First review: Tony Fretton's Warsaw British Embassy
Tony Fretton’s new British Embassy in Warsaw, revised to take into account increased security concerns, is a declaration of what an early 21st century embassy can be, reports Ellis Woodman
For the better part of two decades, Tony Fretton has enjoyed an international reputation as considerable as that of any British architect of his generation, but it is only quite recently that he has begun to secure commissions of a scale commensurate with that standing. The new British embassy in Warsaw is in fact only the second major public building that his practice has completed to date, the other being the Stirling Prize-nominated Fuglsang Museum in Denmark.
Binding the structures and spaces of its immediate environment into a legible if “difficult” whole, the Danish building suggests a clear line of descent from seminal Fretton projects such as the 1992 Lisson Gallery. While the same could be said for the scheme with which the architect won the 2003 embassy competition, the building former Polish president Lech Walesa opened last Friday is a quite different project and one that, in key respects, represents a departure from the qualities of Fretton’s past work.
During the years of the cold war, Britain established a very significant presence in Warsaw, maintaining two administrative facilities in rented accommodation and, in 1964, constructing a palatial ambassadorial residence to designs by Eric Bedford of Post Office Tower fame. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was decided that the Bedford building should be demolished, and a downsized embassy and residence constructed in its place.
A number of the competition entrants proposed housing these facilities in a single structure but Fretton envisaged them as an ensemble of two very different buildings — the embassy being a fully glazed block of a strongly Miesian flavour, while the residence presented a more figurative, indeed classical expression, not dissimilar to that of the architect’s 2001 Red House. Together, they would frame a new forecourt and garden while deftly drawing the neighbouring building — the early 20th century villa that houses the Swedish embassy — and the wider setting of multi-storey street facades into an inclusive composition.
Having won the competition in April 2003, Fretton’s practice developed the project to a high level of resolution over the next seven months. On November 20 that year, however, 30 people were killed and more than 400 wounded when al-Qaida-linked suicide bombers launched twin attacks on the British consulate and HSBC headquarters in Istanbul. Following a reassessment of the Warsaw scheme’s security requirements, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office reached the difficult conclusion that the site allowed an insufficient stand-off distance from the road to guard against the threat of a car bomb attack.
Fortunately, in the late nineties Warsaw had designated an area of the 76ha Lazienki Park as a site in which new embassies could be constructed. It was decided that the project should be relocated here, to a plot that offered a 30m stand-off from the road, and which was framed to either side by the new Spanish and Dutch embassies. Fretton was retained to develop a new design, but the change undoubtedly came at some cost to the scheme’s architectural potential. For one thing, the brief had shrunk. The plan now was that the ambassador would keep his old residence, restricting Fretton’s task to the design of a new embassy building — a type that, for all the symbolism it is expected to bear, is essentially an office block.
The complexity of the urban setting was also much reduced. Resembling a fortified business park, the embassy district is not without architectural incident — the Dutch building is a particularly ripe concoction by Erick van Egeraat — but, at root, this is a zone of enclosed compounds built over a short period of time and quite disconnected from the culture of the city. Considering how Fretton’s past work has always sought to reach beyond its given site to engage the complexities of a wider territory, one can surmise that the formal and social vacuity of the project’s new location must have presented itself to him as a particular challenge.
If so, it is one that he has met head on. This was always going to be a project of problematic self-containment, but Fretton has gone a long way to turning that condition to the project’s advantage. Perfectly symmetrical, formally reduced and detailed with bracing tectonic rigour it is a building of near-classical purity. One will look in vain for the kind of regional reference that informed a project like Richard Murphy Architects’ recent British High Commission in Sri Lanka, while in so far as it offers an expression of our own national identity the building does so without recourse to imagery of a clunkily symbolic nature. What we are left with is a project of a vividly archetypal character, a declaration of what an early 21st century embassy should — or at least can — be.
I say “can” because the building is of course profoundly determined by security constraints. The threat of attack has dictated not only its siting but also the adoption of a circulation system that it is a good deal more constipated than any architect would wish for and a structure of a mass capable of withstanding the effects of an explosion. The building’s principal achievement lies in the effectiveness with which it circumnavigates the fortress-like expression that this last constraint would seem to imply. It manages this through the use of a highly sophisticated double external wall assembly. The chunky inner layer is in-situ concrete, punctured by openings fitted with blast resistant double-glazing and faced externally in insulation and bronze-anodised aluminium panels.
This, however, is veiled by the sacrificial — and therefore much more finely detailed — outer wall which is set just over a metre in front and comprises a sheer plane of toughened glass, supported on a grid of slender, bronze-annodised aluminium frames.
The outer wall’s role is in part an environmental one: closing the louvres that have been fitted at parapet level during the winter months allows a blanket of warm air to be maintained in the cavity between the two walls while opening them in summer allows a stream of cool air to be drawn across the inner facade. However, the wall’s aesthetic contribution is just as significant. While the insistent horizontal module of its grid corresponds to that of the columns behind, the extremely tall panes of glass from which it is composed establish an image that is both grander and less forbidding than might otherwise have been achieved.
