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London, UK – An interview with Kieran Timberlake

How to follow Saarinen? The AR meets Kieran Timberlake, the architects bringing transparency back to the new US embassy

Philadelphia-based practice KieranTimberlake was internationally unknown until February this year, when it unexpectedly beat three Pritzker Prize winners in the competition for London’s new American embassy. We caught up with principals James Timberlake and Stephen Kieran at the 1960 American embassy in Grosvenor Square, designed by Eero Saarinen - whose career emerges as intricately intertwined with their own.

The AR Were you surprised when you won this competition?

James Timberlake As the ‘young guys’, others were surprised, but we had great confidence in our scheme, even though some people took a different view. Although it has elevated us, our rise has been pretty steady since we started in 1984.

AR Why’s that?

Stephen Kieran We weren’t interested in ‘paper architecture’. We’ve preferred to design things that would be built. We wanted to push the early projects - however modest - as far as we could, and in that way move up.

JT Like Saarinen, who wasn’t a fame-seeker either, if ‘fame’ has found us, it’s through doing good work. For us, knowing we could build what we’d drawn really helped win us this job.

AR So how did you resolve the project’s inherent complexities?

SK We tried to collapse the Department of State’s goals into a more manageable set. There were apparent conflicts between the security - obviously a huge issue today - and symbolism. People read buildings, so we were sensitive to how our design communicated itself.

JT The previous era’s expressions of diplomacy have been closed up with layers of security. We wanted to get back to an architecture that expresses the United States of America - to project transparency and openness as a symbol of our democracy while integrating security in a friendlier way.

AR Hence the moat?

JT Well, let’s not call it a moat. Some journalists who didn’t do research put out that it was a bunker, had a moat, and was a fortress. It has a pond!

AR But let’s be clear: the pond has a strong security function.

SK Instead of having fences, we’ve tried to invert the process, so we’ve developed forms that have a first reference to landscape features - the pond, a ha-ha, a meadow, a long, curved bench - which secondarily have a security function.

AR You have a reputation as ‘green’ architects. Is that translated into the embassy?

SK We see the building as both creating an environment for diplomacy and also being a diplomat for the environment.
It will exceed the Mayor of London’s guidelines for 2019.

JT For example, the pond stores water from the roof and site; secondly, it’s used for heat absorption; and thirdly it’s used for irrigation. The skin is a glass wall separated with two ETFE thermal barriers that bounce light into the building while acting as a shading device. Also, photovoltaics gather energy.

AR You both continue to teach. Does that inform your practice?

SK They mirror each other well. We don’t let our students design until they’ve spent more than half the semester doing research. What we try to do in teaching and practice is define the questions, go and learn, then start to make.

JT In academies it often goes through swings: teaching becomes highly intuition-based for years and then moves back
to the more analytical approach. I think we’ve always sought to balance those two elements and see the embassy as mediating between art and science. Over the century-long history of the AR you can find periods principally about style. We’ve had the great advantage of emerging at the end of one era and the beginning of another.

SK There’s been a paradigm shift that’s very different to even a decade ago. In our work we believe aesthetics is now very deeply intertwined with performance. The two are informing each other in ways that are changing architecture.

AR The embassy will be your first completed building outside the States. Is it exciting to be working in a different context?

JT I’ve visited London probably over 40 times. I love it here. We had a recent ‘infrastructure tour’ and passed the Norman Shaw Buildings on Embankment. The guide told us the red brick with white coursing is called ‘streaky bacon’. It seems the English always have a way of defining architecture in terms to which people can relate.

AR While you’re replacing Saarinen’s embassy in London, you’re restoring and augmenting his work at Yale.

SK We’re renovating the whole complex of his Ezra Stiles and Samuel Morse Colleges, designed at the end of the 1950s. We’re adding lots of new amenities. Our language is distinct from the old, but it’s in a dialogue with it. It’s like having a conversation with your grandfather.

AR Did either of you ever meet Saarinen?

JT No, he died when we were children, around the time the two Yale colleges were starting on site. Yet we both worked for Robert Venturi, who’d worked for him, so we’re one link away.

AR Are you influenced by Saarinen’s work?

SK We really admire his fusion of technology, art and landscape. He was fearless and extraordinarily adventurous. For example, at the General Motors Technical Centre in Michigan, he introduced silicon structural glazing, which he’d noticed in the auto industry.

JT When I first saw Saarinen’s embassy decades ago the trees in Grosvenor Square were quite transparent and there were no railings. The filigree facade was an extension of the square, but you can’t see that connection now. We’re hoping our embassy will reinstate a relationship with the landscape. In that sense it continues our predecessor’s intentions.

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