Building for diplomacy: Our men in a mess

The new British Embassy building in Algiers is a striking piece of modernist design. But cutbacks mean it could well be the last of its kind, warns Jay Merrick

Monday 07 December 2009 01:00 GMT

The new British Embassy in Algiers is an outstanding piece of diplomatic architecture. But it may be the very last hurrah of a cash-strapped Foreign and Commonwealth Office no longer prepared to encourage and pay for truly outstanding embassy design. "Our Man in Havana" is becoming "Our Man in, Oh Whatever".

The Algiers building, designed by John McAslan, is the boldest piece of modern architecture in Algeria since the great Oscar Niemeyer's Constantine University campus in 1969. Yet, like Sir Basil Spence's architecturally powerful Rome embassy and Michael Wilford's beautifully crafted Berlin bastion, McAslan's design would almost certainly be dumbed down by the FCO if presented in Whitehall today.

The FCO's new estates strategy, covering the future of more than 4,000 owned, rented or newly commissioned buildings worldwide, has introduced a potentially ruthless, architecture-lite commissioning culture that has already been revealed by the bizarre refusal to allow the use of a luxurious looking building material in one new embassy, even though it cost the same as less striking alternatives.

One source, quoted in Building Design, said this puritanical approach was enshrined in an internal report, The Future of the Estate, drawn up by the FCO's new director of estates, Alan Croney, a former head of property services at the Metropolitan Police. "Even before Croney arrived," said the source, "they had begun to lose confidence in good new buildings at the board level. There are cold feet at the top and no [design] professional of a high enough scale to hold their hand and say it's okay. The paper says we can't go on affording these grands projets." Another source told me Croney was "very pragmatic, and even Philistine-ish. Fine buildings are being seen as extravagant. It's potentially disastrous."

And Michael Manser, an ex-president of the Royal Institute of British Architects who has designed two architecturally notable, cost-effective embassies, warned: "It would be a pity if the FCO's good record for representing Britain with well-designed buildings were seriously damaged by poorer buildings cobbled together after incompetent briefing and cut-price budgeting. Better not to have an embassy building than one portraying an uncouth, impoverished nation." In Jakarta, that cut-price perception may be magnified by the several million pounds stripped off the original budget of the forthcoming embassy building: its designers, HOK Architects, are having to reconfigure and simplify the building, from scratch.

Which makes McAslan's Algiers embassy an extraordinary achievement, not least because the FCO had the nerve, in 2005, to choose this practice specifically because it had not designed an embassy before and would bring a fresh approach. The result is a building and landscaping of considerable modernist brio which even passed muster in blimpish corners of the shires. Both Country Life magazine and the Prince of Wales had been poised to attack McAslan's strikingly contemporary design, but lowered their shotguns when it became clear that the building allowed an increase in the plants and trees on the site, and played a carefully composed second fiddle to the Ambassador's Moorish residence.

The new building is an object-lesson in just how difficult it has been, even before Croney's arrival at the FCO, to design and deliver outstanding diplomatic architecture. McAslan's project architect, Simon Goode, was determined to achieve architectural innovation tempered by bringing together abstractions of local vernacular styles, geometric modernist form, and the work of British timber craftsmen and stone-carvers. And in this, he was supported by the FCO's then head of project sponsorship, Stephen Whittle.

Art and craft can often express more about cultural ideas and diplomatic presence than treaties or trade attachés. Richard Kindersley's elegantly carved, undidactic lettering – British Embassy, Algiers – on the beige-pink sandstone facade of the main entry point conveys an immediately human, and very British, touch to Algerians who pass in and out of the building.

Even more strikingly innovative are the 10m-high screens of vertical wooden slats applied to the north and south façades. The slats, made of FSC-certified Brazilian hardwood, were steam-twisted by Michael Berringer in Wales. They reduce solar gain on the façades and create brindled shadow patterns in a specific reference to the sinuously fluted columns seen in archaic Algerian buildings. And yet inside the building, the design of the wooden stair-treads, balustrades and wall and ceiling details have a purity worthy of the Bauhaus.

Artistry and unmistakable architectural quality are also apparent in Tony Fretton Architects' new £27m Warsaw embassy, despite being built on a second-choice site, and squeezed by budget constraints caused by the strengthening of the zloty against the pound. Belgian marble clads the wall facing the entrance, and the glazing of the outer façade is actually a brilliantly refined blast-screen. Fretton was shortlisted for the 2009 RIBA Stirling Prize, and McAslan is Britain's 2009 World Architect of the Year. Both these exemplary embassies will be strong contenders for the 2010 Stirling shortlist – but will that cut any ice with Mr Croney in the future?

"Like all Government departments the FCO is being asked to make savings across the board, including spend on our estate," FCO spokesman Matt Costain told me. "Tighter budgets present challenges, but we are committed through our evolving estates strategy to do all we should to maintain our historically significant properties, and to continue to build embassies proudly representing the UK overseas. Through the use of innovative design and construction we strive for solutions that meet our needs in the most efficient, cost-effective and future-proofed means available." This robotic, box-ticking response avoids serious issues about the design quality of future British embassies, and the cultural and commercial impressions they create.

The FCO's overall embassy project management is carried out by the construction consultants Mace International. They have delivered good buildings, but the FCO's new rationalisations threaten an estrangement between design quality and Mace's contracted target costs. Mace director Phil Ireland insists that cost-cutting "is not going to result in crap embassies". Yet he also says that architectural quality is "wholly subjective".

But subjective to whom? His remarks sound very like Orwellian Newspeak, glossing over the difference between design excellence and cost-dominated adequacy. And there is currently no embassy design champion within the FCO with the clout to fight expediency, or overrule fatuous decisions about supposedly lavish materials, and other architecturally meaningful proposals. High quality embassy architecture can survive tight budgets, but only if their design is properly expressed, rather than crudely commodified.

It is true that the need for anti-terrorist perimeter zones has made city centre British embassies highly problematic in terms of design, and costs; and true, too, that not all buildings in embassy compounds need to be architecturally brilliant. Yet it's hard not to recall the mordant words of Le Corbusier when he was designing his vast and ultimately doomed Plan Obus for the urban transformation of Algiers. He described the city's European quarter as "nothing but crumbling walls and devastated nature, the whole a sullied blot." The civilised, he added witheringly, "live like rats in holes."

Britain's diplomatic staff will never live like rats in holes. But will Britain's diplomatic gaffs become architectural gaffes? Unless the FCO commissions new embassy buildings of absolutely unmistakable design quality their employees may find themselves housed in the architectural equivalent of sullied blots on foreign soil. Michael Manser's vision of potentially uncouth and impoverished diplomatic bunkers may be more prescient than he imagines.

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