Book review: Room for Diplomacy: Britain’s Diplomatic Buildings 1800-2000

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Room for Diplomacy:
Britain’s Diplomatic Buildings Overseas 1800-2000
Mark Bertram (Spire Books, £45, *£42.75)

This is a book we have long been waiting for. The UK has an astonishing variety of buildings in foreign and Commonwealth countries the ‘overseas estate’-some old and historically fascinating, and many specially commissioned, but it has always been difficult to find out anything about them
-until now. This book is a comprehensive architectural history of Britain’s embassies, chanceries and legations abroad, and has the huge merit of explaining the workings of the diplomatic service, the precise role of ambassadors, consuls and so on. The author, Mark Bertram, is well equipped to do this, being an architect who has worked for the former Ministry of Public Building and Works and for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The story is as much political as architectural, chiefly the long running battle between the Office of Works, responsible for maintaining, repairing and building embassies, and the Treasury, always determined to economise even at the expense of national prestige. Indeed, as the author notes, it is surprising that there was hardly any debate in the 19th century about the role of architecture in creating a working symbol of British identity and power. Once, embassies abroad were maintained by aristocrats, who leased a suitably grand house and paid for the whole operation themselves.

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The tradition was maintained in part by the Duke of Wellington when, in 1814, he persuaded the government to purchase Pauline Borghese’s hôtel particulier in Paris. This remains our grandest embassy and it is cheering that it’s still in use, as are our 19th-century ones in Cairo and Vienna (the second grandest, the Thun palace in Prague, was acquired in 1926).

Curiously, our first purpose-built embassy was in Constantinople, begun by Lord Elgin (he of the Marbles) in 1802. After the building was destroyed by fire, it was rebuilt in the 1840s as a much grander palazzo, reminiscent of the Reform Club by the architect W. J. Smith. Despite another fire, and a terrorist bomb in 2003, this splendid building remains our consulate in Istanbul. Other remarkable embassies include the one in Kabul, designed by Basil Sullivan in 1924-27, which Lord Curzon wanted to be the finest house in Asia (and which we foolishly gave to Pakistan in the 1990s).

A few embassies were designed by distinguished outside architects, notably Washington by Edwin Lutyens and the Rome chancery by Basil Spence (the author also recounts the fiasco of unbuilt Brasilia and the self-obsessed Smithsons, who would complain that ‘Michelangelo was never so messed up by his Pope’). Most were done in-house by the Office of Works. Some in the early 20th century were very good, such as those by Thrift Reavell (a new name to me) in Sofia and Belgrade, and the embassy in Stockholm by Richard Allison-although the ambassador complained that ‘he only calculated for dinner parties of sixteen, a sadly bourgeois conception of the requirements of a Stockholm dining-room’.

The last embassy built in the tradition of noblemen’s palaces was in Rio de Janiero, ‘perhaps the largest white elephant in the history of the British diplomatic estate’, completed just before the capital moved to Brasilia. After that came a bleak period when the reality of Britain’s declining power resulted in feeble and mediocre attempts at modernity. As Lord Carrington remarked of one such, in Canberra, ‘the interior looked like a bad parody of a tourist-class lounge in a P&O liner’. Since then, some good modern embassies have been built, notably that in Berlin by Michael Wilford.
Today, the insistent need for economy leads to demands for our larger and older embassies to be replaced by ones more in keeping with Britain’s post-imperial status. But, if we are still to have some influence in the world, dignified and civilised architecture surely still has a role to play. One complaint: this admirable book needs many more illustrations.