Beyond Buildings


Crystal Bunker

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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


Comments (7 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:39 PM Wednesday, March 03, 2010

    Yo, altman! (you know your name translates literally as "old man", right?) You modernists just refuse to admit your work is unfriendly and contradictory to every aesthetic that humans have found pleasing for the last, oh, three thousand years or so. It's kinda like the Seinfeld comment about the Chinese, "You've gotta admire the Chinese. I mean....they've SEEN the fork." I do admire those who adhere to the modernist creed with religious fervor, but with amused detachment. I prefer more evolved design myself.

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  • Posted by: whelmick | Time: 2:01 PM Tuesday, March 02, 2010

    i prefer the meirer solution personally. the simplicity of the kiernan timerlake solution makes it elegant yet a bit of a birdcage for the occupants. the site separation form the street is equally unfortunate. seems that our competition judging always reaches for the trendy firm and solution. two years ago morphosis would have won. 10 years ago meier. the morphosis design is a strking model, i'm not sure for what though.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 2:00 PM Tuesday, March 02, 2010

    ... Sponge Bob's silver haired one-eyed uncle Bill (from the "old country"?) got caught stranded out on a traffic roundabout - and doesn't look too happy about it either. At least Thom Mayne's "beautiful corpse" would have been robust enough to stand up to the mediocre site and surroundings (sort of Battersea meets Alexandria, Virginia?) shown on the KT renderings.

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  • Posted by: altman | Time: 1:19 PM Tuesday, March 02, 2010

    To the first "Anonymous" above, perhaps you should educate yourself a bit before spouting off. First, glass can be easily made blast-resistant, as i am sure is a requirement for this buildng. Just because the Meier building looks more solid doesn't make it so. Those white metal panels that Meier employees so often, will also fly around in a blast with deadly effect if not properly designed. Second, the "knuckleheads" were a pretty impressive bunch, and do you really think Obama had time to deal with selecting them. Third, the Breuer building can be attractive some without brain-washing, it is called personal choice. Perhaps the most blind are those who decide exactly what they want to see before even bothering to look.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:12 PM Tuesday, March 02, 2010

    Ahhh--where is Edward Durell Stone when we need him?

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:50 PM Tuesday, March 02, 2010

    Unfortunaltely it looks like Sponge Bob and not in a whimsical was either. If this structure reflects the American ethetic we all best run and hit. I am sure that this presentation drawings does not reflect the true of the building; it looks like we as a nation desire to hide behind an articulated plate of glass. Meier's more welcoming, I would have like to have seen it in it's contact. I am assuming the winninf design does reflect the context. Not an easy project to design but the impact on the City, nation and reflection of us is profound.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:28 PM Tuesday, March 02, 2010

    I can picture shards of glass flying for miles in all directions when the next car bomb goes off near that silly glass box. The Meier design is far better. What knuckleheads made this decision? More of Obama's unqualified appointees? The Breuer design is typically dreadful, but loved by the brain-washed students of that era. None are so blind as those who will not see.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.