Barney. Built to replace the Murrah Building that had been destroyed by a bomb in 1995, the new office building was conceived as a state-of-the-art office building, not a memorial. The challenge was how to make workers and visitors feel safe, how to incorporate needed security without turning the building into an intimidating fortress, and how to rejuvenate a devastated area across from the memorial. Ross Barney incorporated art, light, various textures, and even the soothing sound of water to create a new sort of federal building for the site. 2004 Article in Architectural Record
When the State Department added the first modern building to its Register of Culturally Significant Property in 2004, I wrote a short article celebrating the move. Until then, all recognized properties had been purchased long ago. The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi was the first on the list that had been built by the USG and designed by an American architect (Edward Durell Stone (1959)). The honor was well deserved.
One problem with the current Register, however, is that with one exception it lists only buildings currently owned by the USG. That means that former embassies, consulates, and residences are unlikely to be listed—no matter how “significant” historically, diplomatically, architecturally, or otherwise. At best, such a list can only provide a glimpse at the remarkable history of America’s foreign buildings. To be useful historically, the Register should also include USG buildings that are or have been sold, recycled or replaced.
Saarinen’s two embassies—in London and Oslo—are being replaced. Both should be on any list of property that is—or was—significant. The same is true for embassies in The Hague and Mexico City, both modernist buildings from the late 1950s. There is no reason to retain these as obsolete assets, but good reason to document them as diplomatic landmarks. Embassy Oslo is trying to compile a history of its unusual triangular-shaped chancery building before it is sold. It is not clear that efforts are being made to do the same elsewhere before new owners take charge and both artifacts and institutional memory are lost.For planning purposes, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, Senate and House office buildings, the U.S. Botanic Garden, the power plant, and the Capitol itself all come under the jurisdiction of the Architect of the Capitol. Overlapping police jurisdictions, the high volume of visitors, the growing need for security, and the ever-increasing need for space combined to prompt the Office of the Architect of the Capitol to update its master plan for the Capitol precinct after 9/11. I served on the Advisory Panel for the proposed master plan and contributed to a report titled “Working in Olmsted’s Shadow,” prepared under the auspices of the National Research Council in 2003. For the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, I wrote “The U.S. Capitol Grounds: Frederick Law Olmsted’s Legacy in the Nation’s Capital.” And later, for the Latrobe Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, I expanded that paper to include the visionary work of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., who served on the McMillan Commission and became the “unofficial guardian” of Washington’s Mall and its open space system for decades.
Bates Lowry died in 2004, and I was honored to write a tribute to him for Blueprints, publication of the National Building Museum. As the founding director of the Museum, he was responsible for launching my entire career in the embassy realm.Foreign Service Journal asked me to continue the conversation about diplomatic security in an article in 2005. As U.S. embassies continued to expand in size and complexity, I agreed to update my earlier comments on security and openness. Embassies were becoming increasingly uniform in appearance regardless of location, more isolated, and less connected to the communities they served. I interviewed OBO director Williams for that story, which highlighted the history of the building program and detailed how it was evolving as a result of changing world events and new policy objectives. I praised the program for all it had accomplished in a short time, but also lamented some shortcomings. “Why does design excellence matter?” I asked. And I suggested that quality design could enhance both appearance and workability of new embassies and also had the potential to increase their security, broadly defined.
Williams was not pleased by what he took to be negative criticism and thereafter refused to provide access to people or records at OBO or to lend photographs of recent projects, even, for example, when I was preparing a talk for DACOR, an organization of foreign affairs professionals based in Washington, DC.Attending the dedication of the newly renovated Adams (State) Courthouse in Boston, I met Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who had played a key role in the selection and implementation of the design for Boston’s acclaimed Moakley (Federal) Courthouse. Following in the footsteps of Sen. Moynihan, Justice Breyer had emerged as a strong advocate for good public architecture and a fierce proponent of openness, including open access to the Supreme Court. I was concerned about possible efforts to control pedestrian access by erecting barriers and blocking access to the monumental steps and entrance through the grand front doors—a planned progression designed by architect Cass Gilbert to amplify the awesome experience of visiting the Court. Justice Breyer strongly opposed such measures (which have since come to pass). In our interview, he argued against arbitrary and excessive security measures and cautioned against the notion that all risk could be eliminated through such measures. He also celebrated how in well-designed buildings, like the Moakley Courthouse, “you can feel your spirits rise.” Our conversation, “The Importance of Openness in an Era of Security,” appeared in Architectural Record in 2006.
