For decades the residents of elite Grosvenor Square in London’s Mayfair had to contend with overbearing security along the entire side of the square occupied by the American Embassy. Now, much to their relief, the Embassy is moving to the less rarified area of Wandsworth, and in environmental terms, the new building will be everything America aspires to but rarely achieves.
US Embassy in London to be off-grid readyFor decades the residents of elite Grosvenor Square in London’s Mayfair have had to contend with overbearing security along an entire side of the square from the American Embassy. Now the Embassy is moving to the less rarified area of Wandsworth, but in environmental terms, it will be everything America aspires to but rarely achieves:It will be nearly self-sufficient in energy production and even capable of operating off-grid “for an extended period,” according to officials. Unlike most glass office buildings, which appear slick and hard-edged, this one will look soft and pillowy thanks to the lightweight plastic attached to the façade “like boat sails.”Essentially vertical fins, the plastic will do triple duty. Made from the same Etfe fabric that was quilted onto the Beijing Watercube for the Olympics, they will be embedded with photovoltaic cells that can convert sunlight into energy, even in foggy, soggy London. They will also act as sunscreens to keep interiors from overheating. And because the fins are pinched at regular intervals, they create a rippling, sculptural effect on the glass surface.In the hope of ending its reputation for Fortress America-style embassies, the State Department selected a Philadelphia architecture firm known for its thoughtful and environmentally rigorous work to design the new, more welcoming U.S. Embassy in London.The firm, KieranTimberlake, beat out three better-known finalists in a lengthy competition whose jury included top design-world figures, the State Department announced. This is only the fourth time the foreign service has held such a competition to select an embassy architect. This one was organized with the intention of making a statement about America’s democratic and environmental aspirations, even while it struggles to accommodate the intense security demands of a post-9/11 world.Embassy officials in London held a special presentation to unveil the design. The $500 million embassy, to be situated on an industrial site a mile downriver on the Thames from the Houses of Parliament, will be by far the greenest the United States has ever built.James Timberlake, who founded his Spring Garden-area office with Stephen Kieran, said in a telephone interview from London that their entry was intended to be a transparent building, surrounded by green space where the public can relax. Their design is a perfect glass cube set in a circular park. Although portions of the park are raised for security reasons, the block is approachable compared with other American embassies.”You don’t see bollards because they’re integrated in landscape,” Timberlake said. “You don’t see walls. There are no fences.”Visitors, however, will still have to pass through a screening pavilion before entering the embassy lobby. There is another entrance for staff, and separate lobby corridors.KieranTimberlake teamed with the Philadelphia landscape architects Olin to create the park around the building. A half-moon pond will camouflage the ground-level security buffers. Even so, it’s hard to see that pond as anything other than a castle moat. The official staff entrance that floats over the water feature is the symbolic drawbridge.For serious, urban-minded architects, designing an American embassy in these tense times is almost sure to lead to regret. Federal law requires a whopping 100-foot setback from the street. Security consultants often wind up calling the shots.That said, KieranTimberlake has come up with light, shimmering cube that is a vast improvement over the recently opened embassy in Berlin, with its prison-like windows. This embassy rises on tapered legs to allow passersby clear views into the lobby, which will be adorned with a wall-size work by a yet-unnamed American artist.It is also highly responsible environmentally. “We wanted to create a building that would be an environment for diplomacy, but also serve as diplomacy for the environment,” Timberlake explained.KieranTimberlake, which designed the award-winning Sidwell Friends middle school in Washington – where Malia Obama attends classes – is known for developing original ideas for saving energy. Levine Hall, at the University of Pennsylvania, was one of the first to use a glass skin that incorporated the building’s ventilation systems.Over the years, the State Department has been harshly criticized at home and abroad for its dreary embassies. During a U.S. Senate hearing last year, Sen. John Kerry said he “cringed” at the sight of some recent embassies. “We’re building fortresses around the world,” Kerry complained. “We’re separating ourselves from people in these countries.”With the London embassy, the State Department first consulted with officials from Wandsworth, to make sure they were happy with the plan for the five-acre site. Wandsworth officials hope that the project will kick-start the redevelopment of the former industrial area.It remains to be seen whether KieranTimberlake’s design receives a warmer welcome than the old embassy. Prince Charles has been crusading for years against the incursion of modern high-rises in low-rise London.
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