Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Design Concept Selected for New U.S. Embassy London

The winner of the design competition for a new U.S. embassy in London was announced today:

U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Louis B. Susman, and Acting Director of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, Adam Namm, announced today that KieranTimberlake of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has won the design competition for the New London Embassy.

KieranTimberlake’s design met the goal of creating a modern, welcoming, timeless, safe and energy efficient embassy for the 21st century. Their concept most fully satisfied the requirements outlined in the design competition’s mission statement. The concept holds the greatest potential for developing a truly iconic embassy and is on the leading edge of sustainable design. KieranTimberlake is an architectural firm known for its commitment to innovation and environmental responsibility.

Starting with 37 architectural submissions, the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations narrowed the list to nine firms. A distinguished jury of both American and British leaders in the fields of architecture, academia and diplomacy selected four firms for the final phase of the competition.

The four firms explored the symbolism of the embassy, its presence and position in the cityscape of London. Their goal was to create a building and site complex with a timeless quality to appropriately represent the United States of America in the United Kingdom.

The four competing architectural firms, KieranTimberlake, Morphosis Architects, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners and Richard Meier & Partners, worked for nearly a year and made presentations to the jury which then recommended the winning design.

As KieranTimberlake moves forward with the design of the building, the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations and KieranTimberlake will be actively engaged in the consultation and planning process involving the Mayor’s office, the Wandsworth Borough Council, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, as well as residents in the area to ensure that the new embassy provides an appropriate home for the United States of America in London.

The anticipated ground breaking on this landmark embassy will be in 2013 with a goal to complete the construction in 2017.

The WaPo has a story on the winning design concept today with quotes from architectural historian Jane Loeffler, that archenemy of Fortress Embassies:

Jane Loeffler, author of "The Architecture of Diplomacy," a history of U.S. embassy facilities, praised the selection.

"They really want to make this a positive statement and it looks like they are doing that," said Loeffler. "It is very fashion forward, but it's not just trendy; it has rationale and science behind it."

-- snip --

The winning design's emphasis on sustainability isn't just trendy architectural positioning, argues Loeffler. It is symbolically important as a diplomatic gesture. It also demonstrates how sustainability and security are interwoven in embassy architecture. A structure with its own water and energy sources isn't just kind to the environment, it's self-reliant during a crisis. Loeffler cites the example of the U.S. Embassy in Haiti -- an exemplar of the State Department's recent more fortress-like structures -- which withstood last month's devastating earthquake and has kept functioning through the aftermath.

The winning firm is tooting its horn today, and provided the public with several conceptual renderings of that symbolic-secure-sustainable design, such as the one above.

The concept looks perfectly fine to me, not that I know anything about art. I see that it provides the necessary setback distance from potential vehicle-borne explosive devices via barriers that are discretely cut into the landscaped hillside on the back of the building and by the water feature on the front (prediction: before construction is finished, DS will be blamed for requiring moats), and, according to the WaPo story, the facade of the building is designed of blast-resistant glass and polymer skin.

I'm sure this building can be made fully compliant with all the current embassy security standards, however, I expect it will be at a far greater cost than would have been the case with a more conventional concrete-and-punched-windows building. If the State Department chooses to do one artsy new embassy in London at the cost of three or four unrefined standard design embassies in other places, well, that's a management decision, and I assume the people in charge must have made that trade-off after due consideration.

I also note that this new embassy will contain just the chancery building, and none of the other stuff that has commonly been provided on new embassy complexes for the last ten or so years - no Chief of Mission Residence, Marine House, warehouse, parking lots and service bays, etc. Of course, I suppose that one advantage of building a new embassy in a nice place like London is that you don't need to provide the on-site amenities that are required in the third world, such as commissaries and recreational facilities. Because of that downsized space requirement, the London embassy can be built on a site of only five acres, versus the ten or more acres that are customarily needed to meet new embassy space requirements.


Second thoughts:

Upon some reflection, I see that what we have here, security-wise, is a modern version of the motte-and-bailey castle, a type of fortification that was common in the UK once upon a time. Elegantly simple, and culturally sensitive to boot.

Now, just so long as the British no longer build trebuchets, the new embassy ought to be in good shape.


Anonymous said...

My husband and I both were sitting at the computer and he pulled up your site and we both verbally dissected the plan right along with you.

My immediate reaction? "OOooh! Cool moat!"

His immediate reaction? Setbacks and security stuff.

And where will all the employees park? But, then again, not our problem, I guess.

Loved the castle schema and the trebuchet video! My boys used to built trebuchets out of everything they could get their hands on. Playmobil sells an awesome one, just in case anyone with little boys is reading this!

TSB said...

My youngest boy is now 18, but I'll get one of those Playmobil sets for myself! Thanks.