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Our place in Kampala

by Steve Rose

The Guardian, 9 June 2004

'With a number of new embassies in the works, the Foreign Office has become one of the UK's biggest commissioners of new buildings. How can architecture sell Britain's image abroad - and keep out the truck bombs too?'

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'As architectural statements go, the Foreign Office on Whitehall must be one of the most brazenly self-confident buildings ever constructed. Its 19th-century bulk is festooned inside and out with symbols of imperial superiority: marble shipped in from far-flung dominions; sculptures, carvings and murals representing Britain's possessions, heroes and virtues; allegorical paintings with titles such as The East Offering Its Riches to Britannia. This sumptuous palace designed by George Gilbert Scott, was once the throbbing heart of the empire, from which British power spread to outposts in virtually every country on the map. Today, though, the flow has been reversed. Where Britain's overseas embassies were once the application points of national might, they are now starting to look like exposed extremities, and direct channels back to a sensitive homeland.

'Embassies have always been vulnerable buildings, but now they are in the firing line more than ever. Al-Qaida's first significant strikes against the US were on its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, in 1998, killing more than 200 people. Since then, British embassies in Iran, Yemen and Istanbul, Turkey, have also been attacked, the latter incident claiming 10 staff last November. With about 4,000 properties to administer in 230 countries, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has been presented with a serious security headache.

'At the same time, Britain has been attempting to rebrand itself through its embassies. Having realised that much of the world still associates the UK with Beefeaters outside the Tower of London, the FCO is keen to communicate an image of Britain as a modern, dynamic, bridge-building nation. From a diplomacy point of view, the ideal embassy building is a marquee with a sign outside saying, "Do come in and have a cup of tea". From a security aspect, the ideal structure is an underground bunker accessible only by a well-guarded trapdoor. Added to which, it has to be something "British".

'"I think the world has changed from three or four years ago, when we felt we weren't under the same pressure," says Julian Metcalfe of the Foreign Office. "It remains a desire that we should use our diplomatic buildings to project the right image of the UK, but reality needs to dictate priority and naturally security is a key driver. That, I think, is challenge we have to address."

'Metcalfe leads the Estate Strategy Unit, which is responsible for the FCO's international building stock and, in contrast to Whitehall's grandeur, operates out of a concrete office tower in Croydon. Since the Istanbul attack, the department has no shortage of projects on which to spend its annual £50m budget Many buildings are simply too old to cope with security demands; some have shut down completely - the British embassy in Algeria now operates from the Hilton. Manu others have been patched up with ungainly temporary measures: concrete barricades, checkpoints, roadblocks, even a small tank outside the Madrid embassy - clearly not the 21st-century image the government had in mind.

'The US's response to the new security climate has effectively been to batten down the hatches. In high-risk countries, US embassies are being moved out of city centres and rebuilt to fortress specifications, using imported building materials, blast-proof structures and limited amounts of glass. The FCO is striving to avoid such extreme measures, says Metcalfe. "We want to continue to be seen to be reasonably accessible to our customers. We have had to revisit our priorities on security grounds, but we have not embarked on a programme of building bunkers all over the world."

'So how to resolve the marquee vs bunker dilemma? Judging by the FCO's slate of projects, the first step has been to treat security as a key design factor that must be integrated into embassy architecture from the start. The second step has been to pick thrusting young architects rather than established names, as it has in the past. The FCO now prides itself on being a good client for architects. The Architects' Journal ranked it 14th in its top 50 British clients last year (up from 26 the year before), saying: "This is the only central government department with a reputation for decent, even great architecture."

'A contributing factor was the nomination of Tony Fretton to design the new Warsaw embassy last year. Fretton, 55, is hardly a teenager, but works such as the Camden Arts Centre in London and his Faith House in Dorset have earned him a reputation for understated refinement and sensitivity to surroundings. Between Warsaw's neo-classical stucco buildings, his scheme inserts a sleek, minimal box of glass and bronze, with a generous open-plan interior. It is a promising-looking design, but since the Istanbul attacks, Fretton has had to "reconsider" the security aspects, which could affect the aesthetics. Furthermore, it has been deferred for a year to make way for more urgent projects.

