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Egos and Architecture — The Joys of Embassy Building in the 1980s

The design of U.S. embassies has swung through varying phases over the past several decades. Some embassies, such as the one in Athens, were designed by world-renowned architects like Walter Gropius. Security concerns beginning after the Embassy Beirut bombing in 1983 led to the construction of embassies with blast-proof walls and long setbacks, which were often built away from city centers in the suburbs and were often criticized for being “fortress embassies.” In the past few years, the pendulum has swung back toward the middle, to critically acclaimed buildings like those in Beijing and London which are also secure. (Go here to read more.)

Whatever the trend, the task falls on the State Department’s Office of Foreign Building Operations (FBO), to design U.S. embassies, consulates and other government property worldwide. And sometimes, the difficulties of security and architecture can take a backseat to the more vexing problems of tight budgets, multiple demands, and in-house politicking. John Helm worked in FBO in the early 1980s and had to deal with high-strung bosses, unsuitable designs, and unreasonable promises. He was finally shipped off to work in Mogadishu after he told off one too many colleagues and superiors.

Helm was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in August of 2004. You can also read this in-depth and fascinating book on The Architecture of Diplomacy. Go here to read about feng shui at the Chinese embassy in Washington and other Moments on administration issues.


“They didn’t give a damn about what the post thought”

HELM:  When I arrived at FBO, it was not long after Wayne Hayes [D-OH, a man described by a fellow Congressman as “the meanest man in the House”] had been discovered with “a secretary that couldn’t type.” Elizabeth Ray, or something? (Read about another run-in with Hayes and the blonde Elizabeth Ray here.)  Hayes had run FBO like his personal fiefdom. He would travel around the world at FBO’s expense, be wined and dined at the embassy, and make sweeping pronouncements:  “We’ll build a new embassy here, whether you need it or not.”

The whole place was very political. But we were trying to operate the area offices in a fair reasonable way. My job was to write documents to get money from the budget and then disperse the money out to the posts. Rent money, minor improvements, and routine maintenance money. At the time, FBO spent about one-third of the Department’s entire budget. Since I was the South Asia guy, I had India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. I also was the executor of a pot of money called Special Foreign Currency, which I’ll get to in a minute.

We tried to be sensitive to the posts, but there is no doubt about it. [Political appointee and noted American architect William] Slayton was an imperial individual and followed in the steps of a long line of imperial directors. They didn’t give a damn what the post thought.

We commissioned a big name New York architect, Harry Wolf (at left), to design chanceries and residences for both Doha [Qatar] and Abu Dhabi [United Arab Emirates]. He had always wanted to design a pyramid. So he designed a pyramid for Doha. When the functions could not be fitted into a pyramid, he designed a cube impaled on the top of the pyramid. So you had a really strange-looking building on paper.

Clearly, nobody in his right mind was going to build this building. But I was sent out to Doha, accompanying Mr. Wolf, to present the crazy design to the Ambassador. I had to keep a straight face. It was difficult. It didn’t go well.

Wolf actually had two design projects, the other one was in Abu Dhabi. For Abu Dhabi he designed a large platform with four cubic structures on the top, and no windows, because he said that the weather conditions were so bad that windows were energy inefficient. There was “nothing to see out there anyway.”

We presented it to the Ambassador and the suggestion was made that there be windows. In fact, that Wolf should arrange them so that one side would be seven and the other side 11, like dice. Wolf became very upset and he felt that at neither post was he given the respect that he should have been given, and it was my fault. It was a horse-laugh.

We put the diagrams on display, people at the embassy came and saw these beautiful renderings of absolutely ridiculous buildings, and you could just see them – if it had been an attempt at humor, it would have been funny. But they were shocked. And I was there trying to put a good face on it.

“This is Mr. Wolf, the great American architect, and he’ll present this to you and I’ll run off and hide in the corner.” In one case the Ambassador stood up and said, “This is ridiculous. This is completely inefficient, it’s not going to work here, and I never expect to see it funded or built in my lifetime.”

