Poles apart - Monocolumn | Monocle


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20 October 2009

Diplomatic design is back in the spotlight thanks to a new British embassy that has just officially opened in Warsaw.

Designed by Tony Fretton Architects, a London-based practice known for its serene and subtle works, this building is a beauty. Set amidst a park, the elegant, low-lying structure features glass walls, inner courtyards and roof terraces. The typically prescriptive and restrictive security tick-lists laid out by the Foreign Office are reconciled with a graceful and modest blueprint that sets new standards for the British outpost.

An embassy is a powerful symbol for a nation – getting it right has never been so important. Ambitions vary and there are many different design routes to take. But what’s the right one? Well, we certainly don’t need more paranoid bunkers and sprawling, hulking complexes. Fretton’s transparent and open design is thankfully more akin to the quieter Scandinavian approach than Fortress USA. The buildings should be cultural destinations too – a place where you can watch a concert and get your visa stamped on the way out. Government bodies looking to boost international relations (and national branding) should follow Fretton’s lead (and yes, that includes those sitting on the panel to pick out the winning design for the new £500m US embassy in London).

It’s important to be clever – and flexible – with commissions. “You exploit the conditions of the brief in order to produce something that is beautiful and poetic. When you make an embassy, your design makes a statement about how Britain would like to see itself,”explains Fretton. If you go by looks then, according to Fretton’s embassy, Britain is a calm and dignified nation.

Because the embassy had to be set back from the road, Fretton opted to turn the surrounding site into a public garden complete with a café. It’s the perfect spot for exhibitions, parties and events, where workers and visitors can mingle together. There are no ugly facades for the structure. Fretton designed a blast-proof double-façade – two walls, which stand one metre apart. The outer wall is crafted from reflective glass set within a bronze frame (it’s sustainable and acts as a kind of double glazing, protecting from the harsh Polish winters. During summer, mechanical louvers at the top and bottom of the cavity can be opened to cool the building).

Inside floors are terrazzo or carpeted and there are natural finishes in walnut. Planting is thoughtful and there are serene views. “Wherever you look, you’re surrounded by natural life forms,”adds Fretton. Furniture is kept to the highest possible spec. Working on a tight budget, Fretton says Vitra went down to the wire on discounts to ensure the place could be furnished with classics. There are sofas by the Bouroullec brothers, and chairs and coffee tables by Charles and Ray Eames. You’ll also find Antonio Citterio B&B sofas in the reception and Knoll furniture scattered throughout (although we would have liked to see some more Made In Britain pieces too).

The Foreign Office must keep up the good work however. According to recent reports, budgets have been slashed for the new embassy due to be built in Jakarta, prompting a redesign by the architects, HOK. With numerous other projects on the go, the quest to build and maintain a modern, efficient and effective estate portfolio must not come at the cost of design.


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