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Chipperfield's US Embassy plans would cause 'substantial harm' says C20 Society

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The Twentieth Century Society has criticised David Chipperfield Architects’ proposals to convert the soon-to-be empty US Embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square into a hotel

In a letter to Westminster Council (see below) the group said that, while the plans to turn the building into a hotel were ‘appropriate’, a proposed double-height, sixth-floor extension would ‘cause significant and substantial harm to the character of the building’.

The society added that it was ‘disappointed’ with the designs for the new upper floor and also hit out at the planned demolition of the ‘majority of the internal spaces’, particularly the removal of the original staircases, saying it would result in ‘substantial harm to the listed building’. 

The letter reads: ’The proposed double height 6th floor will damage the present proportions of the listed building: the rhythm of the front façade will be fundamentally changed.’

David Chipperfield Architects won the high-profile job last August, ahead of a number of big names including Foster + Partners and KPF. The invited contest was run by Malcolm Reading Consultants for the building’s owners, Qatari Diar. 

Developer Qatari Diar has consulted Grosvenor Estate, which owns a freehold on the site, over its plans. The estate was recently inherited by the new Duke of Westminster, Hugh Grosvenor, following the death of his father, Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor.

The Grade II-listed landmark was built in 1957-60 and designed by Eero Saarinen. The latest plans, which were submitted in July, feature 137 hotel rooms, five restaurants, six shops, a spa and a 1,000-person ballroom built behind the retained ‘exposed concrete diagrid’ façade.

Collage us embassy

Describing his approach, Chipperfield previously said: ‘Our design proposals protect and respect the significant architectural and structural characteristics of Eero Saarinen’s design, with a focus on restoring and enhancing this unique building to secure its long-term future at the heart of Mayfair.

‘We have studied the building’s design and its history as well as its surroundings to deliver an architecturally and socially coherent proposal, which will transform this purpose-built embassy into a world-class hotel.’

The building will be vacated by 2017 after US diplomatic staff move into a new building within the Nine Elms regeneration project drawn up by Philadelphia-based Kieran Timberlake.

The Grosvenor Square building was listed in 2009 by Historic England (then English Heritage) mainly for its ‘strongly-articulated design and dynamic façades, well-detailed stonework and consistency of detail’.

The heritage watchdog said: ‘Of particular note is the innovative application of the exposed concrete diagrid – an intelligent combination of structural expression and decorative motifs which provides cohesion to the whole and which illustrates Saarinen’s principles of marrying form to structure, interior to exterior – and his close involvement in detail and execution.’

EH described Saarinen as ‘an outstanding figure in 20th-century architecture’ and said the building was an early example of a ‘Modernist yet contextual’ approach to design’ in a sensitive urban location.

Saarinen was assisted by Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall as UK executive architect, with FJ Samuely as structural engineer.

Its historic interest stemmed from the strong USA association with Grosvenor Square, which was the nerve centre for the country’s armed forces in the UK during the Second World War. In 1968, the embassy became the focus for anti-USA sentiment during protests against the Vietnam War.

Qatari Diar bought the building in 2009 (see AJ 03.11.09). 

The developer has been contacted for a response.

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