Do not let the fancy renderings of the winning entry for the new American Embassy in London mislead you, what you see is nothing else than the contemporaneous version of the Middle Age castle. The project, designed by Kieran Timberlake carries many characteristics of medieval means of defense and thus constitutes the paradigm of the post-2001 American Embassy. As I already pointed out in a previous article about the competition for the US Embassy in Belgrade, this paradigm is defined by the contradiction between the appearance and the essence of the building, the former representing the traditional discourse of openness, “democracy, liberty and America” (quoting the issue of proudly American Metropolis dedicated to US Embassies) while the latter is really about the protection of the building and what it contains.
Just like for the new World Trade Center in New York, the base of the building has to be solid enough to contain a bomb-car attack. In the London case, the building is separated from the city by an earth motte as well as a moat filed with water (see the wired article about those apparatuses). As many people also realize a square-base building ensures to have the least contact surface with the outside. Usually it represents a useful way to control the energy transfers and thus to make the building more ecoLogical, in that case, it ensures to the core of the building to be protected from any exterior attack. The peripheral glass is therefore only a decoy which indicates what truly needs to be protected in an Embassy, not as much people, but documents that are stored in the center of the building. It would be interesting to see the plans but of course, they are kept secret, which brings the attention on the architect’s responsibility once again. The generation of architects currently practicing has been built on the disillusion of the previous one (the moderns), and has therefore accepted the idea that, as simple cogs of the mechanisms, they were not responsible for the political consequences of their products. The very fact that their plans could be kept secret brings attention on the power of the scheme that they participated to conceive.
One has to understand that my criticism of the new London US Embassy project is not so much directed at its defensive characteristics, it is not even so much addressed to the architectural hypocrisy it constitutes, but as often in my writings, it is a critique of the place that it occupies within a system. At an architectural level, this system is the one for which fame and pomp reign in such a way that the design paradigm actually shifted, but at the global political level, it embodies a retroactive justification of the reasons why a country like the United States actually needs to defend itself. Once again, architects think that they are not responsible of the program that is given to them, that they come after the events and policies that led to such program; however, by accepting what is being asked for them within this system, they legitimize the policies that precede them. As always my question remains: should we simply refuse to participate to this system? It is probably easy for an architect to never design a post-2001 US Embassy but it is likely to be more difficult never to design a building that is embedded within similar logic (an office, a store, a public bench…pretty much any piece of design in the city). We should therefore learn to subvert the system rather than fleeing it, act as funambulists who play with the line that was supposed to subjugate their bodies, but how much smarter than the system can we be? How can we prevent from being trapped by it? Those questions probably escape from the strict theoretical approach and require their daily practice for us to really make sense out of them.
More images of the London US Embassy project: