The National Heritage List for England: October 21, 2009
The U.S. Embassy in London was designed "to house all the major sections of the Embassy under one roof in a style to blend with existing architecture of Grosvenor Square.” (Embassy of the United States: London-UK) In addition, it required facilities “in an architectural style and form which is distinguished…reflect credit on the US and will create goodwill by intelligent appreciation. It should use construction techniques, materials, and equipment of proven merit and reliability.” (Olcayto) The basic sections of an embassy include: the consular section; commercial services; customs; defense; department of homeland security; economic affairs; foreign agricultural services; internal revenue service; office of defense cooperation; and public affairs. (Embassy of the United States: London-UK) The design for this building was chosen through a competition, won by American architect Eero Saarinen.
The American Embassy London Chancery Building is located in Grosvenor Square in Mayfair. This is a place with well maintained lawns, numerous trees and various statues and memorials. The site is surrounded by a holly hedge that separates it from the adjacent roads which are home to foreign embassies. Much of the architecture around the square is neo-Georgian, with the exception of the American Embassy. The embassy originally came to the Square in 1938 but the current embassy was completed in 1960 and remains controversial due to the fact that it stands out from its neo-Georgian context and dominates the entire west side of Grosvenor Square. (“Welcome to Grosvenor Square”) Upon completion, the embassy contained over 600 rooms on 9 floors: 3 underground and 6 above-ground in accordance with the height restrictions in the Square, including a “penthouse” floor set back from the facade. (Embassy of the United States: London-UK) Basic design was palazzo-inspired and sought to represent an America that celebrated openness and wanted to be closely, sensitively, and respectfully engaged with the cities of its allies. (Mitchell)
The embassy was constructed of reinforced concrete clad in Portland stone on the front and side elevations and in concrete on the rear elevation. In addition, it has shorter elevations to the north and south. Saarinen set it back from the street line to emphasize its mass and a stone-faced wall separates the building from the street. The long, tripartite facade has 22 bays with a central five-bay entrance; it has a tall recessed ground floor supported on cruciform columns, four floors above that, and is topped with a set-back attic. This structure is a modern interpretation of a classical temple design. The north and south elevations are composed of 13 bays with a three-bay central entrance. The tall, ground-floor windows have gilded cruciform mullions and transom lights. The facades are composed of pre-cast concrete panels faced in Portland stone which, as a whole, create a large grille in a checkerboard pattern. Within the checkerboard are gilded aluminum windows with deep mullions and saw-tooth profiles. The rear facade is the same pattern but clad in pre-cast concrete. The fenestration alternates paired opening lights with fixed glass panels. The building is surrounded by a gilded balustrade and lamp standards flank the main entrance. A 35-foot gilded aluminum eagle crowns the front facade. The two wings of the building are connected by a lower single-story block with service bays under them.
The plan of the building is a U-plan, symmetrical and consisting of a raised ground floor with a main central entrance lobby. Large halls to the left and the right lead to the visa section and the library while the large central lobby has rooms on either side, leading through to a single story of offices. There are separate entrances to the Consular and Information Sections on the north and south sides of the building; each has a lobby and stairs. The basement has a café and auditorium and the upper floors are comprised of more offices.
