An embassy by design

An Irishman’s Diary: From Celtic round castles to a modern facade

‘At the time, the State Department was building three embassies or consulates annually and the fashion was to adopt designs that flattered the host countries.’ Above, the American embassy in Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

‘At the time, the State Department was building three embassies or consulates annually and the fashion was to adopt designs that flattered the host countries.’ Above, the American embassy in Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Tue, May 7, 2013, 06:00

A striking image of the 1980s recession was the picture of a line of young Irish people waiting to enter the American embassy in Ballsbridge to apply for visas.

Fifty years ago, the building was being constructed by G and T Crampton & Company and the anniversary of its formal opening on May 26th, 1964 will, no doubt, be marked in the diary of the new ambassador, as soon as he or she is appointed.

Plans for a purpose-built embassy in Dublin existed as far back as 1947. Eventually, in 1956, a triangular site at the junction of Elgin and Pembroke Roads was selected and a major American architect, John MacLane Johansen, was chosen to draw up a design.

He, in turn, consulted the leading Irish architect, Michael Scott, about the practical aspects of using on the site.

At the time, the State Department was building three embassies or consulates annually and the fashion was to adopt designs that flattered the host countries. So, for example, the embassy in New Delhi had echoes of a Hindi temple, the embassy in Baghdad was made reminescent of a caleph’s tent and the one in Athens included marble from Mount Pentelli, the source of the stone in the Parthenon.

Johansen inspected “Celtic round castles”, Martello towers and the Book of Kells before designing a circular building placed within a moat and with a façade “that turned its back on no one”.

His criteria were that it should be modern but defer to local tradition, should beautify the site, should suggest permanence and should satisfy the functional requirements of an embassy (or, to be accurate, a chancery). These requirements included a reception hall for 500 people and office space for 150 employees. This provision was far-seeing as there were only 73 people, including 33 Americans on the payroll at the time.

Enter John J Rooney, congressman for Brooklyn, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a feisty critic of the State Department, who famously described diplomats’ representation allowances as “booze money for cookie pushers”.

The site was wrong, he decided, because Ballsbridge was a “slum neighbourhood”.

The residents, including professors, judges, diplomats and other “eminent” people reacted with what one newspaper described as a mixture of amusement and indignation.

Two years later, on a visit to Sligo, he announced that, following consultations with the ambassador, Scott McCleod, he had changed his mind.

Meantime, the design was criticised by his colleague, Congressman Wayne T Hays of Ohio, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the chairman of its sub-committee on State Department organisation. It was, he declared, an architectural monstrosity and its circular design would disrupt its traditional surroundings.

There was more muted criticism of the project from members of the Georgian Society who thought that it was “a bit out of place”.

Nothing daunted, the Foreign Buildings office of the State Department pressed ahead. Hays was invited to perform the formal opening. Talk of monstrosities was forgotten and he now declared that the embassy was “not only one of the outstanding buildings in Dublin but in all of Europe, a building indeed that recalled the noble Christian towers of ancient Ireland erected by the Irish people to be places of strength for the preservation of the valued articles of Christian worship”.

The media of the day didn’t record the reaction of the dignitaries, including president de Valera, who were present, or whether they noted any irony in Hays’s further claim that Ireland’s greatest export was its people.

Incredible as it might seem now, the open area around the building was seen as an enhancement of the amenities of the area and plans to erect railings were dropped. This led one wag to theorise that if a woman gave birth there her child would be an American citizen.

Minor criticisms continued. A rival architect claimed that the interior had been copied from Kilmainham Gaol. Some ladies who attended the opening disliked the white fibre glass curtains and an anonymous American wrote that the shape represented a department of government running around in circles.

Nevertheless, the decision of the United States to build a substantial and well- appointed chancery, the first of its kind in the city, was appreciated as a gesture of friendship. In 1969, An Taisce gave the building an award for its effective use of a corner site and today most people would agree with a forecast by a writer in this newspaper that it would “mellow down into happy harmony with its surroundings”.