James Timberlake has always found efficiency, resiliency and sustainability to be important aspects of his designs. Those qualities were especially important for one of his firm’s most recent and high profile projects: the U.S. Embassy in London.
by Jessica Cilella, Web Editor
KieranTimberlake is an award-winning, Philadelphia-based architecture firm established in 1984. As a partner, James has worked on many innovative projects that emphasize efficient construction methods, resource conservation strategies and the novel use of building materials. Among those projects are an actively ventilated curtain wall at the University of Pennsylvania; a fully recyclable, energy-gathering dwelling called the Cellophane House; and SmartWrap, a mass-customizable building envelope. Although the firm has received more than 190 design citations under his guidance, James believes the firm’s selection to work on the U.S. Embassy project in London is one of its most significant accomplishments.
What has working on a U.S. Embassy meant to you?
The opportunity for KieranTimberlake—and the partners personally—to work on a new United States Embassy is unquestionably significant. Alongside the building’s prominence on the world stage and the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom, we are doubly honored that the commission was won through a prominent public competition. Most of all, we took this as an opportunity to shift the discourse for this type of building from what has been purely form-driven to a performative architecture that holistically integrates all the elements that modern design draws upon.
What inspired your design for the U.S Embassy in London?
We spent a great deal of time at the start of the competition researching American and British art and culture objects, architectural and landscape elements, and popular culture to both represent the United States directly, but also to represent the shared interests of both the United States and the United Kingdom. The synthesis of these intersections was influential but never literal or explicitly referential. We designed a building that wholeheartedly represents the United States but is receptive to the international stage where it sits.
What has been your biggest challenge with this project?
The architectural concept of Vitruvian firmness—that the physical strength of a building is one of its primary purposes—has taken on a new and prominent meaning in our post-9/11 world. State-of-the-art security elements, both physical and digital, have become more important than the commodity or delight of a building of this type especially. Throughout the design process we investigated methods to incorporate these security elements so that they wouldn’t explicitly define the look or feel of the building. Together with our client groups and consultants, we’ve worked hard to advance a paradigm for how these solutions might elegantly shape security-based architecture in the future.
Why is incorporating efficiency and energy-saving solutions into your work so important to you?
As architects we have a responsibility to design holistically and equally combine all the parts that make architecture into cohesive wholes. At KieranTimberlake we take this responsibility as a primary driving force behind all our designs, and as the basis of our design ethic. To ignore and minimize the efficiency, resiliency, and sustainability of a building in favor of another aspect is irresponsible. We must remember that we design for people present and future, so the long-term use and impact of our buildings is incredibly important. Architecture has a deep and lasting impact on energy consumption, and it will continue to affect our island home long after we are gone. I think the profession at-large has to make a stronger effort than it does now to consider these long-term impacts at every step of the design process.
What project have you enjoyed working on most during your career thus far?
Probably the Cellophane House, designed for The Museum of Modern Art’s Home Delivery exhibit in 2008. It was a speculation on a radically different way of living and building in the future, and gave us the chance to bring a range of ideas to the public eye.
What is one project type you have not worked on yet, but would like to design?
A significant, world-class art museum.
What’s your favorite Chicago building?
It’s tough to pick just one. Across several generations, many buildings stand out and resonate with me personally: the Sullivan/Adler’s Auditorium (mixed use and decoration), Burnham’s Marshall Field & Co. (wall, structure), Wright’s Robie House (outside/inside engagement), Graham, Anderson, Probst & White Merchandise Mart (monumentality, universal use), MvdR’s IIT and downtown towers (systems and glass/steel integration), and SOM’s Hancock Building (structural expression, form) are all special to me.
If you could collaborate with any historic Chicago architect, who would it be and why?
Did any of the historic Chicago architects collaborate? Many of the architects I mentioned above were strategically iconoclastic and, as a result, enjoyed working alone and without interference.
If you were not an architect, what would you be?
A Hall of Fame center fielder for the Detroit Tigers.
Mies van der Rohe or Frank Lloyd Wright?
Hmmmmm (scratches head). Mies van der Wright (sic)…Frank Lloyd der Rohe (sic)…oh, okay, Mies.