Inside, the ground floor public spaces are given the most attention to detail. The main entrance, central lobbies, passport office and library all have gilded cruciform columns and these rooms plus the information service lobby, the consular lobby, and the north and south stairways all have exposed diagrid ceilings. The central lobby is clad in white Greek Pentelicon marble and has Travertine floors. The stairs to the north and south lobbies have gilded cruciform balusters. All of the offices have little architectural distinction and the ambassadorial rooms have been refurbished in a traditional style. (“List Entry Summary”)
The embassy was constructed as a combination of precast and in-situ concrete posts and panels and diagonal floor beams. (Embassy of the United States: London-UK ) The tall recessed ground floor was built of in-situ cast concrete supported on cruciform columns. The exterior facades are composed of load-bearing pre-cast concrete panels which are faced in Portland stone using a creative system of invisible jointing; this allows for a more cohesive look on the facade. The upper floors are carried on a large concrete “diagrid” floor of intersecting diagonal concrete beams; these beams transfer the load to cruciform columns beneath. In addition, the exposed ends of the diagrid enable the facade to overhang the column line. Saarinen took the constructional form of the diagrid—a building design invented in the 1920s that creates triangular structures with diagonal supporting beams—and created a building of unique sophistication in the 1950s. This modern application of a design showed off the technological abilities of the Unites States and is one of the embassy’s principal features, shown internally and externally throughout the ground floor. It is also echoed in Saarinen’s details, like the gilded pressed-metal parapet, cog-wheel window motifs and exposed beam-ends. (“List Entry Summary”)
The Embassy is located in Grosvenor Square, a large London square located in the heart of Mayfair. Its front faces Audley Street and is within walking distance of both Hyde Park and Green Park. In addition, its location is ideal, lying amid some of the busiest and most famous areas in London, including Marble Arch, Hyde Park Corner, Oxford Circus, and Piccadilly Circus. (Embassy of the United States: London-UK) Grosvenor Square itself is a very green space, with well-maintained lawns, mature trees and numerous statues and memorials. The site is surrounded by a holly hedge that blocks it from adjacent roads that house many other foreign embassies. A focal feature of the area is the statue of President Roosevelt. There is also a memorial to the Britons who died in the 9/11 attacks.
Grosvenor Square is named for the Grosvenor family; Sir Richard Grosvenor acquired the license for its development in 1710. Although it was not developed until 1721, the area remained a desirable location to live up until the mid-20th century. The majority of the early surrounding buildings were well-designed and very grand, but many were rebuilt in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Much of the architecture that now encloses the square is of the neo-Georgian style.
The central square was originally for the residents of the square only and it wasn’t until 1948 that it finally became a public open space. Richard Grosvenor created the space and it is believed that the original layout was designed by gardener John Alston. The layout consisted of an oval shaped space contained by a low brick wall with a fence on top and central iron gates on all sides of the square; it was formal in nature and had paths of both grass and gravel. These paths divided the area into sub-areas which were tightly-planted yet informal, with flowering shrubs and evergreens. An elm hedging surrounds the plots. At the very center of the square stands a large raised grassed platform upon which is a statue of King George I.
By 1926, the Square’s gardens had become more like that of a typical London square, with informally grouped trees. A tennis court had been added, replacing one of the four symmetrical areas around the central space. In 1938, the American Embassy moved in and in 1960, the current Saarinen building was constructed dominating the west side of the square; this building was controversial due to its modern appearance in a predominantly Georgian and neo-Georgian context. The Square was redesigned in 1948 by architect B.W.L. Gallannaugh when the space became public. It was altered dramatically in terms of structure and planting; a new north-south axis was instituted and the original evergreen trees were replaced with new London Plane and cherry trees, noticeably transforming the character of the landscape. (“Welcome to Grosvenor Square”)
The diagrid was a constructional form invented in the 1920s that creates triangular structures with diagonal supporting beams. Saarinen was able to take this form and use it to create something new in the U.S. Embassy in London. In addition to being one of the principal features of the space, Saarinen designed the building such that visitors can observe the form both internally and externally throughout the ground floor. The upper floors are similarly composed, being carried on a floor of intersecting diagonal concrete beams which transfer the load to the cruciform columns beneath. Saarinen also echoed the diagrid in his details, including the gilded pressed-metal parapet, cog-wheel window motifs and the exposed beam-ends. Another innovation is found in the exterior facades, which are composed of load-bearing pre-cast concrete panels faced in Portland stone; the facing is done with a creative system of invisible jointing which gives the building a more cohesive look. (“List Entry Summary”) Through these innovations, Saarinen was able to show the technological prowess of the United States as well as design a modern building for a new age.
