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Australian moments: The challenges of diplomatic architecture

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10 October 2012 14:30

In the design of modern-day diplomatic missions, form does not so much follow function as security. Aesthetics are secondary to protection. Embassies need sometimes to double as bunkers. Recent bloody reminders of that came in the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and the protests that targeted the embassies in Yemen and Cairo. As Henry Grabar at The Atlantic Cities recently noted, 'architects try to construct buildings that will, in good times and bad, represent American values while they withstand the force of bombs'. Often, however, they end up designing buildings that are inaccessible and unwelcoming: a post-9/11 style that could be described as the architecture of fear.

A 'monster of a modern fortress' was how Jonathan Glancey, The Guardian's highly respected architecture critic, assessed the new US embassy in Baghdad (above left). The new US compound in Kabul is not much more attractive. Both are a long way from the elegant structures that America built in the post-war years, such as Edward Durell Stone's celebrated Delhi embassy, where the intricate concrete grillwork references the Mughal palaces, and Eero Saarinen's handsome embassy in Grosvenor Square, London (above right). Now, in a move which symbolises the shift in design priorities, the Americans are in the process of abandoning that building and moving to a newly constructed embassy next to Thames which is protected on one side by a moat. As for the Delhi embassy, it has long been disfigured by ugly blast walls.

How do Australian embassies compare?

Mindful of the 2004 car-bomb attack that killed nine people, including the suicide bomber, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has faced a not dissimilar dilemma with the construction of its new embassy in Jakarta. But last month it unveiled a stylish design solution that would grace the skyline of any global city, whatever the local threat level. Designed by the Melbourne powerhouse practice of Denton Corker Marshall, the five-storey chancery will be built on a 45,000 square metre brownfield site and should open in three years.

DCM, the architects behind well-known buildings like Sydney's Governor Phillip Tower and the Melbourne Exhibition Centre, have also incorporated some 'Australian Moment' panache: the building's brass, copper, zinc, steel and aluminium cladding is meant to represent the country's mineral riches. It stands as a monument to the success of modern-day Australia, while at the same time satisfying the security requirements of the day.

Elsewhere in the world, Australia's diplomatic architecture is a mixed bag. In Washington, the embassy occupies a magnificent position on Embassy Row (above left), where Massachusetts Avenue meets Scott Circle, but is one of the American capital's more nondescript diplomatic missions. It looks like it should house a corporate law firm or K Street lobbyists. Australia House in London (above centre), which occupies a similarly distinguished site where Aldwych meets the Strand, is much more successful. Still, its imperial design, by the Scottish architect, Alexander Marshall Mackenzie, reflects a period when Australian foreign policy was essentially British foreign policy.

The embassy in Paris (above right), designed by Australia's most influential post-war architect, Harry Seidler, is one of the more critically acclaimed. But Seidler was not perhaps the best choice of architect to project Australian design abroad. After all, he is famed for bringing internationalism to Australia, rather than local design to the rest of the world. Indeed, he questioned whether it is was even worth trying to forge a uniquely Australian aesthetic.

More recently, DFAT has had the good sense to rely heavily on DCM. Its design for the Australian Embassy in Beijing, which opened in 1992, was seen as particularly groundbreaking. As the architectural writer Deyan Sudjic has noted, it 'is often described as the first example of an authentic piece of modern architecture to be built in China since Mao declared the People's Republic'. While the building had architectural echoes of Old Beijing, DCM deliberately punched a hole in the containing wall to demonstrate the openness of Australian culture. DCM’s embassy in Tokyo, which opened in 1990, is also successful architecturally.

The new Jakarta building, DCM's first diplomatic mission since 9/11, may well turn out to be its finest yet. In a city where Australian diplomats have been in the firing line, it has come up with a solution that successfully balances form, function and security. It has managed to steer clear of the architecture of fear.

Photos by US Diplomacy Centre and Flickr users failing_angelNCinDC,  Mal Booth, seier-seier. 

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