It was a brave decision for the US Government to move its UK embassy from the current location in Mayfair to the emerging new urban area of Battersea on the south of the river in London, albeit security concerns about the existing building had been the primary driver for this. The current American Embassy London Chancery Building opened in 1960 and was deigned by Eero Saarinen. The building has nine stories, three of which are below ground and is dominated by a large aluminium bald eagle by Theodore Roszak, symbolic of the US and, some unkindly suggest, also perhaps of imperial aspirations. The building now has listed building status and is being sold to help fund the new development. The US Government has been responsible for some of the ugliest modernist embassy buildings, for example in Warsaw and Havana. The Saarinen building is one of the better examples.
The new embassy is being designed by James Timberlake of Kieran Timberlake and was won in an international competition. Interestingly, it keeps some of the elements of Sarrinen’s building – simple geometry and a cladding system that adds the architectural interest. It will be a secure square pavilion surrounded by water and landscaped areas which aim to connect it into the redevelopment of the area. Given the amount of technical advice available, it is hoped that security measures can be discrete and avoid the ugly manifestations that surround the Houses of Parliament in Westminster and the current Embassy.
The building has had its critics and we will have to await its opening in 2017, by a new President perhaps? Timberlake says ‘I’d like people to think it has a gravitas and a sense of beauty and civic purpose; that it’s meaningful and contributes to London’s architecture. I don’t expect people to love the embassy like the Gherkin, but I’d want them to understand it through the lens of modern American architecture and how it expresses itself abroad.’
For an interview with Timberlake, see the RIBA Journal.