The embassy, and its sibling the consulate, is not only meant to function as a practical means to conduct the business of diplomacy and to aid in the representation of the state within the borders of another; these buildings are representations of the very identity of their nation of origin.
Put more simply, the embassy is the state -- and therein lies the complexity of our built world. Though many embassies and consulates are settled in buildings not originally intended for that purpose, many more still are purpose-built. It is these purpose-built diplomatic structures that deserve some attention in our current geopolitical climate.
It would be hard for many people to look at the twisted skeleton that once was the United States consulate in Benghazi and feel anything but sadness, and perhaps shock. The wreck that once housed American diplomats in what are, by most accounts, extremely challenging conditions, both personally and diplomatically, is a tragic testament to the difficulties of the current state of global affairs.
That consulate, as has been the case with many governmental outposts of many nations, was attacked and destroyed because, like all structures great and small, it was a symbol -- and a potent one at that. The building, like all buildings, had a practical function, but it was as much a functional space as it was the physical realization of an idea. In this case, the American idea.
National identity, for any nation, is deeply tied to symbols, and symbols by nature are rooted firmly in the built world. The White House, the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, the Arc de Triomphe, Angkor Wat, the Great Wall -- these are just a tiny fraction of the many structures whose power transcends mere stone and mortar, becoming a physical encapsulation of those foundational ideas, national symbols, myths, historical memories, culture, artistic production, and religion that make a nation and its citizens who and what they are -- and what they hope to be.
At its most successful, in theory, the embassy or consulate should be the physical manifestation of a country's national ideal. The building should both symbolize and function as the state wishes to function. If the state sees itself as being transparent, democratic, powerful -- so too should the embassy.
The ideal American embassy or consulate should be a structural approximation of the American democratic ideal. The building should be at once public and private, project inclusion and retain some exclusivity, appear to be both powerful and soaring -- and should aesthetically represent the times in which the structure is built, but should be set on a lasting and solid foundation that is visible and apparent.
An embassy should feel as if it were a place where one feels welcome, no matter the origin of citizenship, and where one can go in order to gain some understanding of national identity -- without being didactic, imperialistic or imposing.
American embassies should feature places where multiple publics -- both citizen and visitor -- can go without much intervention, and can easily and casually interface with representatives of our nation. These public spaces should be under the purview of our Public Diplomacy leadership, and should be staffed by our Public Diplomacy officers. These spaces and those who staff these spaces should communicate the American 'brand' in new and innovative ways.
In reality, most embassies are simply not like this, as safety and security preclude this level of inclusion. Embassies are often surrounded by thick, imposing walls made of metal or stone and sometimes topped with barbed wire. There is no view into the inner workings of the building, and no easy way to enter. In order to gain entry, one must pass through multiple security checkpoints that grant access in stages to the building. Some of these buildings look like fortresses at best, prisons at worst.
In our increasingly polarized geopolitical climate where fears of attack and reprisal against embassies and consulates are quite real for many countries, including the United States, architectural aesthetics must take a back seat to security -- but there may be another way.
Security is a necessity. This is non-negotiable. The embassy simply must protect the diplomats and support staff. The question is, can we build a world where security and inclusion exist simultaneously in the same structure? Stated another way, can we create embassies and consulates that represent the totality of the American identity? One hopes that this question will be broached, not only among our diplomats, but in our design and architecture schools, or through competitions.
Perhaps one should look at the way that contemporary museums, airports and office buildings approach this issue. Though these buildings do not possess the potency that an embassy does; an airport, a museum or an office building is still a public place that requires high security and also must maintain some balance of the public and the private.
Perhaps the embassy of the future will feature two different kinds of structural ideas contained within the same building. These buildings might have highly secure portions where diplomats and support staff are secure and protected, and also feature sections that are still secure, but feel more open and inclusive. It is these open and inclusive sections that should represent the very best of who and what we are as a nation, and as a people.