Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
Hidden away behind and between the glories of Rome’s mediaeval and Renaissance architecture, seldom sought out and even less often celebrated, lie some fascinating examples of 20th century building design. Most date from the inter-war period, legacy of Mussolini’s attempts at constructing an empire to rival that of ancient Rome; very few date from the post-war period, and even fewer are notable.
One significant exception is the British Embassy, commissioned in 1960, opened in 1971 and designed by one of the greatest names in post-war British architecture: Sir Basil Spence.
Located in the heart of the city adjacent to Michaelangelo’s Porta Pia, the building is an arresting, original yet dignified structure even when merely glimpsed from the Via XX Settembre, off whose eastern end it stands. Explored in full, however, its quality, power and grace become clear.
The site was that of the pre-existing embassy, a historical building destroyed in a terrorist explosion in 1946. The British government wished to retain the location but were well aware of the difficulties of erecting a new, purpose-built embassy in the area – and that was before the question of architectural style was considered.
Spence was appointed to bring prestige to the project and following his success with Coventry Cathedral, another re-building on a site of extreme cultural sensitivity. Italian engineer Pier Luigi Nervi was engaged primarily as a liaison figure to smooth the path with the Italian authorities. The engineering firm of Ove Arup was also contracted.
Spence was well aware of the pressures of designing for this part of Rome. Almost exactly four hundred years previously, the Porta Pia, a new gateway in Rome’s city walls, had been built as a piece of civic infrastructure on the orders of Pope Pius IV. The embassy grounds contained a Roman grotto and further archaeological remains could be conjectured and were in fact discovered during construction.
Understandably, Spence was sensitive as to the response to Michaelangelo that his new building would provide and sought from the outset to ensure that it was a worthy one.
The key architectural concept for the new embassy – actually a chancellery, since the ambassador would reside elsewhere – was that of a contemporary palazzo. The building would be freestanding, compact, rectilinear and visibly layered in its storey treatment. These layers were of varying heights, providing for the piano nobile of Italian tradition on the first floor, their cornice lines would align with those of the Porta Pia and overall the building would rise no higher than the shoulders of that gateway. It would also have a courtyard, occupying the entire centre of the building plot, with a grand double stair.
Modernity would be conferred principally by a crucial break with this Italian precedent, however; the entire building would be elevated by one storey on pilotis, its ground floor thus becoming permeable and allowing the mature planting on the site to be seen below and around it. The new building would take its travertine stone cladding from the Porta Pia but have clean lines.
Although the resulting design is in fact extraordinarily similar to the then new US embassy in Accra, Ghana, by Harry Weese, the straight-sided ring of offices that Weese produced was considerably different to Spence’s arrangement of the accommodation at Rome.
In plan sixteen squares, their corners chamfered to make octagons, were arranged in a 5 x 5 grid. A single concrete column beneath would support each one, the connections between octagons giving structural rigidity. Despite Nervi’s symbolic role, it appears that some note had been taken of his contemporaneous design for the Palace of Labour exhibition building in Turin, won via competition in 1959. Here, too, a grid of squares each containing a single concrete column featured, although his columns were 65 feet high and acted as support for the roof members rather than the floor.
Spence extended his octagons upwards to three storeys, though they appear externally as two: a hidden lower mezzanine, containing toilets, a double-height piano nobile and a standard-height upper level. Each storey stepped out over the one below, part of a complex and carefully considered approach to climate control that favoured using the building’s inherent design, thermal mass and materials to prevent solar gain from having an effect rather than mechanical cooling to combat it once it had occurred.
Political and funding delays meant Spence’s late-1950s designs were not brought to fruition until the early 1970s.
Despite forty years of use, Spence’s building survives today virtually as built, and privileged - indeed, exceptional - access reveals its brilliance.
