Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Why can’t we let bunkers be bunkers?
London’s new U.S. embassy first opened its doors to architecture critics this week, rising from the riverside ten minutes walk upstream from Britain’s parliament and next to the city’s 1970s wholesale produce market.
It’s surrounded by a glittering moat and a maze of bushes. The embassy’s central cube is partially clad in glittering sail-like panels that both mask the building and catch the light, giving it a delicate quality more reminiscent of a resort hotel than some diplomatic fortress.
That seems to be the intention, at least. In reality, the Kieran Timberlake-designed complex is, despite its softened edges and embellishments, a miserable barrack. Locked behind high walls and a flooded ditch, it tries but fails to dissemble its defensive intent. The screen of fiddly sails attached to its sombre cube come across like a piece of tatty 1970s costume jewellery attached to the sleeve of a storm trooper’s tunic. While there is some access to an embassy garden, the building floats unreal and detached above its surroundings looking every bit the gun-protected sanctum it is.
Despite the humane intent behind this attempt at masquerade, the result ends up being rather sinister, like being mugged by someone wearing a smiley face mask. This begs the question of whether it is actually a good idea to try to soften the look of a building that is inherently defensive. Why not let bunkers be bunkers?
The project is an undeniably tough brief for any architect. The sheer volume of security features KieranTimberlake’s team had to deliver—features that all new embassy buildings require—is formidable. The cube itself needed 6-inch-thick glass panels to be blast proof, with a mandatory set-back of 330 feet from the embassy’s external perimeter. The stockade of steel and cement bollards, as yet imperfectly masked by hedges, needs to withstand the collision force of an 8-ton truck, while the moat beyond ensures that anything that might somehow manage to blast through is swallowed and flooded before reaching the main building. Given the rigor and complexity of these features, it’s no wonder the compound, intended to do service for up to a century, cost $1 billion.
Complementing the site’s setting aesthetically is also a challenge. Dubbed “Dubai-on-Thames,” the riverside strip on London’s Vauxhall neighborhood is bisected by railway viaducts and filled with scrappy low-slung 1970s warehouses that have in recent decades been joined by a rogue’s gallery of new architectural excesses. The embassy’s nearest neighbors include the plastic Egyptian-deco hulk of Britain’s Secret Service Headquarters (nickname “Ceaușescu Towers”); St. George’s Wharf, a hideous rampart of Postmodernism that manages to both blot out the landscape and make its adjacent river walk feel like a private domain; plus a new lipstick-shaped, luxury residential skyscraper that remains woefully under-occupied. With a setting like this, the embassy has a lot to live down to.
In fact, something more openly defensive and austere might have worked better in these surroundings. It’s not as if visual austerity can’t be beautiful. Yes, the now overexposed martial qualities of Brutalism aren’t universally loved, but they contributed to the revelatory quality of actually experiencing buildings constructed in the style. There is a frisson to entering some raw concrete hulk only to realize that its internal spaces are in fact soft, welcoming, and carefully molded. Approaches like KieranTimberlake’s at the new embassy take you in the opposite direction. You see landscaping, softened edges, reflective surfaces, and then realize that you’re still passing by a building whose function is both burrow and panopticon. There’s something a little unsettling about the disconnect.
It’s an approach that nonetheless permeates urban planning, especially in London. Instead of creating buildings and infrastructure that try to appear as if they’re treading lightly, it would be better to create structures that actually do so. That such an approach is genuinely impossible for a building like the new embassy, which requires isolation and protection, gives its awkward appearance some poignancy.