Tony Fretton creates a restrained and refined, high quality office space to house the British Embassy in Poland. Photography by Christian Richters
‘There is a first time for everything,’ says British architect Tony Fretton when discussing his latest ‘first’ - the new British embassy in Warsaw. In perishingly cold conditions, he goes on to describe how, for his practice, ‘each key building has been a first-time experience’. London’s much admired Lisson Gallery (AR October 1992) was Fretton’s first contemporary art space, followed at steady nine-year intervals by his first large private dwelling, Red House in Chelsea, London, and his first public museum, the Stirling Prize shortlisted Fuglsang Kunstmuseum, in Lolland, Denmark (AR June 2008). Strictly speaking, however, this is the firm’s second embassy design.
The first (unbuilt) design has already been recorded in the November 2004 edition of The Architectural Review, a year after Fretton’s team won the invited competition that saw his design selected over those by David Chipperfield and David Adjaye, as well as Benson + Forsyth, Denton Corker Marshall and Sarah Hare.
Re-reading the AR account suggests, on first impressions at least, that the embassy is much the same, with its distinctively symmetrical silhouette and sleek mullioned facade contributing to a pedigree that, as Fretton described at the time, traced its lineage from the Uffizi gallery in Florence to the Seagram Building in New York, via SOM.
Six years later, walking around the completed building, Fretton reasserts these references, stating how the Uffizi (Vasari’s 16th-century government building for the Medicis) presented one of the first examples of how an office building could make a significant contribution to the city, and how time spent working for SOM cemented his admiration for the office buildings of Mies van der Rohe.
Despite the sustained pertinence of these precedents and the striking resemblance between the 2004 design models and the finished building, however, it is clear that the situation of the embassy today is entirely different to that originally proposed; different in terms of its place in the city and in terms of how its architectural expression reflects its new context.
Following the 2003 terrorist attack on the British consulate in Istanbul, in which 32 people died, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office radically rethought its building programme. As a result, Fretton’s scheme would no longer include the ambassador’s house - which was to be a development of Red House, conceived as a detached villa, cranked and set back from the embassy to create the sort of spatial and formal eccentricity that characterises Fretton’s best work.
Instead, a fortified, reduced and re-planned embassy - ‘basically a standalone administrative building’ - was relegated to a less interesting diplomatic enclave absent of the urban ‘incidents’ that typically inspire Fretton’s work. Out of his hands, these changes were simply not up for negotiation and Fretton acted accordingly, displacing his original design with apparently little change in expression. Having been on hold and facing the prospect of losing this commission, his team must have been relieved that at least part of their original scheme could be salvaged and as such, when work resumed they continued their typological investigation into ‘refined office as embassy’.
In its new, more remote setting, however, surrounded by other stricken buildings, the subtle urban nuances that held such potential in the original scheme turned out to be non-transferable assets. Set in solemn isolation, on a remote and featureless diplomatic business park - a non-place where one-way traffic and the occasional pedestrian are kept at a safe distance from so-called public buildings - it would have been inconceivable for Fretton to adopt the sort of theatricality exhibited by Erik van Egeraat’s neighbouring Dutch embassy.
‘Instead, in this bleak context, Fretton compounded minimalism, choosing to make his building even more restrained, refining it with moves that amplify its already overt Miesian character’
The first was to push the previously set-back attic to the face of the building, to place more emphasis on the beautifully proportioned and detailed glass envelope that cloaks three of four elevations. This not only simplified the building’s silhouette, strengthening its symmetrical axis around a new central entrance, but also, to use Fretton’s term, rendered it even more ‘stately’ than before. It is undeniable that the building now possesses an impressive sense of grandeur, however, as is all too quickly revealed upon entering, this splendour is really only skin deep.
As part of the new brief, the internal accommodation had to be simplified and re-planned, not only in response to ongoing advice from the client’s security consultants, but also (you suspect) as a reflection of the sort of delivery mechanisms that favour solutions that could easily revert to commercial use. Space was rearranged around a more conventional protected core at the centre of the plan. Distant and remote from the foyer, in defensive retreat, the core provides an efficient but somewhat utilitarian circulation route that lacks any of the spatial delight that a guest of the ambassador might expect.
This outcome was once again out of Fretton’s hands as, given the opportunity, he would almost certainly have orchestrated a more lyrical route, as detailed on his original plans. This, however, reflects the general mood of the embassy’s interiors, which lack any meaningful sense of spatial hierarchy in either plan or section, the only exception being on the ground floor, where a retractable wall allows function room and foyer to combine to create the scale of space that might be expected in a building of this stature.
Elsewhere, the building feels and functions like a high-end commercial office, albeit grossly underpopulated. And it is of these spaces and their relationship to the skin of the building that Fretton says he is most proud. Providing space for just 80 people, the generosity, quality and efficiency of the offices was of paramount importance, which, when coupled with the environmental demands of Poland’s relatively extreme climate, (temperatures typically range from -20°C to 35°C) led to a series of highly serviced spaces, with deep dropped ceilings, chilled beams and raised floors - none of which integrate well with fully glazed facades.
‘It is here that the double-skin facade makes its principle contribution, effectively enabling Fretton to decouple the fenestration so that massive internal walls can provide structural and environmental resistance to terrorist or climatic attack, behind a more elegant sacrificial screen that forms the embassy’s mesmeric glass wall’
On leaving the building, the taxi drives past Fretton’s original site, which is still occupied by Eric Bedford’s palatial ambassadorial residence. Built in 1964, complete with swimming pool and generous reception rooms that overlook the Polish prime minister’s Palladian house, as Fretton cautiously suggests, the decision to choose a different site may also have represented a reluctance among key individuals to give up such a fine home.
Stepping out of the car, the difference between the two places is palpable and, mentally transferring Fretton’s completed building back onto this site, it is easy to imagine what that building would have been like in this place, not only reflecting the blue sky, but also the constituents of a far richer civic context. Even without the residence, Fretton’s more fortified scheme would have been much better here, and getting back in the taxi to discuss this observation brings back fond memories of the original scheme. ‘I know I know. You’re right,’ he playfully and dramatically laments. ‘Stop, stop. You’re breaking my heart’.
Architect Tony Fretton Architects
Structural, services and acoustic engineer Buro Happold
Quantity surveyor Arcadis
Planning supervisor and breeam consultant TPS
Main contractor Mace
British Embassy by Tony Fretton Architects, Warsaw, Poland