The age of terrorism has left U.S. embassies around the world with an architectural identity crisis. America wants to show itself as welcoming and friendly -- but its embassies stand in both foreign and American minds as the targets of attack. How to balance demanding security requirements and an intent to convey American principles of openness and democracy?
The new U.S. embassy in London is an eagerly anticipated indication of how the State Department plans to solve that.
Louis B. Susman, the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, today announced the Philadelphia firm Kieran Timberlake as the winner of the new London embassy design competition.
"Kieran Timberlake's design meets the goal of creating a modern, welcoming, timeless, safe and energy efficient embassy for the 21st century," he said.
In a statement, the firm said it set out "to resolve, in architectural terms, what an embassy aspires to be and what aspires to do. The expressive challenge is to give form to the core beliefs of our democracy -- transparency, openness, and equality -- and do so in a way that is both secure and welcoming."
The proposed building is described by Kieran Timberlake as "a transparent, crystalline cubic form atop a colonnade." It will occupy a new site near the River Thames. The building is flanked on one side by a man-made pond and by a series of manicured lawn enclosures, or an "urban park" on the other. The result is a welcoming space -- that also acts as a circular zone of blast protection.
"It happens to be visually open as well as metaphorically and diplomatically open," said Jane Loeffler, author of "The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America's Embassies."
"[The State Department] has made a big effort to underscore that kind of connection, that transparency and that welcoming kind of setting," she said.
The firm says "its precise dimensions have been selected to afford the optimum distance for visitors and occupants to daylight and view." It will also seek to perform as a highly sustainable structure. Solar panels will adorn the roof and three sides of the building will be wrapped in ETFE, or ethylene-tetrafluroethylene. This flexible scrim will provide both shade while also admitting daylight and creating portholes to the outside. It will also transform solar gain into energy.
The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations selected the Kieran Timberlake proposal from 37 submissions. A joint American-British team of leaders from architecture, academia and diplomacy narrowed the field to four firms for the final phase of competition.
The State Department plans to break ground in 2013 with expected completion in 2017.
In October 2008, the U.S. government announced plans to move its British embassy from its historic location in London's Grosvenor Square as part of a long-term strategy to improve security at embassies around the world. Grosvenor Square, in the Mayfair neighborhood of London, has been associated with the U.S. since the late 18th century when John Adams, the first United States minister to the Court of St. James, lived in a house there from 1785 to 1788.
In November 2009, the U.S. State Department announced its agreement to sell the property to the Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company, headquartered in Doha, Qatar. Proceeds of the sale and surrounding properties are expected to cover the cost of the new $1 billion complex.
As a close diplomatic partner of the U.S., the United Kingdom provided a relatively safe haven to try and resolve the identity crisis with which embassies around the world are grappling. A new embassy in Yemen, Syria or Iraq may not allow for the same kind of design.
Architecture, like diplomacy, demands a sense of confidence as well as a willingness to extend a hand both to invite in and explore the outside world. The new U.S. embassy in London seeks to deliver on both.