Sanjay Gangal is the President of IBSystems, the parent company of AECCafe.com, MCADCafe, EDACafe.Com, GISCafe.Com, and ShareCG.Com.
U.S. Embassy in London
January 10th, 2011 by Sanjay Gangal
Embassy architecture serves as a powerful symbol that provides an instantaneous and indelible impression of a country. Public buildings project the identity of a country’s peoples, culture and aspirations. American public buildings convey the collective identity of their rich, culturally diverse, and increasingly complex society. An American embassy’s design expresses to the world the ideals of American democracy—the optimism, hope and promise of the time. By communicating the transcendent values that define the United States as a nation, the new Embassy of the United States of America in London has the potential to embody a new age of American openness, transparency, and renewed commitment to international collaboration. A U.S. Embassy also acts as a symbolic gateway between two countries.
Architecture itself becomes an act of public diplomacy; as the United States Department of State envisions, the design of the new Embassy “far transcends architecture and engineering… it is fully and firmly within the realm of international diplomacy.” The new U.S. Embassy in London is a tangible expression of our country’s singular, deep connection with the United Kingdom. Our two countries share an intellectual heritage and common legal foundation that dates back to the origins of the United States’ own foundation, with the Magna Carta’s influence on the formation of the American Constitution and Bill of Rights. The “special relationship” that developed between our two countries over the course of the past century’s geo-political events endures to this day. The design of the new Embassy embodies the longstanding exchange of culture and ideas between the U.S. and U.K., and ensures that our countries’ strong political alliance will continue to thrive into the future. A home away from home for American diplomats and for American citizens residing in the U.K., the Embassy inspires a sense of common purpose, shared identity and civic pride.
Morphosis Architects’ design for the new U.S. Embassy in London translate these multiple layers of symbolic, historical, contextual and cultural meaning into a legible architectural expression.
AN OPEN, ACCESSIBLE SITE THAT STIMULATES TRANSFORMATION OF ITS URBAN CONTEXT
The design of the site champions openness while ensuring security. To create a perception of accessibility and integrate with the immediate context, the site’s landscape slopes down to meet the street at ground level. To galvanize regeneration of the surrounding Nine Elms area, the scheme gifts to the city of London two significant public plazas: a public park that links to the river to the north and a Consular Plaza that connects to the proposed pedestrian corridor to the south.
AN ICONIC CHANCERY TOWER THAT EMBRACES LONDON
From the plinth, defined by the earth-sheltered consulate’s sloping green roof, rises the honorific chancery tower. The fluid form of the chancery tower establishes an iconic presence on the London skyline. Orientated towards the river and the city, the tower reaches out to embrace the city of London. The tower’s wings extend in an expansive gesture towards the city, opening to reveal a translucent dome at the heart of the building.
A CENTRAL TRANSLUCENT DOME AS A UNIVERSAL SYMBOL OF DEMOCRATIC IDEALS
Our proposal translates the universal symbol of the dome into a contemporary expression of the Embassy’s public character and America’s civic ideals of democracy and freedom. Enveloped in translucent glass, the central soaring domed atrium reaches the full height of the building to function as a connective space at the heart of the Embassy. In the tradition of London’s major domed public gathering spaces, the dome marks the Embassy as a civic landmark for the city, born out of the architectural heritage shared by the U.S. and U.K.
As the global political and economic climate is poised at this incredibly dynamic, critical, and complex moment in history, our design seeks to create a new U.S. Embassy that stimulates optimism and the highest aspirations for enhancing a peaceful, civilized society.
CHAMPIONING OPENNESS AND ACCESSIBILITY
Today, civic architecture must balance the responsibility to provide the public access to government, both literally and figuratively. Our proposal for the new Embassy communicates openness and transparency—democratic ideals shared between the U.S. and the U.K. The site design plays a primary role in creating an impression of openness, public accessibility and connectivity. The site’s edge conditions are deliberately sculpted to integrate with the surrounding urban fabric and to invite activity and views from the street.
