Firm behind huge Iraq embassy doesn't want to talk about it

Kansas City StarJanuary 12, 2009 

The new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has almost everything architects love to talk about: big money, high profile, controversy, historic significance, fascinating location.

So, what’s the reaction from the Kansas City firm involved in designing it?

Nothing, really.

“Really, we’d rather you talked to our partner company,” said Carl Yaeger, president of Berger Devine Yaeger, which came up with the overall look for the largest, most expensive embassy perhaps in world history.

No comment, said that partner, the Berger Group of New Jersey.

Look on BDY’s Web site. There’s nary a mention of the project’s $700 million price tag and no photos of Marines raising the flag, although the State Department is listed as a past client.

Instead, the Web site talks about the Sydney SuperDome (built for the 2000 Olympics and now known as Acer Arena), Missouri’s planned Data Center and Print Center, and the restoration of the 909 Walnut tower in downtown Kansas City.

All are fine projects, but nothing that would take its place among the many palaces that have spotted the ancient banks of the Tigris River, nothing that would draw the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, who at last Monday’s opening described an edifice that represented “the deep friendship between the American and Iraqi peoples.”

Did we mention that the embassy is our nation’s most heavily fortified?

BDY is considered smallish, but well regarded by those in the know, familiar for its government work and interiors.

Dawn Kirkwood, executive director of the Kansas City chapter of the American Institute of Architects, is in the dark about the project, which she says is unusual.

“There should be champagne corks popping, local news crews lining up at the front door,” she said. “I mean, it’s a big deal, a very big deal. It’s tough to find much that’s higher profile than a U.S. embassy in Iraq. With a project this big and glamorous, you’d think there’d be a lot of hoopla. I haven’t heard one peep.”

While BDY was widely credited in the press as the architect of the complex (104 acres, or six times the size of the United Nations complex in New York), all that’s publicly available is that BDY was responsible for the three-dimensional drawings of the place.

Yet its acknowledgment is such that you might assume the thing had collapsed already.

One clue may be the hoopla over the last time it was in the news — over site security.

In May 2007, it got a tongue-lashing from anti-terror types for posting plan drawings on the Web. How much the complex looks like those drawings is debatable, though there doesn’t appear to be a large outdoor pool, as BDY pictured.

The Web drawings weren’t much of a security breach. While the complex is hidden from the street behind high blast walls, anyone wanting to know what it looks like merely has to stand on the right nearby rooftop, or get into a room at a neighboring hotel.

“Above all, it is about security,” writes Jane C. Loeffler, who teaches architecture at the University of Maryland and who is critical of the project.

In an e-mail to The Star, she continued: “What this says about the U.S. today is a good question.”

Loeffler noted that while security is vital in a war zone, “the enclave is grim and spare and its design may be aptly compared to that of a high-security prison. This is regrettable, but not unexpected.”

But it isn’t just BDY that’s looking for less publicity. The State Departments notes two other areas in which architects were involved — the ambassador’s place and the rest of the complex.

A State spokesman said he isn’t allowed to name those firms involved but would confirm BDY’s involvement in the 3-D drawings.

The embassy, designed to house more than 1,000 U.S. workers in about 20 buildings, has a shopping mall, movie theaters and fast-food outlets.

It’s been described as “pink-hued,” “burnt orange and beige” or “adobe-colored.”

Other critiques use the words “mammoth,” “corporate campus” and “dismal and defeatist.”

In “leading-edge design, this embassy doesn’t register,” said Tom Nelson, a founding principal of BNIM Architects.

But he expressed surprise that BDY is so reluctant to take credit instead of shouting it from the Baghdad rooftops.

“In terms of cost and profile,” he said, “it’s up there.”

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service