Excellence Goes Abroad

Copper overhangs evoke Frank Lloyd Wright and were inspired by the Statue of Liberty patina.
Courtesy EYP

The State Department’s Overseas Building Operations (OBO) is publishing  a new Guide to Design Excellence manual that is expected to be released in January. Many of the design principles have already found their way into new embassies, with London’s complex by Kieran Timberlake getting the bulk of attention. But at an October 18 public meeting of the Industry Advisory Panel, the needs of Kingston, Jamaica were compared to those of Jakarta, Montevideo, and Oslo. And while design sits at the center of the conversation, the OBO definition of design necessarily also encompasses security issues, future operating costs, real estate acquisitions, and net zero energy goals.

The State Department’s diverse portfolio means that a one-size-fits-all approach wouldn’t work. Instead, the notion is more that of a design constitution that architects interpret for local needs. Designs also need to project the values of an open society while maintaining extraordinarily high security standards. “It’s a huge challenge,” said Patrick Collins, OBO’s architectural design chief. “We also want to be very careful that we’re not creating an architecture that mimics the local vernacular, that seems to be colonial or imperial.”

OBO also needs to be mindful that costs don’t raise eyebrows in Congress. The guidelines are to be integrated into how the department does business, not an additional budget line. OBO estimates that the cost of the building is a mere 3 to 5 percent of the cost of daily business that goes into running an embassy. And security costs—part of Embassy Perimeter Improvement Concepts (EPIC)—can be exorbitant for a building located in a downtown urban area.

Left to right: Open fence allows view of embassy’s two-story cafeteria atrium; The embassy design works with the landscape; rock outcroppings are used for security.

In London, OBO sold a pricey bit of property in Grosvenor Square (the controversial Saarinen building) that in turn paid for the new building on a larger plot of land near Vauxhall in a once seedy section of south London. The OLIN-designed landscape integrates various levels of grading and “lakes” that act as anti-ram deterrents. But at a new embassy (left) on the outskirts of Oslo designed by EYP Architecture and Engineering, OBO purchased a parcel whose characteristics included rock outcroppings and ravines, natural defense mechanisms that would have been recognized centuries ago and that influenced the building’s layout.

The bombs that exploded in downtown Oslo this past summer underlined the need at embassies everywhere for enhanced security and removal from downtown districts. “That did strike home,” said Paul King, lead designer at EYP, noting that the event called for no additional changes to their design. “The remarkable thing was that the bombing was pretty much around the corner from City Planning.”

In fact, Oslo’s City Planning was intimately involved with design decisions for the embassy, even going so far as writing it into local law that the embassy had to be of architectural quality. With security naturally enhanced by the site, EYP and their counterparts at OBO were able to pursue more aesthetic excellence, seeking to combine a Scandinavian design ethos with American references through materials. American maple was used throughout the interior while Norwegian granite dresses the facade. A little known fact that the copper for the Statue of Liberty was quarried in Norway presented the team with their prominent motif: a series of pre-patina copper overhanging canopies à la Frank Lloyd Wright that weave their way throughout complex.

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