November 26, 2013
OBO Design Excellence Program: America the Beautiful
by Eve Hinman
The U.S. Department of State has at last returned to their tradition of building embassies to reflect the inspirational values of our country, while showing respect for the heritage of the host country. During the years when Bush was President, the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) was led by Charles Wilson, a Major General with the Army. General Wilson initiated the Standard Embassy Design (SED) program where a prototype set of drawings were adapted for each project. These buildings weren’t very attractive, but they were fortified, fast to construct, and cost effective. To achieve the mandated setback, SEDs were typically constructed on green field sites outside capital cities. I am not a diplomat but I think it is safe to say that their remote location and fortified design was probably not very effective in supporting our relationship with the locals. By the end of the Bush Administration, 54 embassy buildings had been constructed using this approach. The one exception to this is the new embassy compound in Beijing, China designed by Craig Hartman with SOM, and included Hinman on the design team, which was unveiled in time for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. This one slipped in under the wire early in the Bush administration.
Under the leadership of Hilary Clinton, OBO initiated a unique design for the new London embassy with Kieran Timberlake as the architect. We had worked with ZGF on the design competition criteria documents for the London embassy and are currently performing design review for PageSoutherlandPage and B.L. Harbert. With John Kerry coming on board as Secretary of State this year, we have seen the inauguration of a new Design Excellence Program, modeled from the GSA Design Excellence Program. The GSA Design Excellence Program was initiated by Ed Feiner who was the Chief Architect for the GSA from 1999 until 2005. Mr. Feiner was a colorful man known for sporting cowboy boots, a crew cut, and strong opinions. In particular, he believed protective design was the enemy of good design. For him Design Excellence was in direct conflict with the newly minted GSA standards for security design developed after the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995. Blast consultants benefited by Mr. Feiner’s position by becoming adept at designing elaborate facades and curtain walls to mitigate modest levels of blast in a manner that was discrete and cost effective. This was a new development at the time and stimulated a lot of testing of conventional building materials and development of new materials and products to support the prolific building program overseen by Mr. Feiner.
To set up and run the Design Excellence program, OBO snagged Mr. Casey Jones who had been running GSA’s Design Excellence Program. Under this program, we have seen the Mexico City embassy project released, which was won by Tod Williams Billie Tsein, a boutique firm in New York City. Right now, a new compound in Beirut is planned. Morphosis (who we’ve teamed with on the SF Federal Building and Eugene U.S. Courthouse) were recently awarded to design the new embassy from a shortlist of architects which included, Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Mack Scogin Merrill Elam(who we’ve teamed with on the new U.S. Courthouse in Austin). None of these firms have ever designed an embassy before, which brings a fresh “Beginners Mind” to the design process.
Hinman is currently working on a Design Excellence embassy in Maputo, Mozambique with Allied Works as the lead architect and includes Yost Grube Hall as the Executive Architect and KPFF as the Structural Engineer on the design team. Over the past decade we’ve worked on many OBO projects, mostly in emerging African nations, with the Design/Build team led by B.L. Harbert and the design team including PageSoutherlandPage and Ehlert Bryan. In the past two years alone, our Design/Build team has worked on 40% of the total capital embassy and consulate building projects released by OBO. Now that we have a New York office, we are hopeful that we will soon be supporting the new group of Design Excellence architects in town to help them realize their vision.