December 14, 2017
KieranTimberlake’s New Fortress-Like London Embassy Neglects Public Space
Where civic buildings tend to invite their publics inside, this embassy expertly keeps people out.
“This is Europe’s greatest regeneration project,” exclaims Ravi Govindia in a moment of hyperbole at the opening of the new U.S. embassy in London. Govindia is head of Wandsworth borough council, where the project first broke ground in 2013. As for the embassy, it replaces Eero Saarinen’s 1960 building at Grosvenor Square (which is currently being converted into a hotel by architect David Chipperfield) and functions as the centerpiece of the Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area (VNEB), one of 37 such opportunity areas across London where urban development is streamlined.
The VNEB opportunity area is currently the highest profile in the city, not just because of the embassy, but a spread of other “icons” of post-industrial regeneration that will fall within its boundaries: a Herzog & de Meuron–designed campus for the Royal College of Art, the U.K. Apple headquarters inside the abominable conversion of Battersea Power Station being overseen by Rafael Viñoly, and a generous smattering luxury apartments by Frank Gehry and Richard Rogers, among others. No wonder Govindia is excited.
This influx is what James Timberlake, of Philadelphia-based KieranTimberlake (the lead architects of the embassy), describes as the “embassy effect.” Apparently the magnetism of the embassy—a billion-dollar complex spread over 5.6 million square feet and centered around a 12-story crystalline cube—is such that businesses and new residents are flocking to this swathe of land on the southern bank of the Thames. This is not, however, the experience of the embassy’s former Grosvenor Square neighbors who staged protests and attempted to mount a lawsuit against the embassy, on account of the quotidian inconveniences arising from increased security infrastructure around the building. Nor is this “embassy effect” felt on visiting the new building. With its arsenal of security measures, grand colonnade, imposing interior spaces, and aggressively bland massing and detailing, this is a fundamentally anti-social piece of architecture.
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During his presentation, Timberlake recalls a visit to Saarinen’s embassy in 1976—“bounding up the stairs with my passport in hand, walking immediately into the middle of that lobby and being able to say hello to the marine guard there without having to check my credentials.”
This, obviously, is no longer the case today. Severe security restrictions require the 200-foot-by-200-foot cube to sit at least 150 feet from its nearest neighbors, akin to its more explicitly fortress-like siblings in Beijing or Baghdad. However, the densifying urban context at VNEB means the architects must maintain a pretense of contextual sensitivity, of fitting into the urban fabric. “We surmised that the landscape and the building were indeed one,” says Timberlake. “The building meets or exceeds all required setbacks while honoring the English tradition of urban gardens that are home to civic buildings.”
Where civic buildings tend to invite their publics inside, this embassy expertly keeps people out. Visa-searching visitors to the building will negotiate an obstacle course of berms, bollards, and a moat masquerading as a pond before reaching the entrance. The public lobby for consular services is an unremarkable cuboid but for a Rachel Whiteread sculpture that adorns the back wall. More esteemed guests will enter a lobby on the opposite side of the ground floor to be greeted by a comically large relief of the U.S. Great Seal.
On the upper floors flexible office spaces occupy the outer sections of the cube. These are punctuated with meager “gardens,” supposed to break up the monotony of the building and provide informal gathering spaces. Each is designed to reflect a region of the U.S.: The Pacific Forest Garden features perforated girders to evoke Redwood trees, the Canyonlands Garden features cacti. In both cases, the effect is more of a gas station smoking area than the great outdoors.
The gardens do, however, afford a close-up view of the building’s most intriguing element—the outer envelope of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE, a type of plastic) sails that give three sides of the cube its distinctive texture. Designed to reduce solar gain, they also allow views out and light in, but restrict the sightline of any peeping Toms from the surrounding apartments. On the side without sails, the windows are speckled with lone stars to reduce “the risk of bird-strikes on the glass,” a cutting-edge solution to deal with London’s militarized avian population.
Just as Saarinen’s building acted as a focal point to anti-Vietnam war protesters in ’68 and many more up to the Women’s March in January this year, KieranTimberlake’s building will likely form a backdrop to large public opposition to President Trump’s expected visit in early 2018. Where Grosvenor Square provided a natural point for gathering opposite the Saarinen building, there is no such space in VNEB. The embassy is an island, surrounded by its own defense mechanisms and a busy road. While the ire of protestors is possibly not high on the list of potential threats to the building and its occupants, its natural ability to keep people away will come in handy if Trump comes to town. It is here that we can more accurately identify the “embassy effect” of KieranTimberlake’s new building. A place of exclusion, division, excessive displays of power, and an insensitivity to others around.
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