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Dublin’s iconic US embassy building is turning 60. Here’s why Washington should donate it to Ireland

John M Johansen’s recognisable building, which opened in 1964 is among city’s finest modernist architecture

The US embassy recently described its wonderful building in Ballsbridge as an architectural icon. And for once the profligately overused I-word is entirely justified, because this instantly recognisable cylindrical drum at the apex of Elgin Road and Pembroke Road is right up in the first rank of 20th-century modernist architecture in Dublin.

The accolade came as the US ambassador to Ireland, Claire Cronin, sealed a deal with the developer Joe O’Reilly’s Chartered Land last January to purchase the former Jurys Hotel nearby for €152 million, subject to its four-acre site being cleared to make way for a new embassy complex, which has yet to be designed and will also need planning permission.

Incredibly, given how fresh it still looks, the existing embassy is now 60 years old – but, sadly, it is no longer large enough. “We have happily outgrown our current historic home,” says the ambassador, who hopes the new embassy will be “a beacon for future generations who will seek to build on the promise of a prosperous US-Irish relationship”.

John MacLane Johansen, the brilliant American architect who designed the Elgin Road building, attended its opening on May 23rd, 1964, as did the president, Éamon de Valera, the taoiseach, Seán Lemass, government ministers and members of the diplomatic corps; Johansen remembered it as a “free whiskey party for some 300 tipsy Dubliners”.


Ireland was beginning to adopt American culture, with Hollywood movies running in cinemas, Elvis Presley in the hit parade and US television sitcoms beamed into our homes by RTÉ, set up three years earlier. The gleaming new symbol of modernity in Ballsbridge was also finished while Liberty Hall and O’Connell Bridge House were still under construction.

Johansen, a Harvard graduate who had won the embassy commission in 1956, toyed with different forms (such as an octagon) for the challenging triangular site previously occupied by a pair of grand Victorian houses before finally settling on a circular shape that “turns its back on no one”, after being inspired by ancient ring forts and Martello towers.

Interviewed in 2001 – 11 years before he died, at the age of 96 – at his old office off Union Square in Manhattan by the architectural historian Shane O’Toole, Johansen suggested that “an inoffensive, ‘diplomatic’ Neo-Renaissance building was called for, so I created an updated example of the traditional rotunda building with [an] arched exterior”.

He also revealed that the project had almost been derailed after one influential Irish-American congressman branded the proposed Ballsbridge location a slum. But in 1961 the architect showed his design concepts to John F Kennedy, the newly elected US president, who personally selected the cylindrical option and authorised its construction.

Johansen once said the task of architects is to “seize hold of new technologies, judiciously apply them to buildings, delight in the symbolic potential, and endow them with poetic expression” – and he certainly realised those ideals in Ballsbridge, producing “a pioneering work of postwar modern architecture”, as O’Toole has described it.

His case study of the US embassy in the second volume of More Than Concrete Blocks, on 20th-century architecture in Dublin, details how Johansen pushed new precast-concrete technology to its limits, to create a sculptural facade from 1,600 precast pieces with a reconstituted limestone finish, made by the innovative Dutch specialist Schokbeton.

Shipped on barges from Rotterdam to Dublin, “the complex three-dimensional forms of the precast units, designed decades before the advent of computer-aided design, are remarkable in their artistic ambition and the precision with which they were assembled” – like a jigsaw – by the contractor G&T Crampton under the watchful eye of the project’s executive architect, Michael Scott.

The load-bearing units supplied by Schokbeton – literally “shocked concrete” – were used to construct the upper three storeys of the embassy building, with bronze-framed windows and French doors, over a double basement clad in rusticated granite, while precast-concrete floor slabs were finished in green-hued Connemara marble terrazzo.

Wedge-shaped offices are arranged along open corridors encircling a top-lit atrium rising 15 metres. Known by embassy staff as the rotunda, this space served as a reception area and was frequently used for social functions before security became an overriding concern; thousands queued for a moon-rock exhibition there in 1970.

There were no railings around the embassy then, only a dry moat planted with flowering shrubs crossed by two bridges leading to entrances on either side. Even though it was technically US territory, the entire plaza that surrounded the building was public space – it became the rallying point for protest marches against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s.

Johansen’s embassy was widely praised as an exemplar of modern architecture. As O’Toole notes, “no other Dublin building of the period received comparable national and international attention”. According to Time magazine, it was “exciting in design and construction, [and] bespeaks an understanding of the nation it was built to befriend”.

Even An Taisce, the National Trust for Ireland, had wholly positive things to say about the embassy “for effective development of a prominent corner site on a main city approach, for sympathy of scale with existing environment and interest of character, without imitation of surrounding buildings, and for integration with existing trees and street setting”.

O’Toole’s verdict: “Although radically innovative in conception and design, John M Johansen’s US embassy in Dublin has withstood the test of time, coming to symbolise John F Kennedy’s ‘Camelot’ and the golden age of mid-century American architecture, when the example of the United States ruled the hearts and minds of most of the western world”.

The embassy’s 50th anniversary, in 2014, was celebrated by an exhibition at the Irish Architectural Archive featuring copies of Johansen’s extraordinarily intricate drawings of the building and contemporary photographs by Norman McGrath. Its 60th anniversary is to be marked by America at Home, a new book by the Dublin-based architect Cormac Murray.

Regrettably, the need for stronger security became paramount in the wake of a 1983 Islamic Jihad suicide bombing at the US embassy in Beirut that killed 63 people. A directive from the US state department required all of its embassies to take urgent steps to upgrade their physical security – in Dublin’s case by enclosing its plaza with concrete bollards.

In 1988 the embassy got planning permission to surround the site with steel railings mounted on granite plinths – redolent of the Nassau Street boundary of Trinity College Dublin – saying that such measures were “essential in this age of international terrorism”. A rather intimidating “security booth” at the apex of the site was added several years later.

Other alterations included installing a pair of curved ramps to replace the two original “drawbridges” and a new staff entrance at basement level. The Baldoyle-based concrete specialist Fleeton Watson also carried out undetectable repairs to parts of the building’s facade, and a silver-blue film was applied to the windows to provide more privacy.

In 2010 the embassy was on a list of 20th-century buildings in Dublin that the Irish branch of DoCoMoMo, which seeks to preserve the modernist heritage, sought to have added to the city’s record of protected structures. But this couldn’t be done because of the building’s diplomatic status – now set to come to an end when the embassy relocates.

So what is to happen to the “icon” it will be leaving behind? The best possible solution would be for the US government to donate John M Johansen’s magnum opus to Ireland rather than sell it to the highest bidder. Ideally, it should have a cultural use – perhaps as a new home for the Arts Council, with public events in the rotunda – to guarantee its future.