Eero Saarinen. American Embassy Oslo – An Ubiquitous Triangle

American Embassy - Façade, module, atrium and canopy

Module of the windows / Atrium / Façade and canopy.

In the early afternoon, a cloudy day of November, we visited the American Embassy in Oslo. Not so far from the port, the building is impressive by its architecture and its size as well. But that’s not all! After a thorough inspection, we finally entered the fortress-Embassy of the United States. Portraits of Barack Obama on the walls and state flags proudly stood in the atrium, the scene is set. Now let’s give the particular historical setting of this building: in an urban postwar context, the construction of the American Embassy in Oslo was part of an ambitious US program aiming to represent the country all over the world through institutional buildings. The point was to create an American dignified image abroad, between the delicacy and US status-seeking. In fact, the architecture of the Embassy evokes at first sight seriousness and modernity, reminding the idea that a government building should be apolitical.

The Finnish-American Eero Saarinen was commissioned to design the new building in June 1955 (finished in 1959), as well as the US Embassy in London. It is interesting to underline several similarities between these two buildings, for instance the geometrical, regular and abstract treatment of the façades, or the presence of a pool in the atrium.

American Embassy - Plan
Plan of the American Embassy.

The first challenge here in Oslo was that the building had to fit in an existing city plan, overlooking the grounds of the royal palace and facing one of the main downtown streets of Oslo (Henrik Ibsens gate, formerly called Drammensvein). Since the Embassy has the same height than nearby blocks, only the architecture differentiates the building from its surroundings. In that way the American Embassy is obviously related to its particular and triangular site, so is the shape of the building. The triangle is the base of the whole architectural work, from the window frames edges to the pattern of the ceiling and even the staircases. However we should admit that this triangular plan leads also to a poor circulation pattern and odd-shaped offices.

American Embassy - Triangular shape
Detail of the triangular-shaped façade and ceiling.

One interesting feature of the façade is also the large canopy covering the main entrance of the Embassy. It is not surprising that Eero Saarinen himself compared it to a “triangular Renaissance palace”. He originally thought the facade as black and gold, but then only the black remained. Choosing black is nevertheless a peculiar choice for the city of Oslo which is so often in the darkness. It appears even more paradoxical when you know that the architect wanted the diamond-shaped interior court to be enclosed and skylighted because of the city climate.

The façade shows an interesting play between matte and gloss, light and dark surfaces, but still keeping the idea of a unified entity. Saarinen chose a precast concrete mix with Norwegian pearl granite as the main material. The use of precast elements for the façade had a real impact on the economy. It was not that common in Norway, but then the new industry was starting in Norway.                                                                        ….

Windows and spandrels were originally planned as framed in lustrous bronze, then in less-costly anodized aluminum. But they finally ended up being made of teak wood, as well as for the interior design of vents, benches and other features (the interior design was made by Saarinen and Florence Knoll). Finally it seems that the façade does not exactly look like the one Saarinen had imagined.

American Embassy - Window modules

Precasted window modules.

Since they now need a bigger space (what a surprise when we first entered the interior court, we imagined it much bigger!) and because of security measures (have you seen the fences?!), the American Embassy will leave this building during next year to relocate in a new one. The questions are: what will happen with this architectural heritage from Saarinen? And what about its “functional integrity” which is the fundamental matter of architecture?

Photos: Teigen Archive / Drawings: Aleksandra Ognjanov
Eero Saarinen : shaping the future, by Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen & Donald Albrecht (2006)
Eero Saarinen, by Jayne Merkel (2005)
The architecture of diplomacy : building America’s embassies, by Jane Loeffler (1998)
Eero Saarinen, by Rupert Spade (1971)