BEIJING — A huge new American Embassy complex President Bush is set to dedicate here on Friday takes security requirements many architects might view as an albatross and deftly embraces them as part of a design strongly influenced by Chinese tradition.
The $434 million compound, which will provide 600,000 square feet of office space, was designed by the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which won the contract in 2003 after a State Department-sponsored competition.
Required to observe a 100-foot setback to guard against a car bomb attack, the lead architect, Craig Hartman, urged that part of the complex be surrounded with lotus ponds, stone walkways, and a wood bridge. Skidmore Owings also stood out by proposing five separate buildings, linked by a bamboo grove and walkways that evoke traditional Beijing alleyways known as hutongs.
"We had 10 acres to work with and they were the only ones that chose to divide the whole compound into a series of separate buildings, joined together by a courtyard and all working along a center interior spine," a State Department staff architect, John Holleran, said.
While the landscaping and four of the buildings were created by Chinese and American workers using materials from a variety of sources, the main eight-story chancery was built entirely by American craftsmen using American supplies.
Asked to explain, Mr. Holleran gave a one word answer: "Moscow." He was referring to a 1980s debacle involving an American Embassy in the city that was riddled with Soviet bugs. The building, which had to be partially demolished and rebuilt at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, did not open until 2000.
During a tour for local journalists yesterday, State Department security officials kept a close watch and permitted the group only to enter less sensitive parts of the complex, such as the visa section and a building for public affairs staff. American officials have previously said they suspect that some Chinese journalists are actually intelligence officers for the Chinese government.
One Chinese reporter repeatedly asked which sections of the embassy's staff would work in the main building and why the press wasn't being allowed inside.
"It's office space," the State Department's director for the building project, William Prior, said. "The reason you can't go into it is we brought Americans over here to build it with American materials and why bother if I'm just going to let anybody in the building. It's pretty straightforward."
Mr. Holleran said the security-conscious design will "withstand car bomb attacks as well as hostile crowds wielding weapons that come hands in the streets." Chinese journalists seemed puzzled and somewhat insulted by the concern, even though the existing American Embassy here came under attack as recently as 1999, by a Chinese mob angry about the American aerial bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. American officials said the bombing, which killed three Chinese, was an accident.
The new compound showcases a head-turning collection of art by Chinese and American artists. A lobby installation by Maya Lin, "Pin-River Yangtze," traces China's most famous body of water by using what a catalog says are 30,000 straight pins. A sculpture on loan from artist Jeff Koons and displayed in a pond outside the consular building, "Tulips," consists of seven brightly colored "flowers" that resemble partially deflated Mylar balloons.
American officials had aimed to open the facility before the Olympics, but decided to postpone the move-in until next month lest any last-minute hitches handicap the embassy staff just as tens of thousands of Americans, including Mr. Bush, are in town for the Games.
When the project was conceived in 2001, officials also wanted to gather all American government employees in one compound by offering space for almost 950 staff. However, the number of American officials and aides in Beijing has since grown to about 1,100, making only a partial consolidation possible.
The American ambassador's residence will remain in the city's old Jianguomen diplomatic area, but the other embassy buildings there will be sold, a spokeswoman said. The new complex sits outside the city's 3rd ring road near the Hilton hotel.
Mr. Holleran acknowledged that while the new compound is not as striking as some of Beijing's stunning new artifices, such as an enormous glass-covered state television headquarters that twists like an M.C. Escher sketch: "It seems like this is an anything goes type of atmosphere with the CCTV Tower and the National Theater and the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube. It's a very vibrant time. We are an embassy. I think our design is a little bit more restrained."
The walls that circle the complex, while in a sense traditionally Chinese, limit the visual impact of the new construction by making it difficult to view in its entirety. To get the perspective used in an artist's rendering on the embassy's Web site, one would have to wade into one of the lotus ponds, which the dour security staff seems unlikely to permit, or peer through a few bulletproof viewing windows placed in the outside wall. Whether the public will even be allowed to approach those is unclear, as at most diplomatic buildings the Chinese have set up a secondary perimeter to guard against North Korean refugees who sometimes jump embassy walls seeking asylum.