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Designing for diplomats: the architecture of paradoxes

When architects build places where diplomats will work, they inevitably face the complexity of this particular profession. Diplomacy is full of paradoxes, which come into sharp contrast when they move from abstract linguistic constructions to material artifacts. How do you design an open and inviting building, as that hosting the UN should be, and also ensure that it is secure?

A major renovation of the UN building in New York is almost complete. It required a lot of diplomacy from the project’s executive director, New York architect Michael Adlerstein, who said that the UN ‘is far more complicated than any organization I’ve worked with’. He has also supervised major restoration projects on the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

450px UN building

When architects build places where diplomats will work, they inevitably face the complexity of this particular profession. Diplomacy is full of paradoxes, which come into sharp contrast when they move from abstract linguistic constructions to material artifacts. How do you design an open and inviting building, as that hosting the UN should be, and also ensure that it is secure?

I was faced with this architectural challenge in the early 1990s when I advised young Maltese architectural students on diplomacy in preparation for the European competition to design an ideal embassy. At that time, because many embassies were moving from Bonn to Berlin, the subject of diplomatic architecture was very topical. This interaction with future architects was a great learning exercise for me.  After my introduction to diplomacy and its function to build bridges between nations and solve problems peacefully, they asked many common sense questions.  What I said did not correspond with what they experienced. Embassies are far from inviting and open; they are surrounded by big walls and guarded by heavily armed soldiers.

Since the 1990s, especially since 9/11, the situation has deteriorated. Walls around embassies are higher. Numbers of security guards have multiplied. More electronic detectors are used.

So how can we overcome this paradox between the declared function of diplomacy and its reality?

Some countries, like the USA, try to find a way out by using e-diplomacy intensively for engaging with their local publics. What cannot be done in the local streets, bars, and bazaars is done on Facebook, Twitter and blogs.  It is not surprising that the USA and the UK, countries with the highest security risks, are among the most advanced users of e-diplomacy.

Like Adlerstein, embassy architects are torn between designing an engaging and communicative function of diplomacy, and the need to secure the building from potential attack. In one building, they have to combine a belief in the peaceful and friendly nature of humans (Rousseau) and the polar opposite view that humans are just waiting for the next chance to cause trouble (Hobs).

Can we imagine a day when embassies will be located at local bazaars where people mingle and interact freely? It would certainly return diplomacy to its early origins.

In the meantime, please remove all coins from your pockets, put your notebook in the X-ray machine……

07 March 2012
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