US Embassy Helsinki: Ambassador Bruce “Biceps” Oreck Launches Innovation Center

Remember in December when our man in Finland, Ambassador Bruce Oreck caused quite a stir when his holiday card made it to Al Kamen’s In The Loop column? This one:

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Boulder’s Daily Camera could not resist with “Call it bicep diplomacy. Hopefully he doesn’t set off an arms race.”  Ahaha! And here he is without a shirt on featured on the cover of Kuukausiliite.

We must say that if we were approaching the big 60 and we have guns like that, we would pose without a shirt, too. And then you’d call that gun-boat diplomacy, no? But hey, so what?!

Last year Ambassador Oreck also wore a fashionable rhubarb summer hat but no one complained about that. Take a look, isn’t that cute?!

Ambassador Oreck and Ms. Cody Oreck visited the charming Kumpula School Garden on June 15. Host Janne Länsipuro (in the photo) styled a fashionable rhubarb summer hat for the Ambassador as it was a warm and sunny day!

Ambassador Oreck visited the charming Kumpula School Garden on June 15. Host Janne Länsipuro (in the photo) styled a fashionable rhubarb summer hat for the Ambassador as it was a warm and sunny day! (Photo via US Embassy Finland)

But we want to write this post because we actually are quite of fan of Ambassador Oreck’s approach to his job  in Finland.  Pardon me? Oh, yes … we know he is a political appointee, that’s not necessarily a red mark in our books. Why? We just happen to think that one is either a good steward of the U.S. mission overseas or not. So there’s no “but” here.

Anyway, you might not remember this but the US Embassy in Helsinki celebrated the 236th Independence Day with hard hats.  That’s because they were in the middle of a renovation project at post.  Instead of renting out a place somewhere for the 4th of July celebration, they (including the guests) just put on hard hats and carried on with the fun.

And remember the official residence in Embassy Port of Spain  which the OIG described as having “a feeling of neglect and disrepair, in part because the previous Ambassador viewed repair activities as intrusive?”  Well, it was the exact opposite in Finland.  In December last year, Ambassador Oreck’s wife  posted this on the embassy blog, which we thought was amiable and considerate:

Work continues apace here at the Embassy to restore the Residence and to open the Innovation Center.  Since we are passionate about both historic preservation AND high-performance building techniques, we have decided that it is better to live through the chaos ourselves so that the next Ambassador won’t have to deal with the disruption. We deeply appreciate the forbearance of our dear neighbors.  We do literally feel your pain!

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Embassy renovation project (photo via US Embassy Finland)

State/OIG also did an inspection of US Embassy Helsinki. The report says that there were concerns about the 9 months of noisy and dirty construction, and the lack of information about what comes next but the inspectors reported that “It is clear that employees do not question the need to renovate the dilapidated and unsafe facilities at Embassy Helsinki. Many also understand that without the Ambassador’s persistence, the project would not be underway (a judgment shared by OBO).” Also this:

An energetic, construction savvy, and persistent Ambassador has revived a stalled project to renovate the antiquated and unsafe chancery buildings; he is extremely involved in all details of the renovation and sees keeping the project on schedule as one of the greatest contributions he can make during his time in Finland. 

The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) acknowledges that the embassy renovation project would not have been funded or advanced at an accelerated pace without the constant pressure of the Ambassador, both from Helsinki and during frequent trips to Washington.

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In Helsinki, new high-security spaces–mostly without windows–had to be inserted into a complex setting of heritage buildings and neighborhood, on a prominently visible site looking out over the Gulf of Finland. Here too climate was significant, as well as the profound cultural context of modern architecture and design in Finland.The new wing is attached to a remodeled 1926 apartment house, the Annex, and had to fit into a tightly circumscribed footprint, as determined by security requirements–an exercise we called ‘form follows setback’. But we welcomed the fish-shaped plan that resulted, as a form complementary to the historic neighbors, a contrast that is accentuated by materiality. The curved walls are rendered in vertically textured warm white brick toward the street, and a spectrum of textured glass surfaces facing the waterfront, reflecting the often icy context of the Gulf, as well as Finland’s famed modern glass craft. (Via Moore Ruble Yudell)

Ambassador Oreck reportedly logged about 250,000 miles in dozens of trips between Washington, D.C., and Helsinki to personally address concerns about costs and security. “In 36 months, we went from ‘no’ to ‘done,’ ” he said.

Early this year, the embassy staff returned to the building and the Innovation Center was officially opened in late February. The Innovation Center houses the public offices of the U.S. Embassy in Finland and is reportedly one of the most energy efficient embassy buildings in the world.  According to the embassy, the Center also “harnesses the best of Finnish technology by being the first U.S. government building in the world to use district cooling and heating.”

Somebody once said that it’s what you do on your third and fourth tries that matters.  We’re glad that Ambassador Oreck did not give up when he was told ‘no’ the first time.
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