Office of Foreign Buildings Operations (FBO)
United States Department of State

Washington, DC

William Slayton, Director
Rex Hellman, Project Manager
Vivian Woofter, Interior Design Manager
Eugene Ballard, Construction Representative

The client was the U.S. Department of State, Office of Foreign Buildings Operations (FBO).  FBO was headed by William Slayton, who had worked in private and public planning and real estate development, and with I.M. Pei (and lived in a custom Pei house), and who came to FBO in early 1978 after being Executive VP of the American Institute of Architects.  He was familiar with design and architects, and wanted FBO to strive for architectural excellence.  The State Department had a long history of working with eminent architects, including Gropius, Breuer, Kahn, Saarinen, Rapson, Bunshaft, Weese, Rudolph, Stone, Yamaski, Pei, and others.

Slayton had a three-member Architectural Advisory Panel of distinguished architects from around the country which selected architects and acted as a design review board.  The Panel members were tough critics, similar to a “jury” in architecture school.  They had rotating terms and during our project the panel included Charles Bassett, Donn Emmons, O’Neil Ford, Francis Lethbridge, and Hugh Stubbins.  We traveled to D.C. at the end of each design phase to present our progress and obtain their approval.

Rex Hellmann, FBO’s project manager, developed the architectural program for the tenant agencies in Lisbon, and reviewed plans for compliance with code and general design standards.  He was an experienced architect and a bit of a curmudgeon.  I spent many long hours with Hellman in smoky, windowless rooms at FBO’s offices in Rosslyn, VA, revising department layouts as he repeatedly complained “I already explained all this to Bassetti!”  He oversaw the functional design of the project, including site planning, floor plans, and security, but did not criticize the aesthetic appearance of the building’s exterior and public spaces, those being the province of the Architectural Advisory Panel.

Vivian Woofter was the FBO interior design manager.  She recommended furnishings and artwork to the architect, and managed specifications and procurement, including Portuguese antiques and custom carpets for special locations.

Eugene Ballard was FBO’s construction site representative.  He lived in Lisbon during construction, coordinating with the independent program management firm and the general contractor.

The Embassy staff in Lisbon, the building’s future occupants, were not involved as clients by FBO because they were frequently rotated to other posts.  As far as we could tell, they did not determine program requirements, review plans, or make aesthetic decisions, although it is possible that the design was reviewed with embassy executives at some point without our involvement.

Contemporary FBO projects

There were a number of contemporary FBO projects by notable architects underway during our design phases.  FBO shared little information about the other projects, but we occasionally met other designers on visits to FBO and picked up random bits of information from them and from publications.  Concurrent projects included:

  • Embassy Compound, Moscow- SOM
  • Consular Housing, Hong Kong- Davis Brodie
  • Embassy Office Building, Kuala Lumpur- Hartman Cox
  • Embassy Addition, Vienna- Zimmer Gunsul Frasca
  • Embassy Housing, Tokyo- Harry Weese
  • Embassy Office Building, La Paz- Esherick Homsey Dodge & Davis

There were interesting exterior similarities between Kuala Lumpur and Lisbon.  The projects were designed at the same time but were on opposite sides of the world, and we were not aware of that project during our design work.

The largest concurrent project was a huge new embassy and housing compound in Moscow by SOM.  As was standard procedure for FBO projects, it was built by local contractors.  What could go wrong?  During construction it was discovered that there were so many spying devices embedded in the structure that work was halted and the building was eventually demolished and rebuilt by American contractors.  This high-profile and expensive fiasco may have been the beginning of the end of the Slayton era at FBO.