Post September 11 every embassy was built as a bunker ready to repel all comers, but now, from Washington to Harare, architects are reinventing the mission as national calling card.
It’s been tough times for the embassy. Across the world these once relatively peaceful diplomatic outposts have become political targets. With each new attack, security becomes tighter – at the cost of design. In recent years we’ve witnessed the emergence of the bomb-proof bunker prototype – set back in a compound, behind vast walls and gates, these embassies are more like prisons than places of work, let alone cultural centres. And then there are the dreary, hotel-style embassies – neat, functioning but dull, Identikit places, all paranoid long corridors, locked doors and private offices. It’s design at war.
But there are exceptions. Governments and architects are becoming more inventive, working within strict security tick-lists to create sensitive, considered designs. It’s a deliberate attempt to send out positive messages, wielding the embassy as a branding tool. China makes its mark in the US with a “Look At Me” contemporary design, Britain’s new embassy in Harare boasts a blueprint rooted in Africa, and Norway presents a democratic-design in Kathmandu.
Embassies are featuring more courtyards, clever landscaping and public spaces. Even Fortress USA looks like it could be having a change of heart. Its get-tough-on-design stance was first articulated in the “Inman Report”, which came out in 1985 as a reaction to the anti-US bombings in Beirut. It made various security recommendations, including the infamous “setback”, where the embassy had to be built at least 100ft (30m) away from the street. But design is now back on the drawing board, thanks to The Embassy of the Future report, which was launched last year by think-tank CSIS. This calls for a more open, exploratory approach to design. “In the past year or two, we have seen something of a backlash against the idea of the embassy as a fortress; right now it’s a question of limiting negative perceptions,” says Ambassador Stuart Holliday, president and CEO of Meridian International Centre, a Washington-based public diplomacy institution.
Ultimately embassies should be cultural destinations – places where you can amble along on tours, see artwork, watch films, relax, even have lunch. Jane Loeffler is an architectural historian and author of The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America’s Embassies. She says that “Embassies can be wonderful ways to promote the culture and commerce of a country.” Loeffler upholds architecture as a powerful part of public diplomacy, not to be underestimated.
As an embassy’s function and role gradually evolves, so too will its design. An era of virtual embassies, whereby tasks are carried out from different locations, could be around the corner. But Loeffler hopes not. “This totally misses the point of what diplomacy is about. It’s about people. Symbolically it’s important to have a physical presence.”
Norwegian architect, Kristin Jarmund, laughs as she recalls building Norway’s new embassy in Kathmandu. “Toilets were stolen from the building site, you don’t know how many glass panels broke on the bumpy road from India. There were all sorts of challenges, but you have to respect and adapt to the culture,” she says. This acquiescent approach is reflected in the embassy’s modest and modern design. Instead of a paranoid bunker block, it has a sensitive, open-plan blueprint. “We didn’t want to put something up that is in contrast to our egalitarian principles,” explains Tore Toreng, former ambassador to Nepal. “The building is absolutely transparent. There is not that feeling of walking into a secret place. You feel the openness straight away – it’s a very democratic approach.”
You enter the embassy by crossing a wooden bridge over a rippling stream. Offices and meeting rooms are light and airy, fitted with the best in Norwegian industrial design. For the top-floor offices, Jarmund designed a giant floor-to-ceiling window, “to greet and celebrate the mountains”. It looks out to the Himalayas and has a zigzag silhouette, to mirror the jagged mountain range. A quiet indoor courtyard lets staff soak up the sun on coffee breaks. Making the most of local handicrafts, a team of Nepalese workers built the embassy primarily using natural, indigenous materials. Windows are trimmed in sesau wood, the patio is made from regional flagstone, and walls are delicately crafted in ultra-thin slabs of slate. “This is a story of both Norway and Nepal – we are countries high up in the mountains, with waterfalls, rivers and stone. We wanted to combine the modern design with this tradition,” says Jarmund.
Construction work may have ground to a halt in Harare, but one site where the cranes are still swinging is Mount Pleasant Business Park. Here in the suburbs, a new British embassy complex is being built, designed by London firm Manser Practice. This diplomatic retreat will have offices, a swimming pool, gym and tennis court by the time it’s finished next year.
