The United States Pays Back Britain For Bunker Hill With $1 Billion Eyesore In London

kt-03As many on this blog know, I am a fan of good architecture. My father was one of the proteges and students of Mies Van der Rohe and I was raised in the Chicago circle of architects.  Thus, when I heard that we were building a new embassy in London, I was truly hopeful of a unique American contribution that celebrated the history and architecture of London.  Yet, in what seems a long-simmering payback for Bunker Hill (and perhaps Benny Hill), the United States just dumped a $1 billion blemish on the landscape of London.  Given Prince Charles’ long (and justified) complaint of “monstrous carbuncles,” we just added a new and giant carbuncle for our English cousins.

The new embassy will degrade the Nine Elms area of Wandsworth. It is the dubious work of Philadelphia-based KieranTimberlake and covers 5.6 million square feet with 12-story crystalline cube. It is adjoined by a moat. Yes, a moat. While the architect is quick to note that the “pond” does not surround the building entirely and thus not a moat, the English has dubbed it the American moat.  This appears an effort to protect the building from the incursion of a single element of taste.  The result is a Borg-like fortress for London’s already ravaged skyline.

Hopefully, to reassure the Brits, we will add a sign reading:

“We are the United States. Lower your eyes and surrender. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.”


U.S. Ambassador Ambassador Barzun proclaimed at the ground breaking this week that:

“ Today is for celebrating a new facet of the special relationship.  The U.S. and the U.K. have long been partners in development across the globe.  But today we celebrate a different kind of development — the continued development and evolution of London itself.  We are proud to be putting down roots in Nine Elms.  And we’re proud to provide an anchor for more businesses and jobs, bringing thousands of new neighbors to fuel economic revitalization here.”

The United States is a world leader in architecture.  Yet, with $1 billion, we produced a building that looks like the corporate headquarters of a startup with the exterior elements of a 1970s Sears department store.  We would have been better off with a giant Apple store.

Yes, this is certainly a “new facet” . . . just not a good one.

73 thoughts on “The United States Pays Back Britain For Bunker Hill With $1 Billion Eyesore In London”


    I was curious about that prickly facade, so I found this article. Not only did this ugly building cost $1 billion; it’s the most expensive US building ever built, anywhere in the world, and it went 3 times over budget. Those protrusions against the face are opaque plastic sails that protect the building from overheating in some sort of passive cooling system. It spoils the view from the inside and the outside. Mind you, this is in London. I think the hottest it gets is 86. I could understand investing quite a bit of effort into warming the place. This is, after all, built on chilly marshy ground that’s been drained. But to block the view of almost every window on that side of a 12 story building? And how’s that plastic going to hold up over decades? It’s like looking out of a fast food window with some sort of plastic obstructive awning.

    Sure, the government claims that it was paid for through the sale of other properties, and not taxpayer money. But those assets were ours. The proceeds were ours. And, maybe, there could have been a better use for that money than to dump $1 billion into what is essentially just a building. It’s just 12 floors of office space and some living quarters. We have got to make better decisions with our money.

    This project went 3 times over budget, was late, and ugly. This was built under Obama’s Administration, and was supposed to be finished before he left office. But our procurement system has been broken under every Administration that we know of. We over pay and contractors under deliver. That’s because this isn’t a private transaction where you can hold your contractor accountable if he tries to bill you 3 times your signed contract to build your house. This is government. If it costs more and takes longer, oh, well. Let’s go to the taxpayers and raise more money, or sell off assets. We can always use taxpayer money to buy more…

    1. AND they cared so much about appearances and public opinion that they did not incorporate any security fence at all – in a city that is a common target for terrorists. There are barracks for our military to be sitting ducks, I mean, take their rest. They have a pond on one side of the building, and a ditch on another, and there are some hidden covert defensive measures.

      The ETFE plastic sails are related to Teflon. I wonder if they are toxic, too. The foil was invented by Dupont. I wonder if they manufactured the sails. That would make this $1 billion cube have an interesting relationship to Dupont, a special interest donor/lobbyist. I would wonder about off-gassing if the structures were internal, but they appear to be external. I know a lot of polymers, resins, and plastics can off-gass quite a strong odor and VOCs. I hope they have addressed that aspect, as ETFE is now used in the construction of schools. I did not locate its MSDS.

    2. That those building protrusions are for heat management is just a cover story. They’re actually part of an elaborate antenna system to spy on the Brits!

