Back in my old life as an editor at Princeton Architectural Press, I had the great pleasure of editing (and designing) the Architecture of Diplomacy, which remains the definitive history of the American embassy building program. The high-water mark of that program came during the Cold War era, when a series of high-profile modernist buildings were commissioned around the globe, designs that spoke of America's democratic openness and progressive ideals. One of the most prominent of those was Eero Saarinen's London embassy building, though it took its lumps at the time. British critics thought it, alternately and paradoxically, too bombastic and too restrained. Saarinen wasn't a critical darling at home either: the apparent diversity of his practice was derided as "style for the job" design. Saarinen's legacy is a bit more secure these days, and deservedly so. There was no more gifted architect at integrating technological innovation with bureaucratic necessity and sharp aesthetics, and it's that combination that made the London embassy a success.
The oxymoronic cavils in the British press about the Saarinen building suggest the difficulties of the embassy building program itself. A US embassy must be both a symbol of American values but also a secure place for the people who work in it. And that just happens to be an almost impossible brief. Given that, it's not surprising that the recently announced competition winner to replace the Saarinen building, which the US has outgrown, have been mixed and sometimes quite (unfairly) hostile. Let me suggest that the plan by the Philadelphia firm Kieran-Timberlake seems to fall squarely in the Saarinen tradition, and not only for its aesthetics, but also in its insistence on technological innovation and programmatic clarity. The State Department's recent record in embassy building has not been especially outstanding (see Berlin), and this project, whatever its compromises, has the potential to be something in which the country can take some pride. The juried competition process by which the commission was awarded is certainly commendable. Is it a bit of a fortress, and somewhat separated from the city by a water barrier and other physical measures? Yes. But it's also an environmentally attuned and congenial neighbor. We could do a lot worse.