Friday, 12 January 2018


Former US Secretary of State of John Kerry once complained that the United States was 'building some of the ugliest embassies in the world...we're building fortresses'. It was a telling metaphor. If form follows function, these buildings were designed to provide a modicum of safety for Americans often unappreciative, if not hostile, countries. In fact, much the same function as the State Department and its colleagues in intelligence perform on behalf of US 'interests' in those countries.

It is thus odd that Donald Trump should cancel his appearance to dedicate the new US Embassy in Nine Elms, given the 'special relationship' between the US and the UK, a relationship so special Trump failed to include the UK in his catalogue of 'shithole' countries from which he'd like to bar immigration. But since arrangements for the official state visit that Theresa May rushed to offer him after his election have not yet manifested themselves, any visit by Trump now ran the risk of being seen by the world as a sort of consolation prize. Especially because Britain cannot guarantee a protest-free Vauxhall, not as much to protect the President physically as to protect his fragile self-esteem, but in essence denying both the form and function of the new building.

Trump's own objections to the embassy, as voiced on twitter, are as easy to decipher as his fear of being met with demonstrations of mass disapproval. He called the Grosvenor Square embassy 'the best located and finest embassy in London', and said the new one was in 'an off location'. Donald Trump is a child of Queens, the New York City outer borough located on Long Island. He is one of the 'bridge and tunnel' people who see Manhattan as the centre of earthly delight. When he took over the family business from his father, his first moves were to rename it the Trump Organization and move it into Manhattan. To Trump, being on the 'wrong side' of the river is literally slumming, especially when the new embassy lies in a bleak development area south of the Thames River, reminiscent of the New Jersey marshlands across the Hudson from Manhattan.

Trump was also quick to blame Barack Obama for the move, saying he'd sold the Grosvenor Square location 'for peanuts' and spent the money on the new one in a 'bad deal'. Trump remains at heart a real estate hustler, and he could not pass up the opportunity to remind his followers of his own business acumen. Never mind that the move of the embassy was a product of the Bush administration, including the sale of the lease that runs until 2953 to the Qatar Sovereign Wealth Fund. The symbolic figurehead, the golden eagle, will remain on the building overlooking the square, to people that once this was the seat of the American presence in Britain, and was back to the days of Johan Adams, but it will also confirm a shrinking specialness for that special relationship.

The old embassy, opened in 1960, was designed by Eero Sarinen. Its fortress appearance is more the result of recent renovation than original design; it never really fit Grosvenor Square, but it did squeeze itself in without claiming domination. The structure was low and sweeping, and many years ago, quite pleasant and relaxed to use, more like a modern town hall than a fortress.

Of course it's probably best remembered for the 1968 demonstrations against the Vietnam War, which infamously featured a young Bill Clinton. This year is the 50th anniversary of those demos, as well as the ones in France, Mexico, America and elsewhere that will provide acres of fodder for ageing pundits.

But the threat posed by those demonstrations seems placid compared to the fears that fueled the Bush administration's flight from Mayfair. In the wake of the President's 'Global War On Terror', the US government was selling fear, and the Grosvenor Square building was a vulnerable branch of the store. It wasn't large enough to house the extra bureaucracy needed to 'protect' America by making the visa process more of a trial, nor could it house the huge increase in intelligence personnel, nor could it be protected adequately from the busy traffic that still passed nearby everyday.

To its credit, the new building manages to avoid the look of a fortress, though the Kieran Timberlake design has met with criticism in British architectural circles. It certainly doesn't do anything to spoil the landscape in Nine Elms, blending in with the graceless luxury flats with river views springing up in the emptiness of the neighbourhood. Its security is guaranteed by the large open spaces and moat that surround it, as well as invisible high tech equipment. Given the penchant for nicknaming London buildings, in the spirit of the Gherkin, it most resembles an artichoke. Or perhaps an armadillo. Or indeed a kind of Star Wars death-star: one expects those glass windows to open like gun portals, and laser weaponry to emerge. And while it lacks the Stalinist-modern menace of the MI6 headquarters, also in Vauxhall, but in the 'on location' side of the Thames, it also falls short of the state department' idea that it 'gives form to core democratic values of transparency, openness and equality. Just you try to get in, and try to open one of those windows.

The Michael Wolff book Fire and Fury would suggest quite strongly that the primary concern of the Trump White House is protecting the image and self-regard of its occupant. In such a situation, the idea that he would travel to Vauxhall, which he'd probably describe as a 'shithole', to cut a ribbon on a modernist fortress in disguise rather than accept a lift round Knightsbridge in a golden carriage with Her Majesty the Queen should surprise absolutely no one. The Trump team are probably drawing up architectural plans for the new 'special relationship' as we speak.

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