America

Can U.S. Embassies Be Safe Without Being Unsightly?

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    The current U.S. Embassy in central London was designed by Finnish-born American architect Eero Saarinen in 1960. Saarinen also designed the St. Louis Gateway Arch.
    Shaun Curry/AFP/Getty Images
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    An Italian security policeman checks the main entrance of the U.S. Embassy in downtown Rome in 2008, ahead of a visit by President George W. Bush. The embassy building is over 300 years old and was once the home to the first queen of Italy, Margherita.
    Angelo Carconi/AP
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    View of the entrance to the U.S. Embassy in Berlin in 2009. The new building opened in 2008 and exemplifies the new design standard to maintain security without sacrificing beauty.
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    A policeman stands in front of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City in 2008. This embassy was built in 1961 and is more in line with the fortress-style embassies.
    Marco Ugarte/AP
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    The U.S. Embassy in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, was evacuated on Dec. 28, 2012, because of security concerns as the CAR government continues to combat rebels.
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    The embassy in Baghdad features a more fortresslike design.
    U.S. Department Of State
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    An Egyptian protester stands above the entry of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11, 2012, during a demonstration against a film deemed offensive to Islam.
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    Local and foreign journalists visit the new U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Aug. 5, 2008. This massive embassy is the second-largest in the world after the heavily fortified compound in Baghdad.
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    A rendering of the new U.S. Embassy in London that is expected to open in 2017. Susan Johnson describes it as a fortress that has been softened and feels more open.
    Kieran Timberlake/U.S. Embassy

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There's been a tug of war between aesthetically pleasing and safe when it comes to American embassies around the world.

Many embassies have been slammed as bunkers, bland cubes and lifeless compounds. Even the new Secretary of State John Kerry said just a few years ago, "We are building some of the ugliest embassies I've ever seen."

But the choice between gardens and gates isn't just academic for diplomats — it can affect the way they work. Many diplomats found that the isolation, distance from city centers and lack of accessibility of many embassies complicated their job.

In the past few months, several articles in the American Foreign Service Association's journal have been devoted to "fortress embassies" and the effort to improve design.

"After World War II we were facing a world that was emerging out of a war and [we] wanted to use modern architecture as a way to convey our values, and a spirit of openness, optimism, democracy, and so we thought of architecture as a tool," Susan Johnson, a veteran diplomat and president of the association, tells All Things Considered's Audie Cornish.

However, with cost always a consideration and safety always a priority, there was a shift to the more prisonlike embassies that have drawn criticism of late. Now, that's changing, with help from a State Department initiative — Design Excellence — that includes a promotional video describing art, design and architecture as diplomatic languages.

"I think what we're aiming to do now is find a balance that combines security and beauty, and use technology and innovation to do it," Johnson says. "If we're going to do it, let's make that building say something positive about America."

You can hear more of this conversation on Tuesday's All Things Considered.

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