CONTRIBUTING TO THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE NINE ELMS URBAN CONTEXT
The new Embassy plays an integral role in transforming its Nine Elms community. The new Embassy will function as a stimulus for development of the adjacent Nine Elms Opportunity Area for years to come—a commitment shared by the American Ambassador and the Leader of the Wandsworth Borough Council. By ensuring openness and connectivity, the site design strategically addresses many of the concerns expressed by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), Mayor Boris Johnson of London, and local community groups. Rather than “turn[ing] its back” on the local area, the new Embassy reaches out to embrace the River. A significant portion of the site is dedicated to public space, identified by Mayor Johnson as an essential factor in the successful implementation of the project. The scheme gifts to the city of London two significant public plazas—valuable assets for Nine Elms along the river frontage to the north and the future pedestrian greenbelt to the south.
Through orientation, scale, and landscape, the site design contributes to the Nine Elms urban fabric and reinforces key urban connections outlined in the Opportunity Area Planning Framework (OAPF). The contextual site perimeter strategy prioritizes openness, accessibility and integration:
Along Nine Elms Lane, the consulate’s green roof slopes down to meet the street, to create an inviting street level experience and visually accessible public frontage along the river. From key vantage points along Nine Elms and across the River, the Embassy resembles a pavilion in the park, in the tradition of the English landscape garden.
The Embassy’s perimeter wall pulls back along its river frontage, to define a new space for a Public Park at the intersection of Nine Elms Lane and Estate Road. The park links to the proposed riverfront pocket park across Nine Elms, strengthening the Embassy’s connection to the river. This new public space, a gift to the city of London, directly addresses Mayor Johnson’s concern that plans for the Embassy’s river frontage “undermine the potential for activity from within the building to spill out on to a green space overlooking the river.”
The consular pavilion pulls back from the southern edge of the site to yield a new Public Consular Plaza. The consular plaza adjoins the future plaza proposed at the southern edge of the site, to provide an intensified public experience along the proposed pedestrian corridor linking Vauxhall to Battersea.
The Consular Garden heralds a welcoming entry to the consulate, and affords an inviting, social outdoor space for visitors to sit and socialize while applying for visas or attending to other consular affairs. The colorful patchwork patterns and communal spirit of Britain’s beloved community “allotment” gardens metaphorically inspire the consular garden’s grid of plant beds, water features, paths and seating areas.
AN ICONIC TOWER THAT EMBRACES LONDON
The new Embassy building symbolically and literally embraces the city of London. The chancery tower’s distinctive form establishes an iconic symbolic civic presence on London’s skyline. At 60 meters high (well below the 85 meter height limit) the tower respects its context and preserves view corridors. The wings of the C-shaped chancery tower extend an open gesture to the river and the city beyond. The tower appears distinct from different vantage points—a dynamic structure that responds to its urban context, environment, and performance requirements. A curvilinear second skin of translucent glass fins wraps the tower’s continuous south, east, and west glazed façades. To optimize solar shading, the horizontal bands of fins sweep across the southern surface of the building, and transition to a pattern of vertical striations on the eastern and western façades.
The honorific chancery tower, which houses the diplomatic offices, sits atop a broad plinth, which opens to embrace the public entry and welcomes visitors to the consulate. Recessed in the ground below an expansive, sloping green roof, the plinth houses the consulate’s public visa and passport services, main visitor lobby, employee lobby, gallery and multipurpose room, as well as service spaces.
The inspiration for the design comes from the history of the site, the traditions of landscape, land form and building architecture as symbols, and from the strong relationship between the United States of America and the United Kingdom, their common foundations in law and the development of democratic principles over time.
In 18th century England, during the period following the death of Queen Anne when Enlightenment principles were spreading throughout Europe, the Whig Party, whose emphasis on greater Parliamentary powers and increased democratic principles of governance, was searching for a visual language for their treatises. Republican Rome, or their understanding of it, became the focus for this desired symbolism. Supported by the imaginings of Lorraine and Poussin among others, Arcadian landscapes were the popular art of the period. In addition, contemporary interpretations of classical texts, like the illustrations of Robert Castell, sought to visualize the Republican ideal into a contemporary landscape vocabulary.
