diamond geezer

 Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The new American Embassy in Nine Elms opened six months back, if a fortified cube on an island within a moat can ever be described as 'open'. It's even less open than usual today, it being Independence Day when all the visa-stampers get the day off. But the sharpshooters will still be in place, and the security cameras will still be whirring, indeed if I've not been automatically added to some security database after walking round the perimeter taking dozens of photos I'd be very much surprised.

Kieran Timberlake's space-age cube is a genuinely striking building, not least because three of the four sides have been covered in strings of silver sails to keep the sun out. These also help to keep whatever's going on inside a bit more secret, as well as looking mighty fine in full-on solar glare. Meanwhile the north face is allowed to be plain glass without wrecking the building's top-class environmental credentials, which must be nice for those working inside, because the River Thames provides the only view that isn't highrise flats.

Somewhat unexpectedly, for a secure citadel, the flank facing Nine Elms Lane is open and welcoming. A footpath leads down through well-tended beds planted with colourful Stateside blooms, watched over by what looks like a full-time gardener keeping everything watered and spruce. Official visitors and office staff continue to the East Pavilion, the main entrance for pass-waving and checking in, past a man in black with a big handy gun. But fear not, any casual passer-by can instead dogleg back along the lakeside, take a seat, and maybe watch the ducks.

I was surprised by the ducks. I was also surprised by the length of the bench, which curves round for a good fifteen yards, allowing plenty of space to settle. The poolside planting looks positively sylvan, and the waterfall churning over both sides of the island adds to the ambience, but in truth this is all part of the passive security screen which keeps terrorists at bay. No explosives-packed truck is going to ever make it across this lake, but then it wouldn't have made it past the pavement either, because the embassy's perimeter hedge conceals a dense ring of chunky black bollards.

Would-be American citizens, and lesser consular visitors, are asked to enter the complex round the back. It's a bit of a hike at present, while the adjacent plots remain development sites, and passes the back of the first set of flats to be built hereabouts. Thankfully someone had the sense to get the local Waitrose up and running long before the embassy dropped in. Mind any reversing lorries as you approach, try not to antagonise yet more cops with guns, and manoeuvre past several more police cars than would be deemed necessary anywhere else.

Only drop in at the West Pavilion if you've a delivery to make. Visa-seekers need to head to the South Pavilion, a long curved cabin with full-on airport-style security, which grants the favoured entry to the inner sanctum. BestMate tells me a sweeping outdoor pathway leads up to a proper entrance in the southwest corner of the cube, which is also what the map engraved by the poolside shows, so it's hardly a secret. Give it a few years and I'm sure it'll look properly imposing but, as I mentioned earlier, a building site vibe remains unavoidable today.

Some of those trekking past may be local residents. Already open, squeezed between the embassy and the railway viaduct, is a Bellway development called The Residence. Because it's a late 2010s project you already know exactly what it looks like, the only distinguishing features being higher than usual ceilings, and an orangey palette to accent the brickwork round some of the windows. I wouldn't call any of the four core residential buildings a "striking edifice", but the marketing did, and they sold, so all's well.

But the chief development here is called Embassy Gardens, a disjoint three-phase "diplomatic precinct" which will eventually deliver 2000 homes. Phase 1 is up and running and has that Waitrose. Phase 2 is nearing completion, and is the site of the notorious Sky Pool which will allow rich swimmers to doggy paddle between two rooftops 35m above the ground in a transparent trench. The guard rail's already up, but anyone planning to ogle the privileged from ground level will have to wait until the scaffolding comes down. And Phase 3 remains at a skeletal stage, should you fancy popping into the sales pavilion and spluttering the word 'affordable' to see what the reaction is.

Meanwhile, back in Mayfair, the American flag no longer flies over Grosvenor Square. That gilded bald eagle is still looking down from the roof, but the grim little check-in capsules out front are now empty, other than a token gun-free security presence, and the statues of Roosevelt and Reagan outside look somewhat lost. Obviously the building's destiny is to become a luxury hotel, obviously Qatari-owned, because who wouldn't want to stay in a defensive administrative bastion? A two-week programme of cultural events is underway in the square outside, culminating in the inaugural Mayfair Sports Day on Friday 13th, but don't expect President Trump to drop by. The US embassy has moved on, and seemingly taken the special relationship with it.

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