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Dossier: The space of diplomacy. Design and beyond

Editorial: Here and elsewhere: the landmarks of a changing world order

Paolo Girardelli

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1The idea of devoting one thematic section of ABE Journal to the architecture of European embassies and diplomatic buildings outside Europe was the outcome of two connected initiatives. As a guest scholar of inha (Institut national d'histoire de l'art, Paris) in the spring of 2013, I organized with Mercedes Volait an international workshop entitled À l’orient du monde. Diplomatie européenne et architecture par-delà les rivages de la Méditerranée (1770-1920). This meeting provided the opportunity to discuss the architectural history of French and Austrian embassies in sites ranging from Istanbul and Cairo to Montenegro, China and Japan.1 The following year, in the framework of the final conference of the network European Architecture Beyond Europe, held in Palermo, one session chaired by the two of us was also devoted to the architecture of diplomacy.2 Two of the essays included in the current issue—those on the Italian embassies in Ankara and in Kabul—were presented for the first time in that context. These experiences were inspiring in many ways, and convinced us that this field of inquiry is still very promising, open to development and with some surprising challenges.

2What makes the architecture of diplomacy a productive and rewarding subject of critical / historical inquiry? Answers to this question may include manifold assets, from the abundance of archival documentation preserved in the foreign ministry archives of several states (and still largely untouched), to the inherently “representative” nature of the buildings involved. For anyone interested in the relation between architecture and representation—whatever its meanings and nuances—the design of embassies and diplomatic buildings should be an obvious focus of attention. To say the least, these structures are, by definition, three-dimensional and living representations of their respective governments. But the role of architecture and design in enacting this function is seldom analyzed directly in the scholarly literature, at least within the last two decades.

  • 3 Of course the case of historic buildings that in their later history were used as embassies, like P (...)

3Architecture is usually addressed as an integral part of the construction of place. Culture turns space into place, we are told by anthropologists, and the role of architectural structures and landmarks in this process is obviously very relevant. But the paradoxical status of diplomatic buildings is that they signify a relationship, a connection between two national spaces, rather than participating in the construction of one place. By transferring a fragment of the nation beyond its physical boundaries, embassies, consulates and other officially “foreign” structures, engage in a complex, dialogic relation with the culture and the landscape of the host country. In an era like the present, dominated by migration, displacements, and the emergence of new urban divisions, many aspects of the problematic space, place and landscape of diplomacy are likely to arouse critical and historical interest. Embassies, especially when designed as such, do not (and cannot) belong entirely to their physical and cultural setting. For this reason they rarely enter the official urban and architectural history of cities and nations as such.3 The historiography of a place tends to privilege the local and the typical, while embassies are, by definition, foreign and atypical. Their being is always, at least in part, out of place—and often scarcely accessible or connected to city life—enhancing their symbolic status as semiotic and geo-political machines: all the more in the case of European embassies built “beyond Europe,” implying a degree of cultural difference between patronage and local context. In fact, many other objects of design and urbanity entering the field of interest of ABE Journal evoke, in different ways, similar dynamics of displacement and hybridity in form and meaning.

  • 4 Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson, “Semiotics and art history,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 73, no. 2, 1991, p (...)
  • 5 Diana Barillari, “Novecento sul Bosforo. D’Aronco e Villa Italia,” in Eleonora Mantese (ed.), Abita (...)
  • 6 Mark Crinson, Empire Building. Orientalism and Victorian Architecture, London; New York, NY: Routle (...)

4How is the paradoxical condition of being simultaneously here and elsewhere communicated by embassies and consulates? If one is to resort to the old but still useful threefold distinction theorized by C. S. Peirce, these buildings, their parts, their settings, their image and state of conservation, may be seen at the same time as symbols, icons and indexes of the roles performed by their countries in the geo-political environments that surround them. Semiotic approaches to visual culture assume that the three functions co-exist and interact in creating and communicating meaning.4 No visual sign or representation embedded in society can be purely iconic or indexical, the other aspects of signification always concurring with the production and presentation of its meaning. According to Peirce, the meaning of a symbol is understood and communicated by agreement, and through a code. In many embassies, the architectural and decorative elements deployed on facades, walls and gates belong in fact to a foreign cultural tradition that should be known or decoded in order to make sense. The rusticated portal on Raimondo D’Aronco’s summer residence of the Italian mission on the Bosporus, in Tarabya5, is a somewhat isolated reminder (for those who may read it) of the Italian identity of a building, that otherwise would appear far more local and rooted in place. Iconic communication is instead a matter of resemblance. The overall layout and image of certain embassies, or parts of them, may evoke, by resemblance, other models at home, as is the case of the British embassy in Istanbul, designed by W. J. Smith in the 1840s, and directly inspired by Charles Barry’s Reform Club in London.6 The double pediment on the façade of the old French consulate in Alexandria (preceding the bombing of 1882) echoes the slightly older façade of the French palace at Istanbul, in its turn inspired by Puget’s seventeenth-century building of the Chambre de Commerce in Marseilles, so closely engaged in the activities of both.

