Redolent of the geopolitical climate, embassy design has shifted to create symbols of protection as well as power
In 1983, the US embassy in Beirut was bombed, causing 63 deaths; the following year it was bombed again, killing 22. As well as ushering in a new age of diplomatic insecurity, these attacks also drastically altered embassy design. In their wake, the Inman Report proposed the urgent implementation of enhanced security measures and, as a result, the Americans adopted a bunker mentality, abandoning city-centre locations in favour of suburban exile and heavy fortification. Given the inclement climate, others followed suit.
This marked a stark retreat from the glamorous Modernism of embassies built during the Cold War, when states competed to project an open, forward-looking image, especially among the decolonising nations of the postwar order. This contest produced some impressive architecture as each sought to outdo the other with buildings emanating modernity and technological prowess. Among the more striking contributions from the Eastern Bloc can be counted examples such as the futuristic Czech embassies in Berlin and London (the Russians were generally more uptight). The Americans, for their part, erected lavish structures like the tropical Modernist compound by Sert in Baghdad and Neutra’s embassy in Karachi; there were also contributions from Gropius, Johansen, Bunshaft and Breuer. The US’s recent abandonment of the symbolic openness of these buildings reflects the failure of the more utopian aspects of the national liberation movements. The power that had built these images of democracy covertly worked to undermine the same principle – often from within these very buildings.
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The contradictory demands of security and representation encapsulate the dilemma of contemporary embassy builders. It is an intractable problem; a building that cowers hundreds of metres from the public behind walls – or, as with the US embassy in London, a moat – will fail to create any impression at all or, worse, spawn one of fear and disdain. This is a novel impasse, but the embassy has, since its inception as a type in the 19th century, always posed peculiar problems.
The modern institution of diplomacy began in the mid-15th century, when the Milanese sent permanent representatives to other Italian city states, but early missions were housed in extant buildings. These were typically located in palazzi or hôtels particuliers in the most rarefied districts. This choice was dictated by the social composition of early modern government: diplomats were aristocrats and, while abroad, they represented the monarch. Expected to be self-supporting, they gave themselves trappings according to the tastes of their class.
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The desire for accommodation adequate to noble station survived the bourgeois revolutions and the rise of the bureaucratic state, which had gradually arrogated the divine right from the body of the ruler to itself. In architectural terms, this status was conveyed with all the grandeur that could be afforded by columns; in legal terms, it was achieved by the doctrine of extraterritoriality. Embassies, then, are spaces of exception, little islands of ‘back home’. Many diplomats and their missions are still housed in grand townhouses today; perhaps the most lavish, and certainly the most architecturally significant, is the French embassy in Rome, located in the Palazzo Farnese. In London, the US ambassador resides in one of the largest private homes in the capital, Winfield House in Regent’s Park, a Hollywood Neo-Georgian mansion commissioned by American heiress Barbara Hutton.
There is a crucial distinction to be made here: diplomacy is usually carried out in several buildings. These include a residence in which the ambassador and their family live – this is, in part, a private, domestic space, but is also regularly used for receptions and so has a semi-public character. Meanwhile, the daily business of diplomacy is conducted in the chancery, which is in some ways indistinguishable from an office building. As it is often more prominently located than the residence, the chancery has a different representational function, which is carried through to internal spaces for receptions.
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Source: Michael Wilford & Partners
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It is also accessible to the general public for consular and visa services although, in some cases, the latter may occupy a separate building. The same may be the case for the cultural mission, which is frequently hived off to create the impression of a distinction between soft power and its opposite, and to allow the public freer access for language classes and lectures. This complex collection of functions was, at first, and is sometimes still, housed in the same large structure or compound – a situation that usually obtains today if the security of the host city is dubious, or if it was sparsely developed when the mission was established, thereby affording space for a more comprehensive structure. Finally, there are also consulates, which fulfil a similar function in cities outside the capital, as well as permanent missions to international bodies, such as the United Nations.
When the first purpose-built embassies were constructed in Constantinople in the early 19th century, the question of representation was already hanging in the air. The architectural discourse of industrialising countries was dominated by debates as to which style was adequate to the modern nation – a problem that was not left behind when these states travelled abroad. Indeed, it was complicated further by the encounter with foreignness. Constantinople was then the theatre of a struggle between the so-called great powers, which battled for influence on the declining, but still enormously powerful, Ottoman Empire. The architectural result of this contest was an ensemble of palazzi perched like vultures on Pera Hill overlooking the Sublime Porte.
