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Architecture expert Jane Loeffler offers her views on embassy security
The Washington Diplomat / May 2004

By Larry Luxner

When it comes to embassies and their role in U.S. foreign policy, Jane Loeffler literally wrote the book on the subject.

Her 306-page masterpiece, "The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America's Embassies," is an overview of how the United States — beginning in the 1950s — began building new embassies around the globe as statements of recognition and welcome. From Havana to Helsinki, these embassies were intended to express the achievement and accomplishment of American democracy at the height of the Cold War.

"America's new embassies were extraordinary modern structures of glass, steel and concrete, symbols of openness and democracy," she wrote. "But it was not long before these often impractical buildings — and the process of making them — became controversial, and nowhere more so than in Congress."

The Washington Diplomat recently spoke with Loeffler at her comfortable home in northwest Washington. She said that her book, published in 1998 by Princeton Architectural Press, mostly deals with chanceries rather than official diplomatic residences, though the word 'embassy' covers both generically.

"I didn't write this book to be about security. I was writing about architecture. The theme of security really didn't emerge until the late '60s anyway, and this book focuses on the years before that," she said, noting that the business of building embassies abroad "is a political process, not just a real-estate operation happening in a vacuum, with architects making decisions about style and decor. It's all about funding and political decisions on Capitol Hill."

To do the research for her book, Loeffler visited at least 20 U.S. embassies overseas, most of them in Europe — including London, Paris, Brussels, Dublin, Stockholm, Oslo, Athens and Copenhagen.

"I didn't know I was going to write a book. But whenever I went someplace, I tried to visit the embassy," she said, adding that the Graham Foundation and George Washington University — where awarded her a doctorate in American civilization in 1996 — helped finance her travels and research.

"Nobody thought this was a good topic, but it was the first scholarly paper written on this subject," said the author. "I decided it should be a book, so I made it into a book. It came out just weeks before the bombing of the U.S. embassies in East Africa. Now, everybody uses it as a reference."

Today, in the post-9/11 world of terror alerts and U.S. embassy evacuations overseas, Loeffler is often cited as an expert. After al-Qaeda's August 1998 attack on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, she wrote a lengthy opinion piece for the Washington Post entitled "Diplomacy Doesn't Belong in Bunkers." A number of architectural magazines have reviewed her book, as has the New Yorker.

Loeffler, 57 and a native of Boston, is also a visiting associate professor at the University of Maryland, where she teaches a course entitled "From Glass Boxes to Bunkers: Architecture, Power and Public Policy." She's been featured on ABC Nightline, CNN and the BBC World Service in interviews on embassy architecture and security.

In addition, she's been cited in the New York Times, Washington Post, St. Petersburg Times, USA Today and the Voice of America.

Loeffler argues that foreign embassies in Washington are much better protected than U.S. embassies in other countries.

"Foreign embassies are uniquely situated here, because they have the protection of the U.S. government, and we are very reliable," she said. "But we're being protected overseas by people who are not always very reliable, and our embassies are at the mercy of the host country, which doesn't always come through for us."

Loeffler, who has also contributed to a soon-to-be-published photography book about U.S. embassies, said foreign missions in Washington are naturally reluctant to discuss their security arrangements — especially those which are obvious targets like the Israeli Embassy on International Drive.

"There's often more than meets the eye, even in embassies where it looks like there's no security," she told the Diplomat. "It can be quite sophisticated. Even what appears to be a very open embassy can be segregated spatially, using glass and electronic locks. There are cameras which you may not see, as well as inconspicuous locks. You may see doors but they may not open."

She added: "The Italian Embassy is an example of a building that's highly fortified. There's nothing flimsy about that building. It has a sequential entrance with various sets of doors. You can't just walk in from the street."

Loeffler's book contains dozens of photographs of U.S. missions overseas, including American embassies in far-flung hotspots such as Amman, Jordan; Mogadishu, Somalia; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Bogotá, Colombia, and Sana'a, Yemen.

While the author certainly couldn't have predicted the East African embassy bombings — or any other terrorist attack for that matter — she said "I knew from what I was seeing before that worse things were going to happen. I could also tell that whatever was going to happen overseas would affect us at home. People weren't really interested in that before."

She added: "While we want to remain open and accessible and welcoming, we also need to protect our people. It's a balancing act."

On a less serious note, Loeffler devotes some space in her book to the subject of ambassador residences.

"It's easy to make light of a residence," she told us. "For example, whenever Congress would scrutinize an American embassy abroad, they would criticize anything that had to do with entertainment. They'd ridicule that as being an unnecessary expense, not wanting to admit that this is where business takes place — even though members of Congress always expect to be lavishly entertained themselves."

Loeffler was recently commissioned by Colombia's Editores Villegas S.A. to write the introduction to a fancy coffee-table book, "Embassy Residences in Washington, D.C."

It was an assignment she clearly enjoyed.

"In any other city, these mansions wouldn't be here anymore," she said. "The only reason they're here for us to look at and enjoy is because foreign governments needed places to operate in the capital, and they happened to be looking fore real-estate at the time these houses were on the market."

Asked which ones she likes best, Loeffler replied that "it's hard to pick a favorite from such an array of wonderful buildings," especially if both chanceries and residences are included.

"I love the way in which the Finnish Chancery fits so perfectly with its wooded landscape, and the way the Canadian Chancery works magic along Pennsylvania Avenue," she said. "And I love the new Italian Chancery, which is such a strong sculptural statement, and the Danish Embassy nearby, which is quite the opposite.

"As for the ambassadorial residences that were originally built as homes for rich Americans, the most elegant could be the Brazilian ambassador's residence, and the most amazing is probably the Turkish. It is impossible to have favorites, as I said, when there are so many stupendous choices."

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