South Bank Bound

South Bank Bound

Making good on plans to desert its storied Eero Saarinen building and raise a fortified compound in London’s South Bank district, on January 2 the U.S. Department of State announced a shortlist of nine American architectural firms to design a billion-dollar London embassy.

In hopes that the project might prove as distinguished as Saarinen’s structure—itself the product of a design competition in 1955—the jury picked a roster of heavy-hitters with a few unexpected firms in the mix. The full list includes Richard Meier & Partners, Kohn Pedersen Fox, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, Perkins + Will, Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, Kallmann McKinnell & Wood, Morphosis, and KieranTimberlake.

Having winnowed the field from a list of 37 submissions, the project’s jury—including architects and designers Frances Halsband, Richard Rogers, James Carpenter, Michaele Pride, and Peter Rolland—will now select four or five finalists to submit formal design schemes for the next phase of the competition. A winning team is expected to be announced by the end of August.

To the consternation of British architects, U.S. law calls for the embassy’s lead designer to be an American firm with required security clearance. The shortlisted offices will, however, be allowed to retain UK partners to serve on the design team.

The competition aims for a new facility that reflects “the best of modern design, incorporates the latest in energy-efficient building techniques, and celebrates the values of freedom and democracy,” embassy officials said in a statement. The relocation must still be approved by Congress and local planning authorities, a process that may yet take several years.

While plans for the move have long been in the making, it was only last October that Ambassador Robert Tuttle officially confirmed the South Bank scenario. “We looked at all our options, including renovation of our current building on Grosvenor Square,” he said in a statement. “In the end, we realized that the goal of a modern, secure and environmentally sustainable Embassy could best be met by constructing a new facility. I’m excited about America playing a role in the regeneration of the South Bank of London.”

The State Department has signed a conditional agreement with developer Ballymore to acquire the five-acre South Bank site, located in the Nine Elms Opportunity Area in Wandsworth. The project is “going to be the anchor to a redevelopment of the area,” said Jonathan Blyth, chief of staff of the State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Building Operations. The new embassy would be located near the Battersea Power Station, itself the site of some controversy over efforts to redevelop the sprawling complex with a masterplan by Rafael Viñoly.

"The goal is that the American taxpayers will not pay for this embassy," Blyth added. The project is to be funded with $500 million already secured from the sale of an annex next to the existing embassy, plus proceeds expected from the sale of the Saarinen building. 

All of which does little to clarify the fate of that 1960 structure, which the State Department put on the block last year. Considered among the most significant examples of Saarinen’s work in Europe, the building is widely expected to be razed to make way for apartments on the site, whose Mayfair address makes it one of the most coveted properties in London.

Blyth told AN that purchase offers are under review and a decision is expected in the “very near future” as to the lucky bidder. A plea to list the building as historically significant has not yet been acted upon by English Heritage, and “is something that is still being discussed in England,” Blyth said.

Oddly, the U.S. government does not actually own the Saarinen property. According to Cushman & Wakefield, which is advising on the building’s disposition, what is being offered for sale is the State Department’s leasehold interest in the building. The lease, granted by the Grosvenor Estate in 1954, is for a term of 999 years, “with the rent fixed at one peppercorn per annum for the whole term.” Considering that the property is thought to be worth several hundred million dollars, that’s not a bad deal at all.