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Design diplomacy

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BUILDING STUDY: The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is a product of the battle of styles - Gothic versus Classical - which raged in the mid-nineteenth century. A 12-year, six-phase refurbishment project, of which the interior is the latest phase, has been

Architect's account


Cecil Denny Highton/hok

The 'Battle of the Styles', where George Gilbert Scott - resolutely a 'Goth' - tangled with Lord Palmerston - adamant Classicist - eventually resolved itself with Scott deferring and designing a Classical building to house the government departments dealing with Foreign, Indian, Colonial and Home Affairs. The Old Public Office is now recognised as one of the finest Victorian Classical buildings in this country, and listed Grade I, but it was not always so.

Such was the distaste for Victorian architecture for much of this century that the building suffered years of wanton neglect and cavalier alteration. The most notable example is the decision, taken in the 1920s, to replace the rich stencilled decoration on the walls and ceilings of the Grand Locarno Room with a 'modern' scheme in shades of parchment.

The culmination of this ill regard for Victorian architecture was a plan devised by Leslie Martin in the 1960s to demolish the Old Public Office, along with much of Whitehall (leaving Inigo Jones' Banqueting House stranded as a traffic island), all to be replaced with a single complex in a unified Modernist style. Whether due to cost or public outcry, in the event the plan was scrapped. It was clear, however, that something had to be done about the appalling conditions in which Whitehall officials were expected to work.

At the outset, repair and refurbishment under the direction of the psa was relatively modest and financed from the London Region maintenance budget. As work began on the Durbar Court, however, the team realised the magnificence of the building, and Cecil Denny Highton/hok was asked to review and direct the conservation and architecural aspects of the project.

One of our first exercises was to carry out a detailed historical analysis of the building to learn the background to the original design and construction, and how and why it had been altered over the years. This allowed us to identify the finest areas of the building, which we felt must be restored to their original appearance and use to re-establish the major defining elements of the orginal design. These 'fine areas' were not just the great set-piece rooms and offices but also the entrance halls and connecting corridors and stairs which gave logic to the building.

An important part of our brief was to increase office space substantially and fully service it with modern facilities. Much was achieved through modernising ancillary functions and relocating plant into the basement - releasing better space for office use. There was also some scope for modifying the existing plan form where the integrity of Scott's design would not be affected. The biggest contribution was made by inserting a new mansard roof between the wall plates and ridge line of the existing roof. The effect on the skyline is unnoticeable, except where the opportunity was taken to tidy up the unfinished corners of the Whitehall elevation. This device created 2100m2 of highly flexible and efficient new space.

While we approached our work with great respect for Scott's design, we were committed to making the building once again useful and enjoyable to users and observers. It must be remembered that the building was originally designed to house four departments: the Foreign Office, Home Office, Colonial Office and India Office. Party walls separated the four buildings, which were individually heated by coal fires and lit by gas lamps.

By the time we were commissioned in August 1980, the four buildings had been united where floor levels permitted, but circulation around the building was often disrupted; few lifts had been installed and all manner of services had been crudely added, exposed on walls and ceilings. Very little money had been spent on maintenance, decorations or improvements since 1960 and the walls were blackened by exposure to soot and gas smoke over many years.

We were asked to carry out a feasibility study to prepare a way forward, having been told that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office could not vacate the entire building and therefore the conservation, maintenance and refurbishment works would have to be carried out to phased programme. We were also advised that staff numbers would increase from around 1300 to 2000. Finally, we had to work within an annual budget, established by the Department, but approved by hm Treasury.

The study became the strategy we adhered to until the building was finally completed in February 1997. Circulation problems were resolved by new lifts and wc facilities were planned to replace redundant staircases. Services were scheduled for replacement and new communication and computer systems installed and discreetly housed within the existing building fabric.

