The new United States Embassy building. Designed by Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects.
3 July 2009
Planning reference: 2009/1506
On the basis of our confidence that the team demonstrates a real commitment to high quality design and full engagement with stakeholders both at outline and reserved matters stage, we raise no objection to the principle of the outline form of the planning application proposed. We are convinced by the team’s commitment to engage widely outside the site boundary with the emerging local context, the Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area Planning Framework (OAPF) and wider Ballymore site. We support the proposed typology of a building in a landscaped space and the visually permeable perimeter treatment.
However, we call into question several of the key urban design principles of the site layout: the relationship of the development to Nine Elms Lane, the nature and deliverability of the public realm elements that are proposed outside the site boundary and the form of the site footprint in relation to the new road layouts and adjacent sites. We do not, therefore, support the application as it currently stands and recommend that our concerns should be addressed prior to determination. We would welcome the opportunity to give further comments on any revised proposals that the applicant brings forward.
Relationship to Nine Elms Lane
Nine Elms Lane is currently a hostile pedestrian environment. The OAPF proposes that the pedestrian environment along its length is to be improved; development of this site provides an opportunity to contribute to that. We feel that, in addition to the development of the OAPF’s strategic linear park, Nine Elms Lane and the river walk will remain primary pedestrian routes from public transport nodes at Vauxhall and Battersea. The potential footbridge proposed to the north, which will link the site to Pimlico, reinforces this view.
We are not convinced that the current layout makes sufficient contribution to civilising the existing street or generating intuitive pedestrian wayfinding from Nine Elms Lane to the embassy entrance. Because of the location of the entrance pavilions on the southern and eastern edges of the site, it effectively turns its back on the existing street. While we can accept that direct vehicular access from Nine Elms Lane might be problematic, the team should consider further how the new embassy will engage with the street and how it will announce the route to the embassy entrance in some way. A legible sequence of public open space, such as a formal public space on axis with the footbridge where the ambassadorial access road meets Nine Elms Lane, could help to welcome and guide pedestrians from Nine Elms Lane to the ceremonial and consular entrance pavilions on the south-east side of the site.
The site layout, its pedestrian connectivity and the setting of the embassy are predicated on the delivery of the OAPF’s new green route and a proposed “Embassy Plaza” within the wider Ballymore site. While we do not object to this approach in principle, because the green route and plaza are outside the site boundary, the guarantee of delivery, timing of delivery and quality control of these elements is a real concern.
Developers may be willing to incorporate, or even be compelled to include, delivery of the OAPF’s linear green route within their sites, but it may take some time, particularly in the current financial climate. Similarly, although we understand that an informal agreement with Ballymore will safeguard the land for the plaza at the consular entrance, the timing and quality of delivery is outside the embassy team’s control and, therefore, delivery of a space of an appropriate civic quality cannot be guaranteed. We also question whether the footprint of the space indicated is of an appropriate formality and scale. At least a significant proportion of Embassy Plaza should be included within the scope of the outline application.
New road layout
This will be a major civic building of international significance and its influence will be wider than Nine Elms alone. The architecture, site layout and setting of the new embassy should clearly reflect and celebrate this status. With this in mind, we are particularly concerned that the pragmatism of the new road layouts to the east and west of the site are dictating and compromising the form of its perimeter. The realignment of Ponton Road has generated an additional small triangular site to the north-west of the embassy: a mediocre design for this site, in such close proximity, would compromise the setting of the embassy. The requirements of a civic building of this importance should dictate the highways layout and not the other way round, and we question whether the alignment shown in the application is the only possible option for the re-routing of Ponton Road. The triangular site should be either incorporated within the embassy compound or eliminated by realignment of the road.
We support the architectural ambition of the project and raise no objection to the principle of an outline application for this site. However, we have concerns about how the embassy site engages with Nine Elms Lane, its dependence on the delivery of public realm outside the site boundary and the compromised nature of the site footprint. The opportunity to influence these issues will be limited once an outline approval is in place and we cannot, therefore, support this planning application in its current form. We urge the planning authority to request that our concerns are addressed before the application is determined.