In 2007, Foreign Policy magazine contacted me about writing a piece on the new U.S. embassy about to open in Baghdad, proudly described by OBO as the largest in the world. Little was known about the top security project that was organized and managed separate from all other State Department work. Even reporters based in Baghdad had contacted me earlier that year asking about plans for the project that they could see in the distance (topped with construction cranes) but could not inspect or visit. I was able to gather together enough information to write “Fortress America,” in which I tried to answer my own questions: “Why has the United States built this place—and what does it mean?”The FP article generated unexpected media buzz and I was invited to appear on shows including C-SPAN’s Washington Journal to answer more questions about the Baghdad Embassy. Other appearances included Here and Now with Robin Young on WBUR-FM, Boston National Public Radio; Design and Architecture (DNA) (from KCRW-FM Los Angeles) with host Frances Anderton; Kojo Nnamdi Show (from WAMU-FM, Washington, D.C. National Public Radio; To the Point with Warren Olney on Los Angeles Public Radio International; and The World on PRI.
When questioned by members of Congress about the Baghdad project, OBO director Williams testified to Congress that the vast and costly new embassy was right on schedule to be completed and opened on time. It was not. When it “opened,” it was far from done. Shoddy workmanship, poor construction oversight, and soaring costs added to the woes of diplomats and those responsible for the project. Williams was hastily retired late in 2007 and temporarily replaced by career Foreign Service officer Richard Shinnick in early 2008. Overnight the atmosphere at OBO changed to that of a more expansive and open organization, one committed as much to diplomacy, broadly defined, as to security, narrowly defined.
Many members of Congress were troubled by recent events and the perception of “Fortress America.” Among them were Sen. John Kerry (now Secretary of State) and Rep. John Tierney, both of Massachusetts. As chairman of the National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Tierney convened hearings on “EFFECTIVE DIPLOMACY AND THE FUTURE OF U.S. EMBASSIES” in January 2008.I was invited me to testify along with Marc Grossman and Thomas Pickering, both former U.S. ambassadors and undersecretaries of State for political affairs, and John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA). It was a tribute to my work spanning almost thirty years and a great privilege to be heard. When questioned as to how design could still be important when security was paramount, I replied that the two were not mutually exclusive. I argued that good design could and would enhance security, an idea that seems counter-intuitive to many.
Built on a site adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, the new embassy had intentionally chosen a prominent urban site associated with history. But German critics blasted the American embassy even before visiting it. For Newsweek (International), I wrote an article titled “The Rows on Embassy Rows.”
With security as the almost exclusive rationale for new embassy construction, architects had shunned that imperative for too long. They were slow to address the new reality and balked at the security mandate instead of seeking new and better solutions to show how design could augment security—if, in fact, it could. Thus, they were partly responsible for their own professional marginalization. ”Security experts” preempted them as team spokesmen and design/build eliminated the competitive bidding process for much major work. Landscape architects were perhaps quicker to lend their expertise to troubling planning problems associated with perimeter security, for example, and ways to make those border areas more attractive and secure at the same time.
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) created a 21st-Century Embassy Task Force in 2008 to study “Design for Diplomacy.” As a member, I was among those dismayed when the task force drafted a preliminary report that failed to face the security imperative mandated by Congress. The AIA task force redrafted its findings and submitted a strong report in 2009 calling for design excellence—a program concept originated by GSA but reformulated in the embassy context. 2009 AIA Task Force Report
By the time that the AIA task force completed its report, career Foreign Service officer Adam Namm had succeeded Shinnick as acting OBO director. When I had first met him, Shinnick had personally urged me to expand and update my 1998 book to include recent history. Speaking at Embassy Berlin after its opening in 2008, I heard the same advice from career diplomats. And when I met Namm, he reiterated that advice.
