Chancery and Embassy
Separated from the banks of the Rio de la Plata by a road and pedestrian thoroughfare, the Chancery of the U.S. Embassy sits on a trapezoidal plot of land. The plot measures 85,000 sq. ft. by one source (Carter Wiseman, “The Architecture of I. M. Pei”, 307) or 85,800 sq. ft. according to another (Philip Jodidio, Janet Adams Strong, “I. M. Pei Complete Works”). A wall, broken only by a guardhouse, surrounds the building. The building is five stories in total, including an underground garage.
A three-story rectangular box on a one-story pedestal, the building has a central atrium that rises from the entrance to the roof. The upper section is made of vertical, thin slabs of exposed, grey, reinforced concrete. The lower section, on the ground floor, has a smaller footprint than the upper section. Twelve thin steel and concrete columns are aligned with the perimeter of the upper section, giving the impression that the upper section floats atop the columns. The facades of the upper level are a grid pattern of square, recessed windows, each with a low, recessed sill delineated by a horizontal line of thin concrete. The longer façade has twenty-three windows and the shorter, eleven, with three stories.
Regarding the interior, there are exposed concrete walls in the reception area and, as of 1971, interior doors were fitted with “heavy steel shutters which roll down like curtains…steel grills on runner can close off all stairways” (Erlandson, K5).
July 4, 1966 to December 3, 1969.
Overlooking the Rio de la Plata, the Chancery is built on the Rambla, a beachfront avenue running along the mouth of the river and the Atlantic Ocean. Built in the 1940s, the Rambla provided public parks and pedestrian paths along the river, as well as a seaside road for automobile traffic.
While details of the construction of this embassy are unavailable, it is likely that Pei was experimenting with using concrete to support the structure, instead of steel (Canell, 145). Gaining inspiration from a co-worker and fellow designer, Araldo Cossutta, who had used this technique in the building of the Denver Hilton in 1956, Pei helped establish concrete as a lighter, less expensive, but versatile material. In his later work, the concrete used was often poured on site into handmade molds created especially for his projects (Canell, 146).
As American hegemony solidified economically, militarily, and diplomatically, embassies attempted to project transparency with the use of Modernist, “glass and steel box” (Wharton, 42) structures representing welcoming, open democracy. With the changing political landscape of the 1960s, however, the FBO began to place embassy security above architectural design. Using exposed concrete as the façade of the building and encircling the structure in a wall emphasized security as a burgeoning priority for the FBO and for American diplomats in Montevideo. After the Embassy’s completion, political upheaval continued in Uruguay until the early 1980s.
Now a prosperous, peaceful country, America and Uruguay continue to enjoy strong diplomatic ties. With the reconstruction of the adjacent Rambla public space, funded by the U.S. government, the Embassy has attempted to project a more welcoming exterior to the people of Uruguay.
The embassy is considered a piece of Brutalist architecture (Wharton, 42), taking its inspiration from Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Alison and Peter Smithson. Unadorned and purely functional, the buildings are often identified as “fortress-like” (Erlandson, K5). Reyner Bahnam, an “apologist” (Webster, 24) for Brutalism, described the buildings as having a “clear exhibition of structure…[and] services” (Webster, 30). Often made of concrete, construction was meant to be relatively inexpensive, ideal for countries attempting to rebuild after World War II. An offshoot of Modernist architecture, Brutalism espoused ideals of simplicity over adornment, with an “anti-art polemic” (Webster, 24) governing design in public housing and buildings. During the design and construction phases of the embassy, Pei also designed and built the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO (1961-1967) which exemplifies his use of cubist elements and his “breakaway from the Bauhaus approach” (von Boehm, 60). In 1965, Pei was chosen by Jacqueline Kennedy to design her late husband’s library in Massachusetts, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library (von Boehm, 55). The East Wing of the National Gallery was another project, built on The Mall in Washington, D.C. and completed in 1978. When describing his goal for the gallery, Pei explained that it had to be “in harmony” with its stately surroundings but still cater to the challenges of modern museums including storage, a place for rotating exhibits, and a section for conservation (van Boehm, 64). Internationally, Pei’s projects are numerous, including his work for the Bank of China, an iconic tower of reflective glass and steel, located in Hong Kong and completed in 1989. His most famous project was the renovations to Le Grand Louvre, in which he redesigned the museum interiors as well as the Cour Napoleon, adding the glass and steel pyramid entryway (1983-1989). Pei’s prolific career spanned from 1949 to 2009. Throughout Pei remained concerned with light in the design of his buildings, explaining, “Without the play of light, form is inert and space becomes static” (von Boehm, p. 38). The creation of motion, a person’s desire to move from one point to another within a structure, is another important element of his work. He has stated that a structure must be “exciting” and believes part of his job is to “motivate…people to look and explore” (von Boehm, 38).
