every Doge has his day

Save our Saarinen! The American Embassy in London under threat.

Buildings acquire personality not only through their architecture, but through the events that they witness. In the case of Eero Saarinen’s American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, London, the two are inextricably intertwined. From the anti-Vietnam-War protests of the 1960s, through the anti-nuclear-missile campaign of the 1980s, to the recent fortifications against terrorist attack, the huge golden eagle atop this curious, slightly overwrought building has seen it all – including 50,000 Londoners quietly coming to offer support and condolence in the aftermath of 9/11.

Now there is a move to have the building “listed” – that is, statutorily protected as important both architecturally and historically. The U.S. ambassador to Britain, Robert Tuttle, has announced that he intends to build a bigger, safer embassy elsewhere. The fear is that Saarinen’s building might face demolition or heavy-handed remodeling. No question in my mind: this building must not be wrecked.
Designed in 1955 and completed by 1960, the U.S. Chancellery, to give its official title, has always divided the critics. It was Saarinen’s only British building, and you can see him struggling to accommodate his highly tectonic, free-form approach with the demands of its historic Mayfair context – despite collaborating with the distinguished British modernist firm Yorke, Rosenberg & Mardall.
Grosvenor Square, along with the rest of upmarket Mayfair, is the heart of the wealthiest property empire in Britain, the Grosvenor Estate, actively run by successive Dukes of Westminster. The dukes take their duties as stewards of the family fortune very seriously. Their architectural tastes are conservative. They never grant freeholds (the owning of property outright), only leases, sure in the knowledge that their descendants will be around to repossess the title. They made no exception in the late 1950s for the United States of America. Some said this was in revenge for the American lands the family lost with the War of Independence – most of Tennessee. More likely it was just unvarying policy.
As a consequence, the Saarinen building is a rare example of an American Embassy that is not on American-owned soil, though the lease was for 999 years, and so has a little way to run. This was scarcely a milieu with which Detroit-based Saarinen – architect of such breathtakingly original buildings as the Washington Dulles airport terminal, the former TWA (now JetBlue) terminal at JFK airport and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis – was familiar. London in the late 1950s was still only just starting to emerge from the period of economic austerity following the end of World War II. Victory had come at a very steep price. However, in those parts of London deemed sufficiently valuable, it was by no means a case of building whatever came along. Modernism had yet to take hold fully: The British capital, full of the Neoclassical buildings from the imperial era, was still, for instance, a skyscraper-free city.
Saarinen was in his creative prime at age 45 when he won the six-way architectural competition for the embassy, adhering to a strict brief that stipulated the height and mass of the building. His method was to imagine and sketch designs in what he fancied were the styles of his rivals, and then to offer something very different. Although the context was the Georgian and pseudo-Georgian character of Grosvenor Square, his historic point of reference was somewhat different: He kept a large picture of the Renaissance Doge’s Palace, Venice, pinned up above his drawing board. A large, decorated rectangular box, the Doge’s Palace was an apt precedent.
The end result, somewhat perversely laid out on a diagonal structural grid that fights the overall orthogonal form, adopted a layered, restless stone façade with ornamental moldings and gilt-aluminum details. Even then, security was an issue, and the main block was set up high on a sharply angled stone plinth. And the eagle on top, of course, was simply huge. Half-close your eyes, and the building could almost be a ponderous neoclassical civic building of the prewar variety. Which is probably exactly the subconscious message Saarinen intended. Too compromised to please the modernist critics, too monumental and aloof to engage the affections of the public, it nonetheless does not deserve to be demolished or mutilated.
It is now championed by historians of the 20th century, and rightly so. Curiously, its busy, joggled fenestration-so at odds with the clean, corporate lines of the dominant “International Style” that Saarinen rejected-is very much the kind of thing that today’s younger architects are doing, if with a lighter touch. Inside, it certainly needs updating. Outside, a security-led $15 million relandscaping of the square to discreetly keep vehicles at a safe distance – with new security pavilions vaguely in the Saarinen manner – has only recently been completed. When the U.S. leaves, it will be obliged to rip all that out and reinstate the square as found.
There are not many alternative sites available in London that would meet the State Department’s requirement for a 250,000-square-foot building, with a 100-foot clear area around it, on a site of no less than 4.5 acres. Tuttle has now found such a site in a South London development zone, and will run an international architecture competition for the new building. “We looked at all our options, including renovation of our current building on Grosvenor Square,” said Tuttle. “In the end, we realized that the goal of a modern, secure and environmentally sustainable embassy could best be met by constructing a new facility. I’m excited about America playing a role in the regeneration of the South Bank of London.”
Finally, while the existing building with its long lease was valued at an estimated £500 million ($927.2 million) in summer 2007, the financial climate has obviously nosedived since. The aim to balance the books – paying for the new embassy with the sale of the high-value old one – may not now be so easy to achieve.
Before the American flag is hauled down over Saarinen’s building, it should without question be “listed”-certainly at the relatively lowly Grade 2 classification now being sought by The Twentieth Century Society, a conservation group. There is precedent in London for good-even listed-modern buildings to be sensitively converted for other uses, hotels and apartments being the usual choice. Listing the building might lessen its sale value, but it would help ensure an appropriate conversion proposal.
Like it or loathe it, this building has enormous character, the expression of a subtle architectural intelligence. I know this: If we lose it, we will come to regret it.

