One of the most well-intentioned artistic initiatives ever undertaken by the United States government has turned out to be among its least successful: the embassy design program meant to present America’s best architectural face abroad. The latest evidence of this effort’s often dispiriting outcome is the selection of the little-known Philadelphia firm of KieranTimberlake to create a new US embassy in London.
Planned for a derelict industrial site of almost five acres near the Thames in south-of-the-river Wandsworth, the project carries the astonishing price tag of $1 billion, and brings to mind an International Style corporate headquarters as well as a medieval castle keep. At first glance, this twelve-story cube-shaped structure recalls countless other glass-sheathed office buildings. However, upon closer inspection other associations predominate.
The embassy’s “ground” floor is elevated atop a bunker-like podium, the top of which is densely landscaped with grassy berms, trenches, and a water feature best described as a moat. The building’s square footprint, chunky massing, fortified perimeter, and relation to the river make it a twenty-first-century avatar of the Tower of London, several miles to the northeast on the opposite bank of the Thames.
The building’s exterior cladding of glass—a material often equated simplistically with governmental openness—is treated with polymer plastic to lessen its projectile force in case of explosion. Similarly, the undulating earthworks at the base of the tower are meant to deter the advance of truck bombers. Given the likelihood of another al-Qaeda assault on the capital city of America’s principal ally in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, such defensive measures seem only prudent, but the extensive checklist of protective requirements included in the design brief clearly had an inhibiting effect on even the most gifted of the competition’s entrants.
The new legation building would replace Eero Saarinen’s US Embassy Chancery of 1955–1960, which occupies the entire west side of Grosvenor Square in north-of-the-river Mayfair. Whether intentionally or not, the modular, gridded elevations of KieranTimberlake’s project look like a stack-up of three Saarinen façades. (The old building has been sold for a reported $533 million to the government of Qatar, which plans to redevelop it into a hotel and apartments, but must retain the once-controversial, now-landmark street front.)
Saarinen’s Brutalist limestone intrusion, topped off with a garish gold sculpture of a screaming eagle, spoke as revealingly of America’s postwar hegemony as the mixed message of KieranTimberlake’s scheme does of our very different place in the world order fifty years later. Apart from the need for more office space, the old embassy’s locale was deemed to make it too inviting a target for terrorists, and thus prompted the move to a less populous neighborhood that could accommodate a setback of some one hundred feet for a buffering “blast zone.”
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