Monday, March 22, 2010

Quickie: The New Tower of London

Martin Filler blogging in the NYRBooks recently had a piece on the new US Embassy in London.  Quick excerpt:

[…] At first glance, this 12-story cube-shaped structure recalls countless other glass-sheathed office buildings. However, upon closer inspection other associations predominate.

The embassy’s “ground” floor is elevated atop a bunker-like podium, the top of which is densely landscaped with grassy berms, trenches, and a water feature best described as a moat. The building’s square footprint, chunky massing, fortified perimeter, and relation to the river make it a twenty-first-century avatar of the Tower of London, several miles to the northeast on the opposite bank of the Thames.

The building’s exterior cladding of glass—a material often equated simplistically with governmental openness—is treated with polymer plastic to lessen its projectile force in case of explosion. Similarly, the undulating earthworks at the base of the tower are meant to deter the advance of truck bombers. Given the likelihood of another al-Qaeda assault on the capital city of America’s principal ally in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, such defensive measures seem only prudent, but the extensive checklist of protective requirements included in the design brief clearly had an inhibiting effect on even the most gifted of the competition’s entrants.
With KieranTimberlake’s scheme, the costume has changed to the architectural equivalent of Kevlar body armor thinly disguised underneath a Tommy Hilfiger seersucker suit. No doubt to soften the new embassy’s Fortress America connotations, the architects have gussied up their presentation with crowd-pleasing environmental details of the sort that real estate developers throw in to gain planning approval for otherwise objectionable projects.
Perhaps KieranTimberlake’s arboreal reference is Shakespearean. In Macbeth, enemy troops advance on the title character’s stronghold wearing tree branches to camouflage themselves, and thereby fulfill the cryptic prophecy that he will remain safe until “Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane.” In Finnegan’s Wake, Joyce reframes that line as “a burning would is come to dance inane,” a not-inappropriate gloss on this tragicomic evidence of America’s postmillennial quandary in architectural guise.

Read the whole thing here.

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