World

The U.S. Paid $1 Billion for a Glass Box in a Bad Part of London

The new U.S. embassy in Nine Elms, London, nears completion in October. (Reuters photo: Peter Nicholls)
Something less showy and less remote would have served much better.

The new American embassy to the United Kingdom breaks the American habit of housing diplomatic missions in gray brutalist fortresses. A shimmering cube of glass and plastic sails, it is surely one of the most architecturally magnificent U.S. government buildings. Londoners seem to have taken to it; sticking with their tradition of christening buildings with a sobriquet that plays off their resemblance to an object, they’ve named the embassy “the Sugar Cube.” As the Evening Standard put it, it’s “stunning.”

But at what expense? At $1 billion, the Sugar Cube is the costliest embassy in the world and by far the costliest extant U.S. government building. In fact, it’s one of the most expensive U.S. architectural projects of all time, falling behind four casinos, Yankee Stadium, the Goldman Sachs headquarters, the new One World Trade Center in New York City, the Wilshire Grand Center in Los Angeles, and Apple’s new headquarters in Cupertino. It’s only $500 million cheaper than the world’s tallest building — the United Arab Emirates’ Burj Khalifa — and nearly $250 million more expensive than the Hoover Dam, in today’s dollars.

Moving has cost the U.S. more than just taxpayer money; the old embassy rests on prime real estate overlooking Grosvenor Square, an area in central London that is so saturated with American imagery and history that locals have taken to calling it “Little America.” Besides the embassy, it holds John Adams’s ambassadorial residence, statues of Ronald Reagan and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and a memorial to the 9/11 terror attack.

When State Department officials first began the search for a new home, the city of London shot down its attempts to secure high-value properties in the city center. One snub came from the Duke of Westminster, who awarded the historic and beautiful Chelsea Barracks property to Qatari development company Diar Real Estate over the U.S. Putting the new embassy here would have been symbolic of a strong relationship between the U.S. and the U.K., yet the Duke seems to have made his decision under the influence of a 240-year-old grudge:

When asked if he would sell the land outright, [the Duke] reportedly said that he would — but only if the U.S. government returned the land that belonged to his family in America before it was confiscated during the American War of Independence.

Instead, the U.S. settled in Nine Elms, a property London officials have targeted as an “opportunity area,” which basically means it’s a blight in dire need of refurbishment. An industrial wasteland far away from the city center, Nine Elms is peppered with construction projects and abandoned factories. Its most notable landmark is the Battersea Power Station, known for its appearance on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals album. Like much in Nine Elms, the power station is now an eyesore. And that is where the U.S. came in: With a $1 billion investment, we are helping a foreign country with a city-revitalization effort.

In fact, it seems most of the costly elements of the embassy’s move are thanks to a combination of a lily-livered response to English gripes and a desperate attempt at diplomatic unity. The old embassy was only 50 years old, and its design wasn’t exactly garish — it’s regarded as a masterpiece of architect Eero Saarinen, and, to quote The Economist, it’s “technically masterful and aesthetically beautiful.” The only clear reason the State Department has cited for the move is security concerns, considering that the U.S. and Europe were — and still are — hot targets for terrorist attacks. Yet the U.S. began a $15 million security overhaul to respond to this threat in 2007, and it has no plans to move its embassy from other terror attack hotspots, such as Paris. No matter where in London it’s located, the U.S. embassy will always be a terror target, but moving it to a low-population district on the outskirts of London alleviates British fears that an attack on the embassy will be inconvenient to them. The concerns of Londoners, it seems, are the main impetus.

Though only time will tell, it’s hard to see how the new embassy is much more secure than the old one. Just as form follows function in modernist architecture, a low-to-the-ground concrete building is objectively harder to attack than a soaring glass one. Exposed on the bank of the River Thames, the Sugar Cube is a jihadist’s lighthouse (or, as architect James Timberlake called it, “a radiant beacon”). Timberlake’s attempt to pull purpose out of aesthetic design choices casts more doubt: A “moat” meant to deter truck attacks, for example, covers only one side.

The State Department claims that the Sugar Cube will be good for U.S.–U.K. relations, but how much good can a new embassy do? The plans were approved under President Barack Obama, who was beloved by England, and even if President Donald Trump’s contentious relationship with London mayor Sadiq Khan and Prime Minister Theresa May damages our long history of amiable diplomacy, it’s ridiculous to think a shiny new embassy will change their mind.

Despite all this, despite all the effort and money America put into this gift to diplomacy, the two English jurors on the design-selection committee still “fought to the death” to oppose the design. It was boring, they said, and “not good enough to represent one of the great nations in London.”

The Sugar Cube is a monument to the liberal foreign-policy tendency of making outlandish concessions for international approval. It’s hard to find something to like about it, especially considering the functionality, location, and history we left behind at the old building. Big, expensive embassies seem like a good way of demonstrating national greatness, but host countries will always judge the diplomatic mission by the decisions they make inside the building. To avoid another Sugar Cube, it’s best to follow the standard American policy on embassies: Build them cheaply and quickly, and focus on what’s inside.

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