US Embassy in London: a bunker in the 'burbs 05.03.18

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US Embassy Mayfair 

The US embassy’s move to Battersea reflects the country’s standing in the world, writes Peter Smisek

Buildings may or may not have the power to convey explicit messages in their own right – but the location of an embassy is apparently, still, ‘yugely symbolic’ as some might say. It turns out that the old developer adage ‘location, location, location’ is even more important when it comes to building diplomatic ties and trying to impress foreign governments.

Take the former US embassy in London: a gilded midmod extravaganza by Eero Saarinen that took up a whole side of Grosvenor Square in the middle of Mayfair. Or, as the US President tweeted in his inimitable style, ‘the best by located and finest embassy in London’.

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And so the almost elegant glass cube by Kieran Timberlake stands stranded on what is very much the wrong side of the Thames in real estate terms, surrounded by dreary New London Vernacular high-rises that, at least if current reports are to be believed, might not actually find buyers any time soon.

Still, at least the Tube extension to Battersea is underway, which, as any Londoner knows, instantly makes at least a ‘somewhere’ out of a previous ‘nowhere’. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of a glamorous locale, but it could be worse. 

US Embassy Battersea

US Embassy in Battersea under construction, image courtesy of Davud Holt, CC 2.0

US embassies once purported to be proud beacons of democracy designed by the country’s finest architects, rightfully taking their place among the finest buildings of various global capitals. But with the US continually flexing its muscles on the world stage, the backlash against its symbols abroad began to become increasingly violent. Now, embassies hide behind layers of security measures: fences, soft landscaping, bollard-hedges, moats (though regretfully without sharks or crocodiles) and whatever else they can reasonably call street furniture.

US London Embassy: more than just a building, a metaphor

The United States, after being the world’s sole superpower for the last 25 years, seems unsure about continuing to play this role, hence the spectacular shock of the 2016 election. There are contradictions, of course: Trump wants to put America first, but cannot stand the inevitable loss of the country’s special status – he wants to have his cake and eat it. 

Trump, rightly anxious about America’s place in a newly emerging multi-polar world, lashed out to avoid any suggestion of his responsibility for the country’s slowly diminishing international standing. There is a small silver lining however: this should be a call to arms – both for our cities and for our politics – to develop a more grassroots, inclusive and positive version of both.

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