President Donald Trump blamed his decision not to visit the UK on a “bad deal” cut by the Obama administration over the relocation of the US embassy in London.
“Reason I canceled my trip to London is that I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for “peanuts,” only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!” Trump tweeted.
But Trump was wrong to pin all of the blame for the move on former President Barack Obama.
It is true that the final sale of the imposing Chancery Building in central London and the contract to build a new structure south of the River Thames were signed off under the Obama administration.
But the original decision to move the embassy from its prime location in the plush Mayfair district to a regeneration site in Battersea was made by the administration of a Republican President, George W. Bush.
Here’s how the deal went down:
1. The decision move the US embassy from its Grosvenor Square location was made in the second term of the Bush administration. The modernist concrete structure, designed by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen and opened in 1960, was proving harder to secure in an age of terrorist threats. Part of Grosvenor Square had already been closed to vehicles in order to protect the building, and its inadequacies were quickly becoming obvious.
The London embassy is also believed to have been the only one in the world that was not owned outright by the US government. In a quirk of UK property law, the land on which the old embassy stood was owned by the property company of a British aristocrat, the Duke of Westminster, and leased to the US, which merely owned the bricks and mortar above.
So in 2008, before Obama took office, the decision was made to purchase outright a site in the regeneration neighborhood of Nine Elms, in the Battersea district of London.
“In the end, we realized that the goal of a modern, secure and environmentally sustainable embassy could best be met by constructing a new facility,” former US ambassador Robert Tuttle said of the decision to move.
2. In 2009, under the Obama administration, the historic Mayfair building was sold to Qatari Diar, a real estate investment arm of the government of Qatar. It’s now set to be converted into a luxury hotel. In the same year, a shortlist of nine architecture firms were selected to take forward the plans for the new embassy.
3. In 2010, Philadelphia architecture firm KieranTimberlake won the contract. The new site, a 12-story glass cube replete with moat and gardens, will house around 800 staff and is expected to receive 1,000 visitors daily. It has been cautiously welcomed by critics: “For all its security features and monolithic presence, the Nine Elms complex is as benign as could be hoped, allowing the public to wander off the street into its garden and meander along a waterside path, if always under the watchful eye of armed guards,” concluded The Guardian’s respected architecture writer, Oliver Wainwright.
4. But the billion-dollar cost of the building – likely the most expensive US embassy in the world – raised eyebrows in the US. In 2015, members of Congress criticized the project’s hefty price tag, blaming the State Department. At a House oversight committee hearing, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican and chairman of the committee, slammed the administration’s construction process as mismanaged, resulting in a building with an “opulent-looking” glass facade that favored aesthetics over security”. The building was ultimately financed for by selling other US government properties in London.
5. The new embassy is due to open its doors to the public on January 16, 2018. In an article for London’s Evening Standard, published the morning after Trump tweeted his decision to abandon his visit to the UK, the US ambassador Robert Johnson tried to strike a reassuring note about the new era.
“The United States is re-investing in the Special Relationship,” he said. “President Trump has told me he views the UK as one of the closest friends and partners of the American people we serve. Our new embassy reflects not just America’s special history with the UK but the special future ahead of us as we advance the prosperity and security of both our nations.”