By 1956, the original U.S. Embassy offices located on Merrion Square in Dublin, Ireland had become extremely outdated in scale, calling for the need to construct a new free-standing building for the government agency. The new building was to perform as a chancery with enlarged office space for the government as well as an attached parking garage for the embassy staff. Besides office space, a large, open reception area/entertainment space was desired for social events. The project was seen as an opportunity to improve not only the utilitarian conditions for the U.S. Embassy, but to also improve the aesthetic conditions by exporting modern American architecture to the small country of Ireland (Loeffler 229).
Situated on a triangular lot, the embassy stands as a five-story, 100’ diameter, cylindrical drum with two service stories below ground and three administrative stories above. The precast concrete structure, composed of “modules fabricated out of reconstructed limestone” with vertical supports twisted at 90 degree angles to enclose large panes of fixed glass alternating with narrow operable windows, sits on a base of rusticated granite (Loeffler 230). The exterior perimeter is surrounded by a “30-foot flower-planted moat, across which two bridges gain entry to the rotunda reception area” (Johansen 24). The main entry is signified by the placement of a large, ornate gold eagle above the doorway (Loeffler 229). The rotunda is 50’ high and 50’ across and is “ringed with an ambulatory of open corridors with wedge-shaped offices lining the perimeter” (O’Toole). A glass clerestory above roof level floods the rotunda with natural sunlight. Each floor is accessed by concrete elevator and stair towers. “The interior walls facing the rotunda repeat the modular unit pattern of the building’s exterior and provide balconies for the offices on all three levels” (Embassy of the United States Dublin, Ireland).
Start of site work: 1962 (c) / Completion/inauguration: May 1964 (c)
42 Elgin Road is located in the Ballsbridge section of Dublin, Ireland. At the time of construction, the site was surrounded by commercial development intermixed with the brick row houses that typified Dublin’s residential streets (Loeffler 220). The site is remotely located away from the center of the city and Merrion Square where the original U.S. embassy, similar stately public buildings, and tourist attractions are located.
The embassy utilized a structurally innovative system of cast-formed, intricate concrete elements that were made by using a Dutch system called the Schokbeton method (O’Toole). “Johansen went to Holland to approve the castings, which were transported by barge to Dublin port” (O’Toole). The concrete, skeletal structure on the exterior facade is repeated on the interior of the rotunda, creating “two circular, arcade facades of reconstructed limestone [that] support precast concrete floors” (O’Toole).
By turning to the latest technology in precast structural concrete, John M. Johansen was able to execute his envisioned cylindrical facade for the embassy. The Schokbeton method, the name coming from the Dutch word used to describe the unique process of using vibration during the pouring of the dry concrete mixture, was a brand new construction method in 1962 (Schokbeton). Fernand R. Bibeau pioneered the method for its “great utility, immense possibilities, and profitability” (Schokbeton). At the time of its construction, the embassy in Dublin was only the second precast structural facade in existence after Eero Saarinen’s U.S., Embassy in London (Johansen).
The design for the U.S. Embassy in Dublin, Ireland was plagued with controversy from the get-go. The dissension originated from Johansen's first design proposal and then eventually accumulated into a ten year debate on the appropriate diplomatic architecture. The core of the debate was how to incorporate the modern aesthetic of the 1950s with the historic context of Dublin while simultaneously satisfying the functional requirements of the embassy. Johansen had difficulty solving this complex design problem, which lead to a series of reviews and rejections by the FBO’s Architectural Advisory Panel (AAP).
Johansen’s design also became a pawn for diplomacy as the need for a new embassy in Ireland continued to put a strain on America’s foreign relations with the country. The original embassy at Merrion Square chancery was beyond inadequate. The need for a new facility became so urgent that Ambassador Grant Stockdale wrote to President Kennedy in May 1961 describing the situations as “disgraceful...In all my experience of previous Federal, State and Municipal buildings, nowhere have I ever witnessed a more deplorable sight than the interior of our Dublin Embassy” (Loeffler 221). He went on to blame Hays for the delay of the construction and stated that “the Irish people were convinced that the ‘so-called design controversy’ was merely a ruse to conceal American unwillingness to build the new embassy” (Loeffler 221). This letter paired with President John F. Kennedy’s desire to use his Irish heritage to improve U.S.-Irish relations put the embassy on the top of the presidential agenda and essentially put an end to the “design controversy.” The final cylindrical design of the embassy in turn helped sooth foreign relations by producing an inoffensive, “diplomatic,” American building with a continuous facade open to all possible approaches to the people of Ireland (Johansen).
