Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The US embassy, Ballsbridge

The US embassy in Dublin is due to crop up in book #4 of the Moss Reid series (no spoilers)...

Better first explain that the US ambassador's official residence is at the other end of the city in the Phoenix Park. It's in one of a pair of large estates that almost face each other on either side of a monument and roundabout near the middle of the park.

That other estate in the park is Áras an Uachtaráin, where the President of Ireland lives. Which says a lot about Ireland's "close" relationship with the US over the years.

But back to the US embassy. Since 1964 it has stood on a triangular site at the intersection of Elgin Road and Pembroke Road in leafy Ballsbridge on the city's south side. "Leafy" here being shorthand for "v. posh area".

The iconic building was designed by American architect John Johansen and Irish architect Michael Scott (the man who designed Busáras). The duo came up with something almost from another planet: an astonishing mix of Sixties design and a modern take on early Celtic structures - from ancient ring forts to beehive cells - as well as later Irish architecture such as the Martello towers from the Napoleonic era.

Those distinctive honeycomb shapes could be sets of jawbones from a giant whale-like creature, or the shell of a futuristic spaceship. As Shane O'Toole points out in the video, they are also reminiscent of the weave of an Aran jumper.

Within a dry moat (Johansen envisaged it as "a garland") and bridge, the circular building has five floors. Two are underground, three above ground and arranged around a brightly sunlit (if the sun doth shine) central atrium, plus a smaller sixth storey on the roof. The terrazzo floors throughout are of Connemara marble.

Over the years you'd sometimes see long snaking queues on the triangular plaza outside: people waiting to sign a book of condolences perhaps, or unemployed youngsters looking for a visa to emigrate to the States and to star in RTÉ's Reeling In the Years, or sightseers trying to catch the visit of a US President. Or the occasional political demo or two.

Up to the 1980s the protest marches would be fairly close to the building, with perhaps a few cursory crowd-control barriers here and there. For example, a 1984 protest in Dublin against Ronald Reagan's Irish visit had 20,000 marchers. Yet even then - as the photographs show - the protesters were almost within touching distance of the embassy building.


Since then the plaza has become a thing of the past. Most of the public space around the building has been fenced off, privatised, reinforced, "securitised".

After the 9/11 attacks in the States and the Al-Qaeda bombs in Madrid, crime correspondents in Ireland reported that Al-Qaeda had earmarked the Dublin embassy as a possible "soft target", particularly for vehicle bombings. The reporters also reminded readers that Ireland was widely seen as a major commercial "hub" between the US and mainland Europe (renditions and troop movements through Shannon were rarely mentioned).

Extra Garda Special Branch officers were drafted in to protect the embassy. The Special Branch and Army Intelligence stepped up surveillance and information-gathering on suspected Al-Qaeda figures in Ireland. And presumably the battalion of Marine Security Guards (MSG) at the embassy was beefed up too.

Meanwhile the plaza underwent waves of architectural changes. A blast wall and reinforced steel and concrete entrance were installed; in 2013 the embassy won planning permission - despite opposition from local residents - for the compound's 1.8-metre-high (Victorian?) railings to be replaced by more secure barriers almost three metres high.

The plan also included metre-high stainless steel bollards in the public entrance forecourt, new pedestrian entrances onto Pembroke Road and Elgin Road and a guard booth beside the vehicle gates on Elgin Road.

In a sense these are all sticking plasters because the building has no long-term future. Not as an embassy anyway - it has become a monument to a bygone age.

The relocation

By the mid-noughties it had been deemed "no longer suitable" in terms of Washington's latest construction and safety requirements. And with an ever growing bureaucracy it has long outgrown itself (bear in mind that the building's diameter is just a hundred feet).

So the embassy needs a bigger building, on larger grounds, closer to the ambassador's Phoenix Park residence and Dublin Airport, with security considerations paramount. Eight possible locations have been shortlisted, including a site in Ballymun and another close to the Guinness brewery in St James's Gate.

On the other hand, the embassy says it is "number 79 on a list of 80 embassies that are going to be rebuilt". So the relocation could be a decade away.

If and when the embassy does move, it will be to a building that reflects design dilemmas of a very different time than the shiny 1960s, because American embassies around the world are now on the frontline in the so-called "War on Terror".

The Ballsbridge embassy comes from a golden age of US embassy design that tried to straddle a particular set of opposing needs. It had to be secure and closed, yet open and welcoming; to be stunning and symbolic, yet a practical office building.

It needed to be a bold structure that stood out as an abstract embodiment of American power and projecting American values, yet fit in to the locale and echo the local heritage and customs (down to the Aran jumpers).

Back to Shane O'Toole again. As the architect and historian puts it (in the Sunday Times of 2 September 2001):
In the 1950s, openness was both a top design priority and a US diplomatic objective... Embassy designs were to be 'friendly' and 'inviting' American buildings that also reflected the 'foreignness' of faraway places. Not until the mid-1990s did embassy priorities shift towards increasing security in the face of a changing and more threatening world.
It seems the US embassy designs of the future - even for one in a little island behind a bigger island on the edge of Europe - will be of a world of bunkers and bastions, fortresses firmly based on fear.