  • 7 Samuel Isenstadt, “Faith in a Better Future: Josep Lluis Sert's American Embassy in Baghdad,” Journ (...)
  • 8 For a piece of journalism, written by an expert on U.S. diplomatic architecture, see Jane C. Loeffl (...)

5Finally, the indexical function of these structures, what they physically and directly inscribe in the meaning of urban environments (without evoking by resemblance or symbolic reference) is probably their most striking feature, and is also a function of their extra-territorial status. Besides being symbolic representations, embassies are also territorial extensions of their respective countries. In this indexical sense—indexical, but always based on political agreements—their sheer presence or absence (in Jerusalem, for instance), their size, visibility, state of conservation, proximity to or distance from other embassies and local landmarks of power, become directly communicative of geo-political and cultural relations, frictions, balances. The new U.S. embassy in Baghdad is a far cry from the Modernist structure designed by J. L. Sert in 1955‒1962,7 and used for a very short time due to the Six Day War. It is also known as “Fortress America,” and was completed in 2009 over an area of 42 hectares (104 acres). What this building communicates to local and foreign audiences is largely (though not totally) independent from linguistic codes and similarities to other structures.8

  • 9 Paolo Girardelli, “Power or leisure? Remarks on the architecture of the European summer embassies o (...)

6In terms of historical precedent, and possibly a first in the architectural history of diplomacy, we can think of the Russian embassy in Constantinople (1837‒1845)9—a true fragment of neo-classical St. Petersburg displaced in the midst of an Ottoman settlement—as overwhelming with its monumental stance within the surrounding environment of wooden houses. This fragment of Russia in Constantinople, designed by Gaspare Fossati (one of the last representatives of the classicist, Swiss-Italian tradition of architects working in Russia), was mistaken for the Ottoman imperial palace by travellers arriving from the Mediterranean. It signified, by way of proportion, size and visual contrast (beyond its stylistic features, which were also relevant in a symbolic and iconic sense) Russian presence and influence in the area, enhanced by the Treaty of Edirne of 1829.

  • 10 Jakob Hort, Architektur der Diplomatie. Repräsentation in europäischen Botschaftsbauten, 1800-1920. (...)
  • 11 Jane C. Loeffler, Fortress America, op. cit. (note 8).

7As indexes of complex political and cultural dynamics, embassies are also topographically significant: are they in central or peripheral parts of a capital city? Outside or inside the walls of Rome? In the historic peninsula of Istanbul or across the Golden Horn, in the cosmopolitan district of Pera? How far from the Forbidden City in Beijing? Reconstructing the German embassy in Rome during the interwar period on the slopes of the Capitol Hill (on the site of the old palazzo Caffarelli, used as Prussian embassy), was a major statement about the political proximity between Hitler and Mussolini.10 For both, imperial topography and the legacy of Greco-Roman classicism meant more than any other possible cultural / symbolic asset. And, speaking of topography and location, a different range of political questions may arise from the inevitable dialectics and dynamic of integration and locality versus estrangement and segregation: often a matter of degrees and nuance in a complex spectrum, but sometimes the choice, voluntary or obliged, of one of the extremes. On the side of integration we have the Buddhist temples used as European embassies in Meiji Japan, or the Ottoman, wooden konak used as a Venetian embassy in Istanbul until 1780, when it was rebuilt in Palladian forms. At the opposite extreme there is, as already mentioned, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, where “although U.S. diplomats will technically be ‘in Iraq,’ they may as well be in Washington”.11

