With an emphasis on local context in material choice and ornamentation, Michael Wilford designs with the ever present matters of security still in mind. Photography by Dennis Gilbert
Michael Wilford worked with James Stirling for 32 years. Joining as his first full-time assistant in 1960 while still a student, their later partnership stretched from 1972 until the elder man’s death two decades later. This month, Tate Britain welcomes visitors to the pair’s Clore Gallery for the London leg of James Stirling: Notes from the Archive, the retrospective unveiled at the Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal at the end of last year (AR December 2010).
While elsewhere contributors reflect on Big Jim’s legacy, here we take a first look at the latest of the many subsequent projects from the partnership’s other half: the British Embassy in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, completed by Wilford last November.
As the architect explains, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s brief for this new diplomatic outpost was similar to the one given for his design of the British Embassy in Berlin, which opened to millennial fanfare in 2000: ‘They wanted a building that was welcoming and represented Britain, but they also needed it to be secure.’
Although it is less grand than the practice’s high-profile addition to post-unification Germany, the project nevertheless reflects - alongside Tony Fretton’s British Embassy in Warsaw (AR March 2010) - a real effort by the British Government in recent, more fiscally flush years, to manifest itself on this important interface between the West and the former Soviet states. But as Wilford explains, there were more prosaic reasons for the move: ‘The Embassy was previously camping in a hotel, and it was not suitable in terms of security.’
Security has, of course, played a hugely important role in the project’s development (the city was invaded by Russia during construction). Though sitting on a charming east-facing slope of the Krtsanisi Hills - with expansive views across the Kura Valley and north over the city itself – the site is inherently vulnerable to attack from its three road-facing sides. These factors have dictated a bomb-blast security perimeter, which has given the building its position and dimensions.
The fourth side is contiguous with a plot that is likely to become another embassy in what would be a small diplomatic quarter. The building is composed of two parts: a stacked stone plinth contains the embassy, atop of which sits a golden-hued perforated enclosure for the ambassador’s residence. This integration of the domestic and the diplomatic programmes is highly unusual - ambassadors don’t usually live ‘above shop’- and Wilford was keen that this unique arrangement should be expressed.
‘Externally the embassy is all surfaced with basalt stone, which is used for the pavements and building plinths in Tbilisi, but the residence had to be distinguished from this,’ says Wilford. ‘There is a regional tradition of screening large terraces on houses with elaborate timber panels, and we decided to envelop the whole residence with this patterned treatment, to give it a regal appearance.’ For durability the screen is made from metal, and it can fold back around windows to clear privileged stately views for the occupants. Internally, it is a well-ordered, simple plan.
All the ceremonial, social and office spaces are aligned around a central atrium, which has a large staircase set on a diagonal. This takes you up to the oak-panelled piano nobile, where there are two cafeterias and a conference room, separated by glazed doors that can slide away to create a large space for receptions. At either end, doors open on to cross-axial terraces.
While the ambassador’s residence is connected to the embassy (through a minuscule lift), it is oriented in the opposite direction with its entrance to the rear. Even though the residence is not as salubrious as other ambassador’s pads - Paris, say - it offers handsome accommodation, a private study, and, from the private west-facing balcony in particular, spectacular views across the city and beyond.
As Wilford reflected in the AR special issue published shortly after Stirling’s death (AR December 1992): ‘Our constant objective has been to enhance the life and work of the people who experience our buildings – to stimulate, to invigorate, to relax, to offer variety and choice.’ The British Embassy in Tbilisi is a solo rendition that expands and evolves the decades-long dialogue between the two partners; a building that departs from and returns to these shared architectural pursuits. It is a testament to Wilford’s continuing abilities to deliver dignified and surprising public buildings; and, likely as not, a memorial to the last phase of British Embassy building, before all the money ran out.
Architect Wilford Schupp, Architekten, Stuttgart
Structural Engineers Boll and Partners, TPS
Services Engineers JMP, Ramboll UK
Associate Architects Gluck + Jetter