List entry

List entry Summary

This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

Name: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA EMBASSY

List entry Number: 1393496

Location

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA EMBASSY, GROSVENOR SQUARE

The building may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County District District Type Parish
Greater London AuthorityCity of WestminsterLondon Borough

National Park: Not applicable to this List entry.

Grade: II

Date first listed: 21-Oct-2009

Date of most recent amendment: Not applicable to this List entry.

Legacy System Information

The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System: LBS

UID: 503983

Asset Groupings

This list entry does not comprise part of an Asset Grouping. Asset Groupings are not part of the official record but are added later for information.

List entry Description

Summary of Building

Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

The United States Embassy has been designated for the following principal reasons: * Special architectural interest for the strongly-articulated design and dynamic façades, well-detailed stonework and consistency of detail. Of particular note is the innovative application of the exposed concrete diagrid - an intelligent combination of structural expression and decorative motifs which provides cohesion to the whole and which illustrates Saarinen's principles of marrying form to structure, interior to exterior - and his close involvement in detail and execution. Eero Saarinen is an outstanding figure in C20 architecture and design and this is an early example of a modernist yet contextual approach to design in a sensitive urban location. Internal interest is confined to the ground-floor public spaces: ie, the main entrance and central lobbies, passport office and former library, and the former information service and consular lobbies and stairs on the north and south sides respectively, where the diagrid structure is expressed throughout

* Special historic interest for strong associations with Grosvenor Square, the home of the first US Ambassador and the nerve centre of the American Armed Forces in Great Britain in WWII, witnessed by W Reid Dick's statue of General Eisenhower, erected in 1947 (qv), and other monuments. It was Britain's first modern embassy, and has international significance as the apotheosis of the US post-war embassy-building programme; of all the US embassies built this was the only one for which a competition was held, such was its status. Its design exemplifies the US post-war mission to 'engender good will' in the host nations through buildings of architectural distinction commissioned from some of the world's leading architects, which harmonised with their surroundings yet were distinguishably American and accessible. It embodied the special relationship that had developed between the US and the UK, while becoming the target for anti-US sentiment, most famously in the 1968 anti-Vietnam war demonstrations.

History

Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Details



1900/0/10399 GROSVENOR SQUARE 21-OCT-09 United States of America Embassy

II Embassy of the United States of America. Built 1957-60 to the design of Eero Saarinen, assisted by by Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall as UK executive architects. FJ Samuely structural engieers. Eagle statue by Theodore Roszac

MATERIALS: Reinforced concrete clad in Portland stone (front and side elevations) and in concrete (rear elevation).

PLAN: Symmetrical U-plan, comprising a raised ground floor with a central main entrance and lobby with large halls to the left and right housing the visa section and library, and a large central main lobby with rooms to either side, leading through to a rear single storey of offices. Separate entrances to the Consular and (former)Information Sections are on the N and S sides, each with a lobby and stair to either side. The basement had a café and auditorium (now altered); the upper floors cellular offices. EXTERIOR: The Embassy occupies the W side of Grosvenor Square, with shorter return elevations to the N and S. In order to emphasise its three-dimensional qualities, Saarinen set it back from the street line, from which it is separated by a stone-faced well in the form of a glacis. The long, tripartite façade is of 22 bays comprising a central 5-bay entrance, a tall recessed ground floor constructed in in-situ cast concrete supported on cruciform columns, plus 4 floors and a set-back attic - in essence, this is a modern reinterpretation of a Greek temple raised on a podium with a peristyle base and entablature-like top storey. The N and S elevations are of 13 bays with a 3-bay central entrance. Tall ground-floor windows with gilded cruciform mullions and transom lights. The façades are composed of load-bearing pre-cast concrete panels faced in Portland stone, using an ingenious system of invisible jointing. These take the form of a monumental grille in an off-set chequerboard pattern, within which are set gilded aluminium windows with deep mullions and quasi-saw-tooth profiles; the rear is the same but clad in pre-cast concrete. The fenestration alternates paired narrow opening lights with fixed glass panels. The upper floors are carried on a giant concrete 'diagrid' floor of intersecting diagonal concrete beams which transfers the load to cruciform columns beneath; the exposed ends of the diagrid enable the façade to overhang the column line. Saarinen's application of this constructional form, which was invented in the 1920s, was of unusual sophistication in 1950s Britain, showing the technological prowess then associated with the United States, and is one of the building's principal features, expressed externally and internally throughout the ground floor. It is echoed in details such as the gilded pressed-metal parapet, cog-wheel window motifs and exposed beams-ends. The building is surrounded by a gilded cruciform balustrade; matching lamp standards flank the main entrance. The 35-ft gilded aluminium eagle is by the noted Polish-American sculptor Theodore Roszac (Saarinen's original proposal was for a representation of the US Great Seal).

