The American connection with Grosvenor Square began in 1785 when the first Minister to the Court of St James, John Adams, rented No.9. During World War ll, when General Eisenhower’s headquarters were set up at No. 20, the Square was known as ‘Little America’. When the United States embarked on a global embassy-building programme as part of its Cold War strategy in the late 1950’s, Grosvenor Square was the obvious location. The US Embassy (or properly Chancellery as it is not an ambassadorial residence) was built in 1957-60 to a competition-winning design – the brief for which sought a scheme ‘which would engender good will through distinguished architectural quality’ – by the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. Saarinen said of his design and the location "the square is in transition, and our building is built for the future."
The building has long been the subject of architectural debate and reception to its immediate construction was mixed. However, the passing of time and recent re-evaluations of the building and of Saarinen have allowed for less for a less reactive and more balanced assessment of its merits.
The special architectural interest of this building lies primarily in its strongly-articulated design and dynamic facades. The design employs an innovative application of exposed concrete diagrid. The internal interest of the embassy is largely confined to the ground floor; the ceilings echo the diagrid formula of the buildings’ façade and the central lobby is clad in Greek Pentelicon marble. This constructional form (of unusual sophistication in 1950s Britain, showing the technological prowess then associated with the United States) is one of the building’s principal features, expressed externally and internally and echoed in details such as the gilded pressed-metal parapet and the cog-wheel window motifs and exposed beams-ends.
Eero Saarinen (1910 – 1961) is recognised as a leading figure of twentieth century architecture and design and the building is a strong example of Saarinen’s close involvement in detail and execution. Saarinen belonged to the ‘second generation’ of the Modern Movement, which sought to move architecture beyond modernism’s more stifling precepts such as form-follows-function. While achieving acclaim and success – he was one of the most prolific architects of his generation – his lack of a signature ‘style’ and overt historicism, most acute at the London Embassy and the Morse and Stiles Colleges, Yale University, attracted criticism from orthodox modernists. In 1962, he was posthumously awarded the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects – its highest tribute.
Arguments have been put forward both for and against listing the Embassy. However, measured against the strict criteria for listing post war buildings, English Heritage believe the recommendation to list the Embassy is fully justified. Both English Heritage and Westminster City Council have vast experience of working with the owners of listed buildings with specific requirements, like embassies, and will continue to help and advise the American Embassy on their needs. They are confident that the building is capable of viable re-use in the future and they would work closely with any future owner on how a successful adaptation could be achieved.
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