  • 12 E.g.: Michael J. Shapiro, Studies in Trans-Disciplinary Method: After the Aesthetic Turn, London; N (...)
  • 13 Markus Mösslang and Torsten Riotte (eds.), The diplomats’ world: a cultural history of diplomacy, 1 (...)
  • 14 Among many: François Chaslin, The Dutch Embassy in Berlin by OMA / Rem Koolhaas, Rotterdam: NAi Pu (...)
  • 15 For Istanbul: Tommaso Bertelè, Il palazzo degli ambasciatori di Venezia a Constantinopoli e le sue (...)
  • 16 E.g.: Mercedes Volait, Maisons de France au Caire: le remploi de grands décors mamelouks et ottoman (...)
  • 17 Jane C. Loeffler, The architecture of diplomacy: building America's embassies, New York, NY: Prince (...)
  • 18 For some early-modern cases, see Jacques Bottin and Donatella Calabi (eds.), Les étrangers dans la (...)

8The recent, relative growth of studies and publications devoted to these aspects of design and space may also be connected, directly or otherwise, to the so-called “aesthetic turn” in international relations,12 as well as to a broader understanding of diplomacy in its cultural and symbolic dimensions.13 The existing literature on the architectural history of embassies and consulates may be roughly categorized into three groups, depending on scope and perspective: single buildings; state policy on official seats abroad; and urban environments influenced by the space of diplomacy. Monographic studies of embassies designed by prominent Modern and Post-Modern architects constitute probably the most conspicuous area of study, with cases ranging from Le Corbusier’s project of the French embassy in Brasilia, to the new embassies sanctioning Berlin’s recovered role as a capital city.14 Some historically oriented monographs are devoted to nineteenth-century European buildings that occupied a prominent place in the history of non-Western capital cities such as Cairo, Istanbul, Tehran, Beijing, Tokyo. These studies can be the work of knowledgeable diplomats15, amateurs, photographers, and more seldom of art and architectural historians.16 Secondly, a different approach to the architecture of diplomacy, as an embodiment of the foreign policies of single states, characterizes the work of Jane C. Loeffler and other scholars who focus on the policies pursued by states and governments in the design of their buildings in foreign lands.17 Finally, urban and architectural historians have sometimes devoted attention to the role of foreign representations in the urban development of districts and parts of cities.18

9The essays selected for this issue of ABE Journal express and exemplify, directly or otherwise, many of the aspects and questions I have sketched out here. Our overview and journey starts in Addis Ababa, where embassies do constitute an evolving system of urban and architectural significance. Van Gameren and Tesfaye Tola demonstrate how integration into the local cultural standards of building manifests in the embassies built soon after the independence of Ethiopia in the late nineteenth century. This was gradually replaced by self-assertion and expression of cultural difference, of European identity or commitment to modernity during the course of the twentieth century. But the local authority was usually capable of orchestrating the meanings collectively and individually conveyed by the foreign embassies. A local and cosmopolitan landscape of diplomacy contributed to emphasizing the role of Addis as a new and uncontested capital city (after a period of itinerancy and multiple centers). Here was expressed its manifold connections to the rest of the world, its ability to recover and re-assess a local identity after the Italian colonial occupation and, finally, its relevance as an inspiring location for architectural modernity, as witnessed by the project of the Dutch embassy (1998‒2005), designed by Mastenbroek and Van Gameren, co-author of the paper.

10The essay on the Italian embassy in Ankara also deals with diplomacy in a new capital: the new national center of republican and Kemalist Turkey, replacing cosmopolitan and Ottoman Istanbul. Focusing on the history and life of a single building, the Italian embassy, initially designed by Florestano di Fausto, and later reworked by Paolo Caccia Dominioni, the authors Pallini and Scaramuzzi demonstrate the latter’s substantial role and authorship in the design of the executed building. Elaborating on the witness of the architect, who compared the embassy to a vessel or a floating microcosm, containing the ingredients of national life, the paper explores the opposite phenomenology of isolation and self-containment, rather than systemic and contextual belonging (as exemplified by the case of Addis Ababa). These two dimensions may seem antithetical, but they often co-exist, to some degree, in the design and socio-political life of many diplomatic structures.