The architectural interest diminishes with the rear elevation. This continues the facade treatment of the front, but clad in concrete. The two wings are linked by a lower single-storey block with service bays beneath.

INTERIOR: Internally, special interest is largely confined to the ground-floor public spaces: ie, the main entrance and central lobbies, passport office and former library, which have gilded cruciform columns, and the former information service and consular lobbies and stairs on the N and S sides respectively; these areas all have exposed diagrid ceilings. The most notable area is the central lobby, which is clad in white Greek Pentelicon marble. Travertine floors, some replaced. Stairs to N and S lobbies have gilded cruciform balusters. The offices are (and always were) of little distinction and have been much altered, and the ambassadorial rooms have been refurbished in a traditional style. The basement restaurant has some relocated C18 and later features, reputedly salvaged from demolished houses in Grosvenor Square.

HISTORY: Until the C20, London embassies occupied former town houses; many still do. Purpose-built premises emerged with the grand Dominion headquarters (or 'empire houses'). In post-war London, with America leading the way, embassies in effect became specialised office buildings with a wider range of functions than hitherto; besides publicly-accessible spaces they might also have reception rooms, consular sections, military, security and other restricted-access offices, the ambassador's office, and other spaces such as a café, meeting room, library etc. The US Embassy was Britain's first modern embassy, followed by New Zealand House (1959-63).

The US connection with Grosvenor Square began in 1785 when the first Minister to the Court of St James, John Adams, rented No 9. After that, consular functions took place in various buildings: in Great Cumberland Place, then Piccadilly, Portland Place, Grosvenor Gardens and in 1938 at new premises, No. 1 Grosvenor Square (now the Canadian High Commission). During WWII when General Eisenhower's headquarters were set up at No 20, the Square was known as 'Little America'. The gardens were replanned in 1947-8 in memory of FD Roosevelt, whose Grade II listed statue by W Reid Dick stands in the centre.

From 1954-60 the US carried out a global embassy-building programme as part of its Cold War strategy. Grosvenor Square was the obvious location for a new UK embassy (or properly Chancellery, since it was not intended as an ambassadorial residence), and in 1955 a competition was held limited to eight entrants. The winning entry was by the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. It was built, with some modifications to the original design, in 1957-60 assisted by Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall as UK executive architects. It also housed the US Consulate and US Information Service. Other embassies built during this formative era included Athens (1956-61, Walter Gropius); The Hague (1956-59, Marcel Breur); New Delhi (1954-58, Edward Durrell Stone), and Oslo (1955-8), also by Saarinen. The London embassy was the largest and most expensive built and the only one for which a competition was held. As such, it embodied the special relationship that had developed between the United States and the United Kingdom.

Numerous demands and constraints beset the UK competition. From c1925 the Grosvenor Estate had imposed a neo-Georgian aesthetic on new buildings in the Square, with a master plan to replace C18 houses with nine-storey blocks. The post-war US approach to embassy design deliberately abandoned overt classicism, now evocative of totalitarianism, and sought to harmonise its new buildings with the locality yet be distinguishably modern, American, and open to the public, providing facilities such as a library where people could learn about America. While the US was exempted from the Grosvenor Estate constraints, the competition brief sought a design 'which would engender good will through distinguished architectural quality'; while ruling out 'stylistic copies' it required 'an appropriate visual relationship to the other three sides of Grosvenor Square'. Portland stone was the specified cladding material. Saarinen's design, in his own words, 'anticipate(d) the changes that will occur there when the three sides of the square will be in nine-storey pseudo-Georgian buildings. The square is in transition, and our building is built for the future. The mass and general cornice height, the silhouette, conform to those of the future buildings'. However, while the north side had been largely rebuilt to the Grosvenor Estate plan, the remainder was never realised in that form.