'Two new embassies, in San'a, Yemen and Kampala, Uganda, are due to be completed sooner and although their contexts are totally different, they also illustrate the FCO's intentions. Winchester-based architects Design Engine were surprised to win the San'a commission. "Our company has only been around for three years, so we were quite excited just to get onto the shortlist," says director Richard Jobson. The Kampala project went to London practice Cullum and Nightingale, which had already delivered a smart new High Commission in Nairobi (in Commonwealth countries, British embassies are called high commissions).

'Unlike in Warsaw, these new embassies sit on relatively large suburban sites, which means they can employ the simplest and most effective security devices: the standoff - placing the building well away from the perimeter so it is more difficult to reach with a truck full of explosives. The San'a embassy needed replacing for exactly this reason. A bomb was thrown over its wall four years ago and an al-Qaida plot to drive a truck bomb into it was foiled last year. Design Engine's proposal cuts away a corner of the perimeter wall, making a quarter of the site into an open, public approach to the building. open in perception, that is, rather than reality: a low concrete barrier will stop truck bombers and the cut-away corner enhances surveillance visibility.

'Cullum and Nightingale's Kampala High Commission is a larger building, but it too, sits back from the road in the middle of the site. Fronted by a welcoming entrance canopy, the buildings are grouped to create a secure central courtyard, like a cloister. Security and architecture did not initially go hand in hand here. Richard Nightingale cites a design of open clay grilles they had been developing for the upper floors of the inner courtyard, which would have allowed for natural ventilation. "We went to great lengths and the FCO's bomb people actually approved them. Then very late in the day they decided it was not acceptable, because of the risk of devices being inserted. Now it's floor-to-ceiling windows, which is a shame because we wanted it to be as open as possible."

'Overall, though, both architects praise the FCO's commitment to good architecture as well as good security. "That was my biggest worry," says Jobson, "but the two sides seem to be quite well meshed. They're prepared to revisit first principles and try to understand what we're aiming to achieve from an architecture perspective."

'That still leaves the question of Britishness. Is there anything particularly British about these new embassies? Both Cullum and Nightingale and Design Engine sought to incorporate local materials and techniques into their essentially European designs; Nightingale had already proved this could work in Nairobi, where Kenyan stonemasonry skills were put to good use on the building's hand-chiseled exterior cladding. In Kampala it was the crude homemade bricks, usually associated with poorer homes, that caught Nightingale's attention, plus small details such as banana leaves imprinted into concrete ceilings. In Yemen, Design Engine borrowed from the Arabian paradise garden concept for their landscaping, dividing the site into four quadrants in accordance with Islamic cosmology.

'Perhaps this desire to assimilate and integrate, rather than strive towards some sort of architectural chauvinism, is where the true Britishness of these buildings lies. "The British are the greatest magpies of the world," Jobson agrees. "They take everything from everywhere else and utilise it in their own way."

'Perhaps the whole notion of British embassies built by British people is itself old-fashioned. The FCO has successfully collaborated with local architects on many projects - Pakistani architect Anwar Said on the striking Islamabad High Commission, for example, or on the recently completed Tunis embassy, but local architect Lofti Rebai. British embassies have even taken to cohabiting with other nationalities under one roof, with the Germans and the Dutch in Dar es Salaam, for example, or with the French in some parts of Africa.

'In light of the government's expressed intentions to reduce the number of civil service jobs, Britain's cumbersome diplomatic operation could well prove unsustainable. "The notion that we necessarily need a full-blown permanent embassy in every location may well change," says Metcalfe. "But I think there will always be a need for people on the ground, talking to the local community and informing policy-making at home." In Baghdad, the FCO experimented with a "flat-pack" embassy, a prefabricated facility delivered in containers to be set up in 12 weeks. Ultimately, it proved to be too risky, but the concept could one day come to replace the full-blown ambassadorial system. Now that would be 21st-century.