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An embassy worthy of a US presidential visit

Paul Finch
  • 1 Comment

KieranTimberlake’s new US embassy building deserves celebration, whatever you think of Trump, writes Paul Finch

Mayor Khan’s draft London Plan says, and I quote: ‘London is one of the most diverse cities in the world, a place where everyone is welcome.’ When I first read this, I groaned inwardly. Are murderers and rapists and paedophiles welcome? What about bogus asylum-seekers? What about terrorists, actual or would-be?

‘Everyone’ apparently no longer includes the President of the United States. I am no torch-carrier for the current incumbent, virtually all of whose comments about the embassy and the property deal are mistaken or silly. But I can’t help feeling that the Mayor’s torrent of abuse about him does nothing to further London’s cause, especially given its forthcoming post-Brexit context. In matters of diplomacy, it is the representative of an office that one is dealing with, not just the individual. The point about an embassy opening is that it usually involves a piece of land which is the sovereign property of the country represented, thus a state visit has a very specific justification.

16899 70 1b

16899 70 1b

Source: Richard Bryant/Arcaid Images

US Embassy Nine Elms

As it happens, the splendid new building at Nine Elms will be the first UK embassy owned freehold by the US government for decades. That is because Grosvenor Estate would never sell the freehold of the former embassy site in Grosvenor Square – unless the US pledged to return land seized from the Grosvenor family in the War of Independence. That was never going to happen, since the real estate included whole states and real estate worth billions of dollars. It was a jokey request, and the long lease Grosvenor granted in the late 1940s has generated a sale worth more than £300 million, which has helped to pay for the new embassy, said to have cost a billion dollars.

President Trump has complained bitterly about the poor deal he claims characterises the sale of the old Eero Saarinen embassy, but he might bear in mind the £650 million the US offered to buy the Chelsea Barracks site before the Candy brothers snapped it up. Nine Elms was, by comparison, a bargain. Not a bad location either, despite Trumpian belly-aching: it is closer to Downing Street and the Foreign Office than Grosvenor Square is.

The US president seems to have ignored the security challenge of bringing the old embassy up to scratch, given the increased sophistication of terrorist hardware. For example, while the listed Saarinen building could have strengthened its elevations against bomb or rocket attack, no doubt after prolonged discussions with Historic England, there was a real problem about strengthening the roof to State Department required standards. A move was inevitable; the Chelsea idea fell through and Nine Elms is a very decent alternative.

KieranTimberlake’s design, which won a high-quality competition, is a sophisticated synthesis of non-Trumpian environmental design (including different façade treatments, depending on orientation), future-proofing, and the tricky technical question of how to run parallel security systems side by side, one for staff and one for visitors, without it feeling like a gulag. The provision of separate means of escape results in a very large core: this is not a conventional office building.

16899 250 1 crop

16899 250 1 crop

Source: Richard Bryant/Arcaid Images

Having visited the embassy before Christmas, I can confirm that it is a great achievement: full of good art (including a wonderful Rachel Whiteread), semi-public spaces both inside and out, and an absence of the hermetic paranoia that pervaded the old building. Security has been incorporated in the flowing landscape, designed by Laurie Olin.

Incidentally, despite multiple media reports claiming there is a ‘moat’ round the building, there is nothing of the sort. It is a pond, part of the cooling and environmental systems that characterise the building. As with most new US embassies, this one has acted as a catalyst for local development, and Nine Elms is finally on the map as an integral part of central London, which the forthcoming Northern Line underground spur will reinforce. This all deserves celebration.

16899 90 1

16899 90 1

Source: Richard Bryant/Arcaid Images

US Embassy Nine Elms

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Readers' comments (1)

  • As an aside, the 'jokey request' of the Grosvenor Estate for return of their North American land holdings seized by the United States following the war of independence could justifiably be countered by a request for compensation by the descendants of the First Nation tribes massacred and dispossessed in the course of the Grosvenor family's acquisition of that land.
    It would be the end of the Grosvenor Estate - and, who knows?, starting with the transfer of the freehold of the former embassy site in Grosvenor Square it would go a long way to alleviating the poverty and social deprivation of the many First Nations communities that were dumped in the more godforsaken corners of the United States.
    Just a joke, or an inconvenient fact of our glorious colonial history?

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