Empire building

Architecture - America's new fortress embassies are symbols of its power

Monopoly, the most popular board game ever made, was invented and played in the US during the Depression as a protest against laissez-faire capitalism. The game was transformed into a celebration of the "free" market when it was patented and commercially sold by Parker Brothers in 1935. The same year, John Waddington received a licence to produce an English version of the game. Mayfair and Park Lane replaced Atlantic City's Boardwalk and Park Place as the most expensive and desirable pieces of property on the board.

The choice of Mayfair - a site of successful speculation since the Great Fire of London in 1666 - was appropriate. In the early 18th century, Richard Grosvenor, who owned most of the area, developed its northern part as Grosvenor Square. It was an ambitious venture in high-end residential real estate. Robert Adam contributed to the building of stately houses around a large private garden, at the centre of which stood a gilded equestrian statue of George I as a Roman emperor. The exclusive surroundings, and their powerful associations, attracted an elite clientele.

Prominent among the early residents were eminent Americans, notably the US ambassadors John Adams and W H Page. By the mid-20th century, faux-Georgian buildings had replaced the originals, while Franklin D Roosevelt had usurped George I. And Americanisation did not stop there. In 1960, the entire west end of the once residential square was taken over by a dramatically modern office building, identified as the new US embassy by the predatory, 35ft-wide, gilded American eagle at its apex.

The embassy was designed by Eero Saarinen. It was not his most successful work. The unnaturally large eagle is threatening and the facade fussy, but the basic embarrassment of the build- ing lies in its aggressive assertion of American control over a quintessentially English space. What happened in London happened in other capital cities. After the Second World War, the US government embarked on an ambitious programme of buying real estate and building a prominent presence into urban landscapes around the world. It took care to employ distinguished US-born or US-adopted architects (Saarinen, Marcel Breuer, Richard Neutra, Edward Durell Stone, Josep Lluis Sert, I M Pei).

The US State Department made every effort to invite "sensitive and imaginative" architects to build embassies that "give serious study to local conditions of climate and site", "understand and sympathise with local customs and people" and "grasp the historical meaning of the particular environment in which the new buildings must be set". Yet the modernist design of what was actually built was a corporate version of the "international style". Whatever the expressed intention of their patrons and architects, the postwar US embassies were forceful statements of a new variety of empire.

American architecture of the 1950s and 1960s was characterised by its salient use of industrially produced materials, the basic geometry of its volumes and the naked revelation of its structure: a glass and steel box with its columns and beams either exposed or evoked by an insubstantial curtain wall. Modernist embassies dramatically presented their advanced technologies in many cities in which the modern was utterly unfamiliar. They invited adjectives such as "light", "clear" and "free", their transparency designed as a metaphor for the openness of America's political system.

The style had many critics, including American politicians who would have preferred more conservative, classicising buildings and local people who opposed the imposition of an alien form on their city. Remarkably, neither supporters nor critics of the new embassies often commented on their commercial character. Many of them can be distinguished from corporate headquarters only by their large and prominently positioned flags, eagles and seals. In this way, they were harbingers of multinational companies and a globalising economy.

This is not quite how Elizabeth Gill Lui presents them in her photographic survey Building Diplomacy: the architecture of American embassies, whose lyrical images fashion the buildings into an idealised vision of America's role in the world. Lui uses views through flower beds and atmospheric lighting to show even brutalist structures of massive raw concrete, such as I M Pei's 1969 Chancery in Montevideo, Uruguay, as spatial poetry. Her text, too, idealises the embassies: "In essence, it is our humanity that we offer the world when we share the creative potential of American vision in works that clearly embody our cherished values of individuality, originality and freedom of expression."

Lui even aims to humanise the latest generation of embassies - the structures built after bomb attacks on US facilities in Beirut in 1983 and in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998. These and others built since were subject to new guidelines meant to protect them and their staff, beginning with the Inman report: "We have increased the number and quality of protective methods such as public access controls, protective film on windows, closed-circuit television and improved perimeter defences. The use of explosive-laden vehicles has, however, proven to be a particularly devastating weapon, and major new efforts to defend against this form of attack have been taken . . ."

Openness and transparency are no longer an option. No amount of skilful photography could successfully depict the new fortress embassies as high art in the service of benign cultural outreach. These buildings are even fiercer expressions of a new economic imperialism than their predecessors.

Structures with histories that resist idealisation are absent from Lui's survey. Saddam Hussein's great palace in Bagh-dad is now occupied by the US embassy; Josep Lluis Sert's 1955 compound, abandoned in 1990, remains empty. The centre of governing power, like that of incarceration and torture, did not shift with the American takeover of Iraq.

Building Diplomacy: the architecture of American embassies by Elizabeth Gill Lui is published by Cornell University Press

Annabel Wharton is the author of Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and modern architecture (Chicago University Press)