Don't worry, the Canadians aren't about to leave their prized perch, where Congress is reminded daily of the United States' northern neighbor.
But, as we were reminded by yesterday's announcement of the choice of an architect, the US is leaving its historic Embassy location on London's Grosvenor Square, whose postal code W1A 1AE gives you an idea how central it is to Britain's political institutions. The Qataris are buying it.
We are, you see, moving to the Borough of Wandsworth across the Thames. The Wandsworth Council (thanks for the architect's drawing) is happy about what it terms
the biggest regeneration opportunity in central London. The Council has identified the potential for thousands of new homes and jobs in the area which stretches from Vauxhall Bridge to Battersea Park.
Battersea, for those of you who know London, is best known for its huge (defunct) power station on the Thames, and Vauxhall (of car manufacturing fame) is the "post-industrial" neighborhood that is now home to the new MI6 HQ (at least the secret part of the "special relationship" will be closer, literally). There is also, apparently, a memorial to Benedict Arnold in the neighborhood.
I wouldn't want to begrudge the people of Wandsworth this development opportunity, but how many foreign embassies in Washington are moving to Northeast D.C. in the cause of urban development and diversity? Likewise, I'm happy that the architect is as energy-conscious as security-aware, choosing "miracle polymer" ETFE, which appears to be a material of the future.
But what does it mean?
A decade ago, I was working at the US Embassy on Grosvenor Square. I used to see small groups of demonstrators line up outside my window, protesting about whatever US policy they objected to at the moment. This was 1999-2000, and though we were in our pre-9/11 mode, we were anything but blissfully ignorant about the need to enhance security.
The demonstrators weren't the problem - Grosvenor Square had accommodated thousands during anti-Vietnam War protests in the Sixties - and the Metropolitan Police kept them in check. Vehicular proximity was a real concern, and we were working with the authorities and the neighbors to find a solution. We even had worked out an arrangement with the Canadian High Commission - across the Square, in a building that used to be our pre-1960 Embassy building - to rent some of their unused office space while whole sections of our chancery underwent major security and other upgrades.
Then September 11, 2001 happened, and I guess all these plans (I had already moved on) were put on the shelf. By the time I wandered back to Number 1 Grosvenor Square a couple of years later, the place was a maze of concrete bunkers and barriers, and if I was put off, imagine the effect on the locals.
So, what does it mean? One, it means that the State Department has decided that for its Embassy in the UK to be "modern, open, and secure," it must leave its historic location. When I say historic, I don't mean the present building only, which was the height of architectural modernity when it opened. As Philip Kennicott writes in today's Washington Post
The relocation... breaks a tradition of American diplomacy at Grosvenor Square dating to John Adams's appointment as the first U.S. minister to the Court of St. James's in 1785.
Will the new Qatari owners care about the statue of Dwight Eisenhower that graces Grosvenor Square outside the current embassy? Maybe it can be moved to Embassy Wandsworth, which will become the new symbol of Brand America.
Does the move indicate that we've decided that, like a mutant diamond, "terrorism is forever?" Terrorism isn't new, only its weapons are. And believe me, ETFE notwithstanding, if someone wants to find a way to target an embassy, they will. Just as you lock your car door, you do want to put reasonable obstacles in their way. But they will evolve beyond truck bombs, and already have, as we learned on 9/11.
The only thing I can say is that care has been taken to incorporate aesthetics into things like stand back, blast barriers, and polymers. That is much more than can be said of the generation of "Inman Embassies," whose design often resembled forbidding fortresses.
The days of building new American Embassies in leafy residential neighborhoods have long been over, though many older ones still exist, beefed-up though they have been with bollards and, ick, barbed wire. Maybe the bronze Eisenhower statue can be uprooted and moved across the Thames, where future embassy staffers can contemplate with irony the words from his inauguration, etched on the pedestal:
"The faith we hold belongs not to us alone but to the free of all the world."