Architecture is a language, one used by institutions to say something about themselves.
The same basic principle is true for the world’s spy agencies. All show their secrecy in their buildings, while some may appear starkly utilitarian, and some may even be frightening and alienating. But they also have their quirks and differences, whether it be an isolated complex hidden by trees, in a location that’s never been officially disclosed, or a prominent complex built by superstar architects and put on prominent display in the middle of a capital city.
United States: Central Intelligence Agency
If John Brennan becomes the next CIA director — a likely event — he’ll be working from inside a complex that could blend into a business park anywhere in America. But this park contains the headquarters of America’s foreign intelligence agency.
Protected from prying eyes by a wooded belt in suburban Langley, Virginia, just northwest of Washington, D.C., the complex is actually two sets of buildings connected to a central core, with each set built at different times. The first half of the building and designed by New York architecture firm Harrison and Abramovitz — who had a role in designing the United Nations headquarters — dates back to 1963. It’s a sign of its times, and built from sterile pre-fabricated concrete. But by the 1980s, the agency was running out of space. Today, the complex is much larger, with an added west wing of two glass office towers, designed by Detroit architects Smith, Hinchman & Grylls in the 1980s.
The CIA also has a penchant for art and assorted knick-knacks. The agency has a chunk of the Berlin Wall on display, and an A-12 Oxcart spy plane. There’s a museum inside the building with all sorts of weird memorabilia inside, from a robotic fish to a Cold War-era mini-submarine. Outside the cafeteria on the grounds of the headquarters’ new wing is the copper sculpture Kryptos, containing 869 encrypted characters on four plates. The final plate, with its 97 characters, is still unbroken. The cafeteria is remarkably pleasant and airy for a government building, actually, with enormous windows and green views. (The food, however, is not quite as pleasing.)
United States: National Security Agency
There are clear views of the National Security Agency’s headquarters off the Patuxent Freeway, just skirting Fort Meade, Maryland, about 15 miles southwest of Baltimore. But we wouldn’t advise getting any closer, as the NSA is the highly secretive agency responsible for the U.S. government’s codebreaking and collecting communications from around the world. The NSA’s headquarters also fits the part, rising blank and expressionless above a desert of parking lots. Completed in 1986, it resembles a collection of stubby, black, reflective monoliths like from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And according to the Center for Land Use Interpretation, the complex has an estimated 10 acres of underground space.
But like the CIA during the Cold War, the NSA in recent years has outgrown its own building. Fort Meade altogether has grown extremely rapidly as defense agencies relocate there and the NSA boosts its Cyber Command headquarters. Defense and government contractors now have offices surrounding the place, and contract and government jobs have surged, largely due to growth at the base more generally, and partly because of growth at the NSA. The Baltimore Business Journal reported that the base is expected to add an eye-popping 42,500 jobs by the end of the decade. The Defense Department even paved over part of the base’s golf course for the headquarters of the Defense Media Activity organization, the Pentagon’s media wing. Hopefully the Pentagon and the NSA will include a lot more parking.
United Kingdom: Secret Intelligence Service
There’s perhaps no spy headquarters more recognizable than the SIS Building, headquarters of the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6. It’s not only smack-dab in the middle of London, but has been featured in six James Bond movies, and blown up in two of them. Designed by architect Terry Farrell, the structure has been compared to a cross between a Babylonian ziggurat and a power plant. And it’s built like a veritable fortress, capable of withstanding bomb attacks. There are also reportedly extensive underground areas.
It’s also put its defenses to use. In September 2000, militants suspected to be from the Real Irish Republican Army — a splinter faction of the Irish paramilitary group — fired a rocket-propelled grenade round at the building’s eighth floor, causing no injuries. In a demonstration of just how heavily armored the building is, the rocket reportedly bounced off a glass window.
Russia: Federal Security Service
The Lubyanka building — the yellow, neo-Baroque former headquarters of Russia’s spies — is still the most recognizable symbol of Russian secrecy, even if the bulk of their office space has moved elsewhere. Dating to 1897, the building once housed an insurance company before becoming the headquarters for the feared Soviet spy agency KGB. It was remodeled by Stalin. (The basement contained a KGB prison.) The building was then transferred to the KGB’s successor agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), after the collapse of the USSR.
According to cybersecurity analyst Jeffrey Carr’s book Inside Cyberware: Mapping the Cyber Underworld, the building today houses the FSB’s Communications Security Center, which oversees and encrypts Russian government computer security systems; and the Center for Licensing, Certification, and Protection of State Secrets, which handles export licenses for cryptographic and surveillance technology. Twin suicide bombing attacks in 2010 also came close to the building — one of the blasts exploded at the nearby Lubyanka metro station.
Germany: Federal Intelligence Service
Germany’s chief spy agency, which in German goes by the name Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), is proud of its spiffy new headquarters. ABC has reported that it’s “set to be one of the most technologically sophisticated buildings in the world” once it opens in 2014. Located within walking distance of the Reichstag building in Berlin and on the site of a former East German soccer stadium, the BND has even gone online to show off of its facades of “natural stone, render, fair-faced concrete, brick or metal.” It has room for 4,000 employees, and has weird blob art. The agency is also touting its architect, Jan Kleihues, the son of famous architect Josef Paul Kleihaus, who was known for museums in Germany and Chicago.
But the design is also perhaps more open than the Germans would like. In July 2011, Munich news magazine Focus reported that the building’s blueprints were stolen from the construction site. According to Focus, the blueprints contained “the exact function of every single room, the thickness of each wall, the exact position of every toilet and every emergency exit and every security checkpoint.” The theft hasn’t ended Berlin’s plans. However, it was reported to have forced an estimated $1.8 billion interior redesign.
France: Directorate-General for External Security
This walled compound doesn’t stand out — because it’s not supposed to. It would be an ordinary and undistinguished complex of buildings, that is, if you ignore the high walls topped with spikes and a tall sensor tower. Located on the eastern edge of the Paris city limits is the headquarters for the French Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE), the agency responsible for France’s overseas intelligence works. It’s headquarters also nicknamed “the swimming pool” for its proximity to a facility used by the French Swimming Federation, and Google Maps has even blurred its image in satellite photographs.
China: Ministry of State Security
The building seen above is not the main headquarters for the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS), but a regional office in China’s central Hubei Province. The official headquarters is a little harder to spot. Attempts to track it down have led to frequent — but mistaken — associations with the Ministry of Public Security: the giant Borg-like structure in downtown Beijing which houses China’s national police command. A closer bet for the main MSS offices is a low-key compound in Beijing’s northwest.
The MSS is also different from many Western intelligence agencies because it handles both foreign and domestic intelligence, instead of splitting them up like the CIA and FBI. Hence the reason why it has regional offices inside China, in addition to carrying out Chinese espionage overseas. The Hubei office also sends something of a statement, with its imposing columns, wedding cake facade, sensor dishes and observation perch. Another photo shows what appears to be a police officer on duty, in case anyone gets the wrong idea and wanders a little too closely.