Enthralled by embassy

The Canyonlands Garden (top), which represents the Grand Canyon and the south-west desert landscapes of the United States; and a bar (above) in the embassy.
PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EPA-EFE
The Canyonlands Garden (top), which represents the Grand Canyon and the south-west desert landscapes of the United States; and a bar (above) in the embassy.
The Canyonlands Garden, which represents the Grand Canyon and the south-west desert landscapes of the United States.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EPA-EFE
The Canyonlands Garden (top), which represents the Grand Canyon and the south-west desert landscapes of the United States; and a bar (above) in the embassy.
A bar in the embassy.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EPA-EFE

To open next month, the $1.34-billion American embassy in London looks like a modernist museum

LONDON • American embassies often look like fortresses - to deter terrorists - but the design for the new one in London attacks that drab perception.

At US$1 billion (S$1.34 billion), it is the most expensive embassy ever constructed.

But its designers said the chancery on the Thames River marks a paradigm shift in design.

The structure exudes openness while hiding all the clever ways it defends itself from attack.

After decades of putting up American embassies that look brutalist or bland, the soon-to-be-opened building is a crystalline cube, set in the middle of a public park, without visible walls.

The building does not shout "spies work here" or "stand back" even though London has been subjected to a string of terror incidents.

Instead, the vibe is that of a modernist museum that also happens to issue visas and might have a few hidden bunkers. Instead of blast-proof walls, there is a perimeter pond, with recycled-water waterfalls, native hammocks and deep trenches.

On the roof, arrays of solar panels will produce enough juice to run the building and give back the extra watts to the grid.

The building sports frosted glass walkways, inspirational quotes of the US Constitution, neon sculpture, reclaimed teak benches, Cornwall granite, its own subterranean wastewater treatment plant and a dozen gardens in the sky, one showcasing the flora of the American Midwest.

Other highlights - a pub, a gym, a post office and posh Marine barracks, with millionaire views all the way to Westminster for the hardworking 19-year-old lance corporals.

One assumes that there is a station for the Central Intelligence Agency, but that was not on the tour.

Journalists were given a first look inside recently - the embassy will open on Jan 16 - and the early word from the British media was mostly positive.

The Evening Standard called the interiors "stunning". The Daily Mail said instead of a slick and hard-edged high rise, the building's exterior had a "soft and pillowy" feel.

Plastic polymer veils drape three sides of the building, enhancing energy efficiency.

This is a far cry from earlier critiques. Mr Ken Livingstone, former mayor of London, said the city expected "something a little bit more exciting".

A critic at the Guardian newspaper called the pond "a moat" and reported that the two British jurors on the design jury tried to block the design because it was too boring. But those concerns can now be laid to rest.

US ambassador Robert Johnson said "Little America is moving south of the river" - a new beginning in a formerly rough neighbourhood of public housing and old warehouses, now exploding with growth, between the Chelsea and Vauxhall bridges.

He confessed that he was a little wistful, too, because there was so much history at the old embassy and its location in Grosvenor Square.

The old embassy, a 1960 modernist gem by architect Eero Saarinen, was sold to the real estate division of Qatar's sovereign wealth fund. It has gobbled up high-profile London properties, including the Harrods department store.

The plan is to turn the old embassy into a luxury hotel.

The money from its sale, and those of other US properties in London, funded entirely the billion-dollar embassy.

The building was designed by the firm KieranTimberlake of Philadelphia. The job specifications filled up 1,000 pages.

The results, going by what the early reviewers said, have been worth the trouble.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2017, with the headline 'Enthralled by embassy'. Print Edition | Subscribe