The Foreign Service Journal - September 2017
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is an afterthought and the execution is left largely to a contracted

security firm. These firms may have a basic understanding of

security, but they are not in the diplomacy business. When they

first enter our embassies, visitors often encounter a contract

security person issuing brusque, Transportation Security Admin-

istration–like instructions. That’s not good enough for any U.S.

embassy and would be especially unfortunate for an embassy that

consciously seeks to project openness through its design.

Nor is it necessary to display a lot of firepower, such as having

the U.K. police brandishing submachine guns at the gates. (At

U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv, where I was deputy chief of mission dur-

ing the Second Intifada, I never once actually saw the weapons

carried by the Israeli guards, but I am confident that we were no

less secure.)

New Standards of Sustainability

One of the reasons the embassy needed to move from Gros-

venor Square was the huge utility bill and the aging internal

infrastructure. Built at a time when environmental efficiencies

were far down the list of requirements, Saarinen’s building was

hard to fuel and difficult to maintain. The new embassy will set

new standards of sustainability achieved by only a few major

buildings anywhere.

Having toured the site when it was about 80 percent com-

plete, I was stunned to see how both the workspace and the

spaces open to the public incorporated outside light based on

detailed lighting design. The cutting-edge scrim on three sides

of the structure helps manage light and energy. The building will

supply and reuse its own water. It will not only conserve power

but also be able to sell surplus energy to its neighbors. Once

again, however, ensuring that all these systems actually work

the way they are supposed to will require conscientious, trained


The American “citizens of London” Lynne Olson described

were by no means perfect, and they attracted a good deal of criti-

cism along the way to becoming respected historical figures. The

new embassy should expect the same—architecture critics are

a prickly bunch, and I would be astonished if they provide more

than grudging acceptance when they write reviews in the com-

ing months. However, they should not forget the unique security

challenges of building a new U.S. embassy, nor discount the

triumph of essentially sparking a now bustling new neighbor-

hood in central London.

And the ambassadors and staff who occupy this structure

should never forget that its principal purpose is to put America’s

best face forward. A building is never


a building.