With this classical language, landscape, land form, architecture and symbolism became interconnected, fostered in large part by William Kent and his constructs of politically charged gardens. Referencing his experiences on the Grand Tour of Italy and supported by his relationships with well-connected gentry, including Lord Burlington, Kent was able to create landscape narratives and allegories that explicitly and implicitly supported the increase of democratic principles in England. It is from these democratic ideals that our own nation’s history of law is derived. As a former colony of England, the United States’ political system is the next step in the evolution of democracy. With our Constitution rooted in the body of the Magna Carta, it is no surprise that the prevalent iconography of government architecture, like that of the Capitol in Washington, DC, also references classical columns, reasoned facades and imposing domes.
The seminal idea for the design comes from the Thames River basin’s history as an alluvial plain. Prior to the construction of the river’s embankment, aits (small islands formed over time by layers of sedimentary deposits) were common. These aits were defensible safe havens for the first settlers of London. Particular to the Thames, aits are still visible in areas west of the city in Chiswick and further upstream. We have used the concept of island form to both define the Embassy and its program requirements and create a landscape that will become one of London’s signature green spaces. The landscape is comprised of Meadow Roof, The Consular Garden, The Embassy Plaza, the Main Embassy Entrance, and the Embassy Park and Thames Pocket Park.
This large green roof, comprised of meadow plants, grasses and trees, serves multiple purposes while invoking the notion of ait and the geologic history of the site. It is the plinth from which the Embassy rises and serves to separate the office of the embassy from the consular and public visitors’ area. The green roof, creates habitat for a variety of fauna, including the Black Redstart, and other migratory birds. The green roof serves to regenerate a productive landscape for both the Embassy and the neighborhood.
From 1733 to 1768, John Bartram, American farmer and botanist, and John Collinson, British merchant and plant enthusiast, established a relationship of trade that fostered exploration of the newly formed United States and a dissemination of newly discovered flora throughout England. As a result of this relationship, Collinson’s support of Bartram aided in the exploration of North America, and the discovery of new species of plants which are now common to both American and British gardens, including viburnums, asters, laurels, and lilies. The Consular Garden celebrates this relationship, and the benefits to both Britain and the United States. In botany, as in law, the strength of this relationship has withstood the tests of time.
In the spirit of the First Family’s desire to promote the health and vitality of the American people and in recognition of their own White House allotment garden, a grid of rectangular plots establishes the pattern for the disposition of the Consular Garden. Allotments have served the citizens of both countries in times of hardship and prosperity and symbolize the self-sustenance and collective well being of both nations.
EMBASSY PLAZA AND URBAN CONNECTION
The grand allée of Tulip Trees serves as a backdrop to the plaza reinforcing the space between it and the pavilion as the civic square within which people can gather, socialize, and appreciate the embassy site. The allée assists in linking the site to the adjacent blocks and reinforces the pedestrian corridor connecting Vauxhall to Battersea, as well as linking the Embassy site to the waterfront of the Thames.
THE THAMES POCKET PARK AND EMBASSY PARK
Immediately to the north of the Main Embassy Entrance is Embassy Park, a neighborhood-scaled green space that reinforces the visual openness of the Embassy in the context of its surroundings and begins to address a connection to the Thames River Path. At the intersection of the Estate Road and Nine Elms, the escarpment walls of the Embassy ait announce the “Embassy of the United States of America.” The Embassy Park is comprised of a meadow edge along the escarpment wall, similar to that of the green roof, lawn, boulders, bollards and trees.
The Thames Pocket Park on the opposite corner of the intersection at Nine Elms and the Estate Road brings the Embassy to the river Thames. Entry to the Pocket Park coincides with the street crossing and connects physically to the Embassy Park on the south side of Nine Elms. Within the Pocket Park, a bosque of Bird Cherry places the formality of the Embassy Plaza at the river’s edge along the walking path, while responding to St. George’s Square on the opposite bank. Seating under the trees directs one’s gaze towards the Parliament building or back toward the Embassy itself. The Pocket Park is a simple construct of paving, lawn, herbaceous perennials, trees, boulders and meadow planting. Facing south, the Embassy is clearly visible and the lawn, boulders and trees that make up the park connect across Nine Elms to begin the entry sequence for the Embassy property.
Proofread by Natasha Gangal
Contact Morphosis Architects
Category: Government Building
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