11Also monographic is the approach of Michela Rosso in her study of the Italian embassy in Kabul, designed by a Modernist architect who had also collaborated on archeological research and excavations in Afghanistan. The essay is a sensitive overview of the local, international and Italian elements converging in the design of a building that symbolized, in the 1970s, a peculiar history of cooperation, solidarity and political proximity. The district of Kabul where the embassy was built is evoked by Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner (2003). Further research may also uncover how this embassy was used and perceived under the Taliban regime, when its Afghan counterpart in Rome entered a phase of neglect and dilapidation. I still remember the architectural reflection of the end of that phase, in 2002, when the eclectic villa, dated 1914 on via Nomentana, was soon restored and upgraded.

12In the fourth essay by Ke Song and Jianfei Zhu, the spatial and aesthetic dimension of the Cold War is at stake, but in ways that seldom appears in the architectural literature on these themes in European languages. Focusing on three key structures of Maoist Beijing—the International Club (1972), the Diplomatic Residence Compounds of Jianguomewai and Qijiayuan (1970s), and the Beijing Hotel East (1974)—the paper discusses the formation of an environment for diplomacy and foreign presence during a crucial period of change in Chinese foreign relations. We are reminded here that the first European embassy in China was established by Great Britain after conflicts lasting approximately 60 years, from the late eighteenth century to the end of the second Opium War. Western presence in China was often connected to semi-colonial exploitation, but it also produced urban and architectural environments that deserve to be studied and preserved as examples of trans-national space production: from Macao to the Thirteen Factories of Guan Zhou, magisterially described by Amitav Gosh in River of Smoke; from the foreign concessions of Shanghai to Tianjin, to the island of Kulang-su, recently declared by unesco a World Heritage site. What is studied in this last paper is the post-Cultural Revolution response to that story: a modern, international environment created by Chinese rather than foreign agency, where diplomats may feel confortable but still in Maoist China, unlike their predecessors who had constructed and inhabited fragments of Europe in Asia. In this, and partly in the other cases studied by the contributors to this thematic section, the architecture of diplomacy aestheticizes politics, and enacts what may be called, following Jacques Rancière, a new distribution of the sensible.

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Notes

1 Program at: https://www.inha.fr/fr/agenda/parcourir-par-annee/annees-2004-2013/a-l-orient-du-monde-diplomatie/_attachments/Programme-62.pdf. Accessed 18 January 2018.

2 “Looking eastward, building identities: The architecture of European diplomacy beyond the Mediterranean in the age of Empire”. For the conference program, see http://architecturebeyond.eu.huma-num.fr/1992-2/. Accessed 18 January 2018.

3 Of course the case of historic buildings that in their later history were used as embassies, like Palazzo Farnese in Rome, is a different question.

4 Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson, “Semiotics and art history,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 73, no. 2, 1991, p. 174‒208. My reflection on the semiotic regimes of embassies, still in a preliminary phase, is also inspired by Charles Burroughs, The Italian Renaissance palace facade: structures of authority, surfaces of sense, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002 (Res monographs in anthropology and aesthetics). This scholar also discusses in what senses a Renaissance facade may be seen as symbol, icon and index of cultural and political identities.

5 Diana Barillari, “Novecento sul Bosforo. D’Aronco e Villa Italia,” in Eleonora Mantese (ed.), Abitare la città. Istanbul Theatrum Mundi, unità di ricerca e didattica, Rome: Aracne editrice, 2014 (Quaderni della ricerca), p. 46‒57. URL: http://www.aracneeditrice.it/pdf/9788854868342.pdf. Accessed 18 January 2018.

6 Mark Crinson, Empire Building. Orientalism and Victorian Architecture, London; New York, NY: Routledge, 1996, p. 124‒165.

7 Samuel Isenstadt, “Faith in a Better Future: Josep Lluis Sert's American Embassy in Baghdad,” Journal of Architectural Education, 1997, vol. 50, no. 3, p. 172‒188.

8 For a piece of journalism, written by an expert on U.S. diplomatic architecture, see Jane C. Loeffler, “Fortress America,” Foreign Policy, October 12, 2009. URL: http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/10/12/fortress-america-3/. Accessed 18 January 2018: “The new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is the largest the world has ever known […] a massive, fortified compound. Encircled by blast walls and cut off from the rest of Baghdad, it stands out like the crusader castles that once dotted the landscape of the Middle East. Its size and scope bring into question whether it is even correct to call this facility an ‘embassy.’ Why is the United States building something so large, so expensive, and so disconnected from the realities of Iraq? In a country shattered by war, what is the meaning of this place?” “Fortress America—The United States under attack,” is, by the way, also the name of a board game sold on Amazon.com.

