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Embassy buildings: fortresses or bazaars?

Published on 16 September 2012
Updated on 19 March 2024

The recent attacks on diplomatic missions in the Middle East have brought into focus the discussion on embassies and the tension between their function and protection. It reminds me of sessions in the early 1990s when I assisted young Maltese architectural students to design an ideal embassy for a pan-European architectural competition. They found  my explanation of diplomacy  as a profession that builds bridges between nations through engagement and dialogue counter-intuitive. Most embassies are surrounded by high walls and guarded by heavily armed soldiers. They are far from open and inviting spaces. The embassy architecture symbolises in physical form the tension in the function of diplomacy as well as tensions in global politics.

security1 articleLargeSince the 1990s, especially after 9/11, the situation has deteriorated. Today, embassies, in particular US embassies, are fortresses. Walls around them are higher, although not high enough to protect them from attack. As the former US ambassador Edward P. Djerejian said  ‘we built a 16-foot wall, but there is such a thing as a 17-foot ladder.’ The numbers of security guards in the US embassies alone have multiplied to 40.000 worldwide.

US diplomats are uneasy about this ‘embassy fortress’ that makes their job of engaging with locals more difficult. With more diversified politics, diplomats cannot just maintain relations with local government officias. They have to engage with people in all walks of life, including journalists, business people, and university professors. In a sobering twist of fate, the day after he was killed, the US ambassador in Bengazi was supposed to go to the hospital and discuss a new programme for emergency medicine with Libyan doctors.

Faced with the paradox of needing to engage while maintaining security, some countries use eDiplomacy intensively. It is not surprising that the USA and the UK, countries with the highest security risks, are among the most advanced users of eDiplomacy. What cannot be done in the local streets, bars, and bazaars because of security risks, eDiplomats try to do on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. The problem is that in societies such as Libya, where diplomacy is most needed, social contacts over tea and coffee matter more than posts on Facebook or Twitter.

Physical embassies will remain important in the Internet era. Embassy architects will be even more challenged to design an engaging and communicative function of diplomacy, while factoring in the need to secure the building from potential attack.

Can we imagine a day when embassies will be located at local bazaars, where people mingle and interact freely? It would certainly signal a return to diplomacy’s original and core function.

In the meantime, as embassy architects try to combine a fortress and a bazaar in one building, I wonder whether it is, in fact,  a case of  ‘mission impossible’?

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3 replies
  1. Aldo Matteucci
    Aldo Matteucci says:

    In 2003-4 the US was losing
    In 2003-4 the US was losing Iraq. The reason was that its implied strategy was “don’t get the soliders killed”. So they built FOB – Forward Operating Bases – around the country, from which soldiers would come out for “day-tripping like a tourist in hell”.
    It was in Tel Afar that Colonel McMaster experimented with “small outposts” within the community, manned round the clock by US soldiers, who started to protect the population from terrorists. It was a case not of “conquering hearts and minds” as much as “conquering their fears”. This “counterinsurgency” strategy worked. (see TIM HARFORD:Adapt)
    If the goal of US foreign policy is to save diplomats’ lives, then it is best achieved by keeping theam all in Foggy Bottom.
    All analogies stink, and this no more than others. FOB-embassies serve little purpose and may be even counterproductive, by providing as easy focus for policy-rage.

  2. Jovan Kurbalija
    Jovan Kurbalija says:

    Thank you Sala. The
    Thank you Sala. The architecture conveys messages in a very clear way. In our normal communication we can cover ambiguities, but in the architecture it is very difficult. Embassies are a very good example of dichotomy between real and proclaimed.

  3. Salanieta Tamanikaiwaimaro
    Salanieta Tamanikaiwaimaro says:

    This is a very interesting
    This is a very interesting perspective on Embassies. Even as a child, I would often wonder about the fortresses and what is even more interesting is the increasing security measures from threats of attacks whether these are virtual or otherwise. It appears that whilst technology and the Internet has made our world smaller and strengthened the degree of connectivity, it has also heightened both the good and bad. It follows that inherent within mankind is both the capacity to do both good and evil. For as long as there is animosity on earth, we will always need fortresses. Nations have always been known to act in their own national interests and often times at the expense of others and this is a reality of life. The day that nations come to the realisation that there are some things that are far greater than them and that is worth laying down the sword for, is the day, we will enjoy the Bazaars. Until then, Mission Impossible indeed!


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