The State Department initiated a plan to build a multi-story tower in downtown Cairo for an expanded U.S. Embassy in 1980. The plan came in response to the need to house the swelling staff assigned to administer an aid program, conduct increasingly close diplomatic relations and carry out a project to modernize the Egyptian Army. The original program included an office tower, a swimming pool, reflecting pool, tennis courts, green areas and a ceremonial drive. In the 1990's the complex was expanded to include ambassador's residences. [Cody]
The U.S. Embassy building in Cairo is a square-shaped tower with chamfered corners, approximately 20-stories in height, with two basement floors, a broad two-story base and a fifteen story tower with a sloped roof. It is located on a relatively small site in the center of downtown Cairo. The complex includes a swimming pool, reflecting pool, tennis courts, green areas and a ceremonial drive. The main building is surrounded by low perimeter buildings with window-less concrete walls facing the street for protection. [Cody]
1980 - 1985(c)
When constructed in the early 1980's, the U.S. Embassy was the tallest embassy building, dwarfing the nearby British and Canadian embassies, but was far from the tallest building in downtown Cairo. It was located on a relatively small site in a central location, a wealthy area of downtown Cairo called Garden City. At the time of its construction, a forty-story Hilton Hotel was under construction five-minutes down the Nile from the Embassy. [Cody]
The building consists of an outer concrete shell, square-shaped in plan with chamfered corners, with deeply recessed concrete fins. Within the concrete shell is a tower with floor to ceiling glazing. During its design the building underwent an evaluation for blast-resistance. The concrete shell proved sufficient but the glazing system was redesigned to be able to withstand 2,000 lbs of force emanating from the nearest public area. A special glazing was developed - a sandwich of 1" polycarbonate with glass laminated to each side to prevent the polycarbonate from becoming scratched. A mock-up of the assembly was sent to a testing ground in Texas where it was subjected to an actual blast. It passed the test and the Embassy was constructed with this blast-resistant glazing system. [Houston]
The United States and Egypt resumed diplomatic relations in 1974, as the United States eclipsed Russia as Egypt's cold-war ally. In 1978, the Camp David Accords, a peace treaty facilitated by President Jimmy Carter, were signed by Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. As a result, the U.S. staff in Egypt expanded as it undertook a $1 billion-per-year aid program, as well as modernizaion of Egypt's Army and Air Force. The large, imposing nature of the new embassy building represented the increasing influence of the United States in Egypt's operations. [Cody]
Some U.S. diplomats were critical of the plan to construct an imposing tower in the middle of downtown Cairo, fearing that it would exacerbate anti-American popular sentiment in the area. However downtown Cairo was undergoing a period of development at the time and tall buildings were common throughout the city. Critics cited contemporary examples of the Tehran hostage situation, the U.S. Embassy sackings in Pakistan and Libya and the withdrawal of American dependents from several Middle Eastern countries. Such critics recommended keeping the American profile in the region low but this advice was not heeded by the U.S. government. [Cody]
The massive, sand-colored concrete facade is set atop 30-foot-high columns at 10 feet on center, which have been described as "pharaonic in character." The facade design is reminiscent of the Corbusian egg crate, with deeply recessed fins to provide shade, evoking the vernacular architecture of the Middle-East. Housed within the concrete shell is a glass curtain-wall skyscrapers, akin to those common in the United States during this period. [Fletcher] The building is designed in the Brutalist style, which is characterized by the combination of modest detailing with austere, monumental and massive forms. The scale and strength of the style lends itself well to civic and institutional buildings. The quintessential example of Brutalist architecture is Boston City Hall designed by Kallmann, Mckinnell & Knowles and built in 1968. Another well-known stylistic precedent is I.M. Pei's East wing of the National Gallery in Washington D.C., built in 1978.
The building was designed and built during a transitional period in Embassy design. Immediately following the completion of working drawings for the design in 1983, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was bombed and a number of Americans killed. As a result, the design for the Cairo embassy underwent a review for blast-resistance. The glazing system had to be redesigned and tested. The complex was also enclosed by a blast-resistant wall. [Houston]
The 'Inman Report', formally known as the Report of the Secretary of State's Advisory Panel on Overseas Security, was issued in 1985 setting out new guidelines for Embassy design. The report, issued after the completion of the Cairo Embassy design, specified, among other things, that embassies have large setbacks from public areas and recommended that embassies not be located on small, central, urban sites.
At the time of its construction the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was seen as a controversial symbol of increasing U.S. influence in the region. Many feared its imposing presence would ignite existing anti-American sentiment. The building itself marks a period of transition in the design of embassies. Designed in the midst of increasing violence towards U.S. embassies and military bases abroad, it incorporated security features and blast-resistant design and testing that had previously not been necessary. However, the Cairo embassy preceded the publishing of the Inman Report, which issued further guidelines for embassy design. The embassy's small site, central location, tall tower and large amount of facade glazing would come to be seen as dangerous liabilities just a few years after its completion. [Houston] Recently, in 2011, the embassy weathered the popular uprisings in Cairo, during which it was surrounded by an angry mob. The architect, Andre Houston, was contacted by various news outlets to comment on the defensibility of the complex. Mr. Houston expressed unwavering confidence in the building's ability to withstand a blast. [Houston]
Edward Cody, "U.S. Thinking Big on New Cairo Embassy: Some Diplomats Fear 20-Story Tower Will Be Offensive Symbol," Los Angeles Times, August 3, 1980
Andre Houston. E-mail interview. February 6, 2013
Norman C. Fletcher. "The United States Embassy in Cairo" Federal Buildings in Context: The Role of the Design Review, 1995, p 45-54