What Trump gets wrong about the new Philly-designed London embassy
A new design by Philadelphia's KieranTimberlake attempts to humanize embassy design in the Age of Terror.
LONDON — The new American embassy designed by Philadelphia's KieranTimberlake is built to take virtually anything that terrorists could throw at it. Its elegant concrete perimeter walls are hardened to stop an explosive-laden truck. Pits hidden in the lush native plantings are designed to trap suicide bombers before they get near the building. Even the regular infusions of fresh air pumped into the building are screened against poison gas.
But just as employees were beginning to move in last month, the embassy was subjected to an assault from a source they never expected: the president of the United States.
Taking to Twitter, President Trump ridiculed the decision to move operations from the old embassy in London's posh Mayfair section to an up-and-coming neighborhood on the Thames River. After inaccurately blaming the Obama administration for the move, Trump leveled the ultimate developer takedown: The sale of the old embassy was "a bad deal" for America.
Trump, who has often been at odds with his own State Department, was wrong about the move and wrong about the impressive new American embassy just completed in Wandsworth, a former industrial area whose place in London's urban geography is similar to Philadelphia's Schuylkill Yards, and just 12 minutes by subway from Westminster Palace.
The old embassy was on Grosvenor Square, an old-money haven just a short walk from Oxford Street. That genteel neighborhood of Georgian mansions, fine restaurants, and bespoke tailors may have been the ideal spot for American diplomats in the 1950s during the Cold War. But in the Age of Terror, such congenial diplomatic oases have sadly become a thing of the past.
By 2008, when President Bush approved the relocation of the U.S. compound to Wandsworth, the Grosvenor Square embassy had been fortified. After al-Qaeda began targeting symbols of American power in the late '90s, the handsome building — a triumph of Mid-century architecture by Eero Saarinen — was walled off with an unsightly ring of concrete barriers. In the mornings, as hordes of frustrated visa-seekers gathered outside, the scene would take on the desperate air of a refugee camp food line. Neighbors were so angry that one, a Russian countess, threatened a hunger strike until the U.S. left.
With dozens of other American outposts struggling under similar conditions, it was clear the U.S. needed a new kind of embassy, one that could incorporate the harsh realities of 21st-century security without looking like Fortress America.
London was chosen as the guinea pig. After a national competition in 2010, the job of reinventing the American embassy went to KieranTimberlake, a Philadelphia firm known for its pioneering green architecture.
The result is a 12-story Borg cube set in a circular garden that includes a small basin, one of the many artfully disguised security features. Architect James Timberlake calls the basin a "pond," the nickname the British use for the Atlantic Ocean. But given the way the embassy perches above the water on silvery, aerodynamic columns, it's hard to resist the tower-in-a-moat comparison.
Moat or pond, the new embassy is more than just a work of architecture. Along with humanizing the embassy's security defenses, they've brought a rigorous green agenda to the project, while carving out generous spaces for both employees and foreigners. In doing so, they have produced a building that reflects America's best self.
The building is already an object of fascination in London, mainly for the undulating, plastic screen that swaddles three sides of the building and shimmers in the sun. But here in America, the embassy has yet to receive the respect it deserves. After his Twitter outburst, Trump canceled plans to visit London, and the celebratory ribbon-cutting was put on indefinite hold.
It's no surprise that Trump dislikes the embassy. Understated, welcoming, environmentally sustainable, it is the anti-Trump tower. The new building did, however, come with a Trump-size price tag — $1 billion — but the cost was entirely covered by the sale of the Mayfair embassy, which is being turned into a luxury hotel by Qatar's state real estate company.
When I mention the disconnect between Trump's comments and the design's goals to Timberlake, who showed me around the building, he winces. He isn't happy with the way the project has been politicized. The embassy, he takes pains to explain, was planned under the Bush administration, executed under Obama, and opened under Trump. What the design reflects "are the cultural values of the United States," Timberlake insists. "Administrations come and go. … This building will last 60 to 100 years."
Still, architecture has a way of embodying cultural shifts. By embracing the language of heroic modernism for the old embassy in 1960, Saarinen was asserting America's new dominance in the postwar world. The building was suave and assured. The new embassy was conceived at a time when the U.S. was adjusting to a more complicated, multipolar world. That new reality is reflected in the embassy's earnest striving to be a good neighbor and to use its technological prowess for the world's good.
While Trump has set back environmental progress by withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate treaty, the new embassy literally wears its environmental bona fides on its sleeve. The defining element is the sun screen, a cascade of white sails that ripple across the glass cube, softening its straight lines and giving the boxy form some welcome sculptural relief. Made from translucent ETFE plastic, the sails passively regulate the building's temperature, while still allowing views of the city. Fittingly for an American embassy, the plastic comes from recycled soda bottles.
The sun screen is one of dozens of energy-saving measures worked into the design. Rooftop solar panels generate electricity to power the 500,000-square-foot space. Water for the gardens, designed by Olin, the Philadelphia landscape architecture firm, is drawn from a recirculating basin at the base of the cube.
Because the basin camouflages a hardened security wall, KieranTimberlake was able to turn a sizable part of the embassy's 4.5-acre site into an easily accessible public park.
The embassy faces Nine Elms Lane (actually, a Delaware Avenue-style highway), directly across from the gorgeous Thames embankment. If London ever installs a crosswalk there, it will be possible to saunter from the riverfront, through the embassy grounds, into the Nine Elms neighborhood, a massive redevelopment area where 25,000 new apartments, are rising. The embassy garden could someday serve as a town common.
Olin's garden path loops around the compound, leading visitors to a series of free-standing glass screening pavilions, where visitors are subjected to the standard airport-level security. Once you've run the gauntlet, however, you are in a gracious walled park. Since many visa-seekers arrive with children, there is room for them to run around while parents wait to be summoned to the consular section. A generous porch at the building's entrance offers cover in rainy weather.
The gracious welcome continues inside. Arriving at the consular offices, foreign visa applicants are greeted with panoramic views of the moody Thames, including the nearby Battersea power station. Since the embassy handles about a thousand people a day in the high season, the orderly screening process should help improve life for the embassy's staff.
People often forget that embassies are really just office buildings. Despite the challenge of protecting the lives of the embassy's 800 employees, KieranTimberlake was able to give them a generous modern workplace. Six landscaped terraces are scattered through the building, allowing employees to take a quick fresh-air break, and a double-height cafeteria overlooks the Thames. Keeping with a tradition started by Dwight Eisenhower, the architects fit in a cozy bar for employees.
As a firm, KieranTimberlake often has seemed more interested in the way buildings function than the way they look. This isn't an embassy that mimics a European palace. Then again, it was never meant to be one.
Instead, KieranTimberlake's embassy seeks to resolve one of the big architectural challenges of our time: how to satisfy the demands of an increasingly urbanized society that prizes the serendipitous pleasures of cities, with a world that is perpetually on high alert. By staying true to our nation's values, the architects prove that graciousness and civility needn't be a casualty of America's security needs.