This week, after more than four years of construction and over ten years of planning, local opposition and controversy, the new U.S. embassy in Oslo Norway finally opens. The remarkable embassy compound is a concrete (literally and figuratively) testament to the friendship and partnership Norway and the U.S. enjoy as well as the commitment of the United States to the enduring relationship. Though Norway is a small country of around 5 million inhabitants, it has become increasingly important to the U.S. and its allies given Norway’s strategic position in the Arctic and Northern Atlantic. Norway continues to play an important and outsized role in NATO (its former prime minister heads the alliance). And then of course there are some 5 million Americans that claim Norwegian heritage in the U.S.
Despite all this friendship and goodwill, many local residents are unhappy with this colossal American addition to their community.
As embassies go, the new site in Oslo is off-the-charts huge, especially compared to other embassies in the region or even the whole of Europe. With a footprint of over 9 acres (36,790 m²), it is more than 11 times the size of the previous American Embassy and nearly 50% larger even than the total footprint of Norway’s impressive new National Museum.
At the center of the compound are two vast main buildings, huge and imposing rectangles in a modern style. Each of these buildings above ground has approximately 150,000 square feet (over 15,000 m2) within their walls, and theoretically each could accommodate several hundred workers with desks. On top of (or rather below) that, there’s considerable space underground.
In addition, there are 5 or 6 other outbuildings which constitute the remainder of the sprawling mission, a couple of which are the size of most regular embassy buildings. Finally, there’s a small grassy area in the northeast corner and a full basketball court on the northwest corner.
The site boasts a set of notable features, including a restored stream and a ground source heat exchange system that will allegedly allow the embassy to meet nearly 100% of its heating load (hoping to reach a LEED Gold Certification by the Green Building Certification Institute). And reportedly, there is copper used in the facility from Finland, a symbolic nod to the copper used in the Statue of Liberty...
Built with a new “Design Excellence” initiative
It recent years the U.S. State Department has sought to build embassies that were architecturally impressive with “design excellence” as a principal characteristic. On its website, the State Department explains its approach to its newer foreign embassies: "As the public face of the United States of America in the host country, the chancery is usually architecturally impressive—either a historic building or a striking newer structure."
That’s a novel take on what has historically been a relatively modest building for carrying out diplomatic and consular services, given that most countries need to maintain consular or embassy sites in over 200 countries around the world. These compounds are, by definition, secure facilities not open or accessible to the general public in the host country. It may be old fashioned, but one could reasonably argue that an embassy first and foremost should respect its surroundings, that the diplomatic role of an embassy (or chancery) is best served with designs that principally sit well within their host countries and communities.
Another old fashioned concept seems to have been chucked as well: value for money. Fancy architecture at this scale is exorbitantly expensive, especially so because the entire construction operation happens under tight security, with security-cleared contractors flown in from the U.S. and hosted locally. The original official estimate, before the 2 years of construction delays, was over $200 million dollars. The final numbers have not yet been made public but we can safely speculate that the actual cost was well in the range of $300 million or more. No matter how you handicap it, that’s a lot of money for an embassy serving a nation of 5 million people (approximately $60-70 for every man, woman and child in Norway). Keep in mind that it's not a place one visits very often, if at all. And in this increasingly digital world, there is less need for in-person visits than ever before.
That kind of money could only be possible with the new, bloated budgets the State Department has enjoyed since the great budget increases that followed 9/11. In 2001, the State Department’s total budget was $8,975,065,931. In 2016, it was $27,688,104,621 (nearly 28 billion dollars), an increase of over 300%. The Congressional Committees on Foreign Affairs and Appropriations are supposed to have oversight on State Department budgets and how that money is spent. And the Oversees Building Department claims that is committed to economical foreign building management.
“And because we have an obligation to the American taxpayer to be efficient and economical, I am committed to ensuring that our building program neither compromises the speed at which we can deliver secure facilities nor incurs unjustified and unnecessary costs.”
OBO Director Lydia Muniz
It is, however, fairly certain that American taxpayers would never agree to spending $300 million on an extravagant foreign embassy site (or over $7 billion worldwide in new projects alone, just a little less than the entire the State Department budget pre 9/11), however interesting architecturally, when critical infrastructure continues to go languishing back home. $300 million can build more than 10 new schools in Seattle or a new state of the art hospital, or hundreds of low income housing units. I cannot recall a similar civilian federal building in my home state of Washington. It just wouldn't fly to spend that kind of money on a single public administration building. But abroad, far from American taxpayer scrutiny, these embassy projects continue to be built with apparently no budget constraints whatsoever.
Heavy Local Opposition
The embassy project was fiercely opposed over a period of years by local community groups in Oslo since it was first proposed in 2005. This was a semi organized opposition and tens of thousands of dollars were spent on legal challenges to the project. The main objections were to its immense scale, the choice of location, and safety issues. The compound sits squarely within a residential community of hundreds of homes and families with children, near daycares, schools and across the street from a popular community sports center. One of the most trafficked bike commuting paths (hundreds of cyclists a day during the warmer months) runs along its 200 meter northern border. To the West some half a kilometer and separated by a public green area and forest, is the King's Guard compound and its training grounds.