  2. This building is different which means it is a target for negative criticism. I like the pond. There is a building that I see quite frequently that has a similar pond and I have admired it every time I pass it. The Thames side facade is like those of other buildings in that it is flat glass and not like the “wedding cake” side that shows in the above photo. I appreciate the “wedding cake” houses that you can find in a few communities because of their uniqueness. At the same time I would not like to be the painter hired to keep them looking neat. Another point of appreciation is the landscaping which is so much friendlier than blocks of concrete, although the concrete blocks may be added at some point.

    I wasn’t at all impressed with one of the other submissions.

  3. The City, that is, the original City of London, is filled with medieval streets and skinny modern skyscrapers, it now being the financial district with a few famous old houses left, such as Samuel Johnson’s.

    I don’t see this as the worst architecture for US Embassies in the world or the worst to be found in greater London; perhaps the Tower deserves that epithet.

    1. David Benson – since the Tower was added on to many times it is hard to mock it. Too many cooks spoil the broth sort of thing. 😉 I still vote for the Shard.

  4. SIDEBAR –

    On a potential Trump 2016 election victory:

    “I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office – that there’s no way he gets elected – but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk,” Strzok texted on Aug. 15, 2016. “It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40.”

    – Peter Strzok to his paramour, Lisa Page (FBI colleagues and lovers).

  5. LOL — Thanks, Mr. Turley and everyone commenting! When I was in architecture school, one of the first lectures given by one of my all-time favorite professors ended something like this:

    “The difference between being a doctor — or a lawyer — or an engineer — and being an architect is that nobody will ever tell you how to do your job if you become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer — but EVERYBODY thinks they know something about architecture.” LOL

    Ever since then I’ve LOVED hearing people’s opinions about architecture. It seems like they come right from the heart, without the slightest censorship or attempt to worry about hurt feeling. You will rarely hear a person being more honest than when they are giving you their opinion about architecture.

    1. William Bayer – try being in the theatre. Everyone is a critic there and some of them even know what they are talking about. And they can be vicious. And that is before you get out of school. And thousands of them see your work weekly.

      And if you are in the movie business, they put it on DVD so it can be memorialized. And we can all decide whether it still holds up. 😉

      1. LOL — yeah — I suppose that’s true. Maybe my prof was thinking specifically of the “professions.” Until writing this reply it never even occurred to me whether there’s such a thing as a degree in “acting.” I know people get degrees in dance and music, but not sure about “acting” or “theatre.”
        But of the standard professions — medicine, law, engineering, architecture (I’m sure I’m leaving some out), architects get the most brutal criticism imaginable — probably because buildings are THERE. You don’t need a doctor if you aren’t sick, so you can ignore medicine. And you don’t need a lawyer unless you have a legal issue. Most people don’t hire engineers — they just expect things to work and don’t think about what makes them work. None of those professions are omnipresent. But buildings are ubiquitous — all around, everywhere, all the time. People live in them, work in them, drive and walk passed them — there’s really no getting away from them except a visit to the deep forest or the open sea — and that’s probably what people are trying to get away from when the hit the trail or ocean — trying to get away from all the f*cking buildings. People have every right to hate crappy buildings, and boy do they!
        The same lecture I referred to in my comment began with the prof mentioning that only 3% of the buildings in the world are designed by architects, and only about 3% of that 3% are any good. That’s probably still true today.
        I wouldn’t guess what percentage of theatre or movie productions are any good. Maybe the same percentage? I know it’s been quite a few years since they’ve made any movies I like. Thank God for TCM.

  6. Well, since it’s already built, they ought to add a handle to the top of the monstrosity and claim that it’s actually symbolic of a cheese grater:

    Since the architect is based in Philadelphia, they can claim that the Grater is reminiscent of another Philadelphia icon: the Clothespin, another household tool.

    Of course, the Clothespin in Philadelphia also has the symbolic meaning of a couple embracing, which aligns nicely with Philadelphia’s purported “Brotherly Love” theme, whereas the Grater has no dual meaning. But let’s face it, creativity is something from a bygone era and is no longer appreciated or respected; much like decency and integrity are outmoded concepts.

  7. CV Brown – the only thing wrong with the Ferris Wheel destroying the landscape was near the footbridge that had to be re-engineered before it killed too many people.

  8. “Everybody’s a critic.”

    The details of the most corrupt and subversive crime in American political history are unfolding before our very eyes, beginning with the disintegration of Obama and Hillary’s FBI, and the subject du jour is tasteless architecture?

    Shame on you, Professor Turley.

