Out of Mayfair: US embassy’s new ‘off location’ digs

Announcing today that he would not come for the embassy’s inauguration, US President Donald Trump called it an ‘off location’ and said the former embassy had been sold to Qatar for ‘peanuts’. — Reuters pic
Announcing today that he would not come for the embassy’s inauguration, US President Donald Trump called it an ‘off location’ and said the former embassy had been sold to Qatar for ‘peanuts’. — Reuters pic

LONDON, Jan 12 — The new US embassy in London is located in a former post-industrial wasteland on the south side of the River Thames — a world away from its historic home in the capital’s luxurious Mayfair district.

Announcing today that he would not come for the embassy’s inauguration, US President Donald Trump called it an “off location” and said the former embassy had been sold to Qatar for “peanuts”.

While Trump put the blame on US President Barack Obama, the decision to move from Mayfair to Nine Elms was in fact taken by the administration of former Republican president George W. Bush in 2008.

It came after the 1998 US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya and the September 11, 2001 attacks, which made security considerations paramount.

The most striking feature of the new embassy is a half-moon shaped moat surrounding it, which gives the 12-storey cube building a fortress-like feel.

It has had its share of critics even before Trump.

“Those desperate to find a symbol of the current American administration in the new embassy in Nine Elms will find one all too easily: it is a squat, fortified cube inside a moat,” The Economist wrote.

Peter Rees, the City of London’s former head of planning, was quoted by the New York Times as saying that it was “like moving from New York’s Upper East Side to New Jersey”.

Trump said the building cost US$1.2 billion (RM4.7 billion) — a price tag that reportedly makes it the most expensive embassy building in the world.

Architects KieranTimberlake, based in the US city of Philadelphia, were selected to build it in 2010.

At the time of the selection, then ambassador Louis Susman said the old building was “over-crowded, does not meet modern office needs and required security standards” and was showing “wear and tear”.

‘A poignant moment’

The new embassy is located in a formerly rundown area now seeing vast construction projects where warehouses and railyards once sat.

The Dutch embassy is also planning to move to the area and luxury apartment buildings are sprouting up, including one which will have a glass-bottomed swimming pool spanning a void between two towers.

Embassy staff have gradually been transferred to the new building in recent months and it is due to open officially for consular services next week.

The US flag was lowered for the final time on Tuesday from the top of the former 600-room embassy in Grosvenor Square, where US General Dwight Eisenhower had his headquarters during World War II.

The area became known as “Little America” at the time.

The modernist embassy building by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen was completed in 1957 and sold in 2009 to Qatari Diar, the real estate investment arm of Qatar’s government.

The price tag for the deal was never disclosed and Qatari Diar plans to turn it into a luxury hotel.

Ambassador Woody Johnson, a Trump appointee who owns the New York Jets American football team, called the lowering of the flag “a poignant moment”.

But asked earlier about the prospect of Trump’s visit, Johnson said he was looking forward to it, adding: “I think he will be very impressed with this building and the people who occupy it.”

He said the new embassy was a “signal to the world that this special relationship that we have is stronger and is going to grow and get better”. — AFP

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