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The US Embassy Attacks and the Diplomacy of Architecture

Security forces intervene during the protests at US Embassy Cairo. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim.

There are probably at least a few in your city, hiding on the upper floods of office buildings, secluded in elegant townhouses, tucked somewhere out of view, behind high fences. Nearby cars’ license plates are sometimes their only identifiable feature. Whether embassies in capital cities or consulates elsewhere, most diplomatic offices articulate an architecture that often seems as if it’s striving to be as discreet as the professionals practicing statecraft inside.

But the foreign bases of diplomatic heavyweights are another story. In New York, small island states’ representatives to the UN often share the same small office suites, but the Chinese consulate occupies a looming concrete monolith along the Hudson River. France’s massive embassy in Berlin is situated right next to the Brandenburg Gate on a square named, appropriately, Pariser Platz (Parisian Square).

US Embassy Abu Dhabi. Photo by Ryan Lackey.

Few of these countries lay claim to more conspicuous diplomatic real estate than the US. Ottawa’s American mission stretches the width of a neighbourhood. In London, the US Embassy has long been considered a blunt statement of the most disfigured principles of American foreign policy. And perhaps no diplomatic complex in the world is as infamous as the Green Zone, Saddam Hussein’s former fortress from which Iraq’s long, bloody occupation was run; the current US compound in Baghdad is as large as Vatican City.

For all its recent stumbles and whispers about its relative decline, the US remains the world’s sole superpower. The size of its embassies reflect that fact — and so do measures taken to protect them. Walking through Cairo’s Garden City, home to some of Egypt’s largest foreign delegations, it was always impossible for me to avoid feeling intimidated — even as a US citizen — by the American Embassy’s fortresslike ramparts, its deep setback, and the security forces who manned roadblocks at either end of the street that ran between it and Britain’s also very fortified (if more elegant) facility. That lasting impression left me all the more shocked when, last month, protesters breached the compound’s walls; in Egypt, only military bases had ever seemed less vulnerable.

The protests in Cairo began a long week of unrest outside American missions across Arab and Muslim worlds, ostensibly over an obscure film, The Innocence of Muslims, whose mysterious creator managed to elude certain identification for days after the discontent began. Beginning on September 11, the protests had spread, by Friday, to engulf British and German embassies as well. In Benghazi, where the US consulate had been violently overrun, the US Ambassador and several other American personnel were killed.

US Embassy Oslo. Photo by Adam Currell.

Commentators expected the eleventh anniversary of the September 11 attacks to be subdued; no mention of them even appeared on the front page of the New York Times that morning. But the embassy assaults reintroduced questions about the security both of Americans and symbols of their presence abroad. In the decade-plus since the terrorist attacks, while Americans became preoccupied with tensions between security and liberty, US diplomats wrestled with another contradiction: between security and accessibility.

The ill-named “War on Terror” was neither going to be won (if such a thing were even possible) with counterproductive nation-building exercises nor by flooding the world with American PR. That hardly stopped successive diplomatic missions from believing that deeper “engagement” could produce positive results. But as State Department employees eagerly set about installing exhibitions advertising America’s virtues in Asian malls, debate brewed about the message sent by another medium: their workplaces.

Though many older embassies — some still ensconced in genteel mansions — were friendly façades, some seemed unlikely to keep American diplomats safe. As roadblocks crept ever further from their front doors, the State Department embarked on a new effort to render its compounds impregnable. Fortress embassies hadn’t only been prescribed for Middle East hotspots; while the old London embassy had never struck passersby as welcoming, the facility the US proposed in 2008 appeared practically medieval, set back from the street by what looked like a sort of abstract moat.

2008 design for a new US Embassy London. Official rendering.

But 9/11 was hardly the first, or even most significant catalyst for the US’ move toward more secure — if more formidable — embassies. As Jane C. Loffler recalls in her book The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America’s Embassies, first published in 1998, the procession toward attack-resistant compounds had been happening for decades. The 80s-vintage Cairo embassy, with its concentric walls, was a study in the new vigilance. Still, lessons learned from previous embassy attacks — including the 1979 storming of the embassy in Tehran, which led to the Iran hostage crisis, the 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Beirut, and, above all, the 1998 terrorist attacks on embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam — appear to have been insufficiently applied prior to September 11, and even after.

By the relatively placid 1990s, the State Department was making a renewed effort to show that it understood that diplomacy began with good relations between American embassies and their hosts’ cityscapes. Its new Berlin embassy, necessitated by German reunification, would serve as an archetype. Designed in 1996, it was to sit opposite the French compound, directly abutting Pariser Platz. Post-1998, those plans were put on hold; the position, exposed not just to the plaza, but to two busy streets, no longer seemed so secure. As if to underscore its new security requirements, the temporary US embassy in Berlin had commandeered the entire block of streets that ran alongside it, fitting them with a bizarre maze of roadblocks monitored by guards carrying conspicuous and intimidating weapons.

