OLIN Part of Winning Design Team for U.S. Embassy in London

OLIN is part of the design team headed by KieranTimberlake that has won the international design competition for the new U.S. Embassy in London. A total of 37 submissions were received, and then four finalists were chosen to explore the “symbolism of the Embassy and its presence and position in the cityscape of London,” writes OLIN. OLIN was involved in three of four of the finalist proposals, including those of KieranTimberlake, Morphosis and Richard Meier & Partners. Hallie Boyce, an OLIN partner, said: “The US Embassy in London provides our studio with the opportunity to create a contemporary working landscape – one that is welcoming yet secure, beautiful yet employs sustainable systems, truly American yet responsive to the context of London.”

The Guardian (UK) argues that the overall design is “cool, remote, and far from subtle,” adding: “Luckily for London, the American people are considerably more sophisticated and less populist than we are. Here in Nine Elms, the new embassy will adopt the form of a giant glass box on stilts rising from a Princess Diana-style memorial park, complete with a lake and what appears to be a ha-ha. Seriously.”

The L.A. Times says the new design aspires to a set of values focused on “ecological responsibility and neighborliness within a tight urban fabric.” Christopher Hawthorne discusses the landscape architecture in some detail: 

“At ground level, the architects, working with landscape architect Laurie Olin, have tried to engage the neighborhood despite security guidelines that require the building to sit back within a circular zone of blast protection. A park will wind like a corkscrew from the riverfront onto the embassy grounds and into the building itself, which will feature a number of interior sky gardens, including a two-level Ambassador’s Garden on the upper floors. A formal plaza leading to an entrance for embassy employees and dignitaries faces east, and the general public will enter through a curving path lined on both sides by greenery.

The embassy will sit safely on its northern edge, where it faces the river, behind a protective semicircular pond. On the other sides, parking and some meeting rooms are tucked away securely under undulating landscaped mounds designed to do double duty as green space and protective barriers. Although this proposal represents a move away from the bunker mentality that has marked so many recent U.S. embassies, it will likely be a stiff challenge to keep the building from looking armored at pedestrian level. The move from Grosvenor Square to the new location, after all, was in large part driven by a desire to build a more easily protected facility.”

The New York Times’ Nicolai Ourossoff thinks that the landscape architecture is primarily designed to camouflage the site, and protect it from attack:

“The building is surrounded by an elaborate landscape that reaches out to the surrounding city. A semicircular pond borders the structure on one side, and terraced meadows wrap around the other. Pathways running alongside the meadows would connect the site to a proposed public promenade (part of the city’s plans for the development zone). A narrow park runs between the pond and Nine Elms Lane, the main approach from the Vauxhall tube station. Conceptually, the landscape continues right up through the building, with a series of terraces carved into the facade. The abundance of green space contributes to the design’s environmentally friendly image. Circuitous paths weave through the park, which in renderings is full of young professionals. The main entry plaza for the building, which extends along the edge of the pond before slipping under one side of the colonnade, is conceived as a lively public space.

But the real function of these landscape elements is to serve as camouflaged security barriers. The northern pond is a reflecting pool — but also a castle moat. To the south, a concrete wall frames the outer edge of the lower meadow, which can be patrolled by guards.”

Bloomberg News also focuses on how the U.S. State Department’s stringent security requirements impacted the design, but may have also provided opportunities for including ecological components. “The glass cube sits aloof on beefy columns atop a shrub- covered mound, which will be partly open to the public as a garden. The mound’s mass can dissipate the explosive force of a car bomb, while avoiding the menacing walls and fences that deface so many consular facilities. A pond on the north side offers a pleasing amenity, while acting as another obstacle to would-be bombers and a heat sink for the biomass plant.”

Hugh Pearman appreciates the integration of security features and site design: “The oblique, spiralling approach to the building – here made through what is effectively a large garden or small park – is something we’re all used to from real castles on the tourist trail, and we like that. It was obviously essential to avoid a short, direct route. This and the level changes around the building will make it near-impossible to mount a surprise attack.”

While most critics have focused on how the proposed site and building will integrate security design, OLIN provided more details on the philosophy behind the landscape architecture proposal:

  • “Rather than employing a plinth to accommodate the large programs located at the lowest levels of the building, the colonnade sits atop a gently rising earthen mound. Within this landscape form are parking garage ramps and basement service and mechanical areas to the south, and the lower level of the Gallery and Multi-Purpose Meeting Space to the north and west.
  • Instead of fragmenting the embassy into a plinth and tower, this strategy transforms the large footprints of the lower levels along with the entrance pavilions into earthen landscape form to enhance the prominence of the embassy colonnade and transparent building.
  • The visual presence of the whole is that of a beacon that is a respectful icon representing the strength of the U.S.-U.K. relationship.
  • All elements are purposeful in multiple ways: from image and expression to the environment and urbanism, to the productivity and comfort of the users.”

The ground breaking for the Embassy is expected in 2013 and construction will be completed in 2017. The 12-story green building, which will feature glass, photovoltaic film-laminated ETFE scrim walls, rooftop solar panels, and biomass generators, as well as the site’s landscape architecture, is expected to cost some $500 million in total, writes Bloomberg News.  

In addition to KieranTimberlake and OLIN, members of the winning team include Arup for Sustainability, MEP/FP and Civil Engineering; Weidlinger Associates for Structural and Blast Engineering; Gensler for workplace design; Davis Langdon for Cost Consulting; and Sako & Associates for Technical Security.  

OLIN partners Hallie Boyce and Laurie Olin, FASLA, will lead the landscape project.  Learn more about Laurie Olin, FASLA, and his work in this in-depth interview.

Image credit: renderings copyright of KierenTimberlake/Studio amd

3 thoughts on “OLIN Part of Winning Design Team for U.S. Embassy in London

  1. Lynn Dawkins 03/03/2010 / 4:08 pm

    Congratulations to OLIN and their design partners for their reflective (literal and metaphorical) design. The only criticism I offer doesn’t pertain to the design intent, but to the economic sustainability of the project itself.

    Personally, I am sick of landscape architects (and other design professions) championing government spending as long as it pertains to projects within their scope of work.

    So what if the government pumps millions of dollars into green infrastructure in a few locations at the expense of all small businesses?

    This is actually a disservice to the sustainable movement. I may have a misguided view of what the sustainable movement really is; Is it not frugality? To limit the amount of waste? To minimize environmental impact? To provide future savings through quality of product? Since when did we leave out economic sustainability?

    As designers, OLIN and their partners seem to have exceeded sustainable expectations, and for this they should be applauded.


    For just a moment, think of all of the designs that will never be implemented with the spending of this $1 Billion.

    Let us build this great movement from the ground up by providing slow stable growth and the possibility of future investment. If we build the green movement on borrowed money, it will fail to meet our moral responsibilities as stewards of the land.

  2. Georgia 03/04/2010 / 9:03 am

    This proposal has received a lot of coverage. I hope The Dirt will follow the project’s progress.

  3. Earth Designs 03/05/2010 / 6:02 am

    Echo the thoughts above – interesting concept and high profile project – it will be interesting to see its development

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