Above: The new, almost completed, American Embassy (seen in May 2017) on the new site beside Nine Elms Lane.
At the time of writing, the American Embassy occupies a large building on the west side of Grosvenor Square. New premises are still under construction (but nearing completion) to the west of Vauxhall in what was once the rather run-down area of Nine Elms. Twenty years ago, anyone suggesting that the American Embassy might move would have probably been laughed at. If the suggestion had been extended to say that the move might be to Nine Elms, it would have been dismissed as ridiculous. Well, it is happening and the building is nearing completion. Not only is the American Embassy moving to Nine Elms but the Embassy of the Netherlands is also reported to be moving to the same area.
Nine Elms Lane, the land between it and the Thames as well as large swathes of land on the south side of the lane were characterised in the 1908s by an area of large warehouses and factories. They have gradually closed and, since about the year 2000, the whole area fell into dereliction. Today the whole area is undergoing regeneration – with large blocks of up-market apartments for the rich, trendy wine bars and restaurants springing up, along with a few food shops. Plans are afoot for two more underground stations in the area. Beside Chelsea Bridge is the old Battersea Power Station which is, at last, under redevelopment. Apple has chosen a part of that site for its new London headquarters. With a large amount of land to be developed, its rather like a 19th-century gold rush as developers leap at the chance to ‘make a killing’ in financial terms from their new developments.
According to the Embassy Website, the United States has been associated with Grosvenor Square site, in Mayfair, since the late-18th century when John Adams, the first United States Minister to the Court of St James’s, lived from 1785 to 1788 in the house which still stands in Grosvenor Square on the corner of Brook Street and Duke Street. John Adams later became President of the United States. The Chancery was first located in Great Cumberland Place and later in Piccadilly, then at Portland Place and eventually in Grosvenor Gardens. In 1938 it was moved to 1 Grosvenor Square, the building which now houses the Canadian High Commission. During the Second World War when the Chancery was on one side and General Eisenhower’s headquarters on another, Grosvenor Square became popularly known as ‘Little America’.
In 1960 the United States Embassy moved to the present site at 24 Grosvenor Square which is a building constructed from pre-cast reinforced concrete.
In 2008 the site at Nine Elms was purchased. According to the Embassy Website, one of the primary goals of Kieran Timberlake’s design is to demonstrate exceptional environmental leadership that is at or beyond the leading edge of practice when the building is completed. The current embassy has become overcrowded. It does not meet modern office needs and the latest required security standards. After 50 years it is showing signs of wear and tear.
Above: Internet image showing how the completed site will look. The Thames and Nine Elms Lane can be seen on the right. The four chimneys of the old Battersea Power Station building can be seen top right.
The new 12-storey building at Nine Elms, which will be able to house 1,000 staff, covers 45,000 square metres. The building is basically a cube set in gardens. It is a policy of the United States that the design of their Embassies anywhere in the world is carried out by an architect and contractors that are all American. One of its security features is a moat which extends around part of the building – which is yet to be completed. Considering how much ‘high-tech’ equipment will be installed in the building, it is quite a contrast to have the ‘low-tech’ security solution of a moat on the exterior – a form of defence that goes back through the centuries to the time of the Normans. The overall design of the new Embassy has been criticised by Rogers and Palumbo who have said that the architect’s design was boring and ‘not good enough to represent one of the great nations in London’.