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Constructing America's Image: Modernist Embassies of the Cold War

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Hailed as a huge diplomatic step forward, President Obama's announcement that the United States will re-open its embassy in Havana stands as one more concrete sign relations between the two countries will be restored. A symbol of U.S. might in a closed Communist country, the building's curious history mirrors the the two nation's relationship. "Closed" by Eisenhower in 1961 and demoted to a U.S. Interests Section, the modernist tower designed by Harrison & Abramovitz, architects who contributed to the design of the UN Headquarters, has been the site of political gamesmanship.

After the State Department installed a billboard to broadcast human rights messages in 2006, Cuba shot back, renaming the adjacent square Anti-Imperialist Plaza and blocking views of the offending signage with dozens of flagpoles topped in black flags. Embassies have always provided a potent way to project U.S. power, especially during the Cold War. Whereas in previous decades, the State Department had purchased existing buildings in foreign capitals, by the'50s, diplomats felt it was in our interest to commission a series of Modernist buildings that presented America as forward-thinking and idealistic. In 1954, the State Department gathered an advisory panel of prominent architects, who would review all building plans for the Office of Foreign Buildings Operations. The resulting program of contemporary design gave prominent designers such as Richard Neutra a chance to showcase America on the international stage. On the occasion of the 4th of July, here are some of our favorite examples.


Richard Neutra, Karachi Embassy (1960)
Built during a time when Karachi, not Islamabad, was the capital of Pakistan, this International Style-structure was a much-needed upgrade for the U.S. presence in the city (the previous embassy was located just above an auto shop). Neutra's slab-style design came complete with horizontal windows and adjustable louvres to combat the city's extreme heat. After being downgraded to a consulate and decommissioned in 2011, it was recently sold to a local investment group. Neutra's son, Dion, said that during site selection, his father went so far as to consult religious authorities about a curse that was laid upon the land.


Walter Gropius, Athens Embassy (1961)
In retrospect, it seems fitting that a Bauhaus master would find an intriguing way to reimagine the horizontal lines and grids of classic Greek architecture. Gropius' work, clad in native marble and inspired by the Parthenon, which sits just a mile away, was recently renovated by Boston's Ann Beha Architects in 2013.


Edward Durrell Stone, New Delhi Embassy (1959)
Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was "enchanted" when this complex opened in 1959, a fusion of American and South Asian architectural styles built around a central courtyard. The building was highly anticipated during the construction phase; Chief Justice Earl Warren laid the corner stone, offering hopes the embassy would stand as "a temple of peace."


Eero Saarinen, London Embassy (1960)
Saarinen's only work in Britain, which opened in Grosvenor Square just a year before he died, offered a striking contrast to other diplomatic buildings in London, which were typically converted historic mansions. Inspired by Venice's Doge's Palace, the embassy was the largest in Western Europe at the time. While it's still in use, a replacement is currently being constructed on the south bank of the Thames.



Marcel Breuer, Hague Embassy (1960)
Since replaced as the current U.S. embassy in the Netherlands, this fortress-like complex offers a taut, angular facade.


Harry Weese, Accra Embassy (1958)
Weese's unique design, featuring delicately tapered white columns and a overhanging roof to block the sun, found inspiration in traditional Ghanian architecture. The building was closed in 1998.



John M. Johansen and Michael Scot, Dublin Embassy (1964)
A collaboration between an American and Irish architect, this unorthodox, cylindrical embassy was inspired by ancient Celtic monuments. The rounded, open face was welcomed by locals, who were initially fearful of another glass-and-steel cube projecting American power.


Gordon Bunshaft, Bremen Consulate (1956)
Technically not an embassy, this design by the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architect nevertheless embodied the wave of Modernist construction happening at U.S. diplomatic sites around the world.


José Luis Sert, Baghdad Embassy (1961)
Long-since abandoned by the United States due to the realities of current security concerns, Sert's airy design, capped with a zig-zagging roof, utilized Spanish architectural tropes to fit in with Iraq's climate.

Step Inside an Eero Saarinen-Designed U.S. Embassy in London [Curbed]
Come Take a Tour of Havana's Modern Architecture [Curbed]