Ugly Competition?


U.S., Iran Plan Controversial ?New Embassies in London

The United States and archenemy Iran are racing to build breathtaking new embassies in London — yet the only thing the two radically different designs have in common is that they’re both being ridiculed by residents and architects who’ve studied the plans. Iran’s relations with the United Kingdom have been strained in the wake of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s nuclear weapons program, suppression of the Green opposition movement, and the most recent global outcry following Tehran’s announcement that it would stone to death a woman for alleged adultery. Attempting to tone down that extremist image, Iran’s planned embassy building in a historic zone of Victorian mansions and Georgian terraces features a contemporary art gallery and Islamic cultural center. The six-story marble and stone building, to be located on a South Kensington street corner, features a dramatic, rhomboid-shaped cantilevered arch, sharply angled walls and irregularly punched-out windows, with a bright yellow square structure beneath that would house the culture center. According to the Guardian, the site of the new embassy — a wealthy London neighborhood, just a short walk from the National History Museum and Royal Albert Hall, and only 20 feet from St. Augustine’s Church — marks a “radical departure” from the current Iranian Embassy building in a converted townhouse at nearby Prince’s Gate, which was the scene of a dramatic 1980 terrorist siege. “The cube-shaped building at the corner could be accessed freely by the public and features exhibits such as contemporary artworks made by young Iranian artists,” said Armin Daneshgar, a Vienna-based Iranian architect who’s working with a leading U.K. environmental engineer to make the building sustainable. Yet the new Iranian mission, which will cost at least 0 million, has been described by locals as “catastrophic,” “hideous,” “like a spaceship” and “an eyesore out of keeping with the rest of the area.” The Sunday Telegraphreports that a group of wealthy residents has even asked Prince Charles to oppose the design. Last year, Charles successfully stopped a futuristic development on the site of Chelsea Barracks, which had been proposed by members of Qatar’s ruling family. Yet a palace spokesman said the prince hasn’t yet decided whether to intervene this time around. “I know the site well,” journalist and architectural expert Simon Jenkins told the Telegraph. “It is totally inappropriate to locate such a strident, modern building in such a sensitive conservation area, directly next to a magnificent listed church.” Citing security issues, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has broken with normal policy and refused to post any details of the plan on its website, prompting Jenkins to quip that “if the security-obsessed Americans can plan a new embassy openly and publicly, there is no excuse for Kensington council to collude with the Iranians.” Yet the planned U.S. Embassy isn’t winning any popularity contests among Londoners either. Fifty years after Eero Saarinen’s U.S. mission — the first purpose-built U.S. chancery in Europe — opened in London’s Grosvenor Square, American bureaucrats have outgrown the facility, which had long attracted political protests and was famous for its 35-foot gilded aluminum eagle. It will be replaced by a billion-dollar, glass-walled green fortress — the most expensive U.S. mission ever built anywhere — and surrounded by a 100-foot-wide moat and rolling parkland, protecting it from would-be bombers. Located at a former industrial site behind the Battersea power station, the new embassy, rising up to 20 stories high, will also be far away from congested central London. Yet New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff called it “a bland glass cube clad in an overly elaborate, quiltlike scrim,” adding that it “is not inelegant by the standards of other recent American embassies, but it has all the glamour of a corporate office block.” Foreign Policy’s Stephen Walt, meanwhile, described it as “a fancy building isolated from its surroundings and keeping the world at arm’s length.” Still, others applaud the design for doing what they say is just the opposite — presenting an open, welcoming image. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and former Defense Secretary William Cohen, writing an op-ed in CNN, admitted that amid a rush to build dozens of new American embassies overseas following 9/11, “many are coming to realize that justifiable concerns over security swung the pendulum too far.” But they praised the London design, noting that “unlike less welcoming U.S. Embassy designs in Accra, Ghana, and Tbilisi, Georgia, London’s facility will feature transparent glass encasing, cutting edge environmentally sustainable design and a central location.” Nevertheless, the authors added: “Unfortunately, this innovative approach remains the exception, not the rule.” Others though would hardly call the London proposal an exceptional one. Critics agreed that the winning design by little-known Philadelphia architecture firm KieranTimberlake was inferior to those offered by the other finalists in the high-profile competition to build the new embassy, including Richard Meier and Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architects — but that KieranTimberlake’s design ultimately won out because of enhanced security concerns in the wake of 9/11. According to the Guardian, the only two British judges on the design panel “thought the design was boring and not good enough to represent one of the great nations in London.” KieranTimberlake’s design, however, may not be good enough in the eyes of many critics, but it was apparently considered practical enough by the U.S. government. Construction on the new embassy will likely begin in 2012, though it won’t be operational until 2017. Meanwhile, the old U.S. mission in Mayfair has been sold to a Qatari developer that plans to turn it into a luxury hotel and apartment complex. Maybe Londoners will call Prince Charles for help on that one as well.

About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.