In the intervening years since 1998, little aside from news stories had been published and nearly all of the news stories ran in response to terrorist attacks. Reporters were among those who most wanted to better understand the impact of those attacks on embassy design and construction—why the Inman program had failed, why the “standard embassy design” was inadequate, how design might complement security, and what OBO was doing about it. And architects, seeking embassy work, looked eagerly for anything they could find that added to their understanding of the building type and its history. For all of them, and for the State Department itself, I took on the task of updating the book.Convincing Princeton Architectural Press (PAP) to reissue the book in paperback (and electronic format) was a challenge because sales for books of special interest are no measure of their value. But PAP republished the book in 2010 (2011), and also made it available in electronic format. The China Financial and Economic Publishing House translated and published the book in Beijing at the same time. I had the pleasure of meeting my publisher there when the U.S. Embassy invited me to speak at the new embassy in Beijing. The translator turned out to be head of the Chinese government embassy program. I also enjoyed my visit to the new U.S. Embassy, a walled compound about which little had (has) been written. The whole trip was especially memorable because my husband and I were joined by our son Charles and his wife Amy, who is conveniently fluent in Mandarin. The publication of the new edition of my book prompted AFSA to invite me to speak to its members. The AFSA program, packed with an enthusiastic audience, was cited in an AFSA newsletter and it led the Public Affairs Officer in Oslo to contact me about his idea for a book about Villa Otium, our historic ambassador’s residence (EMR) in Oslo. One thing led to another and the Embassy invited me to Oslo to speak on “America’s Changing Overseas Presence” and to study the residence, Norway’s most outstanding Jugendstil landmark. Not only did I visit the villa, I was invited to stay there as a guest of Ambassador Barry White and his wife Eleanor. That enabled me to “feel” the house, not just to see it, and it enabled my husband Bob to photograph it thoroughly, top to bottom. Funded by a Fulbright-Hays Federal Assistance Award, my Norway trip included a talk at the residence itself hosted by the Ambassador, another talk at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, and another at the Jugendstilsenteret in Alesund. On return to the U.S., I discovered a trove of historical records at the National Archives pertaining to the history of the Oslo EMR. I wrote the essay “The American Ambassador’s Residence: A Short Diplomatic History.”
That chapter was included in the book, Villa Otium: A Diplomatic Home, published to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the historic residence.In 2010, also, OBO selected KieranTimberlake as the winning design team for the new U.S. Embassy in London. The project itself represented a tremendous departure from the norm for OBO. London was not only to be designed by prominent architects, but it was to be sited within the city in a redevelopment zone, not distant from the city center, and it was to be designed to meet the highest possible sustainability standards, as well as security standards. Although OBO did not want to identify it as such, it was the first step in the “Design Excellence” initiative launched officially in 2012 by OBO director Lydia Muniz, who replaced Namm when he was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador. Strong interest in mid-century modernism prompted the Slovak Architects Society to fund a major exhibition and catalog on the work of Ladislav Rado in 2011. Architect Peter Lizon organized the project, and I contributed photographs of Rado’s U.S. embassy work as well as an essay on its larger significance for the catalog. Attacks on U.S. facilities in Cairo, Sanaa, and Benghazi, The Foreign Service Journal wanted to run an article critical of the “fortress embassy” concept by a career Foreign Service officer. Unaware of the new OBO initiative, the FSJ editor contacted me and invited me to write a commentary on the fortress model. Instead, I took the opportunity to introduce the new OBO program and the forward-looking guiding principles behind it. I explained how the fortress model, originally an expedient solution to an urgent problem, came to be widely faulted by diplomats, designers, outside critics, including myself, members of Congress, and even by host governments. I praised efforts to make embassies more accessible, visually welcoming, and sustainable, discussed “risk” as a concept that many find difficult to accept as a reality of maintaining a presence abroad, and I outlined hurdles OBO would face in building a necessary constituency for its promising new program. One challenge, I wrote, was how to extend “buy-in” beyond architects, already eager supporters. Most important of all, I said, would be for OBO to clearly define “design excellence” to include “all elements of embassy construction—from location to architect selection, design, engineering and building technology, sustainability and long-term maintenance needs.” Putting the emphasis on “design” was perhaps misleading. To succeed, the program needed to embrace innovation “as an opportunity to enhance security,” because, as the article noted, that remains the #1 priority—as mandated by Congress. Expanding how security is defined and showing how sustainability and energy self-sufficiency can augment security, for example, would certainly help to win over skeptics when it comes to considering architecture a tool of diplomacy. Beyond the Fortress Embassy article
FSJ put a photograph of the new London project on its cover and gave my article top billing. (The London project should be completed by 2017.)
In response to criticism of its Industry Advisory Panel, OBO changed the name and composition of its peer review panel and unveiled a very different Industry Advisory Group (IAG) in April 2013. Possibly in response to the FSJ article and other commentary, OBO also announced in April that it is changing the name of its program to Excellence in Diplomatic Facilities, dropping the word “design” entirely. This is a sensible move that clarifies its purpose and should garner it more widespread support from the many who think of design as a frill. How IAG members were selected and how long each will serve is unclear, but the focus is on cutting edge design, new ideas and new technology. There are still no historians on board. It is good to see the future-oriented outlook—it would be good, too, to see more awareness of what can be learned from the past.
