The winning plan for the new US embassy at Nine Elms, South London, was unveiled two days ago. ‘Not inelegant,’ was the cagey reaction of one architectural critic to illustrations of the new building, which has resemblances to a non-turreted Norman keep, a white version of the Kaaba at Mecca, the base of one of the towers of the World Trade Center, the central stack at Yale’s Beineke Library and the Richard Desmond Children’s Eye Centre at Moorfields. Which is to say that it’s a cube with something of a moat and a colonnaded ground floor, and exterior walls that resemble shards of glass.
The old embassy’s neighbours in Mayfair are hedge funds and the shops of Bond Street. The new embassy will have Battersea Power Station and New Covent Garden, as well as the inhabitants of the colossal residential redevelopment of the south bank of the Thames from Wandsworth to Putney. On Bond St, there’s a bronze statue of Churchill and Roosevelt sitting together on a bench; in Battersea, the Anglo-American alliance is memorialised in St Mary’s church by a stained-glass window to Benedict Arnold, who’s buried in the crypt.
The window was installed to mark the bicentenary of the Declaration of Independence in 1976, and it depicts Arnold as a model Anglo-American. He fought first for George Washington, then for George III. What American would consider the original turncoat a model for anything other than treason? When he came to live in London after the revolutionary wars Arnold was widely despised and then ignored. He was no one’s friend. So far, the plans for the new embassy haven’t won many friends, either.