$1 Billion Fortress America to be Built In London

US Embassy In London

I’m not sure how this got approved, but apparently the State Department was budgeted $1 billion to build a new embassy in London:

The United States has unveiled plans for its new $1 billion high-security embassy in London — the most expensive it has ever built.

The proposals were met with relief from both the present embassy’s Mayfair neighbours and the residents and developers of the Battersea wasteland where the vast crystalline cube, surrounded by a moat, will be built.

The decision to abandon the former site in Grosvenor Square by 2016 came after a prolonged battle with residents angered by the security measures demanded after the September 11 attacks.

Surely some accomdoation could have been made on the security measures–it’s not like London is a war zone or anything. And if the Embassy did need to move, I find it hard to believe that there wasn’t some suitable property available for lease given that the UK is going through the same crisis in commericial real estate that the United States is. This is simply a gigantic waste of money.

Also, it goes without saying that the design itself is ugly, and antithetical to the concept of an embassy. Let me defer to my favorite cranky Brit, Warren Ellis, on evaluating the design.

In the proof image above, it looks not unlike a high-end bunker has been simply dropped from space on London, an impregnable and isolated chunk of America. And while security is an obvious and present concern, I think perhaps this building says a little more than it was intended to.

In fact, let’s admit it. IT’S A FORTRESS WITH A FUCKING MOAT. It doesn’t say “welcome to a little piece of America, one of the best ideas the world ever had and a country that welcomes the tired and poor and afraid.” It says “if you even look at us funny we’ll pour boiling oil on you from the roof. Raise the drawbridge! Release the Mongolian Terror Trout!”

It’s pretty funny, really.

Both funny and sad, really. I remember when I was a teenager reading Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which is about a small prison colony on the Moon fighting for its independence against an oppressive Earth government. Suffice to say, there were many parallels to the American Revolution deliberately dropped in there. But one thing that stood out in my mind, then and now, was the fact that it was the Americans who were the most gung-ho about crushing the Lunar Rebellion, decrying them all as criminals and terrorists. When I was a teenager, I thought it was ridiculous to think that the Americans would be the most bloodthirsty group. Now as an adult living through a period of absolutely, clinically paranoid levels of safety-consciousness in all aspects of American culture, from putting leashes on toddlers to being terrified of second-hand smoke, pushing for concealed carry when violent crime is at an all-time low, suspending students for carrying plastic knives for their lunch, and shredding civil liberties in the name of a dubiously defined “war on Terror”, I see Heinlein’s point.

I really think that Americans should pay more attention to the following Spanish proverb: “Vivir con miedo es como vivir en medias.” — “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.”

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Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. DC Loser says:

    The last time I was in London was in 2002. I had business nearby the embassy and the place did look like a warzone. Basically, pedestrian and vehicle access was blocked in the Grosvenor Square are with ugly jersey barriers and other accoutrements. BTW, I saw the same thing with the embassy in Ottawa the next year. Unfortunately we can’t do this in a densely populated area and not affect the neighbors, especially those who are wealthy enough to live in Central London. I guess the only place with enough land to accommodate the standoff distance mandated by State Department regulations for new embassies is in the industrial wastelands on the fringes of the capital.

  2. Bill H says:

    Heinlein also wrote Starship Troopers, in which he postulated a society in which only people who had completed a tour of national service were allowed to vote. The only reason given for the system was that “it works, and previous systems have not.”

    We blame our presently broken government on the influence of corporate money, on lobbyists, and on the media, but who casts the votes that put these people in office? They are put into office by “low information voters,” “single issue voters” and “party line voters.” How many black voters voted for Obama purely because he is black; or whites against him for the same reason?

    The fact is that the electorate of this nation routinely votes against its best interests and elects corrupt politicians to office. The voters can stop the corruption and the partisanship, and are just not doing it.

  3. Herb says:

    Since we’re getting all literary –especially the pulpy side– I read a great line in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novel The Doorbell Rang the other day.

    Says Wolfe, “I can dodge fear without backing into folly.”

    But “Vivir con miedo es como vivir en medias” works too.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    Not a very good moat, if it’s only one side of the cube.

