A Pair of New U.S. Embassies, Arriving at an Undiplomatic Moment

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s new U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. Photo: Courtesy Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners

It’s not easy to be welcoming and friendly when you’re worried about being killed. The Mafia has the kiss of death, which dresses up ruthlessness in a tender gesture. The government has the embassy. In 294 capitals around the world, the U.S. Embassy is where would-be travelers come for their visas, where civil servants spend their days trying to persuade foreigners to love (or at least tolerate) America, and where the nation’s global image is honed. It’s also a defensive citadel, hardened against an impressive array of threats. Enemies have hit diplomatic installations with car bombs, truck bombs, rioting mobs, rocket-propelled grenades, armed assaults, and maybe even sonic waves. Earthquakes and other natural disasters offer more options for mayhem.

The challenge of designing a large building to spread goodwill and beat back violence has defeated plenty of architects. The monster fortress of an embassy in Baghdad was designed by a firm, Berger Devine Yaeger, that later struck the project from its website and eventually changed its name. Kieran Timberlake’s new London embassy is a 12-story cube armored in blastproof glass and partly covered in plastic protuberances that look as though they were designed to deter attacks by jousting lance. The whole thing is set off behind a prettily landscaped defensive perimeter (including an actual moat). Even the government’s diplomatic presence in New York, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, designed by Gwathmey Siegel, is a hostile medieval keep.

It was not always like this. Ironically, the fact that the Cold War was in part a battle for global prestige led the government to embrace the fanciest names in mid-century design. “U.S. embassy architecture embraced modernism as a way of representing America’s openness, its forward-looking outlook, and its commitment to individual talent and creativity,” writes Jane Loeffler in a 2010 preface to her 1998 book, The Architecture of Diplomacy. Then came the 1998 bombings on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, which killed 224 people. From then on, the State Department treated new embassies like military installations, surrounding characterless blocks with acres of defensible space, as in Panama City. Recent embassies still call attention to themselves, but largely because of their size, homogeneity, and imposing presence,” Loeffler writes.

Against this backdrop of hunkered-down standardization, some new designs, commissioned during the Obama administration and miraculously still on track, hold out hope that architectural symbols of comity can outlast the current era of constant global friction. In New Delhi, the New York firm Weiss/Manfredi plans to upgrade a compound designed by Edward Durell Stone in 1954. The original chancery building is a once-controversial classic, a low box raised on a plinth, topped by a paper-thin canopy, wrapped in an ornamental screen, and encircled by slender columns. Stone’s white temple gave the American presence in India a certain serene chic; it seemed as much a backdrop for parties as a workshop of diplomacy. In 1962, when Jackie Kennedy, dressed in white, stepped onto one of the concrete lily pads that crossed the pool in the chancery courtyard, her crisp glamour and the building’s elegance suddenly became one. But the embassy quickly became a luscious target, not so much for anti-American terrorists as for tight-lipped modernists, who found it precious and sneered at the perforated concrete screen as so much fussy wrapping.

Weiss/Manfredi (the firm that designed the Diana Center at Barnard, a delicately balanced nanotechnology center at the University of Pennsylvania, and the finest piece of Cornell Tech’s Roosevelt Island campus) will sprinkle Stone’s modernist fairy dust over a two-block campus. A palm-lined path approaches the restored chancery, then tacks left toward a new office building, a respectful younger sibling with its own slender roof, sun-diffusing screen, and walkway over a shallow pool.

Weiss/Manfredi’s reimagination of the embassy in New Delhi. Photo: Weiss/Manfredi

Long before the car bomb, such gardens where the powerful strolled had to be barricaded behind inviolable walls, and the architects had no trouble finding local models for the combination of invitation and warning. The Agra Fort, seat of the Mughal Empire until the 17th century, confronts would-be invaders with a mass of red-stone battlements and a narrow portal. Inside is a world of excitement and serenity: a broad court, multifoil arches, intricate stonework, and perforated marble screens. Weiss/Manfredi, like Durell Stone before them, abstract precedents without imitating them. The entrance to the new building is flanked by curving, tapering pillars clad in smooth pale stone, like loosely rolled ends of a scroll. It’s a subtle play of delicacy and brawn.

Farther along on the road to reality, a new Mexico City embassy by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien (also architects of the Obama Foundation in Chicago), in partnership with Davis Brody Bond, is about to go into construction. The golden-stone compound in Nuevo Polanco replaces a concrete quasi-cube on Paseo de la Reforma, designed in 1964 by the Texas-based embassy factory Page Southerland Page. Although the new design has been in the works since the last administration and may not open until the next, it reads today as a quiet rebuke of a president who has sprayed Mexico with vitriol and who for nearly a year couldn’t be bothered to nominate an ambassador.

The architects have taken the trouble to understand something about the country they’re working in. Their design pays frank homage to Mexico City’s magnificent National Anthropology Museum, designed by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez in 1964, where a canopy hovers over a vast courtyard as if held in place by a pillar of water. At the embassy, Williams and Tsien have softened the perimeter wall with vegetation and textured the façade with blocks of polychrome stone. Bronzed metal frames shade extra-thick windows, their surfaces hammered and angular, as if they had done a lot of living. Inside the complex, a white roof scored with skylights levitates on thin columns above a large second-floor courtyard, letting in air and rain along with modest doses of the city’s dazzling sun. Smaller courtyards above and below carve out more intimate zones.

It’s easy to see why Mexico’s architectural tradition would appeal to Williams and Tsien, whose best work makes lavish use of canopies and textured walls. The country has a culture of construction organized around low budgets, local materials, a profound sense of history, and an abundance of highly skilled labor. I wish more American architects knew the city of Oaxaca, for instance, where in 2012 the Mexico City–based architects Mauricio Rocha and Gabriela Carrillo performed a delicate black-steel insertion into a 16th-century convent that had been almost consumed by an accretion of parking and cinder block sheds. In creating this new institution, the Centro Cultural y Académico San Pablo, Rocha and Castillo rescued the original structures and worked wonders with the simplest elements: smooth plaster and rough stone, a channel of water, grass growing between herringbone-laid bricks, skylights, and shadow.

It’s not easy to translate the handcrafted qualities of a neighborhood cultural center in a dense downtown to a $763 million secure government facility. Everything about building a contemporary U.S. embassy works to the detriment of finesse. Somehow, though, Williams and Tsien’s design aims for the tactile pleasure of detail. It also recalls Mexico’s urbanism of lush patios behind high walls. The tension between openness and caution is familiar here, in a place where families congregate in streets and plazas, then retreat to private enclosures.

Different though they are, India and Mexico have a lot in common, including scorching sunlight, fraught colonial histories, and architectural traditions of inconceivable splendor. In their eagerness to represent the United States, American architects have to avoid cherry-picking clichés from traditions they don’t fully understand, histories that in contemporary practice have splintered into a thousand different styles. But these two embassy designs remind us that architects can cope with the nuances of other cultures, even when statesmen can’t.

A Pair of U.S. Embassies, Arriving at an Undiplomatic Moment