The Washington Diplomat / September 2010
By Larry Luxner
The United States and archenemy Iran are racing to build breathtaking new embassies in London — and the only thing the two radically different designs have in common is that they’re both being ridiculed by architects who’ve studied the plans.
Iran’s relations with the United Kingdom have been strained in the wake of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s nuclear weapons program and the global outcry that followed Tehran’s announcement that it would stone to death a woman for alleged adultery.
Attempting to tone down that extremist image, Iran’s planned embassy building in a historic zone of Victorian mansions and Georgian terraces features a contemporary art gallery and Islamic cultural center.
The six-story marble and stone building, to be located on a South Kensington street corner, features a dramatic, rhomboid-shaped cantilevered arch, sharply angled walls and irregularly punched-out windows, with a bright yellow square structure beneath.
According to The Guardian,the site — just a short walk from London’s National History Museum and the Royal Albert Hall, and only 20 feet from St. Augustine’s Church — marks a “radical departure” from the current Iranian Embassy building in a converted townhouse at nearby Prince’s Gate, which was the scene of a dramatic 1980 terrorist siege.
“The cube-shaped building at the corner could be accessed freely by the public and features exhibits such as contemporary artworks made by young Iranian artists,” said Armin Daneshgar, a Vienna-based Iranian architect who’s working with a leading U.K. environmental engineer to make the building sustainable.
Yet the new Iranian mission, which will cost at least $160 million, has been described by locals as “catastrophic,” “hideous,” “like a spaceship” and “an eyesore out of keeping with the rest of the area.”
The Guardian reports that a group of wealthy residents has even asked Prince Charles to oppose the design. Last year, Charles successfully stopped a futuristic development on the site of Chelsea Barracks, which had been proposed by members of Qatar’s ruling family. Yet a palace spokesman said the prince hasn’t yet decided whether to intervene this time around.
“I know the site well,” writer and architectural expert Simon Jenkins told The Sunday Telegraph: “It is totally inappropriate to locate such a strident modern building in such a sensitive conservation area, directly next to a magnificent listed church.”
Citing security issues, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has broken with normal policy and refused to post any details of the plan on its website, prompting Jenkins to quip that “if the security-obsessed Americans can plan a new embassy openly and publicly, there is no excuse for Kensington council to collude with the Iranians.”
Yet the planned U.S. Embassy isn’t winning popularity contests among Londoners either.
Fifty years after Eero Saarinen’s U.S. mission — the first purpose-built U.S. chancery in Europe — opened in London’s Grosvenor Square, American bureaucrats have outgrown the facility, which had long attracted political protests and was famous for its 35-foot gilded aluminum eagle.
It will be replaced by a billion-dollar green fortress — the most expensive U.S. mission ever built anywhere — and surrounded by a 100-foot-wide moat and rolling parkland, protecting it from would-be bombers.
Located at a former industrial site behind the Battersea power station, the new embassy, rising up to 20 stories high, will also be far away from congested central London. Yet New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff called it “a bland glass cube clad in an overly elaborate, quiltlike scrim.”
Steven Walt at Foreign Policy thought it “a fancy building isolated from its surroundings and keeping the world at arm’s length.” The Guardian’s Jonathan Glancey called it “a giant glass box on stilts rising from a Princess Diana-style memorial park.”
The critics agreed that the winning design by little-known Philadelphia architecture firm Kieran Timberlake was inferior to those offered by contemporary heavyweights Richard Meier and Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architects — but that Timberlake’s design won out because of enhanced security concerns in the wake of 9/11.
According to the Guardian, the only two British judges on the design panel — architect Richard Rogers and developer Peter Palumbo — “thought the design was boring and not good enough to represent one of the great nations in London.”
Construction on the new embassy will likely begin in 2012, but it won’t be operational until 2017. Meanwhile, the elegant old U.S. mission in Mayfair has been sold for more than $1 billion to a Qatari developer that plans to turn it into a luxury hotel and apartment complex. Maybe Londoners will call Prince Charles for help on that one as well.