When the Home Office moved to its new headquarters in Queen Anne's Gate, just over 20 per cent of the building was vacated and, once refurbished, became ideal space in which to accommodate staff during each phase of the work. The phasing was largely determined by the organisational structure of the Foreign Office and the co-location of internal departments. For example, it was decided the Secretary of State and Foreign and Commonwealth Office ministers, plus their departments, should be decanted together, and this determined the shape and size of one particular phase.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office project was a unique, demanding but most enjoyable experience. The building had to function as a government headquarters with all services maintained, and both noise and dust controlled, while the Foreign and Commonwealth Office played host to heads of state, ceremonial functions and important international conferences. The Falklands War, the Bosnia crisis and many other world events meant that our clients had to manage change, and it was rewarding to see how flexibly the completed phases were able to respond at such short notice.

The Old Public Office is now an efficient, highly serviced, flexible headquarters in a historic structure at the heart of government activity. But it is the conservation of this, the best example of high Victorian architecture in Britain, that has captured the television, radio and press coverage, and rightly so.

Structural engineer's account


Aspen Burrow Crocker

(on secondment with Lovell Construction)

The construction is typical of its age, with loadbearing masonry walls and the exterior supporting a Portland stone facade. Walls vary in thickness from over 1m wide with footings at basement level, to single-skin brickwork at the upper levels. The entire building is founded on a concrete raft approximately 3.5m thick. Inverted brick arches are used in some areas of the basement to spread load uniformly to the footings.

There are two types of original floor construction: Barretts floor, comprising wrought-iron joists with infill concrete, in the earlier constructed parts of the building, and elsewhere Dennet Arch flooring, formed with shallow concrete arches spanning on average 3m between iron beams. For both types, larger floor spans are formed by the introduction of wrought-iron plate girders.

The original building was four separate government departments with no rational means of movement from one to the next. Lifts and new and extended staircases were introduced to improve circulation and means of escape. Some original stone 'cantilevered' staircases were extended, which meant rediscovering the complex behaviour of this now little-used form of construction. Armed with this knowledge, a new cantilevered stair, running the full height of the building, was constructed using precast reconstituted-stone treads giving access to nine floor levels.

One of the main structural additions is in the north-east courtyard. A new full-height replica facade wall was built some 5m in front of the original wall, with each floor level being extended to create additional office space. The bottom of this courtyard was infilled with a two-storey mail handling area constructed from reinforced concrete with a post-tensioned roof slab creating large open areas below.

Another main addition was at roof level. The majority of the original timber roof was removed and replaced with a steel-framed mansard roof, producing an additional floor level for office use. Restrictions imposed by the retained stone chimneys, parapets and cornices, and the fact that the ridge level should be no higher than the original, resulted in the extensive use of irregular-shaped framework.

A major part of refurbishment involved upgrading mechanical, electrical, heating and communication services. This involved the introduction of large service shafts and ducts throughout the building. At lower levels this was made possible by the insertion of multiple steel box frames which were pre-deflected using jacks to avoid settlement in the masonry above and the possible resultant damage to the fine finishes and ornate plasterwork. Additional basement areas were excavated down to the raft level to accommodate service runs and plant rooms.

Stone facades, statues and chimney stacks were cleaned, surveyed, and repaired where necessary. The original wrought-iron atrium roof of the Durbar Court had to be strengthened when the glazing was replaced.

Despite extensive exploration, problems were continuously posed as hidden elements of the structure were uncovered in this large and complex building.



The origin of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is bizarre. This and other government offices were located in a collection of Georgian houses around Whitehall and Downing Street until the 1850s, by which time conditions had become intolerably cramped and the buildings dangerous. In 1856, competitions were announced for the Foreign Office and the War Office on an adjacent site, for a general revamp of Whitehall. George Gilbert Scott failed to win any, and a non-competitor, James Pennethorne, was given the commission in 1857 by the imperious Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston. Scott led a protest by the profession against this arbitrary behaviour. By coincidence Palmerston fell from power in 1858, and by judicious lobbying Scott secured the commission for himself in November of that year. By this time the War Office had dropped out to be replaced by the India Office, recently created to take over the government of India from the East India Company following the Indian Mutiny in 1857. The India Office insisted on the involvement of the East India Company's architect, Matthew Digby Wyatt, and a collaboration was agreed. Scott would design the Foreign Office and the India Office exterior while Wyatt designed the India Office interior.