Spiralling inflation rates meant that most of the construction materials have been brought over from Europe: “We had to assume you couldn’t get anything locally,” says architect Jonathan Manser. Keeping things simple then, the buildings – which include a guardhouse, visa and consulate block and embassy – are crafted in concrete. The slabs are moulded to look like corrugated iron – a subtle celebration of Africa’s ubiquitous building material. A series of pitched roofs act as a giant parasol, elegantly shading the buildings while also creating a natural ventilation system. This is a design firmly rooted in Africa. “Life in Africa is fairly brutal, we’ve deliberately made quite a severe, pared-down building,” says Manser. Indigenous plants, such as long grass and palms, will be scattered throughout the compound to make it “look like it is sitting in the African bush.” Labourers, bussed in from nearby villages, are the builders while security are making sure everything is just-so (no bugs planted in the walls here please). Ultimately, Manser hopes the development “will be a bit of a release from the day-to-day grind of trying to exist in Harare”.
China’s new chancery in Washington is all about establishing a presence. Designed by New York and Beijing-based Pei Partnership Architects, it makes a big splash on the diplomatic skyline (at over 10,760 sq m, it’s one of the largest in DC). “For any embassy it’s a general requirement that the building is a statement about the country itself,” says Chien Chung Pei, who runs the practice with his brother, Li Chung Pei. Their father, I M Pei (whose CV includes the Louvre pyramid in Paris), also came out of retirement to collaborate on the project. Chinese architectural techniques are applied throughout to the symmetry and geometry to create an intuitive, calm design. “There is a strong sense of axiality telling you how to move through it,” adds Pei. China shipped over its own workforce to build the chancery, which, like many buildings in DC, is made from limestone. The floors are Chinese granite and oak. Security modifications were made towards the end of the project. But the steep site rendered strict US-style security unfeasible. “If we had to build a 100ft setback on this site, it would have been impossible,” says Pei.
How would Monocle craft an embassy? Diplomats take note – this is our blueprint for modern diplomacy.
You may have to follow strict rules when building an embassy, but that’s no excuse for dull design. Interrogate a prescriptive brief with imagination – pick a stand-out style and reconcile security requirements with an inventive, original masterplan. We’re taking our lead from the Scandinavians, experts in the transparent, open-plan blueprint. So, have a compound but craft it with care. Lose the fortress front and put in a shop and café instead – a warm welcome will do wonders for international relations. Stagger the more secure areas behind this, sculpt in courtyards, and keep an eye across it all using the latest and best surveillance. Think of the bigger picture – in an ever-competitive global market, the embassy can be a commercial and cultural weapon.
Steer clear of cold steel and opt for natural materials instead. Our embassy is crafted entirely in regional stone. We’ve made the most of local handicraft too, working with the top masonry talent on our doorstep. It’s a good way to make friends and engage with the community from the start.
Compounds don’t have to be sprawling monsters. Our embassy has a modest scale and plenty of natural light. The ambassador’s residence is here too – it’s essential to be close to the action. Instead of glass-screened counters and long visa queues, we’d have chats in relaxed meeting rooms and free coffee in our lounge while you wait.
Greenery can soften any site. When landscaping, go for indigenous specimens – there’s no need for plants to get air miles. In our garden we’ve got a neatly clipped lawn, a few scattered ever-green trees and a rippling pool (it’s a must – there’s nothing quite like watching the fish to bring down the heart rate). Oh, and don’t forget the flags.
It’s important to mix up office space. Our courtyard, framed by glass walls, is a quiet and spacious place to have coffee breaks and informal meetings. It’s also the perfect spot for entertaining on balmy nights. Note that we’ve kept the tree too (build around the landscape, don’t cut it down).
Our open-plan offices are trimmed in the best Danish design. The Monocle No 1. Table, designed by Todd Bracher and made by Fritz Hansen, is a hardworking all-purpose desk (to get your own, go to page 121). Hans Wegner’s iconic China chairs complete the look. The bright conference room is lit by Louis Poulsen Artichoke pendants, not strip lighting.
We’re having book launches, exhibitions, screenings and concerts at our embassy. So our buildings are easy to navigate, we’ve got straightforward wayfinding by Dutch graphic design master, Paul Mijksenaar. There are restaurants, a café, bookshop and plenty of break-out areas with comfy couches.
You don’t want to scare off visitors with an in-your-face foyer. Our front of house is more casual and design-led. There are marble-topped coffee tables, Piero Lissoni couches and warm Santa & Cole reading lamps – it’s more library-meets-lounge than waiting room. And we’ve always got carafes of water – it’s attention to detail that counts.