    This looks like any number of government buildings I’ve seen built in my city over the years:

    a) water features built up to the side of the wall (which cause structural and maintenance problems in the future);

    b) all glass (which causes HVAC problems and after a while leaks);

    c) large green setbacks (used as far as I can tell by state workers smoking their fags; the trees and shrubs eventually die for lack of care);

    d) an overall sense that the government has lots of money to display ostentatiously so it’s time to cut taxes.

  5. anjin-san says:

    “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.”

    I guess that puts bithead at about a quarter of a life…

  6. Alex Knapp says:


    I have been meaning to read the Nero Wolfe books for ages now, and you’ve finally prodded me to put the first couple on hold at the library for my reading pleasure this weekend.

    Wait a minute–reading books? Provided for free, temporary use from a government institution? Dang–I believe I’ve outed myself as an elitist communist…

  7. John Burgess says:

    Having spent the majority of my adult life working in US Embassies–including London–I think the article is a bit, well, ‘over-wrought’.

    One rather large piece of information missing is that the move and new construction is cost neutral to US taxpayers. A Qatari firm has bought the Grosvenor Sq. property and will convert it into a hotel.

    The current embassy building is overcrowded. It currently houses 1,000 employees but was designed for 750. There’s no parking except for the most senior officers and the small motor pool (and the Marine Security Guard van).

    The current embassy is located in the London ‘congestion zone’. A daily entry fee of around $8.00 is charged to get there, though the USG has refused payment, viewing it as a ‘tax’ from which it should be exempt. The London municipal government disagrees and is seeking 32 million Pounds Sterling in back payments. The new location is outside the zone, making it cheaper for both visitors and employees to access.

    Security is simply a fact of modern life now. Call the diplomats ‘pussies’ if you like, but working in a building that is known to be a terrorist target can legitimately tighten sphincters. It’s not just employees, of course, but also their families that are at risk as well as the thousands of daily visitors who have business with the embassy.

    And then, there’s the aesthetics. The current building is an eyesore in its setting. The ad hoc security upgrades make it hideous, as DC Loser notes. Security measures make it very difficult to use the embassy; a new structure, with security measures built in, should avoid much of the hassle.

    The new location, Nine Elms, isn’t the fanciest spot, for sure. It doesn’t have its own stop on the Tube, but it’s not far from both the Vauxhall and two Battersea British Rail stations. On-site parking hasn’t been addressed in any articles I’ve read.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    This reminds me of one of Parkinson’s Laws. The decline of any institution can be marked by the construction of a great, new headquarters. From Chapter 6:

    It is now known that a perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse. This apparently paradoxical conclusion is based upon a wealth of archaeological and historical research, with the more esoteric details of which we need not concern ourselves. In general principle, however, the method pursued has been to select and date the buildings which appear to have been perfectly designed for their purpose. A study and comparison of these has tended to prove that perfection of planning is a symptom of decay. During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters. The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death.

  9. tom p says:

    Wait a minute–reading books? Provided for free, temporary use from a government institution? Dang–I believe I’ve outed myself as an elitist communist…

    How’s that “Guntal Floss” work, Alex? I’ve been thinking of changing brands and would appreciate any feedback you can give me.

  10. Just another in an ever expanding list of actions to separate the government ever farther from the people it purports to serve. I lack the time and willingness to explain further now, but this seems like just another foolish extension of zero tolerance.

    Anyway, I wonder if you can see the flying pigs from the roof?

  11. Alex Knapp says:

    Tom P –

    Avoid Glocks. They have a tendency to jam and their “mint” flavor tastes like Pine-Sol.

  12. William d'Inger says:

    It’s all a matter of perception. Before I read your Orwellian description, I thought it looked like a fragile crystalline chandelier of Victorian elegance appropriate to a London setting. As for the pond, I presumed, given this year’s weather, it was intended to be an ice skating rink. Gee, Alex, you sure have a talent for recognizing the dark forces that prowl the universe.

  13. IanY77 says:

    I can sympathize with the complaints of the security measure causing problems. I live near the one in Ottawa. The extra rows of fencing and concrete barriers have choked off two of the major downtown arteries (and my American friends have remarked on how small Ottawa is). I wish they’d move it out closer to where the Ambassador lives. It’s not an ugly building, just inconvenient to all who live near it.

