Designing defensively – from containment to camouflage

A second presentation which captured my interest at this year’s Millennium conference was Elisabetta Brighi’s ‘From containment to camouflage: Space, Security and the New American Embassy in London’.

The paper uses the planned relocation of the American embassy in London as a prism through which to examine the changing dynamics of building securitisation, which according to Brighi are moving from containment to camouflage.

Described by Joyce as a ‘concrete fortress, topped with an oversized golden eagle’, the current US embassy in Grosvenor Square is riddled with archetypal containing security mechanisms. The square is littered with barriers, the building itself comprises of pre-cast reinforced concrete and armed police stand on guard around the clock. Despite these overt, containing measures however, officials believe that the building is not secure enough. Consequently, the US embassy is due to relocate to a site in Nine Elms in the hope that a more open space will prove easier to protect.

Due to open in 2017, the new American Embassy will be unrecognisable from its predecessor. The austere, fortified and contained space in the middle of Grosvenor Square will transform into a modern, open, ecological haven. At first glance, it is difficult to see how this open, green space could possibly provide the additional security measures sought by US officials. Gone are the fences, the concrete fortifications, steel barriers and indeed any other obvious material representation of security.  In their place will stand trees, mounds, water and other ‘natural’ phenomenon.

Designed by the Philadelphian firm Kieran Timberlake, the new building will invoke the ecological as a means of more effective securitisation. James Timberlake, a partner in the firm, states that the landscape will be a pivotal defence mechanism, ‘It will defend the building like the moat of castle’, with natural features doubling as natural defences and protective barriers.  In doing so, the embassy subverts the hostile affectual reaction provoked in passers -by by the previous fortress, going beyond the projection of security to create something that will not illicit fear or negativity.  Indeed, the building symbolises openness within a tight urban fabric. It is a space for people to enjoy, to walk in, and a space in which to appreciate the natural. In the process, the embassy itself is naturalised.

The appropriation of water, trees, green space and transparent materials insert the embassy into the everyday and routine. It is intended to seamlessly function as an organism in the environment and in doing so represents a new projection of securitising power. It is a subtle power – one that is not exerted like a thick, heavy constraint on the landscape. It is a power that elides and hides, a power that we can no longer see and a power that utilises the natural to increase resilience and to minimise risk. The removal of visible armour transforms the contained fortress into a camouflaged feature and therein lies a primary securitising mechanism.

US ambassador Susman  states that ‘this project is about people.  The dedicated people who work with (the US); the people who work every day to strengthen U.S. –UK relations … and most importantly, the people who live and work in Nine Elms, Battersea and Wandsworth.’ Brighi, through her analysis of architecture and landscape demonstrates that it is also a project about subterfuge, affectual manipulation and subtle colonisation of the natural.

Often discourse surrounding embassies focuses on the actors within or the geopolitical context in which these actors are operating. The shadowy world of diplomacy is undoubtedly a field worthy of academic investigation, as are the geopolitical events that render diplomatic action necessary. They are however, as Brighi highlights, only part of the story. Brighi demonstrates that the building of the embassy, its architecture, and the very space in which it is situated can speak volumes. Its performance, its surrounding area and its affective implications reveal much about the intentions and preoccupations of the actors within.

It will be extremely interesting to see if this shift from containment to camouflage will be undertaken by other geopolitical agents seeking to seamlessly integrate their buildings into the surroundings through affective and material means.

Rachael Squire

Having completed a BSc in Geography, Politics and International Relations, Rachael is now working towards an MSc in Geopolitics and Security at Royal Holloway while working part time for a Member of Parliament. As part of her ESRC 1+3 award, Rachael will go on to take up a PhD position on the geopolitics of rumour and conspiracy. Rachael has a particular interest in the geopolitical significance of the shipping container and is hoping to build on this during her dissertation next year.

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