I do not plan to write more on this subject. That could change, of course, but my goal now is to place my research papers and photographs in the research library or archival collection that can best process them and make them available to students, scholars, and others who are most interested in this subject and its remarkable history.
In the past year, alone, I’ve worked with at least a dozen architectural historians and others who have made use of my papers and my experience in expanding their own work.
Two young German scholars, Gabriele Paulix and Julia Klemeit, have recently completed doctoral dissertations on U.S. foreign buildings—the first focuses on the previously untold story of the USIS information centers built across Germany in the aftermath of WWII, and the second on new U.S. embassies in Berlin and Beijing. Both have used my papers in their research. Dr. Paulix published hers this year. Dr. Klemeit’s will be published soon. I was able to arrange for both of them to visit the U.S. Embassy in Berlin when I was there as well as the German Embassy here.
Students of Prof. Yunsheng Huang at the University of Virginia are studying the history of the former U.S. Legation in Beijing, a building that is no longer in use as a diplomatic facility but no less important than others for its pivotal role in the early history of America’s efforts to establish an overseas presence. I have shared archives with them and learned from them how the former legation was turned into a fancy French restaurant by a UVA alumnus (!).
Dutch architectural historian Wijnand Galema used my records in his investigation into the history of the Breuer-designed U.S. Embassy in The Hague. His report will influence how the City of The Hague ultimately uses the building that it acquires when the Embassy relocates. I continue to be in touch with him.
OBO intends to renovate the U.S. Embassy in Athens, designed by Walter Gropius, to meet current security and workplace standards. Consultants hired to assist OBO contacted me for information on the original site selection and the evolution of the design. I provided them with records, including copies of Gropius renderings and earlier Rapson drawings for the project. Their report will shape plans for the landmark building.
Students of Prof. Jorge Otero-Pailos at Columbia University are documenting mid-century modern embassies. Their work will assist Docomomo_US, an advocacy group devoted to understanding and protecting landmarks of the modern era. I was invited to speak to the students and shared historical records and research suggestions with them.
Architectural historian Caroline Hickman is writing a history of the Palazzo Corpi in Istanbul, the first U.S.-purchased embassy in Europe. Dr. Hickman has not only used my records on the palace but also has corrected errors associated with its anecdotal history and introduced me to the adjacent office building designed (to my surprise) by George Totten, Jr. for the U.S. government.
It has been a pleasure working with these enthusiastic researchers and the many others who love piecing together this history as I do.
The fact that the State Department has conveyed so few of its building-related records to the National Archives (NARA) means that researchers interested in the architectural legacy can find little there. It is a good sign that OBO has recently hired an official archivist. I hope it signals that records related to buildings will be better retained.
I am delighted that my work has helped establish diplomatic design as a legitimate and important field of scholarly inquiry. It is a field that is certain to receive more attention over time because it serves as a gateway to the larger subject of export architecture, questions of political domination vs. cultural exchange, the subtler aspects of foreign policy such as cultural diplomacy (“soft power”), the impact of security on the built environment, abroad and at home, and the element of fear as a factor that shapes both perception and infrastructure—how we feel and how we build or protect ourselves.
Going through my own papers I see many questions calling out for study. Numerous thesis and dissertation topics are ready and waiting!
As an historian, I was lucky to find a major government program that had never been studied. No one could have predicted the timeliness of that study. When a State Department historian gave me a box of old records, I had no idea where all of it would lead me. Nothing like that could happen today with access to information and people so strictly controlled—and so many key figures already gone—and so many buildings gone, too. How the world has changed since I embarked on this investigation is now part of the story itself. That first box has taken me on an adventure I could never have foreseen. In 1980, one could walk directly into FBO offices at the State Department and borrow and copy photos and papers with almost no supervision. I don’t even think one had to show a photo ID to enter. I am not saying that such open access to unique records was entirely good, but that’s how it was. The records I copied, plus letters, memoranda, and interview notes, are now invaluable assets. I am glad to have saved nearly every piece of paper since I began this inquiry more than thirty years ago—when one could still take a photograph of a U.S. embassy. It is gratifying that so many students, scholars, architects, journalists and others are now interested in all of it.
In a sense my work has given me a chance to become an ambassador myself—an advocate for buildings that were overlooked and even forgotten. Their architecture provides a window on how we relate to the world around us. Our values are embedded in our public buildings and in the aspirations of those who produce them. What we learn from those buildings can help us to appreciate—and where appropriate to protect—those values.
May 6, 2013