Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Iran's Prospective "Beacon of Culture"

If you haven't yet heard, Iran is planning on building a new super-sleek embassy in downtown London. Although the Iranian Foreign Ministry has just recently submitted the building plan for approval, it has already become a subject of controversy: the residents of the wealthy neighborhood are evidently unhappy about the architecture (they claim the building will not "blend in well" with the surrounding historic area) and are worried about it attracting violence and protests to their neighborhood.

The really interesting part of the story, however, is the actual building itself and the idea behind it. The six-storey, £100 million building will feature "a dramatic cantilevered arch, acutely-angled walls and irregularly punched-out windows", and will embody "Iran's public image in London." What is more, it will host a contemporary art gallery and a cultural center.

The planned Iranian Embassy building. Image courtesy of the London Evening Standard.

As quoted in the Guardian:
"The cube-shaped building at the corner could be accessed freely by the public and feature exhibits such as contemporary artworks made by young Iranian artists," said Armin Daneshgar, the Vienna-based Iranian architect who is working with a leading UK environmental engineer, Battle McCarthy, to make the building sustainable.
"We believe Iran's rich cultures, especially contemporary movements, are still largely unknown to the west."
Great public (and cultural) diplomacy initiative (wonder if it came from Mottaki himself..?), indeed! After all, the diplomatic mission is a country's first and foremost "public image" abroad, which can (and should) be utilized as a substantial PD tool.

On this note, I wanted to talk about the planned new building of the American embassy in London, as well. The plan was made public in February this year: a "modernist glass cube protected from attack by an earth bank, a semi-circular lake and bomb-resistant glazing" that will cost the DoS about $1 billion. Not only is it supposedly "on the leading edge of sustainable design" - very "green" and considerate of its surroundings - but it also represents The Grand Idea. The "Concept" of the building, as described in the architect's blog:

• The concept for the New London Embassy is the result of KieranTimberlake's efforts to resolve, in architectural terms, what an embassy aspires to be and what present realities dictate it must do.
• The expressive challenge is to give form to the core beliefs of our democracy - transparency, openness, and equality - and do so in a way that is both secure and welcoming. At the same time, the building must confront the environmental challenges all nations face with leading edge sustainable design.

 The new U.S. Embassy-to-be. Image courtesy of KieranTimberlake.

And to quote the Guardian again:
"The state department's architect, James Timberlake of the firm Kieran Timberlake, said it would be "a beacon of democracy – light-filled and light-emitting". Critics said it was a modern "fortress", more like the Tower of London."
There has been quite a substantial discussion of the "Cathedral and the Bazaar" approach as applied to American foreign policy, and public diplomacy in particular. I took a special liking of the metaphor, especially when talking about the American embassies around the world, since it can be regarded as a fairly literal representation, too: the fortress-like, impenetrable, condescending structures look much more like military outposts than chanceries. [Yes, I do understand all the security-related reasons behind it; but in this case, I am talking about the public diplomacy aspect of the issue: Daryl Copeland, in particular, has been very vocal on the latter.]

Now, a more aesthetically pleasing structure for an embassy is certainly a great idea, especially when it stands for a special "concept". (A short walk along the Embassy Row in DC makes this more than just obvious.) Whether it will be sufficient to conquer the "hearts and minds" of the British is very questionable - especially after all the criticism and controversy surrounding it - but the DoS deserves credit for the attempt, at least.

So does Iran, of course. And although it is still unclear whether the Foreign Ministry stands a chance of actually getting the building permit in that specific location, it has come up with a strong "concept" of its own: culture, progress, openness... It is an obvious effort to break certain (cultural) stereotypes about Iran, as well as an attempt to reach out to the rapidly increasing Muslim population in the UK. A "progressive" Iran is a good image; I'm not quite sure many people will actually buy it in Britain, though.

[As for openness, Iranian MFA should really try fixing its London website, first and foremost. As of this writing, http://www.iran-embassy.org.uk/ was inaccessible from four different locations in Washington, D.C. Could the location really be the reason, though?!]


  1. Interesting topic to write about... Yes, Embassies are the real business cards of the given countries in a host country... The topic could be continued analyzing each and every country's Embassy buildings ... a very good place to begin with ...

    Both buildings above are interesting and innovative... are they competing with each other...? I guess so!

  2. but of course! it's more than just obvious, isn't it? :)

  3. It will be interesting to see what cultural events the Iranian embassy holds through the art gallery and cultural center. Would be a great opportunity to utilize its soft power in the name of public and cultural diplomacy.

  4. I use to relate embassies with sober, formal buildings. I feel this kind of edification more adequate for a cultural center, for example.

  5. @Joel: Yes, indeed, high time.

    @Gabriela: I don't see why a "cultural center" cannot be adjacent to the embassy.. and then, even without it, an embassy - as the image of the state - should be representative of its values. That's the first impression of the country many people will get, after all (yet, again, I'm just looking at it from the public diplomacy perspective).