The present approach to the embassy is through a guardhouse to its left, denying one grand entry through ceremonial metal gates and procession over a causeway that spans the great pool. Intriguingly, this causeway is placed asymmetrically in relation to the façade to Via XX Settembre. Further asymmetry is introduced by the ceremonial stair standing not immediately ahead as one passes under the building but to the left
The central courtyard is paved in travertine. In a subtle touch this expanse of material is divided into quarters with the grain of each quarter aligning with the relevant facade. From here immediate and magnificent views are available beneath the elevated structure of the building to the grassed hills and trees of the embassy grounds beyond, the architectural elements framing this landscape. Urns recovered during site clearance stand between the columns which are of cruciform plan and as painstakingly designed as those in Coventry Cathedral, terminating just as specifically.
The stair’s two double flights are placed at 45 degrees to each other and the building line, around a landing that is triangular. This shape is reflected in that of the small pool that lies at their foot. It is lined with a first century Roman mosaic unearthed from the grotto This geometry creates a prow projecting into the courtyard above an expanse of water, surely a nod to British nautical heritage, especially when seen in the context of the entryway pool and another large expanse of water immediately to the south.
Indeed, the embassy’s measured placement in its lush green setting, with a modulated sawtooth edge to the south pool (derived from the chamfered-edge plan of the building), water from it reflecting on the underside of the building’s raised ‘hull’ and its firm presence above the rolling hills of its grounds recall not just a ship but also a castle in its moat, another appropriate image of the home country.
Sculpted bronze ‘E II R’ reliefs adorn the consulate doors, whilst the ceremonial stair rises to glass doors below the Royal Coat of Arms carved in travertine. Inside, a massive block of the same material inescapably recalls an altar, a remnant perhaps of Spence’s recent commission at Coventry.
Travertine, rare in Britain but common in Rome, is used throughout the piano nobile, forming floors and walls; by working within a very restricted palette of natural, local materials, Spence further respected Rome’s existing architecture. This use of stone also contributes significantly to the environmental cooling of the building as well as its aesthetic, something which is immediately evident on entry, even in August.
Offices on this floor are a mix. The principal rooms with 16-foot ceilings are on the exterior, overlooking the grounds but with narrow windows, whilst smaller secretarial rooms are on the inside, overlooking the courtyard and with much lower, 8-foot, ceilings, essentially built as boxes within a box. This too was part of the temperature control scheme, allowing air and daylight to circulate but minimising penetration of heat. Occupants agree that this system of cooling works surprisingly well, with the air conditioning not always needed in the mornings and winter temperatures sometimes too cold for today’s almost wholly Italian staff. One comments wryly that Spence’s efforts to make his fellow Britons feel at home were perhaps a little too effective in this regard.
Original fittings and finishes remain, including ceilings of dark wood in offices and white plaster in corridors, the latter with minimalist right-angled coving, ripple glass doors and surrounds with bronze hinges, and lighting globes also of bronze. Travertine door frames are deep and plainly cut. In a neat touch that was wholly appropriate for 1960 when almost all the staff were British but which brings mild frustration to users in 2010, every electrical plug socket in the building is of the standard British three-pin pattern rather than the continental two-pin equivalent, today requiring adaptors for Italian equipment to be used.
Spence’s British embassy in Rome is hugely impressive. As a manifestation of its client and purpose, it is bold yet restrained, dignified and modern. As an architectonic mass, it is elegant, controlled, detailed and yet legible. In its exquisite surroundings, it is a stunning piece of rus in urbe.
It is well liked by its inhabitants and well looked after. The pressures on security have only slightly diminished its presence, and there is a desire – though it will be hard to implement – to open the building up to wider public access.
As Britain enters another period in which its precise role in the world and the image it wishes to portray of itself are questioned, one could do worse than look back sixty years to see how one architect provided answers.
Posted 2010; with grateful thanks to Julia Mariotti (my guide) and Solange Di Lieto, both of the Press Office, British Embassy Rome
Beautiful presentation perspective by Spence of his new British embassy, with Michaelangelo’s Porta Pia to the left. Spence’s plan and section, left, are shown next to those of Nervi’s for the Palace of Labour, Turin (RCAHMS, GreatBuildings.com)