A tree grows in Helsinki
To millions of Americans, a U.S. embassy building is a little like one of our national parks or maybe the public library. Even though these places are rarely top-of-mind, nor do we use them on a regular basis, there is comfort in knowing they exist.
What’s more, to many Americans the presence of such things on the public landscape says something far greater about how they view themselves and the society in which they find themselves privileged to live.
I know. I’m one such guy.
To me, a U.S. embassy building in some far-off corner of the globe is a not-so-subtle statement about what the concept of America means and how we want this country to be viewed by the world. It is a visual reminder of so many things we have always held dear as a people – things like world peace, health, sanctuary and prosperity – as well as so many of the things that continue to drive us forward as a nation – like growth, global harmony, innovation and an incessant desire to somehow build a better world for our children.
Such buildings should be testaments not only to who we are now, but who we aspire to be. For that reason, an embassy – no matter where, no matter what size, and no matter its world-stage visibility, media exposure, or geopolitical significance – is not just some simple marriage of bricks, wood, glass, steel and mortar. It is something far, far greater.
A foreign embassy should be an edifice whose role is, was, and should always remain like the role of, say, the American Bald Eagle, the Stars and Stripes, or the Statue of Liberty; that is, symbolic to the nth degree and as inspirational as it is aspirational.
Which brings me today to our embassy in Finland and the crackling bundle of energy who now serves as our ambassador there. As someone who has dedicated his life to the sustainable building movement, I’m not sure I have the words to express my combination of awe and gratitude for either the country, the building or, for that matter, the man who helped make that building possible.
Finland, for those of you who may not know, is and has been a world leader in natural resource management and sustainability for generations. The Finnish embassy in Washington, for example, was the very first embassy in the world to earn LEED certification and was the first to win the EPA’s Energy Star Award.
The Finnish government is currently funding and promoting the development of a clean tech sector within Finland with designs on creating both a $50 billion industry and some 40,000 new jobs for the country.
And the country’s ambassador to the U.N., Pertti Majanen is the first-ever co-chair of that global organization’s Sustainable Development Financing Committee, designed to fund clean energy and sustainability initiatives in underdeveloped countries the world over.
And for those reasons and others, perhaps, as of 2013 the U.S. embassy in Helsinki, Finland, is now home to what is being called the “Innovation Center.” It is the byproduct of a complete re-imagining of the existing embassy, a process which breathed life into an historic old building and provided it critical life-safety upgrades, needed improvements to its aging infrastructure, and added one of the most innovative, forward-thinking and energy-efficient buildings in the world to our country’s global portfolio. And it has achieved LEED Platinum.
In a word, the State Department’s Innovation Center in Helsinki is one of the coolest damn buildings you ever will see.
And it exists today, largely because of the vision, energy and passion of one of the most remarkable public servants I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing or, for that matter, breaking bread with: Bruce J. Oreck, our ambassador to Finland.
I’ll spare you all the details about Bruce, but suffice it to say he has done enough in his relatively brief time on this little marble of ours to fill three lifetimes. Whether it has been in the classroom, the courtroom, the boardroom, the world of nature, the field of play, or the global and/or political arena, he has left his mark as a man who not only envisions that better world I talked about earlier, but one who will go to his grave in the dogged pursuit of it.
That’s why Bruce was the driving force behind the creation of Helsinki’s Innovation Center and why since 2010 he has headed up the League of Green Embassies, a relatively new global concern whose mission is to foster international cooperation in energy efficiency and clean technologies. A cluster of embassies collectively committed to the prudent and efficient use of the planet’s resources represents something greater than just another baby step on the road to acceptance and the world-wide implementation of sustainable building practices. Much greater, in fact.
Consider, this is from the League of Green Embassies web site:
“Embassies are a powerful force for introducing innovative solutions, influencing individuals and institutions in host countries, and play an important role in mobilizing public opinion and action.”
Bruce reminds me regularly that we have to make our own future. This from a man who has thrown himself full-force into that idea, founding any number of pro-environment and pro-resource organizations, such as the Zero Carbon Initiative and the Grand Canyon Trust.
I have an idea that our future is brighter because of it.