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The eagle is moving: American Embassy comes to Nine Elms

America’s best architects have risen to the challenge of a complex, detailed brief, writes Rory Olcayto, as the AJ presents all four shortlisted designs for the new US Embassy

The competition to design a new US Embassy on a 2ha site on the south bank of London’s River Thames was first announced in October 2008, when former US ambassador Robert Tuttle declared that realising the goal of ‘a modern, secure and environmentally sustainable embassy could best be met by constructing a new facility’.

That very day, Tuttle had signed a conditional agreement with developer Ballymore to acquire a site in Nine Elms. ‘I’m excited about America playing a role in the regeneration of the south bank of London,’ he said. It was an historic decision. It signalled the end of an American presence in Mayfair’s Grosvenor Square, which dates back to 1785, when John Adams, the first US minister to the Court of St James’s, resided there for three years.

It also meant leaving the Eero Saarinen-designed 1 Grosvenor Square, which has served as the embassy since 1960, and which was also the result of a major design competition published by the AJ in April 1956. (The building has since been listed and acquired by property firm Qatari Diar.)

Back then, the brief called for facilities ‘in an architectural style and form which is distinguished… reflect credit on the US [and] will create goodwill by intelligent appreciation. [It should] use construction techniques, materials, and equipment of proven merit and reliability’. Today, the focus is much the same.

The new embassy in Nine Elms should be ‘welcoming and inspiring’. It should, of course, ‘speak of the special relationship’ that Britain and the US enjoy. But perhaps more interestingly, given that these conditions are now a prerequisite for new development in London, it must be ‘sustainable’ and ‘contribute to the public realm’. The embassy grounds, too, must sport landscape design of a quality equal to the architecture, and ‘one should reflect the other’. Furthermore, with a top line datum of 85m, the capital’s skyline must be respectfully considered.

Planning permissions

Outline planning application
• A 40,000-50,000m2 building
• Three entrance pavilions
• Landscaping and perimeter treatments

Detailed planning application
• The relocation of Ponton Road
• A new access road off Nine Elms Lane
• New road signals on, and treatment of, Nine Elms Lane

Security is paramount: the outline planning permission granted last September shows the building footprint set back from the site edge by 30m. Yet the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, which directs the US State Department’s worldwide facilities programme and is advised in London by real-estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, is not planning a fortress. In fact, it has made it clear that the design of its new embassy should minimise the impact of security measures on the immediate streets and public spaces.

The Americans take their competitions very seriously. This is only the fourth time the US has used such a process to procure an embassy – most recently for the embassy in Berlin, won in 1996 by Moore Ruble Yudell – and there has not been a competition of this scale or importance in the UK since the Scottish Parliament in 1998.

An intimidating jury – which includes two Brits, architecture patron Peter Palumbo and architect Richard Rogers – selected the winner. They, as well as the shortlisted architects, have spent considerable time on the riverfront site, sizing it up – the exhaustive specification brief that an embassy entails and the contextual demands laid down by London Mayor Boris Johnson demand it. But it is important to remember that the jury’s role was to select an architect, not a design.

Of the 37 applications to develop the Nine Elms site, nine were longlisted in January last year. In the following weeks, this was reduced to a shortlist of four: Morphosis Architects, Richard Meier & Partners, KieranTimberlake and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. You can see the practices’ designs on the linked pages.

Each scheme is presented in stunning, extreme detail and supported by texts covering design strategies, energy and security plans, context and landscape. There appear to be two approaches. One is a consolidated single building at the centre of a landscaped site, as proposed by KieranTimberlake and Pei Cobb Freed. The other is a component-based scheme that at first glance gives an illusion of fracture, as seen in Richard Meier’s and Morphosis Architects’ proposals.

All four schemes play with the landscape, specifying gardens blooming with plantlife from both the Americas and the British Isles. KieranTimberlake goes further, placing a variety of gardens within the embassy building, some of which burst on to terraces.

More importantly, however, each of these buildings, in which new US ambassador Louis Susman and 800 staff will work, signals the future. How they combine workplace with leisure space, private landscape with public realm, energy-efficiency with attractive aesthetics, and security with reasonable access, will influence the future of corporate architecture, here in the UK and across the globe, for years to come.

Timeline

October 2008
Ambassador Robert Tuttle announces a new embassy will be built in Nine Elms

November 2008
Design competition, exclusive to US firms, launched

January 2009
Longlist of nine drawn up from 37 applications:
• Richard Meier & Partners
• Morphosis Architects
• Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects
• Kallmann McKinnell & Wood Architects
• KieranTimberlake
• KPF
• Pei Cobb Freed & Partners
• Perkins + Will
• SOM

January 2009
Jury site visit

March 2009
Longlist reduced to shortlist of four firms:
• Richard Meier & Partners
• Morphosis Architects
• KieranTimberlake
• Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

April 2009
Outline planning application for US Embassy (by Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects) and detailed planning application for new road and access routes

September 2009
Wandsworth Council grants outline planning permission for new US Embassy

February 2010
Announcement of architect to design US Embassy

2013-2016
Construction period

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