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Inside London's new $1bn US embassy: a moat, disguised security measures and star-spangled windows

Isabelle Fraser
The embassy, built at a cost of $1bn, is designed to be welcoming too - This image can only be used with prior permission and/or agreement of fees with Arcaid and/or our representatives. We assert our

Buffered by an 8ft-deep, crescent-shaped moat and surrounded by armed guards, London’s new US embassy appears like Fort Knox amid a tangle of cranes and construction work.

But as it opened for previews, the architects said they hope that this building will be welcoming and open. There is no perimeter fence; instead, it hides its might by discreetly disguising security measures, such as bollards camouflaged by plants.

Ambassador Woody Johnson, who has been in the job for just three months, said that the new embassy represented “a signal to the world that this special relationship that we have is stronger and is going to grow and get better.”

He added that President Trump “mentioned that to me himself ... He said 'I want you to make it stronger', and I intend to do that if I can."

A huge US Government crest adorns the main lobby Credit: Richard Bryant/arcaidimages.com

At 518,000 sq ft, it is almost twice as big as the current US embassy in Grosvenor Square, which was designed by the modernist architect Eero Saarinen. Built in the Fifties, it has struggled to contain its staff, which has since quadrupled in number.

This embassy is thought to be the most expensive in the world at $1bn (£750m) and has been funded purely from selling US government properties in London. Ambassador Johnson, who owns the New York Jets, an NFL team, said that the price tag was a “bargain” compared to the $1.6bn stadium built for his team in New Jersey.

The new, bold building sits on a bend in the River Thames and has sweeping views across London to the Houses of Parliament. It is in Nine Elms, the largest regeneration project in Europe where a scrap of industrial land on the south bank of the Thames is being built on at astonishing speed. When finished, there will be 25,000 largely luxury homes, with Vauxhall at one end and the restored Battersea Power Station at the other.

The suspended pool at Embassy Gardens which overlook the US' fortress Credit: Ballymore

The Americans chose that site as it was one of a few in central London that had enough space to contain all the security measures necessary, including being at least 100ft from all buildings.  

One of the nearby developments by EcoWorld Ballymore is Embassy Gardens, which features a suspended swimming pool between two towers, 10 floors up, which will allow residents to swim while watching over the embassy – and vice versa.

The area has been clouded with uncertainty as a glut of flats threatens to push prices down. But it has been reinvigorated as the embassy finally opens, and amid news that the Netherlands is also moving its embassy there and China considering the location too. 

United States ambassador Woody Johnson Credit: AP

Inside, the decor is glitzy, with a huge government insignia, glass stairs, sweeping stone walls and iridescent crests hung from the ceiling. Even the glass, blast-proof windows are covered in little stars, which is supposed to stop birds flying into the walls. The ambassador said he hoped to put his own stamp on the embassy and make the interiors more “patriotic”.

There are internal gardens which reflect different areas of the United States: one themed as the canyon lands of Arizona is filled with cacti, while the Pacific forest has steel girders cut to resemble redwood trees. The 12-floor block is almost self-sufficient in energy production – instead of a helipad on the roof there are solar panels. The building resembles a glass cube with delicate sails on the outside to shield it from the sun.

Designed by American architecture firm KieranTimberlake, the building highlights the shared history between the UK and the US. The tall grasses and wildflowers planted in the garden are typical of both countries, and an artwork by British artist Rachel Whiteread of a typical American flatpack house from the Fifties adorns a huge wall.

One of the interior gardens is filled with cacti to evoke the south-west American desert landscapes Credit: PA

There have been hiccups: the Wi-Fi will not be up and running when the building opens on 16 January next year due to security issues, and officials were hazy over whether President Trump would be in London to open it formally.

At a press conference, the ambassador said he was not worried that anti-Trump demonstrations might dampen the optimistic mood the building represents. "The great thing about being in London, and the great thing about being in the US, is the ability to express your point of view,” he said. "That's an important part of who we are."