For Saarinen’s embassy, the competition brief called for a building that would blend with the existing architecture of Grosvenor Square, use reliable construction techniques and materials, and reflect the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. His design gave the people what they asked for in a modern style building. (Olcayto) Saarinen took a well-known construction technique—the diagrid—and modernized it; this not only shows America’s respect for the past but also displays their technical achievements and abilities in moving its people into the future. (“List Entry Summary”) The building itself remains a controversy even today, with modernists finding the design to be too compromised to be modern. The public thought that the facade was too bright and lustrous for the rest of the Georgian-style square. (Pearman) To the people, Saarinen promised that he had already taken their concerns into consideration with his design; he told the concerned public that the embassy would weather with the soot and rain of London, darkening the stone and toning down the vibrant aluminum trim. (“Architect Defends”) The structure has weathered well over time, proving that Saarinen had truly tried to keep his word to the people; they, in turn, should show the building the respect it deserves.
The U.S. Embassy in London came during Saarinen's creative prime, at the age of 45. Around this time, Saarinen also completed buildings with similar facades that emphasized the interaction of light and form, including the IBM Research Center in New York and the Chicago Law School.("Timeline") While Saarinen's career encompassed a variety of styles and experimentation, this portion is characterized by repetitive and symmetrical forms, the relationship between light and shadow, and architectural elements that complement the building's surroundings. By definition, an embassy is a place that represents the government that set it up. In order to represent American democracy and show openness as well as strength, Saarinen chose a rectangular form broken up by decorative and geometric patterns of windows. The stone panels create a large grille in a checkerboard pattern containing gilded aluminum windows with deep mullions and saw-tooth profiles. In addition, the fenestration alternates paired opening lights with fixed glass panels. (“List Entry Summary”) The cladding system sought to imitate the proportions and rhythms of Georgian-style windows found throughout the rest of Grosvenor Square. (Mitchell) These examples of geometry with the emphasis on vertical and horizontal lines are indicative of the Modern Movement. Aesthetically, the use of symmetry is familiar and reassuring and with the goal of imitating Georgian features, Saarinen showed that he was trying to introduce modernism to the people while complying with their wishes for a building conforming to a neo-Georgian style. Strength and solidity are also shown in the use of reinforced concrete clad in Portland stone on three of the elevations. To emphasize its mass, he situated the building back from the street line and constructed a stone wall to separate it from the street. He also represents America’s respect for the past in that the overall form of the structure is a modern interpretation of a classical temple design—a tall recessed ground floor supported on columns and topped with a set-back “roof.” (“List Entry Summary”) Finally, the 35-foot gilded eagle that crowns the building, while often considered over-the-top by its many critics, is the ultimate symbol of freedom, strength, and courage. (Pearman) Overall, the embassy culturally and aesthetically seeks to represent America while being respectful of and engaged with its London environment.
Between 1954 and 1960, the United States built global embassies as part of a program during the Cold War. Due to its historical importance, Grosvenor Square was the clear choice for the location of the new United Kingdom Embassy. The U.S. Embassy moved there in 1938, and the Square became known as “Little America” because it had the Chancery building on one side of the Square and General Eisenhower’s headquarters on the other. (Embassy of the United States: London-UK) London in the 1950s was just starting to emerge from a period of economic austerity following World War II and modernism had yet to take hold fully. This embassy has seen a number of historic events, including the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s, the anti-nuclear missile campaign of the 1980s, recent fortifications against terrorist attacks, and 50,000 Londoners coming to show support after 9/11.
