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Embassy design: A series of unfortunate diplomatic incidents

Paul Finch’s letter from London: Does our embassy architecture really symbolise our commitment to quality design?

It is entirely understandable to be concerned about the way we pick architects to work on our overseas embassies. If the US government is choosing architects from its own country for its embassies, why is the UK not using UK architects, as opposed to international practices domiciled elsewhere, who happen to have offices in the UK?

And why is design being downplayed in favour of cost if, as many believe, the UK should be representing itself as a country where the value of design is acknowledged and put into practice in our public buildings?

These are depressingly familiar questions to anyone who has examined the chequered history of procuring embassies and consulates since the idea of ambassadors plenipotentiary took root in the 18th century.

The scant documentation, and even scantier attempts by scholars to write about this aspect of architectural history, was rectified earlier this year with the publication of a book by Mark Bertram. An old Whitehall hand with knowledge of procurement procedures and the needs of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (as it became in 1968), Bertram has reviewed the history of UK embassy architecture over two centuries in Room for Diplomacy: Britain’s Diplomatic Buildings Overseas 1800-2000. (Spire Books, July 2011).

The foreword by Douglas Hurd, a former diplomat, minister and foreign secretary, reminds us that the Treasury ‘has never sympathised with the argument that Britain’s diplomats need to keep up a certain style if they are to do their job properly… The buildings in which they live reflect the anxieties and ambitions of each decade. On the whole, he [Bertram] believes that those responsible did a good job, but the struggle and the arguments continue.’

He can say that again. Where the deep-rooted suspicion that design is an expensive luxury takes hold in the psyche of the British establishment, it rises to the top of what passes for policy thinking, like scum on a pond.

But as the book shows, there is nothing new about this. The shambolic performance of those who failed to see the 1960s Smithson design for a British embassy in Brasilia through to construction makes the book worth reading. Not least, for the incidental information that Denys Lasdun, shortlisted for the job, turned it down because his office was too busy. Or that the ministry responsible for overseas building gave copyright of the Smithsons’ designs back to them, apparently because they asked for it!

It was a minor miracle that Basil Spence managed to build the British embassy in Rome in 1971, ditto the ABK/Richard Burton designs for Moscow, where building materials were delivered in containers classed as diplomatic bags because of all-too-valid concerns about Russian attempts to conceal bugging devices during construction of various embassies built in that period.

Unlike the PFI contract used for Michael Wilford’s embassy in Berlin in 1991, this was not considered an option in Moscow because of concerns that the ultimate landlord might turn out to be the Russian mafia, unless the UK retained ownership of the site and building in the traditional way.

It looks as though the era of large, important embassies, designed by big beast architects is coming to a close, despite the number of countries with whom we have diplomatic relations rising inexorably. A pity, because the quality of British design and the effect it can have on a host country is amply demonstrated by what happened at the Shanghai Expo in 2010. Here, the brilliant design by Thomas Heatherwick, engineered by AKT (AKT II, as they now are), made a profound impact on the Chinese government.

It was achieved despite, not because of, cultural attitudes within government. The credit for the choice of designer, and the backbone required to prevent the pavilion being turned into a giant shop, must go to John Sorrell, supported by Richard Simmons, both of CABE. Without them banging the drum, we would have had an indifferent building.

As far as the quality of embassies is concerned, who will bang the drum in the same way? The FCO is being remarkably coy about it, and may need to have its arm twisted by the minister responsible for architecture, John Penrose. ‘By their buildings shall ye know them’ is a good motto for a government that has committed in theory to promoting British design abroad. If we can’t do decent embassies then the task of promoting design as an export will be that much more difficult.

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