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« Jim Kalb's Book Is Now Buyable | Main | Political Linkage »

October 26, 2008

Save the Embassy?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It seems that the days of the American Embassy in London are numbered.


One article I read mentioned that some people would like to see the building preserved. It was designed by Eero Saarinen and completed in 1960, not long before the architect's death. His major works include the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, the giant riverfront arch in St. Louis, the main terminal building at Dulles airport near Washington and the former TWA terminal at New York's JFK airport. See the link for more information.

Deciding which buildings deserve preservation is a tricky business. For instance, 50 years ago many people, myself included, would have been happy to see all those old-fashioned brick office and warehouse buildings from the 1885-1905 period fall under the wrecker's ball. Today, such structures are treasured. So one should be cautious when advocating that certain buildings be destroyed.

I have given the matter regarding the London embassy some thought. And I say it deserves to be smashed into the tiniest possible dust particles.

The building is ugly. It utterly destroyed the ambiance of Grosvenor Square and should be replaced with buildings compatible with existing structures. It is not one of Saarinen's best designs (I'm fond of the TWA terminal, myself).

So it should go.



posted by Donald at October 26, 2008


What happy news. I always wished that building would get burned to the ground by some Yankee- (or rather, Yank)-go-home arsonist. One bit of anti-Americanism I could have got on board with.

Posted by: Moira Breen on October 26, 2008 5:54 PM

Good news. Destroy it.

Posted by: Lexington Green on October 26, 2008 7:30 PM

Yes, there's a difference between those who wished to trash the Victorian buildings and those who'd love to see our world relieved of some of the hideous burden of modernism.

Knock it down!!

Maybe keep the eagle, though.

Posted by: mr tall on October 26, 2008 8:48 PM

Whoa, that is one ugly mother of a building. Nuke it down to its constituent quarks and it would still make your pet dog drop dead. It's so ugly it should be placed under citizen's arrest. It's so ugly it smells just looking at it. America could solve its immigration problems by putting that thing on the border with Mexico. Mexico would build an impenetrable wall itself just to avoid having to look at it.

There's a new(ish) American Embassy up in Ottawa, more or less a cross between the fossilized remains of a massive crustacean deity from the Cthulhu Mythos, and an I-Am-Tiglath Pileser-And-You're-Screwed Ziggurat. Did you manage to get any snaps of that Giganto-Slab of Ultimate Domination when you were in Ottawa on your tour, Donald?

I hope not. For your sake.

Posted by: PatrickH on October 26, 2008 8:58 PM

PatrickH -- Uh, well, I did take one photo from across the park (the side opposite the public entrance). I didn't plan to post it ... but now that I'm hearing some popular demand ....

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 26, 2008 9:17 PM

Did that guy design the psychology building at the University of Georgia? Maybe we could get a deal and take them both out on the cheap...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 26, 2008 10:03 PM

Saarinen's TWA terminal looks great because it's surrounded by nothing, allowing it to function as an objet d'arte, rather than as part of a functioning cityscape.

That would seem like a fundamental distinction that architects should be taught: if you are building something surrounded only by open space, go crazy and design the giant perfume bottle of your dreams. But if you are building something on a street, rein yourself in and make it fit in.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on October 26, 2008 10:10 PM

Dust sounds like too good a fate for it.

Hugh Pearman tries to make a case for preserving the Embassy in the WSJ. It's a bizarre article. I read it looking for the reasons why -- really, any reasons why -- Pearman thinks the building is worthy. I didn't see a single one. He just seems to think it's significant, so there. His best attempt: "Like it or loathe it, the building has enormous character."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 26, 2008 10:48 PM

Blow it to smithereens and appropriately recycle the concrete to make sewerage pipes

Posted by: slumlord on October 27, 2008 12:17 AM

Michael, thanks for that link to the WSJ article. I think the key sentence is not the one you quoted, though – it’s rather the first one.

Buildings acquire personality not only through their architecture, but through the events that they witness.

I run into this belief (and it is an act of faith, no question) all the time here in Hong Kong. The architectural situation here is extreme – the original Victorian/Edwardian city with its elegantly coherent vision is long, long gone – either blown up in WWII, or demolished and replaced in the explosive growth of the post-war years.

So what passes for ‘architectural heritage’ here is typically cheap modernist crap built in the 1950s or even 60s-70s. For example, just a few years ago there was an outburst of nostalgia over a pier on Hong Kong’s harbor that was little more than a slab of rotting concrete with a hideous tiled canopy. But it was the ‘events that it had witnessed’ that provided the rationale of the preservationists. Royalty has set foot on it, HK’s last governor cast off from it, etc., etc.

I have deeply mixed feelings about this point of view. I’m pretty deeply conservative/traditionalist, so I respect the desire to hang onto significant places and practices. But what if they’re ugly? Does this ‘touchstone of memory’ factor override their hideousness?

It’s a good question.

Posted by: mr tall on October 27, 2008 12:34 AM

What a depressing development: the heritage preservation argument that grew in response to the annihilating force of modernism is now being used to protect from well-deserved annihilation modernist structures themselves. For some reason, this reminds me of the ironic appropriation of politically correct tropes by Harper Valley PTA type folk. These carbuncles are going to be fought for, tooth and claw, and their defenders will use any argument by anyone to keep them standing.

Why, it's as if the very ugliness, the sheer stressfulness of these buildings is what modernists like about them. You think?

