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Huge new U.S. embassy ready in Bangkok

By JOHN HAIL

BANGKOK, March 28 -- After more than three years of construction at a cost of $70 million, U.S. diplomats in Bangkok said Thursday they are moving into the new American Embassy -- directly across the street from the old one. But critics of the new building's security-intensive architectural style have described it as a 'bunker' and an 'upside-down aircraft carrier.' U.S. officials said it was a 'model project' that only looks like a windowless prison from the side facing Wireless Road, Bangkok's Embassy Row. 'We're proud of the fact that it's been built two months ahead of schedule, and on budget,' said Robert Hafstad, project director. Hafstad said he was also proud that planners had been able to preserve about 50 of the stately rain trees that made the property an oasis of green amid Bangkok's urban sprawl. The main U.S. contractor for the project, Fischbeck and Moore International, and the main Thai sub-contractor, the Italian-Thai Development Co., completed construction on the embassy in October. Another five months of follow-up work was needed to install new fittings and furniture, which were included in the $70 million construction cost. Embassy officials said they began this week a phased move into their new offices, which include 150,000 square feet of space. They said the Bangkok embassy is the second biggest American mission in the world -- after Cairo -- employing 560 Americans and 1,200 Thais. They said the decision to move across the street to another U.S.- owned property was made during the aftermath of the 1983 Beirut truck bombing, when security was an overriding concern.

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As a result, the new, five-story Bangkok embassy has a forbidding appearance from the street, with narrow turrets instead of windows and a double wall ensuring no vehicle will get within blasting distance. It was designed by Kallman McKinndel Architects, which also designed the U.S. Embassy in Dacca, Bangladesh. The move across the street is part of a major consolidation of American properties in Bangkok that calls for vacating the sprawling American ambassador's residence, also on Wireless Road, and the similarly spacious U.S. Information Service compound on nearby Sathorn Road. Under the consolidation plan, American agencies will move into the old embassy compound after a two-year, $15 million refurbishing job. The elegant, tree-shaded ambassador's residence, which served as a billet for Japanese occupation troops during World War II, is currently occupied by the newly arrived American ambassador, William Itoh. The residence has been leased by the Americans from Thailand's Crown Property Bureau since 1947. A similar 10-acre plot of land directly across the street from the residence was sold for about $90 million and is being developed into a $560 million, Chinese-financed condominium-hotel project known as All Seasons Place. Embassy officials said the Crown Property Bureau's notification that it wanted to take back the ambassador's residence was a major factor in the U.S. property shake-up. They said Thai officials had expressed interest in preserving the residence's lush greenery and rain trees by converting the property into a government guest house. American officials estimate the old U.S. Embassy compound, purchased in 1948 for $145,000, would fetch at least $90 million at prevailingBangkok property prices.

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