Siege mentality

The second Tower of London: Kieran Timberlake’s design for the American Embassy in the UK capital.

The White Tower is the name of the central keep of the Tower of London, as built by William the Conqueror from 1077 onwards, 11 years after the Norman Conquest. Towards the end of the 11th century they added a wall round it. Under successive monarchs it expanded into the rambling complex we know today, but the White Tower – austere, cuboid – continues to stand alone on the north bank of the Thames, retaining its power as the very image of a fortress. A millennium later, it is to receive a 21st-century homage on the other side of town: the new American Embassy, by architects Kieran Timberlake.

It’s as if Philadelphia-based Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake looked at the brief given to architects in the competition, and decided – OK, they want a fortress, we’ll damn well give them a fortress. One that looks the part. One with a moat, and defensive embankments, and a clear line of sight for the archers, the lot. Oh, and it should be “white”.

And so we have the White Tower, Mark 2. The new U.S. embassy will be built a couple of miles upstream of the old one, at Vauxhall/Nine Elms on the south bank of the river. This postindustrial site was one of the few development areas close to the centre of the capital which offered enough space for the cordon sanitaire around the building that Washington’s Bureau of Overseas Building Operations now demands of all its new embassies. It was precisely the lack of such defensible space that led to the decision to quit the existing, Eero Saarinen-designed U.S Chancellery on Grosvenor Square, designed and built 1955-60 and now a “listed” (meaning protected) building.

Looking at the images of the proposed building – which should start construction in 2013 for completion in 2017 – you have to admire KieranTimberlake’s nerve as much as their undoubted design skill. The building is described as “modern, welcoming, timeless, safe and energy efficient” by the Embassy. I’m not sure that any building placed on a defensive island, approached through a barbican-like security gatehouse guarding the moat, is all that welcoming, but once again the architects have solved the problem by the simple expedient of not trying to avoid it. The oblique, spiralling approach to the building – here made through what is effectively a large garden or small park – is something we’re all used to from real castles on the tourist trail, and we like that. It was obviously essential to avoid a short, direct route. This and the level changes around the building will make it near-impossible to mount a surprise attack. And I’m no expert, but that photovoltaic array on the roof seems to be mounted on a strong grillage. They’re not leaving any weak point on the top, that’s obvious.

KieranTimberlake have kept their cubic form relatively pure – no corner turrets here, unlike the Norman predecessor. However they do add a detail familiar to us from other European castles: the high-level inset balcony. It’s a break-out space, but it’s certainly no break-in space, up there on the 10th and 11th floors. It disrupts the cube and it is large enough to have a significant and successful architectural impact – apart from its slightly uneasy shallow-arched lintels. And yes, the practice does acknowledge its precedents, saying in its own description that “the cubic form is an ancient signifier of solidity, strength and permanence.” Might there also be a faint echo of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, a building that inspired Saarinen when designing the existing embassy?

The cube is perched up high on two-storey pilotis, with the main public foyers set back behind the colonnade. Delicate sun-shading devices made of ETFE foil soften the overall form somewhat except on the north-facing river façade. And although this is a curtain-wall building (in the modern, rather than ancient castle-building, sense) rather than having a structural facade, the tight rhythm of its fenestration coupled with its 45 degree skew to the river recalls another building. There is something of the destroyed World Trade Centre, and its planned memorial park in Manhattan, here, perhaps subconsciously.

So KieranTimberlake has produced a building with multivalent imagery, intentionally or not. There is much talk of openness and democracy and the strong relationship between the USA and the UK. Of course. But it remains a fortress, which is a building type normally built, as William the Conqueror would have told you, by invading powers against hostile inhabitants. It’s unfortunate that the state of the world today makes this necessary. But it is brave and imaginative of the winning practice to make a virtue out of this. Given the constraints, I was not expecting the U.S Embassy competition to yield much of merit. Thanks to these architects, it has.

© Hugh Pearman. First published on Gabion, February 24, 2010. Images courtesy of the U.S. Embassy/KieranTimberlake/Studio AMD.


Kieran Timberlake online journal:
Hugh Pearman on Saarinen’s US Embassy in London: