11 July 2018

What should an embassy say about the country and culture it represents? Greg Noone talks to architects behind new designs in London, New Delhi and Lisbon to discover how they balance national representation with security and aesthetics.

The roots of the word ‘embassy’ provide us with a capsule history of diplomacy. Its most distant relation is the Gaulish word ambactos, meaning dependent or vassal – a relic from a period when stable diplomatic relations were just an interval between conquering or being conquered. The word later acquired a more formal tone in the Latin ambactia, denoting a service rendered. Its final incarnation, in use before the beginning of permanent relations between countries, was the Old Provençal ambaissa, which translates as ‘message.’

So, what message is sent by the new US embassy in London, UK? Standing at the centre of a small garden with a pond on one side, the structure appears as a vast cube, hovering slightly off the ground and above the airs and cares of the local neighbourhood. Squint, and the white polymer scrims overlaying the shimmer of the glass beneath make it seem like the complex could float away at any moment.

Look again, and light reflected from the windows may as well be the glint of armour. The pond below is, for all intent, a moat, and the garden, while open to the public, is a maze of vehicle traps hidden underneath bushes, benches and yucca trees. Behind the windows – laminated and 6in thick – lies enough room for a hospital designed to treat foreign service officers from across Europe, and a barracks for 21 heavily armed marines. This is an embassy, yes, but also a keep walled by a ring of luxury towers, with its back to the river.

Security is everything

All of these features spring from grim necessity. Militant extremists have considered the US’s embassies as targets since 1983, when a suicide bomber killed more than 60 staff at the diplomatic mission in Beirut, Lebanon. New specifications were subsequently imposed on chanceries and consulates to bolster their defences against armed assaults.

As the War on Terror kicked into high gear in the mid-2000s, the embassy buildings that were built often resembled little more than bunkers. It was in reaction to designs – like the US mission in Baghdad that was famously described as resembling an ‘imperial mother ship’ dropping into the Iraqi capital – that led to a series of striking commissions in Brazil’s federal capital Brasilia, Mexico City and Beirut, which have attempted to make the best out of a fraught security situation for foreign service officers. Partner and founder of KieranTimberlake, James Timberlake’s design for the US embassy follows in this vein.

“The decision to pursue an allglass building obviously presented some issues, in terms of security resistance,” he explains. “It also afforded us an opportunity to really create great workplace environments – ones that were quite healthy and adaptable.”

Originally conceived at the tailend of the Bush administration, the new embassy pays homage to the burgeoning environmental activism of the late 2000s. A small field of solar panels are fixed to the roof, while the scrim sails covering three sides of the building were originally intended to contain photovoltaic cells that proved too difficult to include.

“This building had to lead the representation of American architecture and environmental response,” says Timberlake. “Those two things really had to fit hand in glove, that this building was not only a diplomat of the environment, but it was an environment for diplomacy.”

The mutability of the space was also a factor that weighed heavily on the architect’s mind. “These programmes are not static,” he states. “They evolve over time, depending on diplomatic needs and the needs of the government. And many embassies around the world, whether they’re built for the US or other countries, are often quite specific arrangements of spaces that are not mutable. Often, they are outgrown by the embassy’s mission.”

This, Timberlake considers, is symptomatic of our modern desire for embassies to play the role of ambassador. “They are obviously the visitor’s and the host nation’s first invitations to our country, in a way,” he adds. “They are packed with diplomatic freight in many ways, symbolically and programmatically.”

This building had to lead the representation of American architecture and environmental response... Those two things really had to fit hand in glove.”
– James Timberlake, KieranTimberlake

The guest

Continuity is also a theme that preoccupies Chang-Hyun Kim. Born in South Korea, he made his name as an architect in India, serving for a few years in the offices of famed Pritzker Prizewinner Balkrishna Doshi. “I was very much fascinated with Indian architecture,” he recalls. “I fell in love with Indian modern masters.”

In 2005, Kim co-founded AA Studio Consulting, where he is principal architect and managing director. The business aims to produce designs ‘based on the Asian cultural milieu’.

After several years of working closely with South Korean corporations on new developments across India, the firm was hired to design an annex for the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in New Delhi, India. Beforehand, it was suggested that part of the existing structures be demolished to make way for the extension. Kim argued vehemently for an alternative.

