Designing a new British embassy for the post-9/11 world has meant dealing with extremes. These are best summed up in the words of the client: 'On the one hand the ideal embassy is a highly secure underground bunker. On the other hand, it needs to be a marquee with a large sign saying fiDo come in and have a cup of teafl.' At the outset of the design process, with the Istanbul consulate bombing of 2003 fresh in our minds, it sometimes felt like an indulgence to be concerning ourselves with issues of architectural composition, materiality and landscape.
Why not do as the Americans do: 'off-the-shelf ' embassies, small, medium or large, perhaps bearing little relation to context but proven to be highly functional and secure? The answer is that, for the FCO, an embassy is the visual expression of a diplomatic approach based upon engagement and partnership, rather than on the exercise of overwhelming power. A fortress would not be appropriate. We therefore felt that our task was to create a highly secure building that is also generous and respectful to its context in the host country.
Our approach has been to reveal and celebrate this dichotomy rather than to try to hide it. Thus the body of the building is an honestly expressed concrete box, bedded into the sloping site. The form is eroded only at the north-west corner to create a welcoming consular/visa entrance, with a sense of openness where the perimeter wall gives way to railings, allowing the public a view of the building. The harsh but reassuring solidity of the concrete is tempered with the delicate weathering-steel brise soleil, and by the extensive use of traditional elements in the landscape such as habash stone and 'zabur' mud walls. Embassies are, by their nature, cellular and at times labyrinthine, and this building is no exception. We were conscious of this from the start of the project as the client brief established a very clear organisational diagram. Our reaction has been to create a major linear space that runs all the way through the building, containing the two arrival and waiting areas and the central circulation zone.
Although this space is strictly zoned with ballistic glass, it provides a strong sense of visual continuity and orientation. It allows all the people entering the building, regardless of their status, to enjoy the same space from completely different perspectives.
Through architectural devices such as this linking space and the 'open corner', the embassy has achieved the openness that we had hoped for without compromising the overriding need for security.