9 Paolo Girardelli, “Power or leisure? Remarks on the architecture of the European summer embassies on the Bosphorus shore,” New Perspectives on Turkey, no. 50, 2014. Special issue, Ambivalent architectures from the Ottoman empire to the Turkish republic, p. 35‒36.

10 Jakob Hort, Architektur der Diplomatie. Repräsentation in europäischen Botschaftsbauten, 1800-1920. Konstantinopel – Rom – Wien – St. Petersburg, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014, p. 244‒314.

11 Jane C. Loeffler, Fortress America, op. cit. (note 8).

12 E.g.: Michael J. Shapiro, Studies in Trans-Disciplinary Method: After the Aesthetic Turn, London; New York, NY: Routledge, 2013 (Interventions, 29); William A. Callahan, “Cultivating Power: Gardens in the Global Politics of Diplomacy, War, and Peace,” International Political Sociology, vol. 11, no. 4, 2017.

13 Markus Mösslang and Torsten Riotte (eds.), The diplomats’ world: a cultural history of diplomacy, 1815-1914, Oxford; New York, NY: Oxford University Press; London: German Historical Institute, 2008 (Studies of the German historical institute London).

14 Among many: François Chaslin, The Dutch Embassy in Berlin by OMA / Rem Koolhaas, Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2004.

15 For Istanbul: Tommaso Bertelè, Il palazzo degli ambasciatori di Venezia a Constantinopoli e le sue antiche memorie: ricerche storiche con documenti inediti, Bologna: Casa Ed. Apollo, 1932; Jean-Michel Casa, Le Palais de France à Istanbul=İstanbul’da Bir Fransız Sarayı, Paris: Éditions internationales du patrimoine, 2012 (Résidences de France); Patricia Daunt, The Palace Lady’s Summerhouse: and other inside stories from a vanishing Turkey, London: Cornucopia Editions, 2017. For other examples of literature on Italian embassies, see Michela Rosso’s essay in this issue https://journals.openedition.org/abe/4042.

16 E.g.: Mercedes Volait, Maisons de France au Caire: le remploi de grands décors mamelouks et ottomans dans une architecture moderne, Cairo: Institut français d'archéologie orientale, 2012.

17 Jane C. Loeffler, The architecture of diplomacy: building America's embassies, New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998; Marie-Josée Therrien, Au-delà des frontières: l'architecture des ambassades canadiennes, 1930‒2005, Québec: Les Presses de l'Université Laval, 2005. For British diplomacy in East Asia: James E. Hoare, Embassies in the East: the story of the British embassies in Japan, China, and Korea from 1859 to the present, Richmond: Curzon Press, 1999 (Bristish Embassy). A recent project led by Fredie Floré and Anne-Françoise Morel at Leuwen Catholic University encourages doctoral research on Dutch and Belgian embassies since 1945: ‪ “Designing Embassies for Middle Powers: The Architecture of Belgian and Dutch Diplomacy in a Globalizing World”: https://arch.kuleuven.be/english/news/designing-embassies-for-middle-powers‬‬‬‬. Accessed 18 January 2018.

18 For some early-modern cases, see Jacques Bottin and Donatella Calabi (eds.), Les étrangers dans la ville: minorités et espace urbain du bas Moyen âge à l'époque moderne, Paris: Les éditions de la Maison des sciences de l'homme, 1999. My work on the architecture of diplomacy in late Ottoman Istanbul is also focused on its urban and landscape dimension: Paolo Girardelli, “Power or leisure?” op. cit. (note 9); ID., “From Andrea Memmo to Alberto Blanc: metamorphoses of classicism in the Italian buildings for diplomacy (1778-1889),” in Paolo Girardelli and Ezio Godoli (eds.), Italian architects and builders in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017. For contextual remarks on embassies in Washington D.C.: John Wiebsenson, “Fixing symbol problems along Pennsylvania Avenue,” Places-A Forum of Environmental Design, vol. 15, no. 2, 2003, p. 62‒67.

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Paolo Girardelli, « Editorial: Here and elsewhere: the landmarks of a changing world order », ABE Journal [En ligne], 12 | 2017, mis en ligne le 26 janvier 2018, consulté le 20 novembre 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/abe/3934 ; DOI : 10.4000/abe.3934

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Paolo Girardelli

Associate Professor in History, Boğaziçi University, Istanbul, Turkey

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