In April, Democratic Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.) introduced a bill in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that would enhance the design and construction of United States embassies and consulates around the world by mandating that the Department of State establish a set of sustainability, aesthetic, and security guidelines that reflect American values and support U.S. diplomacy.
In its language, S. 3210, The Embassy Design and Security Act of 2010, recognizes that U.S. embassies should reflect the best of American design, architecture, sustainability, and technology while maintaining a safe and secure environment for consulate and embassy staff.
The act would:
- Require the Secretary of State and the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations to develop an embassy design excellence program that integrates sustainable design and construction best practices to yield safe, high-performance buildings that are architecturally distinguished as well as architecturally responsive to the cultures and environments of their location.
- Encourages the Department of State to utilize cutting-edge research to implement new ideas, cost-effective solutions, and new technologies as they are available in new facilities.
- Create a diplomatic facilities task force that would review existing security guidelines and regulations to ensure modern, safe, and secure embassies.
- Re-establish a design advisory board for embassies to advise the Department of State on design standards, recommend appropriate architectural styles for prospective projects, and advise the department on strategies for balancing security priorities with the values of openness and ingenuity.
- Require the Secretary of State to appoint to the design advisory board five members from outside the government who are noted for their knowledge and experience in architecture and design.
- Task the design advisory board with a review of the Standard Embassy Design Template and advise whether it is too restrictive and limits the ability of architects to design buildings that respond to their unique contexts and requirements.
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has voiced its support for the bill, calling it "a ground-breaking piece of legislation that for the first time recognizes the vital role building design can play in transforming America's embassies into high-performance structures throughout the world."
In 2009, the AIA published "Design for Diplomacy: New Embassies for the 21st Century," a report that called on the Department of State to integrate embassy security with design excellence and set out 59 recommendations, developed by the AIA's 21st Century Embassy Task Force, for ways the department should design and build embassies in the 21st century. Many of the actions outlined in the Embassy Design and Security bill align with the AIA report's recommendations.
According to Washington, D.C., architect Suman Sorg, FAIA, the existing Standard Embassy Design Template, while useful in allowing embassies and consulates to be designed, specified, and constructed quickly to accommodate an urgent need for safer, more secure facilities abroad in response to increasing threats, may have become too prescriptive and stifled creativity. "It was thought that it would be adapted to site-specific conditions, climatalogical conditions, as well as a local area's available materials—that it would be molded based on its location—but the speed with which these buildings had to be constructed really left no choice," she says.
Sorg's firm, Sorg & Associates, has built U.S. diplomatic facilities in Barbados, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Kuwait, Finland, and Saudi Arabia. Noting some of the conflicts inherent in embassy design—security and blast resistance against the principles of openness, freedom, and inclusion, as well as environmental responsiveness—Sorg believes the Senate bill is a good idea and thinks its cause may gain traction within the Department of State even if the bill itself fails.
"I think it will send a very good, strong message," she says. "The embassy is the symbol of America in other countries and it should reflect what's happening here. ... The mission of [an embassy] should be diplomacy, because the business being conducted inside is diplomacy. And the more people know about you, the less xenophobia there is, and that melts away people's fear of the ‘other.’"