    As an aside, the 4th of July party at the home of the Ambassador is one of the nicest get-togethers I’ll attend all year. Very cool American historical gear and presentations. Plus, I get the chance to have a couple of Yeunglings (sp?) and some of the more obscure Sam Adams varieties. That and the awesome pulled pork. Best sauce I think I ever had. Damn, I’m hungry all of a sudden. And I really, really want a Yeunglings….

    Anyhow, where was I? Oh right. Yeah, that new one in London is pretty ugly. It’s a shame to lose the central location on Grosvenor. I lived in London during the mid-90’s and worked at the Canadian High Commission. It was a nice looking setup.

  14. William d'Inger says:

    The decline of any institution can be marked by the construction of a great, new headquarters

    Please help me with this one, Mr. Schuler. In the last days of what collapsing empire did the deluded people build the U.S. Capitol?

  15. JKB says:

    Don’t be so hard on the State Department. That might have been the best looking of all designs. It seems that for the last 70 years there has been a secret competition among the “elite” in architecture to see who can get the ugliest building built. Government is the easiest dupe. Sure there are plenty of people in the “know” who expound on the designs. But pretty much anyone without a vested interest thinks, “That’s the ugliest building yet” when they look up on them.

  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    I think we should have gone all-in. Forget the glass: stone walls, towers, crenellations, cannon emplacements and the occasional jihadist head mounted on pikes. It would have become a huge tourist attraction. It would have been epic.

  17. Well, with the moat we could have a Traitor’s Gate as a nod to the Tower of London, which is a tremendous tourist attraction.

  18. PD Shaw says:

    . . . or take some building cues from the “United Kingdom” pavilion at Epcot Center. Happy workers wearing Bobby Hats; visitors driven to the front door on replica double-decker busses; and guards hidden inside red telephone boxes with one way glass. The ambassador will wear a Dr. Who scarf.

  19. tom p says:

    Avoid Glocks. They have a tendency to jam and their “mint” flavor tastes like Pine-Sol.

    Thanx Alex. I couldn’t decide between the Glock or the Ruger Redhawk .44 mag “Cinnamint” (Wayne LaPierre’s choice). Now I know which way to go.

    After all, if you can’t get the job done with the first six, what makes one think they might with the next 27?

  20. Brett says:

    Am I the only one who think that looks incredibly awesome? I mean, seriously, it has a moat.

    Plus, I have an irrational fondness for this type of square architecture.

  21. davod says:

    Alex: I do not want to pay 1 billion dollars for a new embassy. Cost aside, the design does not look that bad. The landscaping provides not only a security buffer but some greenery in an otherwise crowded area. The moat, more commonly known as a pond or lake, provides a nice ballance.

  22. DC Loser says:

    @Davod – John Burgess said above:

    One rather large piece of information missing is that the move and new construction is cost neutral to US taxpayers. A Qatari firm has bought the Grosvenor Sq. property and will convert it into a hotel.

    The bottom line is that the current location is untenable security wise, and too small. At no cost to the taxpayers they can build a new one (albeit at a less desirable location) that is up to the current safety standards and has the room to accommodate all staff. Sounds like a good deal to me.

  23. Plainer says:

    I’ve not been to many US embassies on my travels overseas with exception to Buenos Aires and Tokyo. Even then, security was tight and constrictive just to get inside. You can pretty well tell that the US is a country under siege and the importance of the host country has on keeping them safe from mischief on a 24/7 basis. In contrast, the Canadian Embassy has no security personnel provided by the host country of Japan. You just walk in. Interestingly, the US Embassy is leased to save cost in Tokyo since the Carter Administration. It could’ve worked in London as well, even though the proceeds from the old embassy is partially covering the costs of the new site as one of the readers so mentioned. But if the key was security considerations sobeit if this was the best option available. Cost is horrendous however; it costs more than the Bellagio did in Vegas.

  24. davod says:

    Slightly off topic but related to security.

    When I was posted to the USA in 86, I had to go to the US Consulate in Melbourne, Australia, to pick up my visa.

    The usual anti-war, anti-US foreign policy, protesters were outside the building making a nuisance of themselves.

    I wondered how much effect the protesters had considering the consulate was on the 6th floor.