Suman Sorg: Representing the U.S. and Staying Secure (BusinessWeek)

Suman Sorg has designed official facilities in Sri Lanka, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. She talks about building in a war zone and other challenges (link)

The daughter of a diplomat, Suman Sorg—the principal architect at the Washington-based Sorg and Associates—has been designing embassies and other facilities for the State Dept. for almost 20 years. Actually longer, if you count the U.S. Embassy in Accra, Ghana, which she worked on as a young architect in Harry Weese’s office.

Building an embassy today is a far more complex task than when she began. How do you design a structure that represents the ideals of the U.S., yet blends in with the local architecture? How can a building provide the open, welcoming environment in which diplomacy can flourish, yet still address the security issues of our age?

This is the challenge facing all architects involved in today’s embassy-building boom, a $17.5 billion design and construction effort unprecedented in U.S. history. In 2001, the State Department’s Office of Foreign Buildings Operations was renamed Overseas Building Operations (OBO) and given bureau status, under the direction of Maj. Gen. Charles Williams. In the past four years alone, approximately 15 new major embassy complexes have been opened and 36 more are under construction or design.

Sorg’s first project for the department, in 1989, was the renovation of the former embassy office building in Colombo, Sri Lanka. That led to the renovation of the consular section of the U.S. mission in Guangzhou, China and five apartment buildings in Paris to house U.S. diplomatic staff. Sorg’s first major new construction project for the OBO was a housing complex in the new U.S. embassy compound in Kuwait, following the end of the Gulf War.

New embassies in Kabul, Afghanistan; Katmandu, Nepal; and Bridgetown, Barbados, soon followed, and she continues to work on some of the State Dept.’s most critical building efforts. Sorg spoke with’s Andrew Blum about building in a war zone and other challenges of designing embassies. An edited version of their conversation follows.

What’s it like as an architect to be working with highly secret information?
As you may imagine, security is a big concern. Primary issues include the handling of secure documents and communications and providing for the safety of the post’s personnel. We have a separate department in our own office with specially trained architects who’ve been cleared by the OBO’s office of Diplomatic Security. They handle all the secure portions of the embassy projects. In addition, we have developed security management manuals that have been approved by [the Dept.] and have become the basis of our secure work.

What has the shift been like going from designing houses and schools to embassies, which must be secure, highly technical, environments?
Embassies as a building type are fairly complex, but the State Dept. has a well-defined program where design criteria and requirements are spelled out very clearly. In fact the standard design solutions developed by OBO attempt to address all the specific needs of every part of the embassy. In our projects we use these as a template and develop the site-specific design from there.

What research do you undertake before beginning the design process?
Embassy buildings need to fit into the context of a traditional local vernacular. Before starting a project, we visit the site and research its local architecture. But most important we study how the local buildings respond to local climactic conditions.

After all, indigenous architecture is a product of its response to its specific local conditions and to locally available materials, of local construction practices, and sophistication of labor and crafts. Researching and specifying locally available materials is of paramount importance for cost considerations as well, since the logistics of shipping foreign materials into many locations can be onerous and expensive.

But embassies can’t be just about blending in with the local buildings. They need to represent the U.S.—they are the architectural face of American diplomacy.
Embassies are often our nation’s most important—and sometimes only—presence in a foreign country. It is important that they reflect the values and principles that the U.S. stands for.

Incorporating these ideals into real brick and mortar in each embassy building is the most exciting and challenging part of the design process. Each one of us, of course, may have a different “take” on what these values and principles might be, but we could all agree that the basic tenets of democracy and freedom are the most important. The youthfulness of our nation—eyes always to the future—and its openness are what must be expressed in the architecture of our diplomatic facilities.

How do you balance the need for openness with the requirements for security?
We can’t build slick glass boxes anymore, but concrete bunkers aren’t the solution either. A middle ground has to be found. For instance, glass has to be used judiciously because blast proof glass is very costly, but it both lets light in and gives a building a feeling of openness. Other techniques such as using new materials like titanium (or its less expensive alternative, stainless steel), and building form, are also used to give these secure buildings a more open, modern feel.

In Kabul, you’ve had to contend not only with future security concerns, but the day-to-day dangers of a war zone.
The most significant impact has been on the logistics and phasing of each project. The embassy had to remain operational throughout the entire construction period. It became a game of musical trailers with many trailers relocated several times but kept operational at all times.

The builder constructed an off-site worker camp and escorted the workers to the site every day. Shipping to the embassy site in Kabul was through ports in Pakistan, and supplies, tools, machinery, and materials were then brought by land over Himalayan mountain passes. Air shipping was only used for small quantities of materials due to its high cost.

So where did the materials come from?
In Kabul, we worked hard to locate locally available stone, first in Afghanistan and then in nearby India and Pakistan. At first we identified a suitable sandstone from Afghanistan, but due to the war the local stone dressing factory was no longer functioning. We researched how the stone could be quarried in Afghanistan, shipped to Pakistan for dressing and then shipped back to Kabul. We also found an Italian firm that was willing to donate a stone dressing machine to the local Afghani company but ultimately the lack of reliable electrical power became an insoluble problem.

Did you attend the ribbon-cutting with President Bush in Kabul?
I did not. Like almost everyone else, the first I knew about it was when I read about it in the newspaper.