Architecture and foreign policy

Sam Fox School students in Helsinki meet with U.S. ambassador to Finland

Bruce J. Oreck, the U.S. ambassador to Finland (left), meets with architecture students from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki.

How should the United States present itself abroad?

A diplomatic question, and a political one, but also a question for 18 students from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts who are living and working in Helsinki, Finland.

Recently, the students — part of a semester-long study-abroad studio organized by the Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design — posed that question to Bruce J. Oreck, the U.S. ambassador to Finland.

The meeting, which lasted for about 90 minutes, took place over coffee and traditional Finnish cinnamon rolls in the living room of the ambassador’s residence. It came as students were beginning the research phase of their principal studio project for the semester: designing a hypothetical American cultural center in the Helsinki city center.

“I thought it would be useful for students to understand directly how the United States presents itself in Finland,” says Peter MacKeith, associate dean of the Sam Fox School and associate professor of architecture, who arranged the get-together, “not only what our current agencies are, but also the spirit of that presentation.

“Finland has a long history of good design,” says MacKeith, a specialist in Finnish architecture who helped launch the Helsinki studio in 2001. “The question for students is, how do you, as an American designer, represent the United States — diplomatically, environmentally and architecturally — in the middle of this famously well-designed and environmentally aware city?

“The ambassador was taken with the idea,” MacKeith says. “He is very keen on cultural exchange between the U.S. and Finland.”

The conversation ranged from the goals and strategies of U.S. foreign policy to contemporary design questions, especially new technologies and issues relating to energy and the environment.

“It was a productive morning,” MacKeith says. “Our students were very attentive as well as very inquisitive.”