In 1859 Scott produced a Gothic design, intended to reveal the practical and aesthetic potential of the style, and to demonstrate that Gothic was the appropriate style for a modern purpose-built office block - a relatively new building type. However, Palmerston, who did not admire the Gothic, regained power in 1859, and instructed Scott to either produce a Classical design, or hand the project to a Classical architect. Palmerston lined up other architects, and Scott prevaricated. A Classical design would compromise his position as one of the leaders of the Gothic Revival, but he could not bear to surrender the commission which, he later wrote in his Personal and Professional Recollections (1879), 'would be to give up a sort of property which Providence had placed in the hands of my family'. He compromised, with a Byzantine design which retained some of the principles of the Gothic. Palmerston dismissed it as 'a regular mongrel affair . . . ' and Scott jettisoned his principles: 'I made up my mind . . . bought some costly books on Italian architecture, and set vigorously to rub up what . . . I had allowed to grow rusty by 20 years' neglect.' Scott's Classical design was approved in 1861.

Despite its evolution, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office elevations appear utterly assured. Scott chose a Renaissance manner emphasising each storey, with cornices between upper floors, supplemented with columns on primary facades. In conventional Classical manner, the ground floor is clad in rusticated masonry, elevations terminate in pavilions and the centre of each long facade breaks forward to form a central feature. Only the elevation to St James's Park - where the asymmetrical and mildly picturesque grouping incorporates a squat tower and a boldly bowed corner - displays a hint of the Gothic spirit.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is, again in conventional Renaissance manner, organised around a great central court. Only on entering this court is it readily apparent that this complex is composed of four different buildings constructed over a number of years.

The Foreign Office on the north-west corner and the India Office in the south-west corner were built first, and completed in 1868. The eastern half, overlooking Whitehall, contained the Colonial Office, and the Home Office and was not completed until 1875. The elevations of these four buildings, all by Scott, are only loosely symmetrical. Decorative sculpture on the facade - for example, a kangaroo on the Colonial Office - reflects each block's function.

Exterior differences are insignificant in comparison with the varied interiors. The Foreign Office was the plum commission and Scott aimed to impress. It was to be used as offices, but also for state occasions and for the reception of foreign ambassadors and statesmen. Scott created a scheme of astonishing richness, based loosely on Renaissance precedent, with much use of stencil patterns and gilding. These were, as Beresford- Hope later explained, to be 'a kind of national palace or drawing room of the nation', and had at their heart a series of lavish reception rooms organised around the barrel-vaulted Grand Reception Room. This magnificent room was renamed the Locarno room in 1925 in honour of the treaty agreeing reparations after the First World War.

The route to these rooms was equally rich in decoration. The Grand Staircase is particularly lavish, with marble, red paint and gilding, and surmounted by a mighty dome decorated with female figures representing countries which had diplomatic relations with Britain in the 1860s. The stencilled decoration around the stairs is the work of the artist decorators Clayton and Bell, the massive ormolu gasoliers were made by Skidmore's Art Manufacturers Company, and the floor tiles were by Minton, all to designs produced by Scott (a few years later Scott used, or attempted to use, these companies at the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras).

The adjacent India Office had an entirely different feel. Wyatt favoured a slightly more subtle monochrome and dignified Classical effect, achieving richness by the modelling of white-painted plaster surfaces, perhaps sprinkled with touches of gilding, and by marble or granite columns and pilasters. The four offices each embrace a number of smaller courts which serve as lightwells and ventilate the interiors. Wyatt turned one of these into his masterpiece - the Durbar Court. Inspired by the cortile of the late fifteenth-century Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome, the walls are clad with tiers of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian arcades. The offices open on to these arcades, and all is richly decorated, notably with busts of great figures in Anglo-Indian history. The court was completed in 1866 and, within a few years, was transformed into a spectacular top-lit room by an elegant iron and glass roof.

The government was worried by the expense of these interiors, especially of the Foreign Office, and told Scott to produce simpler schemes for the Colonial and Home Office, which were to be used solely as offices.