The desire for a diplomatically friendly design for the new embassy was rooted in a long history of discourse between the United States, Great Britain, and Ireland. In the years following World War II, relations between the U.S. and Ireland had become strained mostly due to the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland David Gray's political agenda during his tenure from 1940-47 under Franklin D. Roosevelt's Presidency(Davis 56). Gray had an unfounded fear that Irish Americans were going to violently protest the Anglo-American partnership that had emerged from the Ally victory. He believed that an anti-partition campaign would develop in the United States to garner support for a united Ireland free from British rule that would threaten the postwar cooperation between the United States and Great Britain (Davis 157). In reality,"the end of the Irish War of Independence of 1921 and the subsequent foundation of the Irish Free State seemed, to the majority of Irish Americans, to be the culmination of their struggle for acceptance in the United States" (Davis 156). Their assimilation into American society included the acceptance of American politics and Anglo-American cooperation. While domestic relations were at ease during the 1950s between Americans and Irish immigrants, the relationship between the United States, Great Britain, and Ireland would continue to remain unstable through the presidencies of Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower during the Cold War. Ireland insisted on maintaining its policy of military neutrality during this conflict, which lead to their refusal to join NATO and put an added strain on U.S.-Irish relations. It wasn't until President John F. Kennedy took office that a real effort was made to improve relations, and the design for the new embassy took on its diplomatic role.
John M. Johansen was born on June 29, 1916 in Manhattan to a family of portrait painters, John Christen Johansen and Jean MacClane (“Architect behind American Embassy in Ballsbridge”). Johansen attended Harvard College and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design where he studied under former Bauhaus teachers Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Josef Albers. Among his contemporaries were Philip Johnson, IM Pei, Paul Rudolph and Bruno Zevi (“Architect behind American Embassy in Ballsbridge”). After graduation, he delved further into the Modern Movement by working for Breuer and then the firm Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (Bernstein). He opened his own office in 1948 and soon became recognized as a member of the Harvard Five, "a group of Harvard design students who made New Canaan, Connecticut, a hotbed of architectural experimentation in the 1950s and '60s" (Bernstein). In the postwar years, the Harvard Five, including Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores and Eliot Noyes, filled Connecticut with houses that conveyed the optimism of the time. Johansen was most known for his experimental residential work, but he also designed a number of public buildings, including the embassy in Dublin, where he attempted to marry the avant garde, modern style that he had developed in the residential sector with the rigid, programmatic needs of the commercial. The result in Ireland was an organic, sculpted concrete tower worthy of the Modern Movement. The embassy in Dublin would come to embody both the aesthetic and diplomatic ideals of mid-century modern architecture. “A mannerist rotunda with an arcaded exterior, it is more void than solid, a sort of deconstructed Martello tower or hollowed-out ring fort” (O’Toole). Inspired by such Irish landmarks as the Celtic towers, Johansen used the cylindrical shape of the embassy as way to reconcile the newly implanted modern architecture with its historical context. Besides the integration of the past with the present, “openness was both a top design priority and a U.S. diplomatic objective” during the 1950s, and Johansen’s continuous facade “which turns its back on nobody” supports this cause (O’Toole). In an era before the threat of attacks and the needed shift toward increased security at U.S. embassies, “embassy designs were to be friendly and inviting American buildings that also reflected the foreignness of faraway places,” all of which are reflected in Johansen’s final design (O’Toole). As stated in 1958 issue of Architectural Forum, the embassy design pleased the majority of Ireland’s architects and calmed the residents of Dublin who were fearful that the “U.S. might import a metal-and-glass cube” but were instead presented with “a building that is polite without being condescending and that treats Dublin as a mature city worthy of the best that U.S. architecture has to offer” (“For Eire, a New Celtic Tower” 129).
The 1950s saw a renewed interest in foreign relations that resulted in a wave of new construction overseas lead by the State Department’s Office of Foreign Building Operations (FBO). While the FBO was being hailed in 1957 for its most recent embassy projects in London, New Delhi, Baghdad, Accra, and Bangkok as architectural manifestations of U.S. foreign policy, an underlying current of political strife threatened to overturn the FBO and all of its recent achievements. William P. Hughes, Director of the FBO, was repeatedly denied funding from Congress from 1957 to 1962, “leaving [only] three potential funding sources: remaining counterpart funds; monies from the sale of surplus American agricultural products abroad; and profits from the sale of its existing properties” for the building program (Loeffler 219). Subsequently, the FBO had to drastically cut back its projected building plan, but one influential project remained on the books thanks to the sale of surplus property: the embassy in Dublin.
In 1955, a triangular site, formed by the intersection of Elgin and Pembroke Roads in the Ballsbridge area of Dublin, Ireland, was purchased by the FBO as the site for the new U.S. Embassy. By late 1956, the FBO had secured John M. Johansen as the embassy architect.