“I spoke to them [and said] these were part of our modern heritage,” he explains. “We should find a way to preserve the existing building, extend it and then show the time gap in architecture.”

Kim’s annex hews as closely as possible to the spirit of the original embassy, which was designed by the late Korean modernist architect Kim Swoo Geun and completed in 1974. The building retains the same earthy tones on its exterior facade, as well as the short red sandstone walls that flank the pathways into the building. Even so, Kim says, “I didn’t want to accept the same existing architectural style thatis very solid and then very dark.”

More importantly, he felt that the original design was not doing enough to protect staff in the complex from the harsh Indian summers. “Here in New Delhi, the strongest sun of the year is 47–48°C,” he adds. Kim responded by placing metal louvres on the facade to lower interior temperatures by more than 10°C, while guaranteeing an abundance of natural light for those inside. “I wanted to give [staff] the proper working environment,” the architect emphasises.

Indeed, the louvres – arranged in vertical and horizontal formations – are an homage to Korean traditional windows and Indian jalis – or sunscreens – placed underneath an unmistakably flat and angular roof line. Even details as small as the staircase reflect his desire for the annex to blend the architectural traditions of guest and host nations as much as possible. “It is 100% handmade,” Kim explains, adding that India’s labour costs are also much more affordable than Korea’s.

Bringing Egypt to Portugal

An embassy is a place of work for diplomatic staff, but it is also an enclave. The newly completed Egyptian embassy in Lisbon, Portugal, trades heavily on this principle. At 1,359m², it is much smaller than its US and South Korean counterparts. Indeed, the casual observer might find it hard to distinguish the building, with its flat roof, nested French windows and patterned grey facade, from many of the other houses in the neighbourhood. That is precisely the point, says Paulo Martins Barata, a partner at Promontorio, which won a competition to design the mission in 2010.

“When, as a citizen abroad, you visit your embassy, you are legally and symbolically entering your country,” he explains. “Our greatest wish would be that Egyptian people identify themselves with the building and take ownership. We would like them to feel at home in Lisbon, so to speak. So, while there is no pastiche or collage of Egyptian architecture [in the embassy], we would like to think that a certain light and gravitas of the building conveys the ethos of this time-honoured architectural culture.”

Indeed, the evocations of Egyptian national identity in the building are remarkably subtle: geometric motifs in the walls, the concrete facade precast in anthracite and the stereotomic shape of the building call back, however distantly, to the country’s ancient past. This is subtly complemented by the simplicity of the interior design, witness to a dance of light and shadow, thanks to the building’s wide windows and a patterned-Islamic screen draped over a skylight in the atrium.

“Our design is obviously influenced by a tectonic tradition,” states Barata. “An articulation of post-andlintel elements, evocative of heavy stereotomics, is combined to create a cohesive identity. The building plays on this ambiguous condition of being solemn and compact from the outside, but very light and transparent from the inside.”

Despite its small size, the embassy is also built to last. “The building industry, as a whole, seems to have a programmed agenda of untimely obsolescence,” says Barata. “Unlike Saarinen’s mythical embassies that – were it not for security issues – would remain perfect for another 50 or 100 years, we witness the construction of buildings that need in-depth repair after less than a decade of service. So for us, this idea of ‘designing to last’ is really an ethical premise that has a bearing on the overall design.”

This has been a greater priority in the design process than enhancing security which, while an important factor given the number of visitors streaming in and out of the complex each day, has not posed as much of a problem as it might do in a larger commission.

“I remember a discussion with [the architect] Tony Fretton, apropos to the British Embassy competition he had just won for Prague, and how maddening the whole thing was,” adds Barata. In the end, it was the municipality rules on height, setbacks and the need to preserve the privacy of residential neighbours that proved more influential.

That might be just as well; it is easy to imagine this small embassy, striking in its own way without asserting itself, becoming a fixture of the local area over time. Indeed, a successful embassy design will, says Barata, engage on not only a national level, but also a local one. “It needs to be part of the city and the neighbourhood where it stands, but it also has to be able to convey a symbolic dimension to the nationals it represents – as intangible as this may be,” he concludes.

Whatever the country, time or place, the medium is the message, writ large in concrete, steel and glass.

The US embassy’s all-glass building posed a number of security challenges.
The Egyptian embassy’s design is a subtle nod to the country’s vast history.
Kim’s annex honoured the South Korean embassy’s original structure.

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