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Kieran Timberlake’s London embassy reflects inevitable irony of diplomatic architecture

Kieran Timberlake’s London embassy reflects inevitable irony of diplomatic architecture

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Ambassador, you are spoiling our view of the Thames with this boring glass cube.

Is Kieran Timberlake’s winning design for the new American embassy in London really as bad as Lord Richard Rogers thinks?  Even though the public only has access to a few renderings of each proposal (and as a judge in the competition, Rogers had access to the details) I think not, particularly given the State Department’s recent, design-assaultive approach to diplomatic architecture.  Indeed, I think the Philadelphia firm managed to rescue the State Department from a rut in which it assumed good, welcoming design and adequate security are incompatible.  Moreover, their “boring glass cube” nicely restores to prominence a kind of irony that has rarely manifested itself in American diplomatic architecture since the early 1980s.

Although the Beirut embassy bombing of 1983 really just marked the end of an era that was already in decline for over a decade, it deeply impacted the State Department’s subsequently-implemented policies governing the design of American facilities abroad.  Notwithstanding its function as America’s voice abroad, security concerns came first and local engagement, at least in terms of architecture and physical presence, came last.  Street setbacks became the mandated norm, high, often opaque, perimeter fencing obstructed views and foot traffic, and facades shed glass like dandruff.

Whereas Gropius, Breuer, Bunshaft, and Saarinen - the best of their era - were once hired to design embassies to project an image of American transparency, optimism, and openness, recently-built embassies (most prominently in Berlin and Baghdad) suggested that architects were now hired solely based upon their ability to manage complex construction projects involving four bomb-proof walls and a roof.

Of course, the downside of this approach to architecture is that it produced diplomatic facilities that completely undercut the State Department’s reason for existence.  Many American embassies practically beg host countries to smirk at American words of friendship and cross-cultural exchange and instead reinforce commonly-held perceptions that the United States is merely interested in one-way relationships.

In other words, more than a few American embassies, viewed in light of American foreign policy, are permeated by a sort of “bad” irony - by seeming to admit in physical form that American expressions of friendship are nothing but a shallow ruse.  Apart from the obvious difficulties this creates for diplomats on a practical level, the damage rendered by the State Department’s ugly architecture to America’s reputation is particularly unfortunate since the United States generally does have the best of intentions.

Luckily, something happened in Foggy Bottom that prevented the State Department from adding London to the long list of cities embittered by the hulking presence of American facilities.  To find a design to replace its cramped, vulnerable London embassy on Grosvenor Square, designed by Eero Saarinen and built in 1960, the State Department held a design competition, the participants of which alone gave reason for optimism:  Kieran Timberlake, Richard Meier & Partners, Thom Mayne’s Morphosis, and Pei Cobb Freed.

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Even more surprising than the pedigreed competition itself were the proposals, all of which, albeit with varying degrees of success, avoided the dreaded syndrome of “bunker diplomacy.”  Due to setback requirements, each proposal placed the embassy building in the middle of the 5-acre riverfront location in London’s Battersea neighborhood, and deftly surrounded it with grass, water, walkways, and trees to minimize the visual intrusion of security barriers.

Similarly, each proposal refreshingly made heavy use of glass, mitigating the spatial isolation that would result from an opaque building set apart from neighboring buildings and further insuring against another case of “bad” irony.  (Kieran Timberlake’s design is still bomb resistant, thanks to a transparent polymer coating.)

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Although each design employed an array of environmental features, Kieran Timberlake made them a central design element, using wall and roof solar panels and daylighting, among other things to make the embassy a friendly-acting, not just friendly-looking, addition to London’s urban landscape.  Pei Cobb Freed’s curvy, triangular glass proposal is nearly as cohesive as Kieran Timberlake’s cube, but is partly held aloft by a somewhat sharp-edged lower level that makes it a bit less engaging with the square.  Richard Meier’s and Morphosis’ proposals are both dynamic, the former being a collection of dis-jointed volumes clinging to a large wall and white, floating volume, and the latter resembling a squished horseshoe.

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But I suspect the energy of these proposals, which happens to serve them quite well architecturally, was perhaps too much for an agency that is not known for architectural risk-taking.  The conservatism of Kieran Timberlake’s proposal on the other hand, seems to make it a natural successor to Eero Saarinen’s Mayfair building, which itself is modern, but not exuberantly so.

As for irony, The Guardian’s Jonathan Glancey is completely right that the winning design (and the other entries for that matter) has it in spades:

Cool, remote and superficially transparent, the winning design does reflect what we can divine of the US political process. Nominally open to all and yet, in practice, tightly controlled, the system of US government and its prevailing culture, aped bad-temperedly in Britain, does indeed inform the brief to Kieran Timberlake and their response to it.

But Glancey’s assessment is misplaced in two ways.  First, the United States is no different from any other nation in that it desires welcoming, but secure, diplomatic facilities; it just happens to have the worst record of striking an architecturally-appealing balance because it is the nation most at risk of an attack.

Second, and more broadly, diplomatic architecture strikes me as an inherently ironic concept, and as such, it was only a question of whether the irony of the winning design would be “good” (perhaps “neutral” is the better word) or “bad.”  As I noted above, the Baghdad and Berlin embassies embody the “bad” sort of irony that undermines the very efforts they were created to house.

In contrast, Kieran Timberlake’s design, due to its deftly-integrated security features, transparent facade, and landscaping,  positively embodies the irony inherent in diplomacy: the need to cultivate productive relationships built on trust (hence the permeable facades and engaging landscaping), while also being careful to not reveal too much or trust too readily (protection in the form of non-intrusive security systems).  Its glass facade and landscaping genuflect to the need to reaffirm perceptions of transparency and openness (after all, in diplomacy, perceptions are often taken as reality), and the sensitively-integrated security features reflect the fact that in diplomacy, as with any negotiation-related endeavor, you can’t let your guard down.

The new London embassy may be ironic, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Related Posts:  (1) White papers, the AIA, and ugly embassies; (2) One benefit to not being the focus of would-be terrorists.

Image courtesy of y0_ghurt.

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