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British Embassy, Bangkok by MJP Architects

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In the heart of one of the world’s most populous cities is a hymn to a particular kind of Englishness. Rory Olcayto reports on MJP’s attempt to give the Thai British embassy a new beat

A few days after my trip to see MacCormac Jamieson Prichard’s (MJP) new buildings for the British embassy in Bangkok, I wake up to ambassador Quinton Quayle on the radio. He is warning listeners against travelling to the country and advising any British nationals in Thailand to stay off the streets. There’s a riot going on. Weird, I think, and fall back to sleep.

During my visit with Richard MacCormac and project director Jeremy Estop we see Quayle, but don’t hear him speak. He is jogging through the three-hectare mission, a lush, verdant oasis in the heart of seething, Blade Runner-esque, eight million-plus Bangkok. The air is thick, the light fading, and Quayle, headphones on, smiles politely whenever our paths cross.

On one occasion, when MacCormac is explaining the structural rhythm of the staff accommodation plan and how it can be read as a musical score, with living space inserted between structural ‘beats’, I see Quayle flit by on the far side of the pond. A frog jumps. A splash of water. Then calm again. I may be jet-lagged, but it is kind of surreal.

The fine Thai render applied to each of the new buildings – a three-dimensional matrix of concrete structure, timber louvres and finely cast shadowgaps – glows in the setting sun. From within these grounds, you could not imagine that the streets beyond would soon be a battleground between supporters of an ex-president and Thailand’s army. Sheltered under one of the embassy’s many amazing trees, with the skyscrapers that surround the site hidden from view, you may not even realise you are in Bangkok.

MJP was appointed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in March 2004 to provide 7,000m² of residential accommodation, recreational facilities and staff amenities for the British embassy in Bangkok. It beat off competition from five other practices, including Eric Parry Associates, RMJM Thailand, which designed the 1970s-built consulate and chancery, and practices from Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong.

As with an English country house, the British Embassy is approached laterally

The submission was three-pronged: initial design ideas, a building management proposal and a fee proposal. Two aspects of MJP’s strategy saw it pull ahead of its rivals: a partnership with the Thai franchise of Woods Bagot, which meant lower fees, and staff accommodation in which each residence had a degree of exclusive expression.

As well as the new-build projects that replace the now-demolished buildings, MJP refurbished two buildings that provide accommodation and mess for the Gurkhas that live on site. It also remodelled the entire site, with landscape architect Camlin Lonsdale, into three north-south running bands: civic and administration, which incorporates the RMJM buildings and a new gatehouse and workshop on the eastern flank; formal and ceremonial, in which the clubhouse, pond, new deputy ambassador’s residence, a pergola and the ambassador’s 1920s colonial-style residence sit; and domestic and recreational, on the western flank, which is occupied by the staff accommodation terrace and leisure facilities.

The site footprint was reduced from 4.8 to 3.2ha when the southern edge of the site was sold for residential development, making the old entrance and gatehouse on Ploenchit Road redundant. As well as consolidating Wireless Road as the diplomatic spine of Bangkok (gatehouses for the US, Dutch, Japanese and Bulgarian embassies are all within walking distance), the new site layout means the British ambassador’s residence is approached laterally, in the tradition of the English country house, where landscape and residence are revealed gradually through a sequence of views and spaces.

The simple modernist grammar means the buildings look like their plans

A new tarmac road leads visitors eastwards across the site, along a tree-lined avenue that passes the ambassador’s residence to the north, then the deputy’s new build to the south, before terminating at the staff accommodation terrace at the western edge of the mission. Looking northwards along the access path and landscaped stream (a nod to the canals, or klongs, of Bangkok) that runs alongside the terrace gardens, you can see the elevated clubhouse. Its overhanging timber-soffited eaves and stilt foundations, says project director Estop, reference traditional Thai architecture. Paths on the north and south sides of the pond, which has been reduced in size but now acts as a drain for the entire site, provide alternative, more secluded east-west routes.

The simple modernist grammar underpinning MJP’s new staff accommodation, clubhouse and deputy ambassador’s residence, means the buildings look like their plans. It is an inhabited wall. As MacCormac suggests, it has an overtly rhythmic expression. Structural walls extend out from the interior floorplate, creating external terraces and low-rise walls between residents’ gardens. Beyond the accommodation, the clubhouse is anchored in the pond – and to the accommodation – by a final ‘structural’ beat, a long concrete-rendered wall that holds its note to becomes the central spine of the clubhouse. It also defines the pool and sports court enclosure.

Like MJP’s design for BBC Broadcasting House in London, shadow-gaps express proportionality and pick out the underlying structural grammar on the terrace elevation; likewise, a green mosaic band signals the position of the floorplate – decoration for architects who don’t use the word.

Inside the terrace, the same rhythmic matrix coordinates the placement of open-plan kitchens, living rooms and cellular bedrooms. Like a fractal, this geometric order is repeated at a smaller scale. The shelves and cupboards, for example, are defined by the spacing of the stair treads, all of which are beautifully crafted with Thai teak joinery. A three-bedroom flat here is 150m², but with furniture and the grid-like overlay it feels smaller – though in a comfortable, rather than claustrophobic, way.

Its rear elevation, with external stairwells and fewer windows than are visible at the front, is less rhythmically expressive and has an early modernist feel: Josef Hoffman’s Purkersdorf Sanatorium in Vienna, for example, or more likely, a prairie house by MacCormac’s hero, Frank Lloyd Wright. It is quite different from the international-style-cum-holiday-resort aesthetic of the garden-facing elevation. I prefer it.

Are huge, isolated garden plots right for 21st century diplomacy?

Estop tells of the pleasure of being able to run a concrete beam through a glass skin with no regulatory concerns. ‘It’s hot bridging here anyway,’ he says and likewise, despite MJP’s attempt to recreate England in Thailand, you know you’re somewhere else when you see condensation on the outside of the living-room window. Similarly, soil conditions mean all buildings have pile foundations between 12 and 25m deep.

MJP was a good choice for the British embassy in Bangkok. In Thai culture, exuberant behaviour is considered embarrassing, and the architect’s cool modernism, in the main, is very well built and feels appropriate: formal, polite and smart. Its redesign of the grounds too, brings a neat coherence to what was previously a very loose fit.

But something nags when I walk out through the defensive concrete perimeter wall, leaving the frogs, pond and jogging ambassador behind. The embassy accommodates 15 people on a 3.2ha site, in a city where population density means over 200 Thais squeeze into the same area. I wonder if developing huge garden plots for national outposts, where the staff both work and live in isolation from Thai culture, is right for diplomacy in the 21st century.

Start on site Contract 1, July 2006; Contract 2, December 2006
Contract duration Nine months and 24 months
Gross internal floor area 7,000m²
Form of contract GC Works 1
Total cost Undisclosed
Client Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Architect MJP Architects/Woods Bagot (Thailand)
Structural engineer Adams Kara Taylor with Scott Wilson (Thailand)
M&E consultant Arup
Project manager Neumuller Architekten and Kamair Development
QS/planning supervisor Northcroft
Main contractor Contract 1, Times Enterprise; Contract 2, EMC Public Company
Annual CO2 emissions Undisclosed

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