The construction and servicing are less than pioneering. The office walls are built on mass-concrete foundations 12 feet thick, and clad externally with Portland stone. The internal structure is intended to be fireproof with floors of iron I-section girders and joists with concrete panels cast between. This technique, based on the Dennet and Ingle system, was developed by Scott and later used in the Midland Grand Hotel. The iron structure is occasionally revealed and decorated, for example in the Foreign Secretary's office and the Locarno dining room, where iron girders are exposed, stencilled, and their rivets gilded.

Services seem to have been relatively rudimentary, with heating by coal fires which were often (notably in the library) too small and too few. Many of these offices must have been uncomfortable in winter and, indeed, in hot weather, for there is no evidence of mechanical ventilation - a serious omission in the 1860s when interiors were lit by gas lamps giving off noxious fumes and releasing large quantities of unburned gas. Working late at the Foreign Office in the 1860s and 1870s must have caused many a headache. Grander, public rooms do appear to have a ventilation system and may have been partly heated by hot air. The Locarno Room's decor incorporates grilles through which hot air could have entered or vitiated air could have been extracted. If air was extracted, the technology seems to have been no more complex than running a pipe beside the chimney stack so that foul air rose out of the building along with heated air and smoke.

The recently completed works, carried out in six phases over a 12-year period, incorporating the entire Old Public Offices, are extremely impressive. A few years ago the only interior in the Foreign Office to retain its original decorative scheme was the Grand Staircase, but even this had been repainted in gradually darker tones. Otherwise it was possible to walk through the building, even the once lusciously decorated Locarno Room, without realising that this was one of the richest interiors created in Victorian Britain. The fate of the Locarno Room was particularly sad. In 1926 the original decoration was stripped from the walls and replaced by parchment-coloured paint of different shades on the advice of a Royal Fine Art Commission subcommittee. Later still the room was fitted with a false ceiling and subdivided into cubicles.

Cecil Denny Highton/hok, working with English Heritage, has reversed all this and recreated an interior which possesses remarkable gusto. Some parts are restoration or faithful recreation. Others are speculative, since documentary and archaeological evidence of original schemes has been lost or destroyed. An example of this approach is the entrance hall, which is a conjectural scheme designed in the spirit of Scott. Walls are richly stencilled, colours are strong, and a Scott-designed fireplace has been installed. It is a triumph, not tentative or apologetic, but done with conviction and knowledge.

Antique furniture, together with paintings from the government's art collection, help to give the admirable and appropriate atmosphere of a vestibule in a Victorian gentlemen's club. Corridors have been restored, partly based on investigation and partly speculatively, and again there has been no loss of nerve. Where fire doors are necessary, the architect has avoided the safe, cheap option of honestly contemporary or simply utilitarian fitted doors, which would have broken the spell and fatally disturbed Scott's scheme. Instead it has installed faithful (and no doubt expensive) imitations of timber and glass Scott prototypes. Main rooms and corridors are lit by new lights made to Scott's original designs.

The greatest triumph is, perhaps, the Locarno Room and its reception rooms. Some evidence of the original decor was found on the Locarno Room ceiling and the dining room walls, but most had been destroyed and Scott's drawings long lost. The scant archaeological evidence had to be supplemented with written descriptions and black and white photographs. This research, combined with a little judicious invention based on a sound feel for Scott's work, has resulted in incredibly rich and completely convincing interiors.

The restoration, recreation, adaptation and extension of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is a remarkable achievement and shows the creative possibilities of a full-blooded approach to the recreation of long-lost historic interiors. It establishes an approach and standard which should be emulated by those about to start work on Scott's other long-languishing London masterpiece - the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras.

Cost comment


Dearle & Henderson

These figures have been compiled from the last phase of the project (the green phase), although they are remarkably similar, at least in total, to the other sectors with which Dearle & Henderson was involved. The fact that the project comprised mainly alterations and refurbishment is reflected in the nil cost for substructure and the very low costs for frame, upper floors and external walls, all of which relate solely to the mansard office extension. Conversely, the high cost of internal walls and partitions, internal doors and internal finishes represent the high cost of conservation and restoration in some areas of the building.

