Tony Fretton’s British embassy in Warsaw shuns symbolism for an assured and intuitive rigour. The result is a timeless building that keeps it secrets close, says Kieran Long. Photography by Peter Cook
There is no doubt in my mind that Tony Fretton’s Fuglsang art gallery in Denmark was the most beautiful building on the Stirling Prize shortlist this year. Perhaps it didn’t catch the zeitgeist, or perhaps an art gallery is a little too luxurious for our times to win the prize.
In any case, Fuglsang would have made a worthy winner, and we have to wait for the jury that will award the prize on criteria that matter: an architect’s ability to make something beautiful and meaningful in the landscape. Fretton’s work represents an architecture concerned with artistry and composition and takes its audience seriously – a relative rarity in the UK.
My first thought on hearing that Fretton had not won was to think that he will be on the list again, and probably for better buildings than Fuglsang, such as this one. His work becomes more interesting the greater the scale of his projects and the further he moves into public buildings. Fretton, at 64, seems comfortable in his skin as a designer.
To some, it is just a very refined office building; to others, a powerful work of minimal classicism.
The British embassy in Warsaw, which opened last week, can be variously described. To some, it is just a very refined office building; to others, a powerful work of minimal classicism. What impresses me about this building is how little it does. Until you go there, it is hard to understand how radically, mysteriously minimal it is, mixing with the sky and creating what must be the most shimmeringly immaterial bomb-proof building yet built.
Fretton’s building sits in the diplomatic quarter of Warsaw, facing a street of embassies (next door is the Dutch embassy by Erick van Egeraat). Behind the building is a park setting with a new stadium under construction a few hundred yards away. Embassy quarters are always strange architectural zoos. The Dutch outpost indulges in all manner of gob-ons in an attempt, one presumes, to embody the Netherlands’ contemporary, creative side.
In comparison, Fretton’s British embassy is mute, almost timeless in its symmetrical, classical form and reflective, glazed exterior.
Fretton won the competition to build the embassy and ambassador’s new residence in 2003. In 2006, mainly because of upgraded security demands, the ambassador’s residence was axed from the brief and the building was moved to the new site it occupies today.
The resulting building bears a strong resemblance to the design that won the competition. It is fully glazed on three sides, with the rear taking on a quite different aspect, a modelled facade of anodised aluminium.
The building has a double skin on the east, south and west faces, which provides excellent thermal regulation, aids acoustics in workspaces and also adds to the blast-proof nature of the building. The external skin is very reflective, especially on the south facade, and your experience is of mirrored skies as much as the more modelled facade in anodised aluminium that lays behind them.
The form of the building has a classicical symmetry, which Fretton freely admits.
The form of the building has a classicical symmetry, which Fretton freely admits. But despite the apparent rigour, there is no hidden mathematical proportional system here. Fretton refers to Mies van der Rohe as an architect whose work looks rigorous, but who in fact worked intuitively. The proportions of this building were worked out in Fretton’s office through drawings and models. The street-facing elevation is divided into four horizontal strips: two small and two of grand proportions. The symmetrical elevation is also divided into vertical layers, all of equal width except for half-width strips at the corners. The detailing, and the need to allow exhaust air in at the base, means that this is a building not rooted in the ground, as Fuglsang is. Also, the glazing is detailed to reach for the sky, the huge panes taking on a stunning immateriality. It is beautifully and accurately built by Mace and German facade contractor Saelzer.
When talking of influences, Fretton refers to some of the buildings of the great era of modernist corporate buildings by SOM and others. It reminds me most of Eero Saarinen’s Bell Labs building (New Jersey, USA, 1962), although in a much smaller scale, of course. This is not just because of the mullioned minimalism of the facade, but also its colour pallette and in the rather beautiful oversized table that is the porte cochere of the building.
It is hard to say, without knowing the diplomatic service well, what the building is for, exactly.
It is hard to say, without knowing the diplomatic service well, what the building is for, exactly.The embassy has two fairly large public rooms on the ground floor for events and meetings (although one doubles as a café). There is also the visa service, which has a separate entrance at the back of the building. This is the more prosaic side of the embassy’s business, with people queuing for visas every day. Fretton has tried to dignify this place (anyone who has watched the queues outside the Polish embassy in London will know how worthwhile an effort that is) by adding a beautiful but modest canopy outside the door.
But the majority of the space required is open-plan offices, and Fretton referred to the building several times as an office building. The first floor holds offices in a figure-of-eight configuration, with two planted lightwells adding to the greenery provided by the view over the park. On the second floor are meeting rooms and the ambassador’s room (behind a security cordon I was not allowed to cross). There are two roof gardens: one for office staff, the other reserved for the ambassador.
There is a second floor, said to contain plant, which I was also not allowed to visit, plus a basement, of which I saw the cloakroom and bathrooms. The mysteriousness of Fretton’s building is accentuated by much of it being off limits, plus an array of combination locks planted on wall panels and on safes located in the office areas. The internal area is 4,300m2, of which I think I saw less than half.
Internally there are some real suprises
Internally there are some real suprises, most striking of which is the use of a loud, veined Belgian marble to clad the wall immediately facing the entrance. This marble, along with the terrazzo tile floor and the glazing, feel like direct quotations of the Miesian material pallette. To this is added timber, which lines the two main function rooms.
The rooms themselves are fine, rather modest, but achieve their sense of atmosphere through their relationship with the grounds of the embassy. At the building’s packed opening, these rooms feel informal and comfortable, but they are not grand and the plan has little of the classical connotations the external expression might lead you to expect.
The most special moments of this building are two of its external spaces. The walk from the gatehouse (where you are vetted by security)to the embassy is beautifully orchestrated, presenting the facade at an acute angle and drawing you towards the porte cochere. The other special experience is the roof garden, which is laid out rather formally and adorned with charming Schinkel furniture.
Fretton’s work here is self-confident.
Fretton’s work here is self-confident. He won’t be drawn on any political or national symbolism, saying only that this building is more about the design talent and interests of his office. It is not intended to embody British values in its form. No such brief existed, he says. He also says that the political motivations of those who use the building will always be stronger than any architect’s ability to fix a set of values and embody them in concrete.
This was borne out by the opening ceremony, where a papal nuncio and the British ambassador talked vaguely of the building symbolising a relationship between Britain and Poland. Most strikingly, former president and Nobel Peace Prize-winning trade unionist Lech Walesa spoke at the event. In his speech, he said that buildings such as embassies should no longer be needed and that, as a true revolutionary, he believed competition between nation states was irrelevant.
His words proved Fretton’s strategy to be the right one. This is not a building that is selling anything. It feels permanent, businesslike, but with a kind of fairy-castle magic. This mysterious quality seems appropriate to the exceptional environment of an embassy – a place both in and not in the city, where different rules apply. This is not a building that gives up its secrets, and Fretton has formed a beautiful setting in which to keep them.
Architect: Tony Fretton Architects
Start on site date: March 2008
Contract duration: 16 months
Gross internal floor area: 4,309m2
Form of contract: NEC
Total cost: Undisclosed
Client: Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Structural, services and acoustic engineer: Buro Happold Polska Sp. z.o.o.
Quantity surveyor: Arcadis
Planning supervisor and BREEAM consultant: TPS
Main contractor: Mace
Landscape architect: Schoenaich Landscape Architects
Facade contractor: Saelzer GmbH
Annual CO2 emissions: 103kg/m2
Do you like the look of Tony Fretton's embassy in Warsaw?
British Embassy, Warsaw, Poland by Tony Fretton Architects