Footnote 1 – Saarinen’s defence

Saarinen was the first of the post-war American architects to encounter a very British welcome – charm and friendliness on the surface coupled with a readiness to plunge a knife in the back. I’m grateful to John Peter’s “The Oral History of Modern Architecture” for the following revealing interview with Saarinen, recorded in 1956 when the building was designed but not yet built:

Saarinen: “Boy, I really had a terribly interesting time in London. I was talking at the AA, Architectural Association, and gave this speech. Afterwards the English students and the young architects were there with the most gracious thanks which they put in their most beautiful English language. They speak marvelously. They don’t do terribly good architecture, but boy, they can talk about architecture. They told me how well I presented the case and so forth.

“Then with a knife they got in after it. In general, they were saying isn’t this rather a reactionary thing to put on Grosvenor Square, to bow to the material, to bow to the surroundings to that extent. Well, for the particular place, for the particular problem, and for the total problem of government architecture, I sincerely don’t think of bowing to the place as much as they think it is…

“…These English are terribly enthusiastic about curtain-wall construction. They would just have loved it if I had built a building with glass and aluminium, if I had put General Motors there. That’s what they were looking for because that would support their own fight.

“Now I think we were the first ones ever to do curtain-wall construction and I think we really know more about it than anybody else and so on. But this just did not seem to be the place for it and that I’m sure of.”

Footnote 2: Pevsner’s denunciation

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner was the pre-eminent post-war architectural historian in England and a keen proponent of International Style modernism. Of Saarinen’s embassy he wrote in his “Buildings of England” series:

Pevsner: “Grosvenor Square…is dominated by the United States Embassy by Eero Saarinen, an impressive but decidedly embarrassing building. The impressive thing is the ground floor, very tall, and the underside of the first floor, which is a grid of diagonally arranged concrete beams. Their ends are exposed outside, and they also appear inside. The inside finishes are extremely impressive too.

“What remains, however, embarrassing is that above the ground floor the façade of the building turns conventional in an effort of its architect to be in tune with the London tradition. Considering the interesting and impressive work he did at Detroit and in other places this is disappointing, especially as the Georgian proportions of the windows are then given an unexpected twist by the introduction of a chequerboarrd rhythm of the surround and by making them of gilded aluminium.

“The rhythm of this gilt-edged fenestration seems a very superficial way of achieving interest, just as the symmetry and the Georgian allusions are a superficial way of achieving monumentality. The large eagle standing 8 to 9 feet up against the sky at the top in the middle and having a 35-foot wing-span (by Theodor Roszak) further emphasizes this forced monumentality.

“The chequerboard veneer…has recently become popular, especially in the various ornamental façade grilles of Ed Stone in the United States. Eero Saarinen, one would have thought, might have been immune to it.”

Footnote 3: Simon Bradley’s reassessment

Pevsner died in 1983. The latest edition of the Buildings of England covering Westminster is by a new-generation architectural historian, Simon Bradley. Bradley sums up the debate over the building and crisply remarks:

“Chief bone of contention was the façade…Nowadays fewer will be troubled by such pattern-making, which was then common enough on both sides of the Atlantic, though rarely made so explicitly screen-like.”

Text © Hugh Pearman. An expanded version of the article first published in The Wall Street Journal, 8 October 2008.