In the 1950s, as American hegemony proliferated international politics, architects in the Office of Foreign Building Operations, now the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, preferred Modernism as the architectural style to represent America abroad. Juxtaposed with the “Stalinist Grandeur” and “ponderous architectural ornaments” (Loeffler, 8) of the Soviet Union, Modernism, as a style, was conducive to light, open buildings, meant to represent transparency through the democratic process (Loeffler, vii). “Architectural modernism became linked with the idea of freedom after the war” and American architecture proved a “leading proponent of the modern movement.” (Loeffler, 5)
Pei had been included on a list of architects for consideration of embassy contracts by the AAC (Architectural Advisory Committee), which aided the FBO in their projects. The list, written by Henry Shepley, had been drawn up in March of 1954, before Pei was a prominent architect (Loeffler, 152). Despite youth and relative inexperience, Shepley and the AAC were willing to “take risks with…architects who had never before completed commercial or institutional projects” (Loeffler, 151), allowing for untested architects such as Pei to be awarded the coveted commision.
Architects in the FBO were faced with the unusual task of working with politicians to create buildings. Location of building sites, the cost of construction and design of American embassies all fell under the purview of the elected officials in Congress. The U.S. Embassy in Montevideo cost an estimated $4 million (Erlandson, K5). In some instances, the architectural design was sacrificed for budgetary, political, or defense concerns.
In the case of this Chancery, FBO design policy changed to take security risks into account starting in 1961 (Loeffler, 11), during the planning phase of the building. Pei’s design “suffered repeated changes to its program affecting the size and shape of the embassy, and according to its architect, compromising its design.” (Loeffler, 239). While not explicitly stated in Loeffler’s book, it is possible that the conflict between Pei and the FBO was exacerbated when the defensibility of the proposed embassy was called into question. Ultimately, Pei “disowned his FBO work over design differences” (Loeffler, 159).
The political situation in Uruguay changed rapidly in the 1960s through the 1970s, adding to the concerns surrounding security for the embassy. Active during the construction of the Embassy, the Tupamaros, a Communist guerrilla organization, carried out a series of kidnappings, taking foreign diplomats hostage. In 1971, only two years after the opening of the embassy, a consultant for the CIA in Latin America, Dan A. Matrione, was kidnapped and killed in Montevideo.
The Embassy’s architecture has received negative criticism from architectural journals and U.S. national periodicals. In an article in The New Statesmen, it is described as one of the “brutalist structures of massive raw concrete” (Wharton, p.42) similar to other American embassies built in the 1960s and alludes to its fortress-like, aggressive nature. The Baltimore Sun relates that the Embassy nickname, as of 1971, was “The Fortress” (Erlandson, K5). In her book, Architecture of Diplomacy, Loeffler posited that the “ponderous proportions and use of exposed concrete combined to produce an undistinguished building that brought no credit to the United States.” (Loeffler, 239).
Pei’s U.S. Embassy in Montevideo is a building spurned by architectural critics and generally disliked by the Uruguayan population (Martignoni, 40) but the work that continues within it remains useful and important to fostering good relations between America and Uruguay. The attempts at making the structure’s footprint less imposing through partial greening and creation of public space immediately adjacent to the outer walls of the Embassy have been mostly successful, as regular use of the public space makes evident.
Allen, Barbara. “Designed Diplomacy”. Industrial Design. Jun. 1970, vol.17, N. 5, p. 38.
Cannell, Michael. I. M. Pei: Mandarin of Modernism. New York: Carol Southern Books, 1995.
Erlandson, Robert A. “Fortress built for diplomacy.” The Baltimore Sun Nov. 7, 1971: K5.
Jodidio, Philip, and Janet Adams Strong. I.M. Pei: Complete Works. New York : Rizzoli : Distributed to the U.S. trade by Random House, 2008.
Loeffler, Jane C. Architecture of Diplomacy : Building America's Embassies. New York: Princeton Architectural Press., 1998. Feb. 12, 2013. http://site.ebrary.com.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/lib/columbia/docDetail.a...  .
Martignoni, Jimena. “Security on the Rambla.” Landscape Architecture Feb. 2007: p. 40.
Von Boehm, Gero. Conversations with I. M. Pei: Light is the key. Munich: Prestel, 2000.
Webster, Helena, ed. Modernism Without Rhetoric: Essays on the work of Alison and Peter Smithson. London: Academy Editions, 1997.
Wharton, Annabel. “Empire building” New Statesman; Jan 31, 2005; 18; ProQuest. p. 41.
Wikipedia. “Dan A. Mitrione”. Feb. 12, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dan_Mitrione 
Wikipedia. “Tupamaro”. Feb. 12, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tupamaro_National_Liberation_Movement 
Wiseman, Carter. The architecture of I. M. Pei : with an illustrated catalogue of the buildings and projects. London : Thames and Hudson, 1990.