The dramatic U.K. vote last week got me thinking- how is London’s Eero Saarinen-designed U.S. Embassy (1955-1960) faring these days? And just like the election results, this one is a real stunner. It's also today’s midMOD monday.
When the Saarinen-designed U.S. Embassy opened in London in 1960, many in Britain, still skeptical of Modernism, remained unimpressed. In the land of Georgian landmarks, the nine-story Venetian-inspired embassy consumed an entire block in Mayfair’s Grosvenor Square. Criticized at the time for being too bold and not bold enough, Saarinen's design blends the surrounding classicism with his 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 that remains 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 architecture, 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 the more conventional London architecture, while a gilded aluminum bald eagle (designed by American 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 continue to be a source of anxiety), and in 2008 when the United States announced the closure of the embassy 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 cube on a former industrial site, the new embassy will cost a record $1 billion and following a number of delays, will open later this year.
As for Saarinen's embassy, 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. And unlike recent elections, that is one result everyone can get behind.
All photos are part of the Balthazar Korab Collection available at the Library of Congress.
Saarinen, Eero, Architect, Korab, Balthazar, photographer. United States Embassy, London, 1955-60. England London, None. [Between 1955 and 1960] Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.