Reception was mixed, sometimes hostile. Modernists saw it as a compromise, particularly for the Georgian allusions of the symmetry and fenestration, while traditionalists thought the monumental form at odds with the Georgian setting. Few liked the façade, which was seen as too energetic and fussy: 'jazz rhythms added to the Georgian melody'; the gilding, in contrast with the white stone, was seen as superficial and gaudy (Saarinen had envisaged that the stonework would weather to black and white, an effect he admired, but anti-pollution laws thwarted that objective). Despite this, aspects of the building were almost universally applauded; Reyner Banham for example said 'the building abounds in details whose consistency and logic bespeak a standard of professional competence that few buildings in Britain can rival'.

Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) was the son of the eminent Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen who emigrated to the USA in 1923. Eero studied architecture at Yale University, which was firmly rooted in the French/American Beaux arts tradition. He belonged to what is now regarded as the 'second generation' of the Modern Movement, which sought to move architecture beyond modernism's more stifling precepts such as form-follows-function. He is best known for iconic masterpieces such as the GM Technical Center, Michigan, the remarkable TWA center at JFK Airport, Washington Dulles Airport, and the Memorial Gateway, St Louis, as well as furniture design including the famous 'tulip' and 'womb' chairs. The London embassy was one of only three buildings he designed outside the US, alongside the US Embassy, Oslo and the East Terminal at Ellenikon Airport, Athens, completed posthumously in 1963. While achieving acclaim and success in his lifetime - he was one of the most prolific architects of his generation - Saarinen's perceived lack of a signature style and overt historicism, most acute at the London Embassy and the Morse and Stiles Colleges, Yale University, attracted criticism from orthodox modernists. Nonetheless in 1962 after his untimely death at the age of 51, Saarinen was posthumously awarded the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects - its highest tribute. A renewed interest in 'Midcentury Modernism' in the 1990s has led to recognition of Saarinen's unique skill in adapting his own modernist vision to each individual client, project and context. He is universally acknowledged as a master of mid-C20 modernism.

SOURCES: Architect & Building News, 7 December 1960, pp 731-4 Jane C Loeffler, The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America's Embassies , 1998 English Heritage, The United States Embassy, unpublished report September 2007

REASON FOR DESIGNATION: The United States Embassy is designated for the following principal reasons: * Special architectural interest for the strongly-articulated design and dynamic façades, well-detailed stonework and consistency of detail. Of particular note is the innovative application of the exposed concrete diagrid - an intelligent combination of structural expression and decorative motifs which provides cohesion to the whole and which illustrates Saarinen's principles of marrying form to structure, interior to exterior - and his close involvement in detail and execution. Eero Saarinen is an outstanding figure in C20 architecture and design and this is an early example of a modernist yet contextual approach to design in a sensitive urban location. Internal interest is largely confined to the ground-floor public spaces, as detailed above.

* Special historic interest for strong associations with Grosvenor Square, the home of the first US Ambassador and the nerve centre of the American Armed Forces in Great Britain in WWII, witnessed by W Reid Dick's statue of General Eisenhower, erected in 1947 (qv), and other monuments. It was Britain's first modern embassy, and has international significance as the apotheosis of the US post-war embassy-building programme; of all the US embassies built this was the only one for which a competition was held, such was its status. Its design exemplifies the US post-war mission to 'engender good will' in the host nations through buildings of architectural distinction commissioned from some of the world's leading architects, which harmonised with their surroundings yet were distinguishably American and accessible. It embodied the special relationship that had developed between the US and the UK, while becoming the target for anti-US sentiment, most famously in the 1968 anti-Vietnam war demonstrations.

Selected Sources

Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details

National Grid Reference: TQ 28252 80754

Map


© Crown Copyright and database right 2014. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100024900.
© British Crown and SeaZone Solutions Limited 2014. All rights reserved. Licence number 102006.006.

This copy shows the entry on 20-Dec-2014 at 03:45:42.