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Source: Mary Evans / Grenville Collins Postcard Collection
As Jakob Hort remarks in his book Architektur der Diplomatie, these palatial structures paid little notice to their surroundings, importing instead their own domestic neoclassicisms: the Russians looked to the ‘rustic classicism’ of St Petersburg, the (rather hideous) French embassy imitated the buildings of the July Monarchy and that of the British resembled a Pall Mall clubhouse. From the outset, however, there was a debate about the propriety of employing a local or ‘European’ style. A syncretistic hybrid in wood had already been proposed by one French architect in the 1770s and, when the first German embassy to be built ex nihilo was completed a century later, the eagle-festooned palazzo was criticised by the German press for being unsympathetic to its ‘fairy-tale surroundings’. The ensuing history of ambassadorial architecture is littered with attempts to square this stylistic circle – which, in diplomatic terms, boils down to a question of Realpolitik: is one trying to impress one’s host with one’s own might or hoping, from a less certain position, to flatter by imitation?
Over the next 60 years, diplomacy was transformed by professionalisation and bureaucratisation as industrialised nations jostled for power – eventually with catastrophic effect. The results of these organisational developments can be read most clearly in the plan of Lutyens’ 1928 embassy in Washington DC. This inevitably whimsical building responds to the increasing professionalisation of the service with ingenuity. As numbers of mission staff increased, chanceries gradually departed the ambassadorial residence in search of more space; Lutyens endeavoured to hold together the two by uniting chancery and residence via a bridge housing the ambassadorial office. Generally, however, less holistic solutions were found in the erection of totally separate office buildings. The most impressive such ensemble is also located in Washington, where Eiermann’s 1964 German chancery – a building of great transparency that clearly aspires to throw off the weight of history – is overlooked by Ungers’ Neoclassical residence, built 30 years later. This Postmodern turn defers to the surroundings, but was much criticised at the time for its recidivism.
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This outrage can hardly have come as a surprise. The 20th-century conflicts echoed in these contortions were manifested in similar terms in the design of embassies at the time. Most bombastic of these is the frankly terrifying imperial German embassy in St Petersburg. Behrens’ 1913 building is characterised by its extremely simplified classicism, evincing what Stanford Anderson has referred to as a ‘chilling ossification of the column’. Atop the facade stood an enormous pair of youths leading horses, sculpted in the lumpen muscular mode later to be so popular with totalitarian regimes. The structure was deeply unpopular with its hosts and, when war was declared a year after its opening, the embassy was sacked. Its roof sculpture has not been seen since.
Post-war, the independence of former colonies led to a surge in embassy building and the search for a more conciliatory tone. In new capitals such as Brasília and New Delhi, there was space for large, new structures. These places also inspired (or, in the case of Brasília, requested) novel stylistic approaches, as older powers attempted to seduce unaligned hosts with advanced design and technology. The US got off to a plodding start, building a Tropical Modern Parthenon in Delhi that competes with the pompous imperialism of the British city; later they showed more élan, especially when compared with the Russians, who generally went for outrageous Stalinist kitsch, as in Helsinki, and only much later produced the tour de force of their towering (and overbearing) embassy in Havana of 1987. Perhaps most thrilling is Nervi’s Italian embassy in Brasília, where the Germans also make a strong showing, thanks to Scharoun; the British might have been contenders if they hadn’t messed the Smithsons around so much that their design for the same city never got built.
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Source: The Architectural Review
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Source: © FLC / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019
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Elsewhere, new or less powerful nations also conveyed soft power via sophisticated design, with striking results such as the Polish, Belgian and Finnish embassies in Delhi, Kuwait’s Tokyo embassy by Kenzō Tange (scheduled for demolition), China’s IM Pei-designed embassy in Washington DC, and the Danish embassies in London and DC by Jacobsen and Lauritzen respectively.
In recent years, no city has offered such a fiesta for embassy builders as Berlin – after reunification, it needed scores of diplomatic premises. Overall, the results were drearily disappointing but they intrigue from a typological perspective – they comprise a cacophony of attempts to manifest national character within the bounds of the city’s strict building regulations. There are appeals to past grandeur, as with Egypt’s lotus-topped columns, and imported vernacular materials, like India’s red sandstone. In this context, the overpraised British embassy by Michael Wilford seems an attempt to convey our self-satisfied self-image as a nation of eccentrics ever ready to burst forth from our uptight exterior – especially painful in the age of arch-buffoon Boris Johnson. Since Berlin, the UK’s embassy building programme has only gone downhill: when it isn’t actively selling off the estate, the straitened Foreign Office has generally opted for second-rate architecture. These buildings evince a power that is not so much soft as floppy.
