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Diplomatic Niceties

Building Design, 8 December 1989

by Clare Melhuish

'The Foreign & Commonwealth Office's choice of such a young and relatively unknown practice for the design of the new British High Commission in Nairobi, Kenya, has been noted with general approval.

'Hugh Cullum & Richard Nightingale Architects hope to maintain the attention to detail which has characterised their work - mainly domestic - until now, despite the massive increase of scale which the job presents.

'For all three practices, however, the complexity of the brief, embracing a multiplicity of functions, elaborate security precautions, and an appropriate "presence", posed a challenge.

'Troughton McAslan and Denton Scott Associates expressed their disappointment at missing selection for such a rare commission. The Foreign Office, however stuffy, makes an uplifting client after the endless business park and retail developers - even the odd Oxbridge College - which most architects have to put up with.

'The three schemes are interestingly dissimilar. While Cullum & Nightingale have opted for a single, identifiable building set inits own grounds, the others interpreted the brief, in contrasting terms, as more of a complex. They felt the different departments of the commission, notably the chancery, consular, commercial and BDDEA (British Development Division for East Africa), which each operated independently, required separate identities.

'But Cullum & Nightingale decided it was more important to generate a sense of the building as the home of a single organisation, with a degree of individual identity for the component departments. Hence their elegant north-south facing structure has a deceptive simplicity, while the other schemes, despite the formality of Troughton McAslan's ordered pavilions, appear more institutional, begging the question of signage.

'Cullum & Nightingale's building - in red and grey stone, with copper roof, and bronze window panels - sits across the site looking over Nairobi. The city is framed through an open portico forming the central pin of the plan, two main entrances within it opening into semi-public halls inside. These spaces play a crucial role in giving the building a sense of unity and appropriate dignity, if not actually magnificence. The east-west spine which holds the plans together leads through these halls.

'The heirarchy of the planning is achieved by "concentrating on selected spaces" and through the natural slope of the site which allows different departments to be disposed on different levels, with segregated circulation.

'The garden façade of the building has a recessed colonnade, providing a shaded walk, part internal, part external, in the nature of the country. In contrast, a formal rose garden to the rear and circular lawn to the front, overlooked by the clubhouse, provided a very "English", almost suburban, feel. The architects were conscious that the new building "should be a showcase for British architecture", but rather than make a display of "structural gymnastics" advertising British technical expertise and imagination, they have adopted a more restrained approach reflecting traditional standards of gentlemanly courtesy.'