Cost analysis


FRAME £24.55/m2

Steel frame to new mansard at fourth-floor level

UPPER FLOORS £11.72/m2

Reinforced cast in-situ concrete floor slabs to new access staircase/lift areas and wc facilities

ROOF £69.81/m2

Lead-covered insulated roof to new mansard, lead covering to existing flat roofs; new access walkways


Repairing existing timber rooflights and domelights and replacing where necessary

STAIRCASES £15.65/m2

New reinforced-concrete staircase with stone treads, oak handrail and cast-iron balustrade to match existing


Cleaning stonework, repairs to stonework and statues; lead covering to main cornices and projections and anti-pigeon netting and wires

WINDOWS £36.74/m2

Refurbish existing hardwood windows and repolish


Renovate and repolish existing hardwood doors


Replace defective plaster on existing walls; new brick and block partitions to lift areas and wcs. Fine areas chemically stripped


Existing hardwood panelled doors renovated, upgraded to comply with fire regulations and repolished. Laminated doors to wcs



One mist and two coats emulsion paint generally. Lining paper to some existing walls; ceramic wall tiles in wcs


Carpets to offices; repairs to existing stone paving in corridors; ceramic floor tiles to wcs


Painted plaster to offices and circulation areas; suspended ceilings to wcs; kitchen and servery


FURNITURE 16.18/m2



Floor-mounted wcs with concealed cisterns; showers; urinals; mineral- based polymer vanity units with integral lavatory basins


Fully fitted-out kitchen and servery with refrigerators and storage shelving


Rainwater system from flat roofs in existing cast-iron downpipes; cast- iron soil and waste stacks


Hot and cold water installations generally in copper


lphw hospital-type materials from existing boilers; extract ventilation to kitchen, restaurant and wcs


hv/lv distribution and cabling; fluorescent light fittings generally; fine luminaires to fine areas; cabling to purpose-made underfloor trunking


Upgrade controls to ten existing lifts; new twin duplex passenger lift set (eight-person) and one goods lift all serving six floors. Install two overhauled and refurbished document hoists


bms control installation; modification of existing lightning-protection system; fire-alarm installation


it cabling installation; telephone and data wireways






Cost summary

Cost per m2 Per cent

(£) of total


Frame 24.55 1.86

Upper floors 11.72 0.89

Roof 69.81 5.30

Rooflights 8.95 0.68

Staircases 15.65 1.19

External walls 8.24 0.63

Windows 36.74 2.79External doors 1.43 0.11

Internal walls and partitions 90.61 6.88

Internal doors 78.69 5.97

Group element total 346.39 26.29


Wall finishes 90.86 6.90

Floor finishes 42.15 3.20

Ceiling finishes 53.28 4.04

Group element total 186.29 14.14



Sanitary appliances 4.89 0.37

Services equipment 30.62 2.32

Disposal installations 18.24 1.38

Water installations 25.69 1.95

Space heating/air treatment 107.91 8.19

Electrical services 151.62 11.51

Lift & conveyor installations 29.16 2.21

Protective installations 58.96 4.48

Communication installations 47.90 3.64

Builder's work in connection 57.02 4.33

Group element total 532.01 40.38


Total 1317.56 100.00


CLIENT Foreign & Commonwealth Office


Cecil Denny Highton/hok


Dearle & Henderson; Franklin & Andrews: John Leaming & Partners


Aspen Burrow Crocker




Troup Bywaters & Anders


mwh Project Services


Lovell Construction (red sector), Wallis (blue, yellow and orange sectors), Costain Construction (brown sector), Wates (green sector)




TOTAL COST £100 million at current prices



fine decorations Campbell Smith, Cousins, chandeliers Denmans Montrose, stonework conservation Stonewest, stonework consultants Adriel Consultancy, marble repair/conservation Guidicci/Martin, joinery Wallis Joinery, Hertford Joinery, geometric/ encaustic tiles Alpha Mosaics, carpets Little & Collins, geometric tile suppliers h&r Johnson, metalwork conservators Marsh Bros, carpets cv Carpets, resin grouting John Lelliot, underfloor heating Warmaflor, joinery Ashby & Horner, special metal fabrication dp Rowland, fibre optics Absolute Action, Lamson tubes dd Lamson, acousting flooring Hedemara, paint research ucl Paint Analysis, flooring contractor Diamond Flooring, glazing specialist twi Group, security Thorn Security

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