Although the building’s compact, rectangular footprint allows this treatment to be rolled out with ease, the facades are not entirely unmodulated. At second floor level, the building reduces in volume, establishing a pair of roof terraces to either side of a centrally located pavilion — a gesture that lifts the long principal facade out of a straightforwardly serial expression and imbues it with a sense of active symmetry. The vertical module of the outer skin compresses slightly in response to the fact that the floor-to-ceiling heights of the two pavilion levels are less generous than those below.
If we look closely we can also make out the pattern of fenestration behind. Here too, we find a diminution in the size of the openings as they rise up the facade: those serving the ground-level public spaces extend all the way to the floor; those on the two office floors above rise from a desk-height cill; while the uppermost level, which is given over to plant, takes the form of a blank attic storey. The particularly eagle-eyed will notice that the width of the columns reduces incrementally from storey to storey. Taken together, these refinements invest the composition with a subtle but potent classical aura.
All this is visible to us from the street, the security fence having been elegantly detailed in closely spaced bronze powder-coated verticals. So too is the large garden which provides the necessary stand-off distance from the road. It features a number of mature trees, the reflections of which appear particularly vividly on the facade — a consequence of the specification of a solar-reflective glass. The set-back may have been a given, but the architect has put it to good use. As at Fuglsang, the building and the territory it frames are very much of a piece, the laconic architectural expression serving to charge the outdoor space with significance.
The architect originally intended that the double wall assembly would extend around all four sides of the building. This made perfect sense as what is nominally the back of the embassy is actually highly visible from the park; indeed it is here that the entrance for visa applicants is sited. Unfortunately, the bad luck that seems to have dogged the project put paid to this idea. When the pound fell in relation to the Polish zloty, Fretton was obliged to undertake major cost cuts, the most significant of which was the sacrifice of the double wall along the full length of this elevation. He has rolled with the punches, producing something that lacks the glamour of the other facades but is not without its own weird and rather compelling character. This elevation is, in effect, the inner wall laid bare, although its exposed aluminium surfaces have actually been subjected to a level of modelling that is elsewhere absent. The large panels are rolled with substantial radiused corners and are separated by unusually wide joints, producing the curious impression of a rusticated stone facade that has been translated into a panellised technology.
It goes without saying that the dour, rather hostile countenance of this elevation represents just the kind of effect that the architect has elsewhere devoted so much energy to mitigating. Fretton would doubtless have wished for a different outcome but he is to be applauded for securing something of conviction out of highly testing circumstances.
Let’s go in. Keeping the view of the principal facade clear has required the gatehouse to be shuffled to one side. Passing through it, we find ourselves looking down the length of the main elevation. The vertical capping elements on the building’s outer wall project 100mm proud of the glass with the effect that what a moment ago appeared as a strikingly transparent surface is now presented as an opaque screen of perspectivally receding aluminium fins. A freestanding porte cochère awaits us, midway down the elevation’s length. While faced in a plum-coloured marble and scaled to allow dignitaries to be dropped off by car it is clearly a close cousin of the more modest but similarly table-like canopy at Fuglsang. As there, it offers a figurative articulation to the front door and an easy method of reorienting the visitor’s approach through 90 degrees.
On entering, we find that marble has again been used to wrap the central core, while the other walls within the public areas have been faced in American walnut. The combination of these highly figured surfaces carries a strong — indeed, to my mind, frustratingly unprocessed — association with late period Mies. As in that work, they are employed to communicate a sense of sophistication and prestige and do so very effectively. However, this is by no means a profligate building. The ground floor reception area and café are decent but pretty generic spaces. What they have going for them is principally a generous 4m head height, a close relationship to the garden and a freedom from columns. These are all good qualities but I was still left longing for the suite of fully designed interiors that the budgetary difficulities seem to have prevented these spaces from becoming.
What I can say about the other floors is rather less than I would like as access to significant areas, including the ambassador’s office, was denied on security grounds. I can, however, report that the principal office space on the first floor is a real triumph. Unlike the embassy’s former accommodation it is largely open plan and where partitions have been required they are in glass. This allows views across the relatively narrow plan towards the foliage of the trees that surround the embassy on all sides. The presence of nature is apparent not only around the building but within it.
To either side of the plan a small planted courtyard has been introduced, glazed all around in the manner of a Jacobsen vitrine. They are capped by glass roofs, thus protecting the plants from the effects of the Polish winter, not least the build-up of snow. While these courtyards are inaccessible, the office staff do have the use of one of the planted roof terraces above — the other is the private domain of the ambassador — a space that lends itself equally well to meetings and lunch breaks.
This is, therefore, a building of multiple gardens — the one that surrounds the embassy, the two glazed courtyards and the roof terraces above. In a project that stops shy of employing explicit symbolism, their presence sends a powerful message about the kind of relationship that Britain wants to forge with the wider world. In the face of an increasing level of threat to our national security, this is a building that speaks boldly of a commitment to a culture of openness and dialogue.
Architect Tony Fretton Architects, Executive Architect Epstein, Structural, services and acoustic engineer Buro Happold, Quantity surveyor Arcadis, Specialist security consultant David Goode & Associates, Landscape Architect Schoenaich Landscape Architects, Design and build contractor Mace