The Art of Diplomacy

Gwathmey Siegel's new 22-story U.S. Mission to the United Nations has inspired ire in the hearts of many architecture critics since its unveiling. Designed to "transcend strict programmatic and technical constraints, and become a compelling and representative landmark for architecture and democracy," per the firm's own website, it has instead raised the question of whether such synthesis is even possible in this day and age. Can something be open, democratic and diplomatic in its design and still resist the wrath of a 5,000-pound fertilizer bomb?

The U.S. Mission can certainly claim the latter, with its blast-proof walls, zinc-wrapped elevator shaft and window-less base (glass openings start on the seventh floor). The windows were placed in reverse hierarchy, turning the Greek Revival order on its head and communicating that the power, the views--heck, the fresh air--remain on top, the most inaccessible section of the building. Visitors, including journalists, are restricted to certain areas of the building, and the "democracy" to which the architects refer rests almost entirely in their tempered glass entrance, the horizontal opening where visitors are "welcomed."

Embassies and other diplomatic buildings are, of course, often the front lines of terrorist battles (see Tanzania, Kenya, and, of course, Lebanon). But the problem with their new bunker-like designs is that, besides being rather unwelcoming, they undermine the mission of the Mission. In this case, the mission is to participate in policy-making at the Union Nations, to be a force of unity, and not a vertical foxhole where no one can see in or out. How ironic in an age when our government has sworn that policy-making will be more transparent.

As one architect puts it in this video from Monocle, visitors to such buildings these days are "made to feel like a criminal before they walk in the door."
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