Englishmen Abroad

Englishmen Abroad – British Embassy in Moscow, Russia

Ahrends Burton

BRITISH EMBASSY, Moscow, RUSSIA

Occupying a prominent site in central Moscow, the new British Embassy is a multi-layered complex of different public and private functions unified by thoughtful space and placemaking and considered use of materials.

A new building by Ahrends, Burton & Koralek is a significant event. For 40 years. ABK has been producing innovative, inventive and memorable modern buildings, eschewing passing fads in search of a contextual Modernism underwritten by a strong sense of social and environmental purpose. The recent completion of ABK’s British Embassy in Moscow is a particular cause for celebration. Indeed it seems slightly extraordinary that such a bunch of radicals (for all the advancing years of Messrs Ahrends, Burton and Koralek themselves) should be selected to present the public face of the British state in one of the key diplomatic postings in the world (beating off competition from Norman Foster and Arup Associates). Yet the commission reflects a new resolve on the part of the Foreign Office (reflected equally in new embassies for Berlin and Dublin, AR April 1996) to improve the architectural image of Britain abroad.

Even more surprising is the fact that the commission came to ABK in 1988, in the immediate aftermath of the National Gallery debacle and at the height of Thatcherism. The basic diagram of the first scheme for the site on Smolenskaya Embankment is still recognizable in the completed building, but the priorities in the ’80s were still security and secrecy — the embassy as then was conceived and focused on an enclosed central atrium. The redesign, begun in 1992 (the building started on site in 1996 and remains a product of the Tory era) has halved the cost and produced something altogether more varied, open and welcoming.

For 70 years, British diplomats worked from the opulent surroundings of the Kharitonenko Mansion, a former aristocratic palace close to the Kremlin, which was ceded to Britain in 1931. This housed both the ambassadorial residence and the chancery, with staff working in very overcrowded conditions. The Smolenskaya site was earmarked as early as the 1960s. Even in the 1990s, with the Cold War over, building in Moscow involved tortuous planning negotiations during which Richard Burton’s Russian roots proved useful.

The site had been a timber market, a memory of the days when Moscow — unlike westernized St Petersburg — was a city built largely of wood. On either side stood monumental apartment blocks of the Stalin era, with a typically banal 1990s PoMo development intruding to the north. Nothing, however, could compromise the splendour of the setting on a curve of the Moscow River. The views were magnificent and the location, near to the seat of power in the White House, the Russian Foreign Ministry and US Embassy, excellent.

ABK’s building – or rather group of buildings – is a response to this context. In place of the defensive enclosure envisaged in the ’80s, there are four separate blocks along the riverfront. Three are residential (there are 31 staff apartments), the fourth (distinguished by a prominent roof canopy and an enigmatic cupola) contains the offices. A ‘long gallery’, the backbone of the embassy, connects all four blocks at podium level, with the suggestion of bridge links at roof level. Behind are the lower blocks which contain the commercial and visa sections, guardhouse, and some of the recreation facilities — there is a kindergarten and medical centre as well as swimming pool, gym and social club. In traditional Moscow fashion, the complex is entered through an open courtyard from Protochny Street, not from the Embankment. Visitors enter a large reception hall, suitable for exhibitions or parties, and can then ascend a flight of stairs (another traditional reference) to the podium level, where the main confere nce hall, with views over the river, is located. It is in these formal areas that much of the ambitious public art programme has been concentrated, including paving by Tess Jaray and major works by Alexander Beleschenko, Norman Ackroyd and Michael Craig-Martin, just a few of the 40 artists and craftspersons involved. The role of the embassy as a showcase for ‘creative Britain’ is perhaps a little forced, but the excellence of internal finishes in timber, stone, metal and glass and the high quality of furnishings reflects the level of detailed supervision maintained by the architects.

This is a significant building which will be seen as a symbol of Britain, yet it declines to wave the flag. Richard Burton sees elements in the scheme as a form of cultural bridging – the timber roof structures, copper cladding, and cedar sun screens are a nod to local tradition. Typically Muscovite yellow render is used extensively on the residential blocks, while the chancery is clad in stone and glass. Poetic texts, in both Russian and English, along the street facades of the building are calculated to appeal in a country where literature resounds in the popular consciousness. A modern embassy has to function as efficiently as a commercial office, so the Moscow building is designed for a high degree of flexibility. Even the 120 000 Russians who annually visit the embassy to apply for a visa (20 times as many as in 1988 and rising steadily) can enjoy dignified and comfortable surroundings. Far fewer will enjoy the light-filled and often surprisingly colourful private interiors, a clear riposte to the legen dary greyness of Moscow.

The overriding impression of the Moscow embassy is one of lightness, elegance, and controlled richness; not the richness of mere display but that of good materials used with integrity. For all the opulence of its ruling elite, Moscow is still, by Western standards, a city of poor people, many of whom have yet to be convinced that democracy works. It is reassuring-indeed, almost miraculous – that Britain’s new embassy provides a striking and deeply-felt example of modern architecture which sets out not to condescend or overawe but to be enjoyable, welcoming and truly international. KENNETH POWELL

1 Set on the edge of Smolenskaya Embankment and surrounded by landmarks of Russian political power, the new embassy occupies an important site in the heart of Moscow.

2 From the riverside walk, the component parts of the complex are clearly discernible,

3 Internal courtyard on the Protochny Street elevation leads to low-rise block housing office spaces.

4 New blocks respond to the scale of chair surroundings.

5 Protochny Street context. The embassy’s articulated roofscape is a liverty addition to the Moscow skyline.

6. Corner of one of the apartment blocks overlooking Protochny Street.

7. Typically yellow Muscovite render is used on the residential blocks, joining a diverse palette of materials used with great finesse.

8. Flats overlooking the river have invigorating views.

9, 10. The reception hall, which also can be used for exhibitions or parties.

11. Swimming pool forms part of the recreation facilities.

12. Visa section. Designed to accommodate large queues, but nonetheless a dignified space.

13. Upper level of reception hall, with specially commissioned glass panels by Alexander Beleschenko. Formal areas are the subject of a major public arts programme involving contemporary British artists.

1. main entrance

2. forecourt/courtyard

3. apartments

4. offices

5. reception/exhibition hall

6. garden

7. swimming pool

8. squash court

9. plant

10. car park

11. podium

12. tennis court

13. ambulatory

14. commissariat

15. unloading

16. garage

17. commercial Section

18. visa queue

19. residential entrance

20. medical centre

21. gallery

22. conference area

23. kindergarten

24. restaurant

25. bar

26. coffee area

Architect

Abrends Burton & Koralek, London

Structural engineer

Ove Arup & Partners

Services engineer

TME Engineers

Quantity surveyor

Hanscomb

Landscape consultant

Landesign

Photographs

Peter Cook/VIEW

COPYRIGHT 2000 EMAP Architecture

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group