The design competition for the building was held in 1955 for the commission; it was limited to eight participants. The winning entry was by a Finnish-American architect named Eero Saarinen. Saarinen (1910-1961) is known for uniquely adapting his own vision of modernism to each of his clients, despite being often criticized for his lack of a signature style and his inclination for historicism. He is well known for the TWA center at JFK Airport, the Memorial Gateway in St. Louis, and others. The London embassy was one of only three works he completed outside the United States, the other two being the U.S. Embassy in Oslo and the East Terminal at Ellenikon Airport in Athens. (“List Entry Summary”)
The embassy was built between 1957 and 1960. Saarinen was assisted by Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall, architects from the U.K. Of all the embassies built during this time period, the London embassy was the largest and most expensive, as well as the only one for which a competition was held. As well as being Saarinen’s only British building, the embassy is unique because is it a rare example of an American embassy not on American-owned soil. The Dukes of Westminster who own Grosvenor Square only lease the property, never allowing anyone to own it outright; the embassy property has been leased to the United Stated for 999 years. (Pearman)
Many demands and constraints were seen in the competition. From 1925, the Grosvenor Estate had begun to use a neo-Georgian aesthetic on buildings in the Square and had made plans to replace some of the houses in the vicinity with nine-story blocks. The U.S. approach to embassy design discarded classicism and sought to both unify their new buildings with the surrounding area and be modern and open to the public. Even though the U.S. was exempt from the Grosvenor Estate constraints, the competition required a design which would bring about harmony throughout the area; it asked that its participants not produce stylistic copies and called for a design that was visually fitting with the other three sides of Grosvenor Square. Also, the brief specified that Portland stone be used as the cladding material.
For competitions in general, Saarinen’s design method was to imagine and sketch designs in the style of his rivals and then to offer something different; in London’s case, the context was the Georgian character of Grosvenor Square but he chose the Renaissance Doge’s Palace in Venice as his historic point of reference. (Pearman) From this inspiration, he used the large decorated rectangular box form for the building seen today. His distinctive use of the diagrid construction gave the embassy a unique and modern sophistication. For the embassy in London, Saarinen’s design anticipated the new look of the Square, one in which the three other sides would be composed of nine-story neo-Georgian buildings. Because the area was in transition, he sought to create a building for the near future. Ultimately, the north side of the Square was the only one built according to the Grosvenor Estate plan, leaving the embassy to stand as a link to a vision never fully realized.
Reception to the embassy was mixed. Modernists saw Saarinen’s work as a compromise because he alluded to Georgian features including symmetry and fenestration. On the other hand, traditionalists felt that the large form was at odds with the overall Georgian aesthetic. In addition, Saarinen admired white stonework that weathered to black and white and imagined that his embassy building would do the same; unfortunately, anti-pollution laws prevented this from occurring and thus, from achieving the architect’s ideal aesthetic. Also, his idea to top the building with a representation of the U.S. Great Seal was changed to the majestic eagle that crowns the building today.
While other critiques stated that the facade was too energetic and the gilding was superficial and flashy, many hailed various aspects of the structure. For example, Reyner Banham, the famous English architectural critic and writer, wrote that “the building abounds in details whose consistency and logic bespeak a standard of professional competence that few buildings in Britain can rival.” (“List Entry Summary”) Despite the debates, the embassy still stands over 50 years later as a symbol of the country it was built for.
The U.S. Embassy in London is significant in a variety of ways. Its strong associations with Grosvenor Square provide a historical relevance in both London and America. In respect to the Modern Movement, this embassy was Britain’s first modern embassy and provided a quintessential model for U.S. post-war embassy buildings, thus giving it international significance as well. In addition, it was also the only U.S. Embassy for which a competition was held. (“List Entry Summary”) The design itself is unique because it represents the mission of spreading good will in the host nation and the strong relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom; it manages to harmonize with the London surroundings yet remain distinctly American. In terms of the architecture, Saarinen’s embassy has a strong design and dynamic facades as well as details that reinforce both Georgian and modern elements. The innovative use of the exposed concrete diagrid construction shows a well thought out combination of structural expression, as seen in the vertical and horizontal lines, and decorative elements which provide unity to the whole composition. Saarinen’s principle of blending form and structure, a common modernist idea, is seen throughout the interior and exterior through the expression of the diagrid forms. Saarinen himself is a well-known figure of modernist architecture and this embassy is a great example of a modernist yet contextual approach to designing in a sensitive location. (“List Entry Summary”) The embassy is now being threatened because a new one is being built on the London outskirts. (“U.S. Embassy in London”) While the future of the “old” U.S. embassy remains unknown, its significance is very clear and it continues to stand strong as an example of modern architecture.
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