Wolf got into it with him. They had a huge fight. Wolf came back to the States, became an alcoholic or he probably already was, went bankrupt, his company fell apart, and the designs were never completed.

“We were going around, building in India any place that needed anything”

I traveled extensively and tried to do as good as I could for my posts. In India we had a number of active projects. We had a unique appropriation of funds from Congress called Special Foreign Currency. This was the excess currency. They had sold grain to India in the 50’s and had been paid in local, non-convertible, currency. We could spend it in India, but we couldn’t export it and couldn’t exchange it. So I had a virtually unlimited budget. We were going around, building in India any place that needed anything. If they could spend rupees, they would be given as much as they could possibly use.

Well, [the embassies] were hell to maintain. However, as long as we had the Special Foreign Currency, it didn’t matter. Maintenance could be bought locally. If you remember, we owned three city blocks [in India]. The first block was the embassy (at right), the Ambassador’s residence, and the AID [Agency for International Development] building. The second block was 56 townhouses, commissary, recreation facility (club and pool) warehouses, and a generator plant. The third block was the 1200 student American School. All of that was operated by the embassy. We had a huge buildings program out there.

Slayton had a lot of Congressional contacts, and every time somebody got after Slayton he would have another article written in the Journal of the AIA [American Institute of Architects] and would gather up support and keep his job. They couldn’t get rid of him.

I had to interact with Mr. Slayton daily. But I learned how to deal with the guy. The man had a nasty temper; he would just tear people apart. But he had a soft spot for me. The reason was that I figured out his daily routine. He would come in the morning, have a horrible headache, be constipated, and go spend a couple of hours in the men’s room. By 11 o’clock in the morning he would come out of the men’s room and feel awful. Anybody that tried to bother him would be absolutely, mercilessly attacked. Then he would go to lunch, have his three martini’s and come back and feel great for about 45 minutes. Then he would start to feel bad again. Anybody seeing him between two and four thirty would be attacked.

Then about 4:30 he would open the bar in his office and he would again feel great. He worked until about seven every night. So I got in the habit of staying until seven every night, and between about 5:00 pm and 7:00 pm all the other people would leave the building, and I could go in and get just about anything I needed approved or funded.

Or he would say, “Why don’t we do it this way.” The man was brilliant. He would tell you to do these things, and if you did them, it would work out well, he would approve it. My posts had plenty of money. Most of the people in FBO hated him….

An alcoholic boss, a pool for the Ambassador, and a telegram that promised too much

I had very good relations with the Near Eastern Bureau. For a while. After the Pakistan fire [1979],  I went out to Pakistan after the fire with a team of people. I was the money guy and they were all fire inspectors or engineers. We would try to come up with cost estimates and the scope of work to repair all the damage. We developed a strategy of what we were going to do. It was an awful mess. It wasn’t just the chancery. It was the housing, the community center, everything.

I came back to Washington and we put out a report and budget of what it was going to take to repair it. Slayton flew out to Islamabad. The Ambassador knew that Slayton was alcoholic. Slayton was staying at the residence, and the other area officers, some other guys who had gone on that trip — not me, because I’d just come back — were at a hotel. They managed to separate Slayton from his keepers, and the Ambassador had Slayton at his house, served him a nice dinner and a lot of alcohol.

At the end of the evening, the Ambassador and his admin officer presented Slayton with a telegram, already typed, which he signed. They went back to the embassy and transmitted the telegram that night. The guys that were traveling with Slayton did not know of the existence of the telegram.

The next day they flew on to New Delhi where I was able to get hold of the guys and said, “What the hell is with this telegram that you sent from Islamabad? You’ve promised to build the Ambassador a swimming pool of his own, a warehouse, to double the size of the club, to build him another complete housing unit” — and there were other things. It was a shopping list of millions of dollars.

I said, “This isn’t in the budget, there’s no program. Slayton has sent a message that says, “I have approved of all of these things and you are to fund them and build them immediately.”

