Sometimes we think the word super as a prefix is a little funny, like supercilious for instance. Some people think United States embassies are too supercilious, they try to blow them up, still others feel they’re not super enough, more precisely, that the supererogatory demand for security has superseded something called excellence. Or rather, the somewhat vague position that diplomatic superintendents who work in excellent buildings generally have superior lives. We like to secretly believe in this kind of architectural optimism, but we get self-conscious when asked to justify it to others. Sometimes we don’t know if excellence is really so excellent or maybe it’s just a bureaucratic superlative. Anyway, the thought occurred to us that what’s really super about today’s embassies is how average they are, in fact they’re not just normal buildings but supernormal buildings, altogether too normal for comfort. Like that one surrealist photographer who takes pictures of average-looking people in their bedrooms wearing underwear, we can’t recall his name, but we felt the same way while looking at photographs of the supernormal buildings that represent us abroad.
But for normal to become supernormal it has to take the architectural proposition of averageness quite seriously, more seriously than your average architect at least. Like for instance: the average penetration distance of an 7.62 x 39mm round into a concrete panel, or the average blast radius of an average-size van packed with trinitrotoluene, or the average distance an average human can jump from an average sized tree over an average sized fence, or the average height of a bush that can effectively conceal an average sized body. In fact, we think supernormal has something to do with taking averages (in this case the average chance of dying) to a maniacal extent. We saw this version of supernormal most distinctly in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operation’s EPIC (Embassy Perimeter Improvement Concepts) manual for the planning of new embassy walls.
Where the more or less average spaces between the street and the embassy are indexed with the statistically determined proportions of a century of violence. For us the wall (in all of its historical variations) is perhaps the most supernormal of architectural devices, beginning in 1924 when a fence was erected around the US embassy in The Sublime State of Persia after the US ambassador was beaten to death by trespassers.
But this drawing made us think that maybe normal has more than one connotation, a mathematical norm corresponding to a kind of insane statistical obsession with risk (like for instance: the average amount of bollards necessary to stop an average-sized vehicle) concealed within an entirely alternative definition of normal, like benches, planters and the relaxed folks you put in the front of an architectural rendering to take up space and add a bit of normality to the scene. In fact, for us, supernormal corresponds not only to the maniacal statisticalization of risk indexed by the embassy wall, but how the implementation of embassy walls also necessitates the construction of another form of normal inside the embassy, as in, something that might be called normal-life.
We’re not totally sure we believe in this kind of thing either, but it’s a funny thing that historically the build-up of embassy walls corresponds more or less perfectly with the buildup of embassy swimming pools, tennis courts, running tracks and the other banal artifacts that represent what some might call normal life. We were momentarily obsessed with the idea that a supernormal wall could be capable of drawing a line between two definitions of a single word.
We wondered to ourselves if the contemporary desire for excellent embassies isn’t itself a kind of nostalgia and that perhaps what the embassy really represents at the moment is the degree to which we desire very particular definitions of normal.
We wanted to design an embassy which was the perfect representation of the chronology of supernormal as a defensive and representational agenda. So we researched bullets and blast radii and developed a catalog of walls based on the history of attacks on US diplomatic facilities over the last century. Each wall would afford an average person a roughly average chance of survival, the OBO calls this ‘reasonable risk’, explosive experts call it 50% lethality. At the same time we drew the average life of a diplomat over the course of an average 24 hours, it seemed a bit like anyone’s life to be honest so we furnished this alternative normality via 3d-warehouse college kids who make digital models of their bedrooms and offices when they’re bored. We thought it was all pretty average stuff and we hope you like it.
Supernormal: 2:00-4:00/1906-1915 (The embassy wall as property line)
Supernormal: 4:00-6:00/1915-1924 (The embassy wall as fence)
Supernormal: 6:00-8:00/1924-1933 (The embassy wall as fence)
Supernormal: 8:00-10:00/1933-1942 (The embassy wall as fence)
Supernormal: 10:00-12:00/1942-1951 (The embassy wall as fence)
Supernormal: 12:00-14:00/1951-1960 (The embassy wall as barrier)
Supernormal: 14:00-16:00/1960-1969 (The embassy wall as thickened barrier)
Supernormal: 16:00-18:00/1969-1978 (The embassy wall as landscape)
Supernormal: 18:00-20:00/1978-1987 (The embassy wall as territory)
Supernormal: 20:00-22:00/1987-1996 (The embassy wall as infrastructure)
Supernormal: 22:00-0:00/1996-2005 (The embassy wall as infrastructure)
Supernormal: 0:00-2:00/2005-2014 (The embassy wall as total urbanism)
Incidentally, we also thought it was funny to make drawings of the relationship between inside and outside with a projection (flat axonometric) that by definition is incapable of ever seeing outside itself. This might not appeal so much to you and we understand that too, we’re just trying to be diplomatic here.