How can we build an embassy that reflects the core values of democracy—transparency, openness, and equality—and is welcoming, secure, and highly sustainable?
Since 1785, when John Adams became the first ambassador to the Court of St. James's, Grosvenor Square has been home to the US embassy in London. The existing embassy building was designed by Eero Saarinen in 1960. Half a century later, it had become over-crowded and unable to meet modern-day security and workplace needs.
The State Department sought to create a new embassy that would serve as the centerpiece of one of America's longest-standing and most valued relationships. It also wanted to pursue a new paradigm in embassy design, termed Design Excellence, which emphasizes the role of architecture in diplomacy. This new model seeks buildings that represent the ideals of the American government—giving priority to transparency, openness, and equality, and drawing on the best of American architecture, engineering, technology, art, and culture.
Our challenge for the embassy was to encompass these values, creating a strong sense of welcome for the community, while also meeting the functional needs of the building with regard to security, environmental sustainability, and diplomatic work. The Nine Elms district, a South Bank industrial zone under intense redevelopment, offers a unique setting for the new embassy. With an estimated 1,000 daily visitors, the embassy project is expected to establish a strong framework for the urbanization of Nine Elms. Contributing to this revitalization are a civic plaza and park, connecting the Thames embankment and Nine Elms Lane to a new pedestrian green way linking Vauxhall to Battersea.
The embassy will stand at the center of the site, with the surrounding park containing a pond, walkways, seating, and landscape along its edges, all open to the citizens of London. In contrast to high perimeter walls and fences, security requirements are achieved through landscape design—such as the large pond, low garden walls with bench seating, and differences in elevation that create natural, unobtrusive barriers. Curving walkways continue into the interior of the building with gardens on each floor that extend the spiraling movement upward, enhancing circulation and providing places to meet.
Many features of the new embassy serve dual purposes, in keeping with the need to balance multiple requirements into a cohesive and coherent whole. We sought to manage holistically the use of water, energy, and materials in all decisions made about building systems, integrating them so that they work together and enhance each other. For instance, just as the pond serves as a subtle security barrier, it also plays an integral role in the site's stormwater strategy. Rainwater is absorbed by the earth or filtered through drainage bioswales and planting trays and stored in the pond. This reduces the strain on municipal sewer systems while providing a source for landscape irrigation.
The chancery building is a transparent, crystalline cube designed to afford generous daylight and views. A high-performance building façade uses multiple-layer laminated glazing with an outer envelope of ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) to screen excessive solar gain and glare while allowing a uniform distribution of daylight. The envelope also mitigates wind downdrafts, improving the comfort of the landscaped plazas and walkways below. Like the landscape, the chancery is designed to be visually engaging while imperceptibly integrating security measures.
The design for the new embassy seeks a holistic fusion of urbanism, building, and landscape. Our goal is that it be both evocative and performative, helping to define a new environment for diplomacy while mapping a passage toward a new diplomacy of the environment.