To the rest of the world, America is a fortress. It looks that way to immigrants trying to get in, to visitors who enter into the Kafkaesque holding pens the TSA mans in airports, and even before that to supplicants when they go to their local embassy or consulate to obtain a visa. The new American embassy in London, whose design was just unveiled this week, will not change that perception, though it will try to turn what is usually a bunker into a giant piece of cubic zirconium that will have a certain splendor.
U.S. Embassy in London, designed by Eero Saarinen
Designed by the Philadelphia-based firm of KieranTimberlake, the new U.S. embassy in London will sit on the wrong (South) side of the Thames River next to the disused power plant of Battersea, made famous from a Pink Floyd album cover. It will replace Eero Saarinen’s 1960 embassy, an attempt to make an architectural emissary of America that wanted to be classical and modern, contextual and monumental, and instead just looks like a confusion of frames piled up on one side of Grosvenor Square.
KieranTimberlake beat out Morphosis, Richard Meier and Partners (with Michael Paladino taking over from Meier), and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners to win. None of the projects answered the question of how the United States should present itself in a satisfactory manner, and all of them have major problems. Morphosis’ Thom Mayne presented the most ambitious design, a splayed horseshoe around an atrium that Mayne hoped would recall the Domes of Democracy that grace the Capitol and many state houses. Disconnected from its surroundings and without a clear function for the central void, it was a beautiful corpse of democratic ideals.
Meier’s firm brought its kit of parts: gridded blocks and a few curves that articulated each functional element, the structure, and circulation separately. It was by far the most sophisticated composition, but its complexity also meant that it was not very representational or flexible. It was a machine for producing modernism, not an engine of foreign relations. The Pei Cobb Freed design was a forgettable object.
Richard Meier and Partners
The winning design is just a box, though one whose proportions are correct and whose energy-conscious design sends a message about this country’s enduring infatuation with high-tech solutions to basic problems. The advantage of the competition remit to make a showcase for sustainable design is that this eco-Cadillac (which will cost close to $1 billion of our dollars) will sparkle whenever the sun makes it through the grayness that is endemic to London to reflect off the array of solar collectors, baffles, and inflatable air sinks. There will be few interior spaces of note, but the landscaping at least tries to acknowledge the fact that the embassy is moving to this location exactly so that it can remain hundreds of feet away from the public, which, after all, is nothing more than a potential source of bombs.
KieranTimberlake's winning design
This is as good as it gets. Most American embassies currently planned or recently finished are considerably worse. I dread the day when America moves out of its Marcel Breuer–designed embassy in The Hague, Netherlands, where I once, as a high school student applying to college, passed two Marines to be admitted to the presence of the Ambassador who was an alumni of my chosen college. The building was hermetic and grand, in a way that made me think that the United States was a strange, huge, impressive entity that would be difficult to enter, though I did want it to admit me. This embassy, too, is too close to alien populations and will move to the suburbs, where it will reinforce this country’s image of paranoia, isolation, and growing mediocrity. At least the London establishment will, if the cost cutters can be denied a few pounds of flesh, be icily elegant in its isolation.
U.S. Embassy in The Hague, Netherlands