LONDON — When the U.S. Department of State announced last month the results of the design competition for its new embassy here, the jury surprised critics by selecting, from among a glitzy shortlist of four firms, the only one that has not won the prestigious Pritzker Prize: the relatively youthful Philadelphia-based office of KieranTimberlake. The 26-year-old firm, co-founded by Stephen Kieran ’73, is currently renovating Morse and Stiles colleges, and previously worked on the renovations for Silliman, Berkeley, Davenport and Pierson colleges, in addition to designing the Yale Sculpture Building and Gallery on Edgewood Avenue.
But amid the hoopla surrounding the announcement of the $1 billion project, few realized that a similar selection process had taken place half a century ago, when another young Eli, Eero Saarinen ARC ’34, won the competition to build London’s current American embassy.
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“Of course, more than just two of the most important commissions in the past century have gone to Yalies,” School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 said. “It’s a source of pride.”
But this is not to say the designs of the two Elis are architecturally similar. In an interview Wednesday, Kieran emphasized the sharp turn his firm’s design takes from the aesthetic of Saarinen’s chancellery: While Saarinen hoped to build a “dramatically dark building,” as he wrote in the original designs for the embassy, in order to emphasize America’s strong presence abroad, Kieran said his firm worked to create a timeless symbol of what America is becoming today — a friendly neighbor, a good citizen, “a beacon of hope and democracy and transparency,” as he put it.
The plan for the new embassy — a glass-and-steel cube covered with a scrim akin to the concrete frame of Beinecke Library — will move America’s London headquarters from their current location in downtown London on Grosvenor Square to a comparatively depressed waterside site in the city’s Nine Elms neighborhood, leaving the old Modernist office’s fate in limbo. But a month after the announcement, as the dust of the contest begins to settle, the focus is moving away from the two buildings’ individual aesthetics, shifting instead to America’s changing image, molded by two Elis of different generations.
A BRIGHT, NEW, ENERGY-EFFICIENT FUTURE
The recent contest that determined the future of the embassy is only the fourth design competition the State Department has held in its history. It is no coincidence that two of the four competitions have been for British chancelleries, said a U.S. Embassy spokesperson in London, who requested anonymity in accordance with State Department policy. To say this project is the most important American commission of the decade would not be a statement of diplomatic hyperbole, he added.
Not only is the new embassy important for America, but it will also become integral to the development of the south bank of London, the spokesperson said.
“We’re pioneers on the site, and we have to set a high standard for quality,” he said.
On a chilly and gray London morning just over a week ago, the new site was the antithesis to the bustle of the city’s core. While a few dozen feet away, across the river, double-decker buses whizzed by crowds of pedestrians, less than a handful of people were on the street in Nine Elms, and little noise came from the variety of warehouses that are scattered across the area.
But come 2017, when the new embassy is scheduled to open, the neighborhood is expected to look very different. The bankside property occupied by the embassy will feature new commercial and residential high-rises to accompany the embassy. The building itself will also be surrounded by a multi-acre park space open to the public despite the embassy’s high security concerns.
“A park that’s open for everybody in London is really a unique feature for an embassy,” Kieran said.
But, paradoxically the park also acts as a security measure for a post-9/11 embassy.
The northern facade of the structure will feature a semicircular pond with walking paths along its perimeter, which will act as a natural barrier between pedestrians and the building, adding to the standard security measures found in most embassies. Still, Kieran said he strongly disagrees with critics who have called the pond merely a “moat,” and explained that it was designed primarily to echo other green spaces in London. He added that the pond is also part of the building’s environmental agenda, doubling as a component of the heat regulation system.
While the design brief only called for LEED Gold certification, Kieran said LEED Platinum — the highest possible rating — is the only one fit to represent America’s message of “outstanding citizenship” to the world.
Indeed, Kieran emphasized that the greatest design concern, beyond environmentalism and security, is to create an image of America and the nation’s relationship with its British allies. That is why, he said, the structure takes the shape of a crystalline cube, “a timeless geometry” that Kieran says he hopes will remain a landmark feature in the London skyline.
“We definitely didn’t set out to build with wacky shapes and forms — we set out to build something with more permanence and importance,” Kieran said. “A lot of this I learned from my time at Yale — that your immediate point of reference isn’t about a narrow view of architecture as a tectonic act but rather a broader view of architecture and context.”
Kieran, who majored in History of Art as a student at Yale, said much of his architectural philosophy was formed by professors such as Vincent Scully ’40 GRD ’49 who emphasized architecture in the context of its history.
But before embassy employees will be able to move into their new offices, the destiny of the old building — designed by Yalie Saarinen — will have to be determined.
While moving was not an easy choice, there were not many alternatives for the American government: The Saarinen building is outdated and overcrowded, the spokesperson said on a tour of the current grounds 10 days ago, and the State Department was forced to either rebuild on the site or move elsewhere.
In the end, the 20th Century Society — an architecture preservation group — swooped in and proposed to have the building preserved as an architectural landmark despite the Americans’ objections. This past October, the British National Heritage Society designated the embassy a Grade II listed building, which means that, at the very least, its facade cannot be altered.
As six London residents walking through Grosvenor Square 10 days ago said, the Saarinen embassy — even just by the looks of its high Modernist exterior — is not representative of modern America.
“It looks a bit just like a regular old office building now, no?” asked Sean Ryan, a banker at a nearby firm who was spending his lunch break in the square. “It now just looks too stuffy and stern to look American.”
Certainly, the building is from another era: It falls short of most modern environmental standards, it is lined with space-consuming private offices rather than today’s more commonly open cubicles, and its chain-link concrete facade showscases an America that appears stern and rigid.
The entrance to the building is also marked by a gilded aluminum eagle with a 35-foot wingspan, by sculptor Theodor Roszak, which is now embroiled in a debate about its future. When it was first hoisted to the top of the embassy, the eagle ruffled the feathers of Londoners who saw it as intimidating — too large and harsh a symbol to grace a diplomatic building. While Kieran said a place exists on the new site for the eagle, the new embassy can also do without it.
Reflecting on his completed building in August 1961, Saarinen wrote that while “in [his] own mind, the building is much better than the English think … [it’s] not quite as good as I wished it to be.”
The building was recently sold to Qatari Diar — an investment firm from Qatar — that is rumored to be transforming the structure into a hotel and residential space. (Representatives from Qatari Diar declined to comment.) Though the price of the building has not been announced, its sale, along with the offloading of the American Navy auxiliary building in London, will pay for the entire $1 billion cost of the construction and land acquisition of the new embassy — officially allowing the American monument to pass from the hands of one Yalie to the next.