Franco-German Embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh by SPA Design, 2017
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Source: Amit Pasricha
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The embassy is, like a knotted handkerchief on a crimson British head, an expression of nationhood abroad. It is unusual therefore – indeed, probably unique – to find two countries sharing the same purpose-built premises, as the French and Germans do in Dhaka. (The Nordic embassies in Berlin share a compound, but the chanceries of the various states occupy separate structures that are arranged according to a plan that roughly follows their geographical locations.) This situation is born out of the exceptionally close relations between the two countries following the Second World War, a bond cemented by the Élysée Treaty signed by West Germany and France in 1963. Stéphane Paumier – French by birth but operating mainly in India – expresses the building’s double occupancy with layers of red and grey brick arranged in an aspirational double spiral, which he describes as representing ‘the dynamic relationship of France and Germany as the political and economic engine of modern Europe’. Shared visa services occupy the ground floor while the tower contains the separate chanceries, which are set back from the road for security reasons. A lift shaft rises through the building in a faceted cocoon of steel and glass, the tip of which pokes through the roof Willy Wonka-style. The building’s unusual disposition has led BD to describe it as ‘the architectural opposite of Brexit’.
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Egyptian Embassy in Lisbon, Portugal by Promontorio, 2018
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Source: João Morgado
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The question of whether to emulate the architecture of one’s host country or to project an image of the domestic vernacular abroad is one that has occupied embassy builders since the inauguration of the type in the 19th century. One way this problem can be navigated is via the choice of architect: whether home grown or local. The British have a Lutyens Queen Anne house in Washington, for example, and the Japanese built a Kenzō Tange embassy in Mexico City – the Belgians, on the other hand, employed artist Satish Gujral to build their ancient-looking embassy in New Delhi. Materials can also be used to evoke home, as with the Saudi embassy complex in the same city – it is formed of a traditionally styled cluster of buildings in imported Riyadh stone. Ornament can serve the same purpose: the South African embassy in Addis Ababa is covered with a steel mesh screen, decorated with a huge image inspired by ancient rock art from the region. The new Egyptian embassy in Lisbon, designed by local practice Promontorio, takes a similar approach, albeit less ostentatiously. The two-storey concrete structure is embossed with a tessellated pattern, evocative of Islamic decoration. Within, the modestly scaled but impressively crafted building centres on an atrium clad in timber into which daylight filters through a patterned screen.
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Swiss Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya by Roeoesli & Maeder Architekten, 2018
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Source: iwan baan
Source: Fabio Idini
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Unsurprisingly for a nation that trades on its reputation for high-quality design, the Swiss are the most accomplished embassy builders of the current moment. Diener & Diener’s extension to the country’s old embassy in Berlin – one of the few examples of the type to survive the war there – is perhaps the most successful of the city’s post-1989 embassy structures. Local architecture’s more recent reworking of the embassy in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, is similarly attractive: with its implied columniation, floating podium and understated interior, the building seems lighter than air – despite being made of concrete. The entirely new embassy complex constructed by Roeoesli & Maeder in Nairobi, by contrast, is weighty indeed. The concrete here, which is dyed an earthy red, is thick enough to obviate the need for mechanical temperature control and the main building looks out onto the garden through heavily lidded eyes. The tone of the concrete makes the interiors feel warm and rich, but the way the structure develops from the inevitable perimeter wall reminds us that this is an inward-facing facility, its form determined by security and turning an uninteresting and seemingly uninterested blank rear towards the street. This prompts the question: surely more could be done, even in the face of heightened security risks, to incorporate such buildings into the cities they occupy?
United States Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon by Morphosis, Under construction
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The two bombings of the US embassy in Beirut led to the ongoing fortification of US diplomatic buildings worldwide, one of the largest of these being the facility currently under construction in Beirut to designs by Morphosis. The new 43-acre complex 10 miles outside the city is due to complete in 2023. Costing over US$1 billion dollars, the investment is being touted as a sign of US commitment to the future of the country. The client’s demand for intense security measures has necessitated a long, high perimeter wall; the architects have opted to partially sink the buildings, with their trademark undulating and kinked surfaces, into the landscape. The US Department of State chose the design, it said, because it ‘didn’t look like a fortress’; this reveals an awareness of the problem – but you can only do so much to disguise a massive concrete wall. As the architects put it: ‘Embassy architecture serves as a powerful symbol that provides an instantaneous and indelible impression of a country … A US embassy’s design expresses to the world the ideals of American democracy – the optimism, hope and promise of our time.’ For the majority of Lebanese, the most they will ever see of the embassy will be that wall.
Lead image: The extraterritorial nature of the embassy was thrown into stark relief by Julian Assange’s sojourn in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, which lasted for nearly seven years. Courtesy of Jack Taylor / Stringer / Getty Images
This piece is featured in the AR November issue on the Foreign + Emerging Architecture – click here to purchase your copy today