Posted by: PatrickH on October 27, 2008 8:49 AM

Won't miss that one for a moment - there are far too many of its kin still taking up space. In fact, there's one right down the street from me in Cambridge, and they're in the process of reworking its bare-concrete ground floors, giving it more windows and cladding the concrete surfaces. It makes the street-level view more appealing, but it's going to give the whole building a bizarre look from a distance.

But the fewer rows-of-rectangular-narrow-windows-in-concrete buildings there are, the better, and we should rejoice when one disappears. Overall, the embassy reminds me a bit of the chemistry building in which I spent my grad school years:

Posted by: Derek Lowe on October 27, 2008 11:12 AM

That embassy barks.

Posted by: The Fredösphere on October 27, 2008 12:53 PM

If you didn't know better and were told "It's the HQ of the East German Communist Party", you'd believe it.

Posted by: dearieme on October 27, 2008 2:09 PM

dearieme, ever notice the eerie similarities in the architecture of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and the New Deal?

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 27, 2008 5:29 PM


You spent your formative grad school years in THAT THING...and you can still write fine poetry.

I'm impressed at your powers of resistance. I'm even a bit scared of you...

The Man Modernism Could Not Break.

Posted by: PatrickH on October 27, 2008 6:04 PM

That is one nondescript building. I can't see anyone getting worked up about it one way or another. Maybe I need to see more angles.

Posted by: JV on October 27, 2008 7:32 PM

Quite an achievement to make a building that massive look tinny.

Posted by: ricpic on October 27, 2008 8:36 PM

to be fair, it looks a lot better in the flesh, than in your photo

Posted by: john on October 28, 2008 9:20 AM

Well, Charlton, I suspect that the Nazis were better at vulgar art than the more orthodox socialists.

Posted by: dearieme on October 28, 2008 1:34 PM

1) About the landmarking of orthodox modernist buildings (for their architectural qualities), in general.

There's been quite a bit of discussion in NYC in recent years regarding the proposed landmarking of various orthodox modernist structures (which are now becoming old enough to be eligible for designation under the NYC landmark preservation law, e.g., Silver Towers, etc.). Without going over all the various arguments again (and not discussing other reasons for landmarking, e.g., for strictly historical reasons unrelated to architecture), it seems to me that oftentimes in these discussion people are actually losing sight of a very basic idea: "why do we landmark buildings for architectural merit in the first place (and this includes 19th century buildings, too)?"

It isn't, so it seems to me, to preserve just any unusual building or even an unusual building that's been designed by someone who has been championed by some as an historically "important" architect. Rather, it seems to me that the purpose of landmarking architecture (as architecture) is to preserve important POSITIVE lessons from the past -- important positive examples of "city friendly" styles, of successful ways architects have addressed the problems of city living, etc. -- so that said examples will be available for study by future generations.

This would eliminate from consideration for landmarking, in my opinion, those orthodox modern buildings (or orthodox modern "ideas," like the tower-in-the-park arrangement of buildings on the land) that have "proven" to be unsuccessful or anti-city. Some prime examples of bad candidates for landmark designation, so it seems to me, are Stuyvesant Town; the Silver Towers tower-in-the-park site plan; Tracey Towers (an apartment complex in the Bronx by one of my favorite "modernists," Paul Rudolph); the Marriott Marquis Hotel on Times Square; and so on.

2) Is the architecture of a building really "modern" (what I call "orthodox modern") or "traditional" (what I call "modern traditional")?

It seems to me that a number of buildings incorporate some features of both orthodox modernism and modern traditionalism -- and, as a result, are looked at with disfavor by both modernists and traditionalists!!!

Most of the buildings at Lincoln Center fall into this category; I think Edward Durrell (sp?) Stone's 2 Columbus Circle was one of these; so are some of the NYU buildings south of Washington Square, particularly Bobst Library.

Although I haven't seen it in person, it seems to me that Saarinen's U.S. Embassy is another one of these buildings.

3) Regarding Saarinen's U.S. Embassy building in London

Saarinen (along with Philip Johnson and Paul Rudolph) was a favorite "contemporary" architect of mine when I was in high school. At the time, I'm admired (and still sometimes admire) his buildings not only for their beauty but for the way each was so different from his others, and so focused on the problem (or the "program") at hand. (I believe, for instance, that he even studied how soot would form on the facade of the U.S. Embassy in London, designing the facade so that the building would age gracefully given London's heavy soot conditions in those days.)

But even in those days, it seemed to me that Saarinen (along with Philip Johnson) was an architect who often "bit off more than he could chew." In other words, as idealistic and ambitious as his buildings were, his buildings oftentimes disappointed and seemed to fail to deliver precisely what he wanted them too -- sometimes even doing exactly the opposite of what he wanted them to do. For example, he claimed that the CBS Building, now know as "Black Rock," would not create a "tower-in-the-park" effect, when in fact it seems to me that it creates one of the worst tower-in-the-park effects of all.

If I remember correctly, he claimed at the time he designed the U.S. Embassy Building on Grosvenor Square, that it would successfully fit into historic Grosvenor Square. And I'm sure he tried very hard to make this true. But, even at the time, it seemed to me from the photos and diagrams that were published in the architectural press, it seemed to me that he hadn't been nearly as successful as he had hoped he would be in this regard.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on October 31, 2008 9:52 PM

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