By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

an englishman abroad

Following a career that has taken him to some of the world's trouble spots, architect Stephen Whittle is flying the flag for Britain by heading up the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's embassy building programme

Stephen Whittle, an architect in charge of £50 million of Foreign and Commonwealth Office-procured building projects - such as this week's building study in Dar es Salaam (see pages 20-27) - has a spear in his office.

It's a big, long spear that's made of wood and metal, with its once razor-sharp blade covered by a leather protective glove. And it is attached to the metal wall panels by magnets. I decide not to get on his bad side.

A weapon on a wall is not what you would expect of a 54-year-old civil servant.

But then Whittle's career is hardly the humdrum one you would anticipate approaching his ugly tower block offices - Apollo House in Croydon.

The spear comes from his time in Africa - in Karamoja, part of eastern Uganda on the border of Kenya and Sudan.Whittle was there for a year in the 1980s, innocently ignorant of 'Live Aid' and Bob Geldof doing his thing for famine relief not 50 miles away.

But Whittle was doing his bit - building civic and grain storage buildings as a UN expert in building construction, and developing a 'Food for Work' programme.

These were difficult, dangerous times politically - and after looting by the nomadic Karamojong tribe. He was held up at gunpoint at least twice, so two men with AK-47s would sit on guard overnight to ensure his safety at his house, the one he refurbished himself but which had no electricity or water. And on daytime trips across the wild terrain, he made sure he had bananas, bread and money with him at all times to buy his safety from bandits who looked like they might get serious.

'I used to look at it as a toll, ' he says. 'And that worked for me.' One man who didn't, the head of the World Food programme, was shot and never heard of again.

There were similar, hairy-sounding times in service with the Property Services Agency at the Department of the Environment. This was 1980-84, when Whittle was project architect for Ministry of Defence projects, again dispatched abroad to work in places such as Gibraltar, and oversee key prefab military housing in the Falkland Islands after the war. Aside from the driving rain and the cold, the live mines, and having to sleep in Portakabins with 12 bunks in each, there was another unsavoury memory.

Whittle would initially fly from Brize Norton to Ascension Island in a DC10.

'But then we'd go the rest of the way in a Hercules, and it was a nightmare, ' he says.

The planes would have two lines of canvas benches. 'We'd shuffle along and get comfortable and then a line of squaddies would come along and sit opposite you.

Then a sergeant major would make sure we all squashed up and our knees interlocked.

Our knees were like that for 20 hours!'

Unlike the squaddies with their stateof-the-art Walkmans and tapes, Whittle was uncharacteristically unprepared. But the most frightening element was mid-air refuelling, which Whittle was invited to witness from the captain's seat. Cue a steep climb, then an alarming dive to get up a good speed, trailing a fuel-laden accompanying plane with a funnel to poke a probe in to let the fuel flow.

'You're sitting there watching it happen, 20 yards behind another plane. Terrifying!

My clerk of works in Stanley lifted me out of the plane, I was so tired.'

Whittle's CV also includes time as a project architect on inner-city housing schemes at Hammersmith and Leeds councils and, initially, BDP.

Today, though, his job is to ensure that a range of projects costing over a £2 million threshold - including new embassies in Colombo, Sri Lanka (Richard Murphy), Kampala, Uganda (Cullum and Nightingale), Rabat, Morocco (RTKL) and Dohar, Qatar (Jordan & Bateman) - are high-quality designs which run on time and to budget.

He has led major projects abroad, including Terry Farrell's Consulate-General in Hong Kong. Although he has not been back, it is clearly a source of tremendous pride. Farrell, having just won the Peak building, was the only one of the competition shortlist to have built on a difficult, rocky outcrop (the best site the Chinese government was prepared to give).

'It was a truly urban solution, ' says Whittle. 'Farrell was the only one who hugged the streetline.'

Then there was the good PFI experience at the £20 million, Michael Wilforddesigned embassy in Berlin, which now makes a serious sideline in staging events such as Robbie Williams' latest album launch. Whittle says he is in favour of the PFI. But in Berlin, it certainly helped that the design survived intact when the new developer, Bilfinger + Berger, was novated.

'It worked very well, ' says Whittle, 'and as a model it's one that is used still as a way of clients maintaining quality.'Whittle travelled fortnightly to Stuttgart and then Berlin for meetings with the contractor and architect to ensure quality was being retained - and even did a one-day trip to Hong Kong.

He's hopeful of a good result in the competition to design a new embassy for Warsaw (AJ 16.1.03), having helped select a new breed of architect for the job, away from the likes of ABK, Hopkins, Foster and Rogers. Some may feel the Foreign Office commissions anything but foreign practices, but Whittle emphasises that it wanted a Polish practice to succeed, just as it had pushed for Germans to make the final list for Berlin. Sadly, however, none of the 13 Polish submissions made the grade.

'There's a perception that PFIs are all large projects, and are therefore only attracting large commercial practices. And smaller projects like schools get bundled into a bigger package of PFI services and attract large practices - there's not the same opportunity for younger practices that there used to be. This is something we were talking about and was informing our appraisal [at Warsaw].'

Whittle is also the department's design champion and positive, too, about the work of the government's ministerial design champions, involved with meetings with his department's new representative, Bill Rammell.

The practice of building embassies - Beijing is also on Whittle's wish list - has grown more security-sensitive since 11 September and an edict from the Cabinet office. Less glazing must be used and, ideally, schemes set back from the street.

But it is also still about presenting the best face of the UK through good, efficient architecture. This, Whittle says, must continue. Or, perhaps, out might come that Karamojan spear

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters