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With these embassies, you spoil us!

by Dominic Bradbury

Saturday Telegraph, 7th April 2007

'British diplomacy is embracing thrilling new architecture, says Dominic Bradbury'

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'... Embassies such as the new high commission in Kampala, Uganda, by Cullum and Nightingale, underline the fact that these diplomatic buildings are much more than 21st-century office blocks: they are also semi-public buildings.

'Using plenty of local brick and timber, and set in generous grounds, the Kampala high commission has a strong connection to the landscape and setting. The buildings at Kampala pull off that delicate trick of representing "the best of British" while seeming to belong to the place where they sit...'
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With these embassies, you spoil us! - Full Text

'Time was when the word "embassy" would conjure straightforward images of serene, stuccoed mansions with high-ceilinged ballrooms designed to echo with the nibbling of Ferrero Rocher chocolates. No longer. Creating a successful modern embassy is quite simply one of the trickiest commissions in architecture.

'On one hand, security is more vital than ever - but sacrifice all else and you get the American embassy in London's Grosvenor Square, an already severe structure now further walled-off behind forbidding steel barriers. A new embassy should also be welcoming, while any British embassy needs to look distinctly British while fitting in with the local context. Add to that the need to promote sustainability, as well as the essential element of originality, and you have a tall order.

'Which makes Britain's striking new embassy in Yemen, by Design Engine Architects, all the more admirable. Somehow, it manages to tick every box. "Some countries, especially America, tend to put their embassies behind fortress walls of concrete," says Richard Jobson of Design Engine, "but our design challenged that. It was about providing a sense of openness and a landscaped foreground with the embassy at its heart."

'Sitting on the outskirts of the city of Sana'a, with the Jebel Nuqum mountains in the distance, the embassy is in essence a concrete box tempered by steel sunscreens. Design Engine has worked with the landscape by pushing the two-storey structure into its site while using traditional elements such as mud and stone to soften the building and its grounds.

'The robust core of the building creates a secure environment, a priority given that the old British embassy in the heart of Sana'a was bombed in 2000. The area is also vulnerable to earthquakes, so a heavy-duty approach was required, while the mass of the building maintains a more even temperature in the burning Yemeni sun. There are also several eco-friendly features, including rainwater recycling and natural ventilation.

'The idea has been to give the building space to breathe, and to create a secure perimeter around the site. This concept of island-like embassies floating in large grounds with strong perimeters is now standard policy wherever there is enough space to achieve it.

'Several British embassies and high commission buildings are now under construction - largely as a result of a security review after September 11 and the attack on the British consulate in Istanbul in November 2003 - and many have been designed by Britons. Richard Murphy Architects are working on a new high commission in Colombo, Sri Lanka, while construction is just about to start on a new embassy in Warsaw by Tony Fretton Architects. John McAslan + Partners have designed a new embassy in Algiers that is also under construction, while the Manser Practice is building a new embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe.

'Embassies such as Sana'a and the new high commission in Kampala, Uganda, by Cullum and Nightingale, underline the fact that these diplomatic buildings are much more than 21st-century office blocks: they are also semi-public buildings.

'"It's important to create an enjoyable space to be in, as well as to work in," says Richard Nightingale, of Cullum and Nightingale. "The Kampala building needed to be welcoming and open, rather than closed-off and bunker-like.

'"It's an organisation of people flung together for a few years at a time, and it's important they should come across one another as much as possible. An embassy tends towards cellular offices, but we were keen to balance that with more social spaces, including a large courtyard, and make a collegiate kind of building. We didn't want the high commission to be a fortress."

'Using plenty of local brick and timber, and set in generous grounds, the Kampala high commission has a strong connection to the landscape and setting. The buildings at Kampala and Sana'a pull off that delicate trick of representing "the best of British" while seeming to belong to the place where they sit.

'"One of the most pleasing aspects of the new embassy is the way it combines a modern architectural style - which sends a message that the UK is home to some excellent design talent - with references to Yemen's rich architectural heritage," says Mike Gifford, the British ambassador in Yemen. "It's not simply about providing secure boxes."'