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Embassy Barometer – Embassy 23 – February 2010

Do you like the new US Embassy?
Yes 87%
No 13%

Is this the start of a diplomatic quarter in Battersea?
Yes 34%
No 40%
Maybe 24%

Envoys give ‘Ice Cube’ the thumbs up

London’s diplomats have given their overwhelming approval to the design of the new US Embassy in Battersea, South London, but the jury is out whether the iconic, billion-dollar project has enough pull-factor to create a new diplomatic quarter in London.

In a survey conducted by Embassy, the vast majority of respondents (87 per cent) was enthusiastic about the glittering ‘ice cube’ by US architects KieranTimberlake.

One African diplomat described it as “spectacular”, while a European envoy praised the design as being “modern, bright, intelligent and fashionable”.

A counsellor from Southeast Asia was also impressed, saying the “futuristic design” would be sympathetic to the urban, industrial landscape of Battersea.

However, some diplomats did offer a ‘minority report’ with 13 per cent rejecting the design. One Asian diplomat described the contemporary design as “boring” and out of keeping with London’s historic architecture: “It is a huge building with new American architecture which does not look beautiful in London.”

Another European diplomat was also underwhelmed, comparing the design to “the Apple store on Fifth Avenue rather than an Embassy.”

Striking a balance
More than three quarters of respondents (76 per cent) were impressed with the way in which the new building proposes to strike a balance between security, openness and sustainability.

Some praised the clever use of landscaping and a moat as a defence against attackers which was preferable to the fortress-like designs of many US embassies. “It’s very green and sustainable and not a fence in sight,” commented one diplomat.

The building uses advanced sustainable technologies and is designed to be net exporter of energy. However, a few in the diplomatic corps (24 per cent) were not convinced by the green credentials: “I find it hard to believe that such a massive compound can be environmentally sustainable,” said one sceptical diplomat.

Another had reservations about the impact on the neighbouring area: “The building has to have a giant cooling/heating system which could mean a higher temperature for those outside.”

Office with a view
Two-thirds of diplomats were envious of their American colleagues, saying the building would be a pleasant working environment. As one put it: “It will surely be state-of the-art with great functionality, not to mention the views of the Thames!”

Another commented that he would enjoy working in a “secure, diverse environment”, while a third said the Embassy was an “inviting, light-filled crystal”.

But a few sounded a note of caution, as one Asian diplomat said: “It looks fabulous from the outside but it is the wearer of the shoe who knows where it pinches!”

One European diplomat was concerned that working with so many people in one place would be like “ants in an ant hive”.

A new diplomatic quarter?
Diplomats were divided over whether other embassies would follow the US example. One third of respondents said the move could pioneer a new diplomatic quarter in South London, while 40 per cent were doubtful that embassies would relocate, and over a quarter were undecided.

But one embassy is actively seeking land to start building in 2012 and other small missions are attracted by cheaper real estate, purpose-built missions and more space.

One Middle Eastern diplomat said the idea of a new diplomatic quarter was worthy of consideration: “It is better to settle all embassies out of Central London to avoid the heavy traffic, the congestion charge and the parking problems.”

But transport links remain a concern for some, while others said any relocation was unlikely due to the location and staff housing north of the river.

A US Embassy spokesman did not want to predict the start of a new diplomatic quarter in Battersea, but he said the Embassy was “proud to be pioneers in what promises to be an exciting new neighbourhood with views of the Thames.” 

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