    “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

    – Edmund Burke

  9. Oh, and plus, I find this article very White Privilege-y, and Anti-Muslim. There are a ton of muzzies in London now, and what kind of places do they live in, hmmm? SQUARE BLOCK HOUSES made of sandstone and rocks and stuff!

    Sooo, a square office building is right up their alley, and to think that Western Values like grace and beauty should apply is sooo anti-multicultural and xenophobic and white nationalistic cis-paternalistic binary pro-Crusader-y misogynistic and sexual harassment kind of stuff. See, here is what muslim cities look like:

    If it wasn’t for the phallic symbol minuets gaily sticking up in the air, the whole shebang would just be square box buildings. Sooo, who are we to say bad things about this building???

    Plus, if the Marines have to defend the embassy from rabid hordes of jihadists, the moat and the open kill zone will be really great. Some barb wire would help.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  10. That looks like a cubed flu virus seen under an electron microscope.

    I despise bad architecture. However, someone, somewhere, in London had to approve these plans. With all that glass, they are going to kill a lot of birds. And sensibilities.

    1. Karen S – I gave up on bad architecture when the City of Tempe, AZ approved an up-side-down pyramid for their new city hall. It is AZ so think of the probable problems. It has them all.

      1. For heavens sake, I just GOOGLED that city hall, and it does look like an upside down pyramid. Very awkward. You would always have the sense it was going to fall over. Bad Feng Shui.

        1. Karen S – what is worse is all the wasted space that has to be air-conditioned. They did tint the glass, however, that only partially solved the problem. They finally, had to put in floor to ceiling curtains on every floor to save electricity and keep out the sunlight. Even tinted windows don’t work in AZ. 🙂 I lived near this thing for a couple of years and it always seems like a strong wind was going to bring it down. 🙂 I lived far enough away I wouldn’t be hit by flying shards of glass, but it was a danger to all concerned. However, it has stayed up for many years and withstood several windstorms so I guess it is okay.

  11. The architect apparently asked the world’s best Feng Shui artisan to “accurately describe the worst possible architectural qualities,” and implemented every one of them.

    Turley’s reference to Sears stores is generally accurate, with one glaring exception for internal design. There was a Sears store (demolished estimate mid-80s) at the intersection of Geary Blvd @ Masonic St. in San Francisco. Almost the entire internal circumference of the main floor side wall was adorned with a beautiful original hand painted color mural, estimate 10 feet in height, depicting the colorful history of San Francisco. It is truly tragic that that mural was apparently destroyed to make way for the Gap or Mervyn’s or whatever replaced it.

    Another completely unknown bit of SF trivia. “Laughing Sal” was a life size moving mechanical doll originally built to welcome visitors to Playland at the Beach amusement park (now condos). I last saw Sal circa 2009 at a small museum at Fisherman’s Wharf near a retired war ship exhibit. For a time in the 80s, Sal was in a glass display case at the top of the stairs of a three story home in the upper Broadway area, which home was used to make porn movies. Sal was one of thousands of trinkets filling the space, including items fastened to the walls, for backdrop the to on-screen action.

    I swear under penalty of perjury all the above info came to me solely because of my presence in the building unrelated to the porn industry.

    Please continue with your normal programming.

    1. Joseph – that’s funny that I literally just used Feng Shui when I saw your comment. I hate to see murals get demolished. It’s the vulnerability of the art form. At least a framed work could be moved or sold. But if the wall goes, so does the mural. We lost one of my favorite murals in my town when a bar bought the place and painted over it with boringly neutral beige.

      I looked up Laffing Sal. I wonder why her correct name is spelled that way, and why she is missing a front tooth. Apparently, they saved the mold for her head and hands, and there is more than one of her.

  12. Well, like Marie Arouet, a famous female BlahHaus architect, once said, free of charge:

    “Si nous ne trouvons pas des choses agréables, nous trouverons du moins des choses nouvelles.”

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

        1. That’s a hard question which, of course, reminds me of another Candide (Voltaire) line:
          “I should like to know which is worse: to be ravished a hundred times by pirates, and have a buttock cut off, and run the gauntlet of the Bulgarians, and be flogged and hanged in an auto-da-fe, and be dissected, and have to row in a galley — in short, to undergo all the miseries we have each of us suffered — or simply to sit here and do nothing?’
          That is a hard question,’ said Candide.”

            1. Casanova wrote: And in so saying I raped her, threw her out the window and left by the door. I think he was in Venice at the time. 😉 One of my favorite lines.

    1. Squeeky – as Frank Lloyd Wright said, If they pay for it, it is art. Assuming we have paid the contractors, it is art. 🙂

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