London’s New US Embassy Shows How Far Counter-terrorist Architecture Has Come
There’s quite the kerfuffle in the architecture world today, surrounding the selection of Philadelphia firm KieranTimberlake for the design of a new US embassy in London. Richard Rogers (of Lloyds of London and Pompidou fame) and Lord Palumbo disagree with the selection so fervently that they’ve filed a complaint to the state department in Washington. But outside of intra-architectural beefs, what’s really interesting about the various designs is their response to the threat of terrorism.
If you’ve had the misfortune to go to the current US embassy in Mayfair, you’ll know that it’s a building that positively invites aggression with its portcullis exterior and labyrinthine interior; it’s also surrounded by roads on all sides, making it extremely vulnerable to attack. Looking at the other designs, it’s clear why two of them were rejected. Pei Cobb and Freed’s is merely a bland redux of Foster’s brilliant Gherkin and City Hall; Richard Meier’s is however beautiful, but its slim tower rising behind its main structure suggests, and potentially creates, vulnerability.
Designing an American embassy is delicate, steering between the two poles of thundering over-aggression and dangerous passivity – the trick is to make a space that is inviting but nevertheless repels threats. Whatever you think about the supposed blandness of the central blast-resistant glass cube, the KierenTimberlake design is intelligently landscaped, with a moat and ha-ha encircling the building, and trees acting as natural crash barriers (something that the UK government recommends). The Thom Mayne design, which Rogers praised as being “touched by genius” similarly deploys innovative landscaping, with the building on stilts, and an esoteric layering of walled-off green areas to act as protective walls. Symbolically, the American flag is encircled by a loop of concrete.
I recently spoke to Peter Hughes, a graduate of the University of Sheffield’s architecture program and now on the staff at Jefferson Sheard. Last year he won a RIBA competition to design a public space that resisted terror attacks, and the design (pictured below) reflects and augments many of the current counter-terror innovations. His ‘Dove and Olive Branch’ design transmits messages of peace, both literally, with giant letters that spell out ‘PEACE’, and more subtly, with cosy curling nooks laid out across the square for people to relax in, or hide in if a shooter attacked.
“I wanted to create a safe place, that wasn’t a bunker, didn’t have sniper towers, wasn’t searching everyone when they came in – otherwise it’s like the terrorists winning, it’s destructive enough”, Peter says. ”In the Omagh bombings they had two explosives – one to scare everyone and funnel them into one place, and one to kill everyone. With my design, everyone can escape across 360 degrees of the site.”
He also mentioned the importance of pulling back public buildings from roads, which is a no-brainer when designing new buildings, but which is difficult to retroactively create with existing buildings. The anti-terror buzzword here is creating “standoff” – space between a building and where an explosive could go off, because air acts as a good insulator against the pressure wave of an explosion. Hence the planting of trees, or the quicker solution of deploying giant plant pots or water features. Other innovations include curtains that catch flying glass (cheaper than the polymer coating that KieranTimberlake’s cube will have), and the ability to lock down a building section by section, to prevent the kind of indiscriminate, roaming attack that the world saw in Mumbai.
It’s depressing that these innovations have been borne out of the constant threat of terrorism, but it’s commendable that we aren’t seeing a wave of insensitive new buildings. After the riots in the early 90s, Los Angeles saw a rash of reactionary architecture, as documented in Mike Davis’s City of Quartz – from the individual buildings, like libraries which more closely resembled panopticon prisons, to (in Davis’s perhaps slightly paranoid analysis) entire swathes of downtown LA being explicitly and aggressively designed to repel undesirables. Considering the military response after 9/11, architecturally we might have expected a series of bunkers; credit must be given to architects for protecting us, while allowing us to live our lives in beauty rather than fear.