Critically Now: US and Them: American Embassies and the Architecture of Diplomacy

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Critically Now: A Pop-Up and Growing Event Series

Architecture's ability to communicate an idea is perhaps more powerful in the embassy than in any other building typology. Acting as a physical artifact of one country's relationship with another, the embassy reflects the inevitable dichotomies at the core of diplomacy — love/anger, openness/security, and political alliance/impending war. In any time of political transition, the expressive aims of an administration renew and question the values imbued by embassies. Today, however, these issues resonate with particular strength as the U.S. struggles with internal divisiveness and burgeoning isolationism. The issue at the heart of this discussion is the conflict in architecture between meaning — in this case, U.S. identity — and malleability (with respect to the context in which the embassy is situated and the degree to which it adapts). This key issue is surrounded by other inevitable topics — architecture and politics, architecture and war, architecture and terrorism, architecture and security, as well as, on the flip-side, architecture and ornament, architecture and identity, and architecture and context. This discussion will examine how these topics manifest themselves in architectural form; subsequently defining a rubric of specific design tactics evidenced by U.S. embassies in foreign countries and drawing out the complex relationship between form, expression, and context.

Caroline O'Donnell is the Edgar A. Tafel Associate Professor and director of the M.Arch. program at Cornell University. She is the principal of the design practice CODA. Recent projects include Urchin and Primitive Hut, an OMG project in collaboration with Martin Miller of Antistatics. O'Donnell has edited the Cornell Journal of Architecture, Pidgin magazine, and This is Not a Wall  (Cornell AAP Publications, 2017), a collection of 75 short stories about the project Party Wall, CODA's pavilion for MoMA PS1's Young Architects Program in 2013. She is also the author of Niche Tactics: Generative Relationships between Architecture and Site (Routledge, 2015).

Michael Jefferson is a lecturer in architecture at the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Prior to joining the University of Michigan, Jefferson served as a visiting critic at Cornell University and practiced in the offices of OMA, Adjaye Associates, Studio SUMO, and CODA. Jefferson is coprincipal of JE-LE design and research office. His work has been exhibited in New York City, Boston, Venice, and Ithaca and published in Project, OfficeUS: Manual, and the Cornell Journal of Architecture.

US and Them: Rethinking the U.S. Embassy for the 21st Century was an option studio taught at Cornell in 2014 by Jefferson and O'Donnell. The studio included an analysis of 32 U.S. embassies by students in the U.S. and a series of proposals for new strategies for the design of future embassies. The research was presented, discussed, and advanced in Office U.S. at the 2014 Venice Biennale of Architecture.

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