Looking back at a building making headlines.
With all of the recent attention/controversy directed at the new U.S. Embassy in London, I thought it might be the perfect time to revisit my post on the now defunct Saarinen-designed embassy building. Though I'll leave it to you to decide whether the new design is worthy of the mockery, the old modernist mission remains a pretty fascinating design, one deserving of a second look.
When Eero Saarinen's U.S. Embassy opened in London in 1960, many in Britain (still skeptical of Modern architecture) remained rather unimpressed. In the land of Georgian landmarks, the nine-story Venetian-inspired embassy consumed an entire block in Mayfair’s historic Grosvenor Square. Criticized at the time for being too bold yet not bold enough, Saarinen's design blends the surrounding classicism with his own brand of dynamic, plastic modernism. According to Saarinen legend, Doge’s Palace served as the building's inspiration, and the embassy echoes the Italian landmark in its domineering stone massing, repetitive fenestration, and gilded eagle “pinnacle.” Utilizing technologically advanced building methods, classical references, and a cohesive monumentality, Saarinen's expressive design conveys a sense of energy, optimism, and strength critical to America's global identity.
Saarinen designed the large block (600 rooms and 225,000 square feet) to blend with Grosvenor Square’s existing built landscape- using light Portland stone decorated with gold anodized aluminum and an entablature-like upper story to reference classical architecture. Much like Doge’s Palace, emphasis is placed on the building's ground floor by raising the upper levels on a peristyle. The checkerboard facade attempts to blend with more conventional London architecture, while a gilded aluminum bald eagle (designed by Polish-American sculptor Theodore Roszak) crowns the building as a provocative political symbol. Both cerebral and muscular, the embassy is a modern temple dedicated to the postwar vision of democracy and diplomacy.
It took some time, but Saarinen’s design eventually won over its neighbors (even though security threats continued to be a source of anxiety), and in 2008, when the United States announced the closure of the building citing security concerns and the need for more square footage, there were more than a few Londoners critical of the move (the building was granted landmark status in 2009). Of course, in true British fashion, the design for the new embassy by KieranTimberlake, located across the city in the Nine Elms district of Wandsworth, has been debated and ridiculed for its fortified site, "ice cube" form, and excessive price tag. A giant glass monolith on a former industrial site, the new embassy with a $1 billion price tag will open later this year.* (Update- the new embassy opened in January 2018.)
As for the Saarinen building, there are plans to make the modernist monument a hotel, so for now the architect's vision of America’s postwar power and purpose should be around for years to come.
All photos are part of the Balthazar Korab Collection available at the Library of Congress.
Eero Saarinen, Architect, Balthazar Korab, photographer. United States Embassy, London, 1955-60. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A version of this post was published on June 12, 2017.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.