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ARCHITECTURE DIPLOMACY- undervalued dimension of branding?

by on March 18, 2012

“Nation brand”- a term developed by Simon Anholt in 1996 describes the efforts of many states to build and manage or re-create their reputation in the struggle for prosperity and recognition on the international arena. The strategy in meeting this target often involves the symbolic value of products used to emphasise any distinctive characteristics of the nation that are particularly desirable to be seen by the foreign public.

One type of such “product”, definitely less recognizable by the public than for example Italian pizza or Swiss Gruyere cheese, with which states can actually “show off” is the architecture of their embassies. The difference is neither pizza nor cheese can send an actual message to the public but can only produce positive associations with the country of their origin. Building projects reach far beyond that.

Taking for instance the Finnish embassy in Washington- a state-of-the-art, glass, granite and copper box shaped building is sending Americans and visiting tourists a clear message of how Finland should be perceived: modern, high-tech, with quality workmanship and excellent design (Loeffler, 1998). With one quick glance the building manages to send a message more blatant than millions of leaflets, pamphlets, tv campaigns or posters and even formal exchange programs. It actually made the citizens of Washington requesting invitations to visit the eye-catching building, thus proving success of this type of branding.

Interesting thing about architecture diplomacy is that it responds to the changes in international relations and global political situation. Considering the American foreign building program, the last time architects were able to focus on design ahead of the other factors such as safety was in 1964 when the US embassy in Dublin was built.

However, America’s embassy building strategy has always been opposite to most other countries. The leading assumption has been that American embassies must “fit in” rather than present a statement about their nation. Therefore, the characteristic aspects of “foreignness” of the host country were always incorporated in the US buildings abroad. According to Jane Loeffler it was believed by some diplomats and officials, that buildings reflecting the surroundings would help avoiding the accusation that they were merely “exports” and would guarantee hosts’ approval of the foreigners‘ presence.

That approach seems to be quite the opposite to creating a certain “nation brand” as it may be seen with the above mentioned Finland. However, on the other hand it may be argued that it is a certain image creation: an image of a nation respectful of other states‘ traditions and aesthetics.And this seems to be the view of Loeffler who compares the American embassy building program to the Fulbright educational exchange aimed at promoting international understanding and symbolising America’s goodwill like a contemporary Marshall Plan.

The US is a particularly peculiar example when considering architecture diplomacy, worth a deeper examination. In the post II World War period, the US was the leading proponent of modern movement, with growing power and widening role which it tried to reflect in the embassy building program despite concern about negative impressions that may arise from ostentatious, innovative projects. Similar path was chosen with art, however here a discrepancy in policy can be discovered, as modern art in the US was highly criticised and described as ugly communist-style propaganda by the Congress (Loeffler, 1998), with finally its promotion being banned. On the other hand, modern architecture projects in for example Rio de Janeiro, Havana or Antwerp were supported by the Congress and even if described by congressional critics as “frivolous” were never in any way linked to communism. The possible reason lied in its success as a nation branding tool. In one of its articles in 1953, the Architectural Forum recognised US’s export architecture as a diplomatic tool, appreciating it and presenting US as a state exercising political world leadership and cultural leadership with the latter being driven especially by the US‘s architecture. Thanks to many such appraisals the American architectural modernism to a significant extent became identified with democracy after World War II. The US’s Office of Foreign Buildings Operations displayed to the rest of the world a colorful picture of a young, progressive and modern-minded America with embassies becoming symbols of US and its desire to be seen as energetic and future-oriented. This was undoubtedly what US wanted to achieve thus, confirming the success of architecture as a branding tool.

As more recent sources show, even these days more and more other states are trying to emphasise their openness  through their embassy buildings. James Pamment in his journal article about Swedish public diplomacy highlights the role of the new House of Sweden embassy in Washington in demonstrating “Brand Sweden“. This concept is designed to show Sweden’s response to communication challenges of the 21st century. Does it do its job together with many other new embassy buildings all over the world? It is definitely hard to measure it on its own as nation branding definitely operates on many more levels. However, there cannot be too many ways of trying to improve the nation’s image as “public opinion is the only remaining superpower“ (Anholt).

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2 Comments
  1. albr08 permalink

    This aspect of diplomacy – focusing on architecture – is really interesting and one that is not mentioned that often (at least that’s my impression). The part when you compared Finland and the United States and their embassies reminded me of my piece about Norway’s niche diplomacy (blog 1). Being a small country in Scandinavia and not that well known around the world, it needs to “stand out” more and create a name for itself in comparison to more powerful countries. The idea of nation branding may then perhaps be employed in quite different ways by smaller countries: it is certainly an interesting field to look into.

  2. Thank you for some interesting thoughts on a key but neglected dimension of how countries present themselves to foreign audiences. Indeed, the role of the embassy generally in public diplomacy is almost completely neglected in the academic literature, with the focus mainly residing on foreign ministries, (under)secretaries of state, and presidents and prime ministers, when it is embassies that have a permanent physical presence in far-off places. It is good to note that there is now a growing literature on the architecture of embassies. In addition to Loeffer’s book, see Elizabeth Gill Lui, Building Diplomacy and Mark Bertram, Room for Diplomacy, among others.

    The comparison between Finnish and US embassies is well drawn. Why do you think the US went down the path of trying to blend in? It is not known for its humility in other ways! And how has the US concern with the security of its embassies and their staff since the 1998 attacks on its missions in Kenya and Tanzania had an impact on such considerations? The plans for the new embassy in London provide a good case study for further reflection (see http://london.usembassy.gov/new_embassy.html).

    Finally, please provide page numbers when referencing specific points or arguments.

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