They said, “What are you talking about?” So I had the telegram re-transmitted to New Delhi. They got it and called me back. They were shocked, they hadn’t seen it. They confronted Slayton and said, “What about this telegram?”

And he said, “Oh yeah, there was some telegram, yeah, I saw a telegram before I left post. Yeah, after dinner that night they showed me, but I don’t remember what it was about.”

I said, “What are we going to do?” Well, they got back, and we ignored the telegram. We just pretended that it didn’t happen.

Slayton called me one day, said, “I have to go to a meeting at Main State. Come with me.” I said, “What’s it about?” and he said, “It’s about Islamabad.” On the way, on the shuttle bus, Slayton said, “It’s about that telegram, and you are to tell them that under no circumstance can we fund any part of it. It’s not part of our capital program, it’s not budgeted, and we don’t have money for those things.”

We got to the meeting, and on one side of the conference table was the Ambassador, Ron Spiers. Next to him was the NEA [Near East Asia Bureau] executive director, Sheldon Kris. Next to him was the NEA post management officer, Anita Booth. And on this side of the table was Slayton and me.

Slayton said, “Thank you very much for inviting us over to the discussion about all these projects. I’m terribly sorry, but I have to leave. Mr. Helm will take care of this.” And he walked out of the room! (Laughter).

So there I sat, with the Ambassador and Sheldon Kris and Anita Booth. “Where’s all the money? You’ve got to fund this. You promised in this telegram that you were going to.”

I said, “We have no money, we’re not going to do any of this stuff. It’s not even being considered and we’re not putting it in the budget.” And they just blew up. And they said very hard things to me. I had no lee-way. I’d been given instructions to tell them there was no money and these projects weren’t going to happen. They went berserk.

After that meeting, a few weeks later, Slayton called me into his office and informed me that at the request of NEA, I was no longer the area officer in the NEA bureau. There was a vacancy in Europe, and he said, “We’re moving you to this vacant job, and you are out of NEA effective this instant. Don’t ever talk to those people again.”

“Finally, I did something I shouldn’t have done”

And I said, “If that’s what’s going to be, then that’s the way it is.”

So I went back, by this point Islamabad was actually under construction (completed embassy shown at left), and they were getting change orders. You always have change orders in construction, unexpected expenses or whatever, and this left a vacancy in the NEA office.

The other two guys in NEA didn’t want to go near Islamabad because it was such a snakepit, after they saw the way I’d been treated. Incidentally, it was those two guys that were on the trip in New Delhi that I was talking to.

So I went over to the EUR office and the NEA Bureau started calling me saying, “You have to go down and prepare a telegram to send money to Islamabad for such and such a change order.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t do that, I’m not even supposed to talk to you. The guys that work there have to handle the Islamabad money now. I can’t do it.”

And they persisted, they were really becoming abusive to me.

Finally one day, Anita Booth called me and said, “You have to do this, I’m instructing you to do it. Go send the money. Money isn’t being sent. The project is getting off schedule because we’re not sending the money.”

“Those guys have to send the money. I can’t do it.” So finally, I did something I shouldn’t have done. I told her to stick it up her ass. Oh, it was a crisis. I was told that it was going to be a sexual harassment case.

I wrote back and said, “Both sexes have assholes. It’s not sexual harassment, it’s simple harassment.”

That didn’t set well with them, so they demanded a public apology and they all came over to hear it. I stood up at a staff meeting and said, “I apologize for the use of indelicate language. Thank you very much. Goodbye.” And that didn’t set well, either. So my relations were not particularly wonderful.

Shortly thereafter, Richard Dertadian, the Administrative Counselor from Islamabad, became the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Foreign Buildings and the Ambassador from Islamabad, Richard Spiers, became Under Secretary for Management and I was shipped off to Mogadishu, Somalia.

The worst place they could think to send me. I was just so happy to get out of FBO that Mogadishu looked pretty good.