The literal retrenchment of the Berlin embassy was a public relations disaster for the US, which was accused of standing in the way of the new German capital’s redevelopment. Pariser Platz had been an elegant square before the Second World War, but the Berlin Wall had prevented its reconstruction for over thirty years. The American embassy had occupied the same plot before the US broke diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany; its reluctance to build there anew not only left the city gap-toothed, but rendered the entire symbolic process of postwar reconciliation incomplete.

Eventually, the US managed to find a way to open an embassy on Pariser Platz. Aesthetically, it proved disappointing, but its design was said to incorporate the necessary security requirements without resort to massive setbacks from the street or the need to seek out another site. In other words, it was an imperfect, though diplomatic compromise. The State Department has subsequently sought to strike a similar balance in its newer facilities; the effort has been the subject of Loeffler’s latest research.

This building, the US Embassy Berlin from 1999-2008, was surrounded by roadblocks reminiscent of East Berlin border checkpoints. Photo by James UK.

Current US Embassy Berlin incorporating new security features. Photo by Cheryl Hammond.

For all her faith in the State Department’s new direction, though, Loeffler was still thrown by the assaults on Western embassies this September. “My first reaction was, who could argue that architecture matters at all?” she told the Times. After all, even the new security measures implemented in the 80s and 90s were meant, Iran hostage crisis notwithstanding, to deter car bombs, not hostile crowds — or security vacuums left by uncooperative host states. But Loeffler might have reached the same conclusion about an even less preventable threat to diplomatic security. One of the most devastating blows against US diplomatic efforts in decades — the late 2010 cable leak that was facilitated by WikiLeaks — required storming no compounds or breaching any walls.

Still, the Wikileaks saga doesn’t obviate concerns over embassies’ architecture and their relationship with the city. If anything, the opposite may be true. A certain amount of diplomacy will always need to take place face-to-face to ensure trust and — especially in an age of data intercepts like the cable leak — secrecy. Another episode, part of the leaks’ fallout, has shown just how relevant embassies’ location and design are. Granted asylum in Ecuador but threatened by British authorities with extradition to Sweden to face a rape investigation, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy for weeks. When Assange first sequestered himself there, Britain insisted it had the authority to remove him if it saw fit.

The argument rested on shaky grounds. Most countries, including the UK, are signatories to the Vienna Convention, which makes diplomatic property inviolable — one of the reasons the recent assaults on US embassies, and the lack of security protecting them, was so shocking. Ecuador’s London embassy is a model of diplomatic discretion; situated in an old, redbrick rowhouse tucked into the wealthy streets of upscale Knightsbridge. But embassies that blend so seamlessly into the cityscape present their own issus; they make the intersection of international law and urban policing complicated. After a policewoman was shot dead from inside Libya’s London embassy in 1987, Britain enacted a law that would have allowed its government to de-recognize a diplomatic facility — and, consequently, to storm it.

It’s still unclear how the statute operates in tandem with Britain’s treaty obligations. The uncertainties that laws such as Britain’s (and the incidents that prompt them) cause, as well as security threats weighing against embassies in general, may push many closer to the removed, fortress model. It’s an unfortunate conclusion that would ignore observations that embassy architecture may not simply fail to engage a local population, but increase its hostility and suspicion — if not necessarily of the country an embassy represents (which, after all, may engage with a country in many ways beyond formal diplomacy) then of the facility itself.

When the protests in Cairo had become too large and too ferocious to have really only been about a mere film, it dawned on me that many demonstrators may have climbed its walls less out of religious offense than the thrilling, novel sense that it no longer seemed so unthinkable to do so. For years, the embassy had told Cairenes — whether literally, in the form of scowling security personnel, or in the cold indifference of its high walls — to get lost. But after a month of protests toppled Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the window of possibility had expanded (particularly as traditional protest targets, like the military’s involvement in government, subsided). As much as righteous religious anger, raging against the embassy may have been about ongoing anger about a host of issues still unsolved by Egypt’s revolution — or a means for listless youths (many protesters were not fundamentalists, but soccer hooligans) to test how many taboos they could really topple.

In Tunis, a fortress-embassy located well outside the city had sent the same message, and — despite taking all architectural precautions — was stormed anyway. These castle keeps of foreign interest might seem secure, but — maintaining as imperious a presence as a garrison among a conquered people — brand themselves as targets in the process. For all the revisions that guide the design of future diplomatic missions, they’re likely, at best, to appear as awkward as the American bunker in Berlin, but unlikely to be much less dangerous than any of their predecessors.

US Embassy London. Official photo.

US Embassy Oslo. Photo by Bjørn Smestad.

US Embassy Stockholm. Photo by Johnny Söderberg.

US Embassy Tel Aviv. Photo by David Jones.


From Urban Photo. Follow Szabla on Twitter.

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