Johansen made his first design proposal in May 1957 to the FBO’s Architectural Advisory Panel (AAP), whose membership included Pietro Belluschi, Edgar I. Williams, and Richard M. Bennett. The design consisted of “a skeleton frame and glass structure based on a square plan with an open interior court, a four-story building with the three upper stories treated as a single mass mounted over a ground-floor podium base” (Loeffler 222). The AAP flat out rejected the first proposal and asked Johansen to return with a revised design that incorporated their comments. A month later, Johansen returned with a revised set of drawings, but the AAP expressed continued disappointment in the schematic layout and instructed him to scrap the current design and start from scratch. The second design, presented in September 1957, was a hexagonal scheme that utilized “projecting balconies and vertical fins on the exterior” as modern sculptural details (Loeffler 222). Although better planned schematically, the AAP was unhappy with the presented proposal and granted Johansen permission to return yet again with an alternative design. His fourth proposal was an elaborated version of the previous hexagonal scheme, which received mixed reactions from the members of the AAP, including Eero Saarinen who had replaced Belluschi by this time. Ultimately, Hughes’ loudly voiced opinion of distaste for the modern design forced Johansen to return once again to the drawing board. Another month passed and another new design was brought to the table, and once again, the AAP flat out rejected the design and its unacceptable use of “total glass on the ground floor” (Loeffler 223).
Finally, in May 1958, a year after the initial proposal, Johansen returned with a pleasing design. The cylindrical scheme, “inspired by Celtic towers and other landmark buildings in Dublin,” brought renewed enthusiasm to the project from both Johansen and the AAP (Loeffler 223). Johansen had gained full support from the AAP and Hughes for his design, but the road to construction was blocked by Wayne Hays, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, and his onslaught of political warfare. Hays refused to provide funding for what he believed to be a hideous structure and used the project for his own personal vendetta with Hughes by circulating rumors to the press that “the State Department was in trouble as a result of its ugly and inappropriate architecture” that was being encouraged by Hughes (Loeffler 225). The project remained at a standstill until John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1961 and saw the embassy project as a means to improve foreign relations with Ireland and to highlight his own Irish heritage. Presented with two alternate facade designs (the original design supported by Hughes and Hays’ own proposed facade design), the President personally selected the original design, and thus ended the exhaustive design process for the embassy. Construction began in 1962, and the embassy was opened in May 1964 to critical acclaim.
Despite the building's foreign location, the embassy in Dublin became one of the most controversial and talked about buildings of its period in the United States (“Architect behind American Embassy in Ballsbridge”). Stories of the political dissension between the FBO, AAP, and Congress and the exhaustive design studies performed by Johansen accumulated during the ten year battle for the building’s construction, bringing the project to an international level of recognition and publication. Johansen was able to use the high profile nature of the project as an opportunity to push the limits of the newest building technologies, and in doing so, the building probably represents one of the last embassy designs where the architect was given “the luxury of being able to explore the sculptural possibilities of concrete or the ambiguities of glass” before the introduction of increased security (Loeffler 231). Despite the seemingly perpetual pending nature of the project, the building was completed and opened to international acclaim for its approach to integrating modern American architecture with the largely 19th century city of Dublin. As stated in Time magazine in 1964, “it bespeaks an understanding of the nation it was built to befriend” (“Architect Behind American Embassy in Ballsbridge”). An Taisce, the National Trust of Ireland, awarded the embassy one of its highest honors in 1969 “for effective development of a prominent corner site on a main city approach, for sympathy of scale with existing environment and interest of character, without imitation of surrounding buildings, and for integration with existing trees and street setting” (Leffler 231). The embassy was a successful realization of the FBO’s design initiative during the 1950s and thus contributed to bringing the Modern Movement to Ireland’s public.
John M. Johansen, a member of the “Harvard Five” and experimenter in residential architecture in Connecticut, was able to elevate his status as an architect of the Modern Movement with his design for the U.S. Embassy in Dublin (“Architect behind American Embassy in Ballsbridge”). “His influence on the avant garde of the next generation, including Archigram, Cedric Price, and Lebbeus Woods, was significant” (“Architect behind American Embassy in Ballsbridge”). The controversy of the project brought recognition to the Modern Movement and its defining architecture by bringing a diverse group of professionals to the table to discuss how American architecture should convey the country’s diplomatic relationships overseas. Despite its recognized global importance, the building’s fate hangs in the balance as officials discuss moving to a larger location. There is currently no protection of the building’s architecture, as an active embassy can’t be listed on the Record of Protected Structures in Dublin (Murphy). In 2009, Councilor Mary Freehill of the South-East Area Committee of the Dublin City Council motioned for support to put the embassy on the protected list for it “is one of the best examples of 1960s architecture” (Murphy). Of course, any type of decision is hinged on the future of the building’s use. If the embassy is added to the list, “only minimal changes to the structure will be allowed under planning regulations” (Murphy).
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