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KieranTimberlake to design new American embassy in London; $1 billion plastic cube

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The $1 billion design of the new U.S. embassy in London resembles a floating plastic cube, covered in solar panels and balancing diplomacy and security.

Philadelphia-based firm KieranTimberlake has won the commission to design the new U.S. embassy in London, England.

To be completed in 2017, the new design resembles a floating cube in hopes of appearing friendly and transparent. The $1 billion structure is covered in a skin of EFTE, a type of durable plastic, and is a balance of formal (security), urban (appearance) and environmental (sustainability) concerns.

Three sides of the building are coated in the polymer -- the same flexible material used on the outside of the Water Cube swimming arena for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It's intended to serve double-duty to shade the interior and anchor flexible solar panels.

Here's the Los Angeles Times' Christopher Hawthorne describing the structure:

The design suggests that, rather than standing in for certain American virtues, what a contemporary U.S. embassy should be doing is behaving virtuously. KieranTimberlake, in a written description of its concept, refers to the range of positive ways in which the building will "perform," both as an example of sustainable architecture and as a piece of urban design.

Even as the design itself, for all its airiness and crisp confidence, is hardly radical from a formal point of view -- it consists of a cube sheathed in a shimmering polymer scrim and resting on a ground-floor colonnade of concrete pillars -- it represents a major shift in how we think about the role of U.S. government architecture, both at home and abroad. It suggests putting an emphasis on action instead of values, measurable behavior rather than symbolic gestures.

Clearly, the embassy design an attempt to solve the following problem: How do you engage a neighborhood without sacrificing bomb-proof levels of security?

The firm won the commission against a talented field of firms, all founded by Pritzker Prize-winning architects: Richard Meier & Partners Architects, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners and Thom Mayne's Morphosis.

(See the Richard Meier design; see the Pei Cobb Freed design; see the Morphosis design.)

The building will fill a five-acre site in a neighborhood called Nine Elms, across the river from its current home in Grosvenor Square, which was designed by Eero Saarinen in 1960.

The State Department hopes to break ground on the new embassy in 2013.

Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure