Eero Saarinen’s 1960 American embassy in London in posh Grosvenor Square is up for sale. An important, if not entirely successful example of Saarinen’s work, it has been deemed too vulnerable for government occupation. The Chancellery, as it is officially called because it houses only offices (the ambassadorial residence is elsewhere), is one of only three buildings that the Finnish-born American architect built in Europe, all of which are currently endangered.
Since April, according to The Sun, realtors from the Knight Frank agency have been showing potential buyers what was once considered, according to Architectural Record at the time, “the most important project’‘ in the State Department’s ambitious, postwar foreign building program. The asking price for the 133,300-square-foot Portland stone building is reported to be £90 million (approximately $180 million). On July 2, the London-based Twentieth Century Society, a modern preservation group, decided to go ahead with a proposal to designate the U.S. Chancellery a landmark.
Like Saarinen’s Oslo Embassy (1955–59) and dozens of other U.S. State Department buildings around the world, the London Chancellery is now considered difficult to defend from terrorist attacks. Only a few years ago—after 9/11—State Department officials thought it was safe enough because it has a sloping base that separates it from the street, and because the north end of Grosvenor Square where it sits could be sealed off by bollards. (In Oslo, the U.S. State Department had already voiced similar concerns and had discussed moving out of its Saarinen-designed embassy building that is not protected by local landmark laws. The architect’s only other European building, the Athens Airport, has been out of service since 2001.)
To what extent growing resentment of the American presence abroad is responsible for the change of heart in London—or if exponentially rising real estate values play a role—is anybody’s guess at this point. In 1955, when the State Department held an invited competition for the opportunity to design the London Embassy, it was a plum commission both because of the building’s prominent location but also due to the importance of American-British relations in the postwar period. Among the other contenders were Sert, Jackson and Zalewski; Edward Durell Stone; Wurster Bernardi & Emmons; Yamasaki Leinweber, and Hugh Stubbins. The brief called for a design “which would engender good will through distinguished architectural quality.” It explicitly ruled out stylistic copies, and said the building should “represent the United States at this time,” and asked for “the establishment of an appropriate visual relationship to the other three sides of Grosvenor Square” in scale and materials.
That was no small order, as Saarinen later explained, because he was designing a building to conform to an as-yet unbuilt masterplan for the square that called for a uniform cornice line, red brick walls, and Portland cement columns in a pseudo-Georgian style that would replace the extant, historic row houses in a variety of styles and motifs. There were other complications. The program was changed and enlarged after Saarinen won the competition. Gold-anodized aluminum trim was substituted for the bronze that Saarinen had specified, and the Portland stone that was supposed to darken was cleaned so that it looked like concrete.
The U.S. Embassy in London is not the most beloved or daring of Saarinen’s buildings, but it was far and away the most successful entry into the competition and it is the most prominent example of his work in Europe. More important, it speaks of a time when the United States was committed to building architecture abroad that was dignified, humane, and respectful.