It is no surprise that the USA is careful if not paranoid about security. Just take a look at the recently installed barriers and security buildings in Grosvenor Square, London where the existing Embassy, designed by Eero Saarinen, sits in the historic heart of the city. While the UK government has just listed the building, it is seen to be no longer fit for purpose and unable to fulfill future security codes. The architectural competition for a new embassy, won last week by relatively unknown architects Kieran Timberlake, is a step towards resolving all that, even if the listing has made the sale of the existing building provide a smaller budget for it.
Saarinen’s building, one of only two by him outside the US, was the result of an architectural competition, an unusual step for the US State Department, bestowed upon London because of the sensitivity of the Mayfair site. The proposed site, just south of Vauxhall, could not be further from such sensitivities, being in an industrial area and part of a Mayoral priority regeneration area including the iconic Battersea Power Station. Though the site sounds a rather desperate choice, it is actually closer to the UK Parliament building than Grosvenor Square! And more to the point, with a potentially clear view of it across the River Thames. The power station development proposals, by US based Rafael Viñoly, already paved the way to height restrictions for the embassy, somewhat naively, by first proposing a massive high-rise, which would have towered above the neo-Gothic Parliament World Heritage Site in views from Waterloo and Hungerford bridges. The Mayor was not pleased and his wrath fell on the design brief for the new embassy within weeks. Outline planning permission was given, therefore, for a safely restricted height, before the Embassy committed to purchasing the site.
The competition for the new embassy was therefore as much to do with making a short fat building beautiful, as it was about image and security. In the circumstances the UK was lucky to get an architectural competition even though it was restricted, with the anger of many local architects, only to Americans. And not just Americans, but Americans based in America, cutting out UK based and highly acclaimed SOM and KPF. The finalists, whose schemes are currently exhibited in the New London Architecture Centre are, except the winners, at their zenith of the profession and include Richard Meier, Morphosis and I M Pei, the latter only weeks ago having been awarded the UK’s highest honour, the Royal Gold Medal presented by the Monarchy.
The winning scheme is a giant glass 14 storey cube. The architects, that’s plural since it is Stephen Keiran and James Timberlake, have ignored the local urban grain and instead have swung the building round to face Parliament, placing it in turn, on a huge circular ‘moat’. The analogy doesn’t quite fit with the cubic White Tower of the Tower of London, that being in the east and this being in the west, but you could be forgiven for thinking so. At the 10th and 11th levels a very large double height cut-out ‘balcony’ in the façade, facing Parliament, could well be an adjunct to the Ambassadorial suite.
There are the usual groans from the profession, as there were when Saarinen proposed his. He was man enough to say, when it was complete, "It’s better than the English think, but not as good as it should have been". Let us hope that the detractors won’t stultify, with their distant comment, the necessary design development towards architectural excellence. Let us also hope that the authorities, such as they are, encourage rather than complain. After all, Wandsworth Borough Council, the Mayor, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and English Heritage will have little power once the site becomes a little piece of America. Like the unpaid Congestion Charges, the Embassy probably has the right to do what it likes!
Chairman WAN and founder of Citydesigner, London
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