A bit of suburbia grows in Baghdad

Times Staff Writer

The location of the new U.S. embassy in Iraq is no secret. It's pretty difficult to camouflage 104 acres in the middle of Baghdad -- particularly 104 acres over which canary-yellow construction cranes have been hovering for months. And thanks to reports from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and various news outlets, we know the embassy compound on the west bank of the Tigris River will cost $592 million and include 27 buildings behind a series of protective walls. We know it's due to be finished by the end of the summer.

But since the U.S. government has declined for security reasons to name the embassy architects or release any plans, we haven't had any sense of what it's going to look like -- or what its design might say about the nature of the American presence in the Iraqi capital.

Then, late last month, an editor and writer named Tom Engelhardt discovered nearly a dozen computer-generated renderings of the embassy on the website of a Kansas City, Mo., architecture firm called Berger Devine Yaeger. Engelhardt posted a story on his online journal, Tom Dispatch, that linked to the BDY site. State Department officials responded by demanding that the architects remove the renderings. BDY apparently did them one better: The firm's entire site has been offline since.

The Times has learned that the architect for the embassy building itself, known as the chancery, is the Washington, D.C., firm Sorg and Associates. (Despite the recent controversy over the BDY images, the Sorg and Associates website continues to include what appear to be renderings of that building: Two images show a white office block flanked by palm trees and shaded by silvery fabric scrims.) But BDY's designs for the rest of the compound -- the numerous ancillary buildings shown in the renderings that Engelhardt discovered -- are arguably more meaningful architecturally and politically, since they suggest how extensive a construction project the State Department has been overseeing in Iraq.

According to the text BDY ran alongside the renderings, it was hired to provide "bridging documents" that help take a project from master plan toward final design. While not entirely fleshed out, in other words, the images include enough detail to allow us to draw some architectural conclusions about the nearly finished project.

An embassy is by definition a place of exchange. The BDY renderings suggest something quite different: a fully self-contained compound where the ruling aesthetic approach might be described as extreme hermeticism. An island within the island known as the Green Zone, the compound will include its own water purification and waste treatment systems; its own fire station, power plant and school; and housing for more than 380 families. Its site is a full 10 times larger than the second-largest American embassy, which is now under construction in Beijing.

You've heard of mission creep? Meet its architectural equivalent.

And even at that size, the compound may not be big enough. The Washington Post reported last month that the original plans "didn't account for hundreds of staff working in reconstruction, development, the inspector general's office and other security programs, who, though considered temporary, will need, at least for a few years, somewhere to live."

The renderings also offer hints about how the U.S. embassy building program, which once ranked among our most impressive cultural exports, has lost its way architecturally. In the years after World War II, the State Department hired Wallace Harrison, Gordon Bunshaft and Eero Saarinen, among other leading Modernists, to design embassies around the world. While the buildings ranged in quality, they were linked by an interest in using crisp, cosmopolitan architecture to mark America's place in the world. As Jane Loeffler put it in her 1998 book, "The Architecture of Diplomacy," the architects "tried to convey something of American optimism in their designs."

In recent decades, concerns about security have left embassy architects struggling to convey much beyond a sense of impenetrability. In Iraq, of course, we are building an embassy in a war zone. As Loeffler points out, those concerns go back quite a bit further than the African embassy bombings of the 1990s or even the 1983 Beirut attack. "After 10,000 Bolivians stoned the American Embassy in La Paz in 1959," she notes, "State Department officials began to consider the need for perimeter walls."

But it is not just security worries that are hampering our newer embassies. Many reject even an attempt at worldliness or architectural ambition.

Berger Devine Yaeger, owned by the construction giant Louis Berger Group, is busy but little known nationally. Its projects include the Sprint Corp. headquarters in Overland Park, Kan., and the Visitation Church in Kansas City. A phone call to the firm last week was referred to the State Department, which has had little to say on the matter.

In a news briefing on June 1, State Department spokesman Tom Casey didn't sound overly concerned about the image leak. "Obviously, the fact that some of this material has been out in the public domain is something that our security folks will have to take into consideration as they move forward with the construction and occupancy of the facility," he told reporters. "But it hasn't in any fundamental way altered our plans."

The renderings themselves are simplistic enough to suggest a video game circa 1997: war planning meets Sim City. They show a collection of flat-roofed buildings in a palette of tans and metallic grays.

The image labeled "Recreation Center" shows a two-story building with a thin band of clerestory windows appearing to peek out under the roof. Pedestrian walkways between the buildings are lined with palm trees. Only the houses for the ambassador and deputy ambassador display any glimmer of architectural life, though with their heavy, rusticated stone bases and nimble, vertically louvered sunscreens on the upper stories they are also the design equivalent of a mixed metaphor: a palazzo in Miami.

Engelhardt, who in his day job is a book editor known for his work with Mike Davis, among other writers, observed in his online article about the embassy that "this vast compound reeks of one thing: imperial impunity."

But the buildings shown in the renderings aren't imposing or monumental. They don't convey luxury or grandeur. What they suggest is a junior college campus in Palm Springs or an office park outside Phoenix.

This is not the architecture, as Engelhardt would have it, of domination or empire. This is the architecture of manufactured, blast-resistant banality. What BDY is selling to its government client is a compound whose spaces are wide open enough to admit a quiet, essentially suburban kind of sprawl.

These days, architectural renderings by cutting-edge firms -- the kind of designs you'd see in a glossy design magazine -- often include human figures pasted into digital landscapes, chatting on a cellphone or walking a dog. This 21st century collage technique is meant to add a sense of life and vitality, even hipness, to the images. But the Baghdad renderings prepared by BDY attempt to do essentially the opposite: They clear the grounds surrounding the buildings almost completely of human life.

In Iraq, density and urbanity have themselves become enemies, things to be feared or at least treated with tremendous wariness. In these designs both have been banished altogether. The horizons are clear, the sightlines unencumbered. Aside from the palm trees, the images suggest no connection whatsoever to Baghdad, Iraq or the Middle East. The pool is forever awaiting its first swimmer.

That emptiness means that the few people we can see in the renderings carry the weight of exaggerated symbolism on their pixilated shoulders. The image of the deputy ambassador's residence shows a man looking down from a second-story breezeway or open-air stairwell. It's easy to imagine he's trudging home, exhausted, after a harrowing armored-car trip across the city.

In the window of the ambassador's residence, meanwhile, a single figure can be glimpsed wearing what appears to be a dark sport coat and light-colored pants and looking down over a stretch of asphalt. An opening in a nearby wall is flanked by two armed soldiers and some awkwardly sited palm trees. It's tough to tell for sure, but the man seems to have his hands stuffed into his pockets. He is certainly not holding a gin and tonic, puffing on a cigar or clapping a visiting Houston oil executive on the back.

The scene is martial and oddly suburban at the same time. There is some paranoia to be found in the image, if you insist, but also a dash of Edward Hopper. The figure stands for any American in Iraq, cocooned away from the daily life of a dangerous city. Looking out toward Baghdad, he sees only an eerily still reproduction of a typical Middle American driveway. The man looks very little like a diplomat, a person who by profession, by definition, is connected to another country and its culture and who moves through a world defined by courtesies and protocol. He looks privileged and well protected, yes. But mostly he looks alone.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

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