The locals lost that fight under what can be described as less than optimal democratic circumstances. In the end, apparently because the details are difficult to come by, some politicians (led by the then prime minister and current NATO Chief) acquiesced, pressured holdouts and the project went forward with zero of the changes in the scope or details the community groups had asked for. Norway consistently rates at the top of the charts for good governance, lack of corruption in government, and democratic participation. In this case, however, democracy, due process and transparency were somewhat lacking. The power dynamic in the American Norwegian relationship is asymmetrical to say the least and the U.S. simply wanted this embassy, in this location, at this scale. One local noted somewhat bitterly that not since the Nazi occupation has there been another foreign building site of this magnitude forced upon the local population.
“A badly placed fortress... dumped without care for the local conditions”
Gudmund Stokke, President of the Norwegian Architectural Association
Gode naboer (“Good Neighbors”)
The Embassy has said often that it wants to be a good neighbor in the community. The truth is of course is that embassies are by definition, not really part of a local community but walled-off islands unto themselves, representing the interests and territory of its owner state. The photos circulated in the press show a modern, attractive campus that looks somewhat welcoming. This is, however, not the way all but a handful of people working as embassy staff or diplomatic guests experience the embassy.
“We are truly excited to move to our new embassy building at Huseby. We want our new embassy to be an extension of the great and enduring U.S.-Norway relationship, and we look forward to being good neighbors and continuing to provide high-quality services to our visitors in this new facility.”
U.S. Embassy Chargé d’Affaires, Jim DeHart
Missing from the official press photos is the foreboding iron fence that encircles the entirety of the massive facility. Also missing from the official press photos are the 20 odd security cameras peering suspiciously and intrusively outward over nearby homes and passersby. Who knows what kind of data is being recorded and stored? And then there are also the armed security guards that patrol the perimeter in plain view of the backyards of adjacent homes, where children bounce happily on trampolines. The embassy site just looks out of place and a bit hostile. Some local taxi drivers have taken to calling it “Guantanamo 2.0.”
As residential neighbors go, the American Embassy is not a great one. Irritating beeps and alarms emanate from the compound at all hours of the day and night. There are dozens of glaring light poles that light up the night like a big box store parking lot.
And despite its footprint covering over 9 acres, no provision was made for visitor parking at all. The Embassy somewhat unilaterally and optimistically claims it is a no-car facility given the handy train station nearby (excepting for its own staff parking, naturally). In reality, visitors traveling in from out of town (the embassy serves the entire country after all) will be parking in front of the homes nearby, setting up a conflict situation. Apparently there just wasn’t room in the mission design anywhere in those 9 acres for adequate visitor parking and waiting areas.
Incredibly, the consular visitor entrance isn't even through the main, celebrated entrance. It is off to the side and rear of the facility, directly facing the main entrance to the Husebygrenda residential area and right up against the busy biking path, with all the pomp and grandeur of a service entry. It's as if they didn't want to sully the main entrance with mere consular service visitors.
For the local community the American Embassy compound is, for all practical purposes, an impervious black hole set down directly on top of what was once a green area with trails connecting people and homes. It is a building that declares with all of its 37,000 m2 that it fundamentally doesn't understand or appreciate the culture and community in which it is placed.
These are mere annoyances to be sure. More serious is the security risk the compound poses to the local community. Unlike say, the Danish or Swiss embassies, the American embassy attracts a certain kind of attention and has a fundamentally different security posture. It looks and behaves like a military outpost, which can only increase its attractiveness as a target. A few months back, there was a bomb scare due to an unidentified container nearby and dozens of police swarmed the area, including the residential streets (this is in a country where the police don’t carry guns generally speaking).
What is it really?...
There’s been a lot of speculation from locals about the actual purpose of the embassy compound. A typical embassy serves a hundred or so people a day for consular services (visas, passports, etc.). It also hosts the embassy staff, usually something on the order of 20-50 people. The average McDonalds serves more people in a day than the embassy in a month. Why build a facility with such immense capacity?
The general opinion here is that this embassy must be serving some other, perhaps military purpose (e.g. an intelligence data center of some sort?). That could all be well and good as the Norwegians and Americans cooperate on many defense and military matters. But such a military facility definitely does not belong so close to residential homes and schools. And in any case its placement should have been decided via a robust democratic process.
The best thing would be for the U.S. State Department to realize the error of its profligate and insensitive ways and sell the building and grounds to the Norwegian government, opting instead for a more modest chancery in line with other embassies in the region. The Norwegians could use the vast campus for something that restores, connects and enhances the community, like a public university, or perhaps even a hospital. That’s not going to happen in our lifetimes at least so the locals (I am one, by the way) are simply making do, learning to adjust to the presence of their new, giant neighbor. Part of that adjustment for one community includes installing a new 3 meter high fence along the full length of the border facing the embassy. Here especially, (really high) fences make for better neighbors.