The new British Embassy building in Algiers, designed by John McAslan + Partners, has created an elegantly composed focal point for cultural, political and commercial contact between Britain and Algeria. It is unquestionably the first example of truly contemporary 21st century architecture in the city. Innovative in terms of design and the way its details have been crafted, the Embassy is also the first building in the country that demonstrates outstanding environmental performance.
Decades after Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer proposed their bold visions for the country, John McAslan + Partners (JMP) have endeavoured to re-open the book of architectural modernism here once more – this time to design and deliver a cross-cultural meeting point in a city that is itself intent on creating templates for 21st century change.
The embassy is the first major example of modernist architecture in Algiers since Corbusier managed to complete an apartment block in the 1940s. Modernism and colonial architecture are not at war here, but in calm and rational discussion about relative massing, articulation, materials. JMP wanted to produce an architecture that was very obviously of the 21st century – without offending the decorum of the Ambassador’s Residence, or the site. The building conveys a fusion of cultural influences in a city that was the 2007 Arab Capital of Culture. Its form and layout are certainly modernist; but key details express facets of Algerian and Islamic precedents in a vividly contemporary way.
Sited in the gardens of the 19th century Ambassador’s Residence, the design was predicated on the key sightline from the Residence to the Bay of Algiers, and on two other key issues: first, a standoff perimeter zone, and second, the creation of an even more attractive landscape arrangement than had previously existed. The building incorporates an innovative 6m high twisted fins – inspired by the details found in Algerian palaces – which provide shading to the glazing that faces the Residence. The slats, made of FSC-certified Brazilian secondary species hardwood, were steam-twisted by timber expert Michael Berringer; and this twisting was designed not only to reduce solar gain on the façades, but to create beautifully brindled shadow patterns.
The outer façade is animated by glazed slots in the stonework screen that project dramatic and constantly changing patterns of shadow and light on the fair-faced concrete inner facades, creating a cool, calm, crisply detailed volume. It is the first time that this type of concrete has been used in Algeria and involved extremely skilled, ‘hands-on’ techniques by contractors Mace and Bouygues, as well as regular site inspections by Project Architect Simon Goode and assistant May Tang. The end walls of the building are clad with timber slats, selected from species which require little maintenance.
The successful delivery of a building of cultural representation and inclusion depends, ultimately, on how well it is built and how closely it matches the vision of its client and architects, thus a key challenge was to ensure that architectural quality and detail was properly expressed 1,029 miles away from the UK.
From the garden, the massing of the three-storey building appears to be reduced because the ground floor is partly sunk into the topography. The ground and first level floorplates step back in plan, delivering a building of 1,800m² gross internal area on a tight footprint. JMP’s in-house landscape team re-worked the setting with a series of curving, parallel walls that redefine the landscape and preview the arced internal spaces of the new building.
Finely crafted detailing is just as evident inside the building, particularly in the circulation areas where the design of the wooden stair-treads, balustrades, and wall and ceiling details have given them a purity of line and finish worthy of the Bauhaus; and they, too, are illuminated by lines and bars of light falling from rooflights.
The finished Embassy, formally distinct and highly contemporary, is the first building in Algeria with a BREEAM rating, which achieved a Very Good. This was a challenge, given Algeria’s often extreme climatic conditions, but achieving a sustainable design was a fundamental part of the process, from the building’s orientation to reduce excessive solar gain, to the use of highly efficient lighting systems. The exposed concrete structure provides thermal mass to reduce peak-period cooling demands, and higher than usual floor-to-ceiling heights allows hot air to stratify, which meant a low-energy under-floor air conditioning system could be used. A green roof covers the building’s ground floor extension, and roof-mounted solar panels reduce energy requirements for the heating of water.
One of the legacies of the troubled recent history of Algeria has been the flight of professional and manually skilled people. The construction team employed local labour when possible and provided training as required. Bouygue’s French and Moroccan team worked closely with JMP and the local workforce to achieve a quality that all could be proud of.
JMP’s architecture joins a small but august club of modernist design interventions in Algeria. Le Corbusier’s legendary Plan Obus, in the 1930s, proposed a vast serpentine ‘cliff’ of continuous apartments along Algiers’ corniche, with a highway running for miles along its flat roof. Only a small portion of the scheme - significantly modified - was built. In the late 1960s, the equally legendary Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer, created the strikingly sculpted university campus at Constantine - and this, too, used curved forms. The new Embassy building represents a new moment of architectural and cultural innovation, and commitment.
The project included: the main Embassy building, entry and exit gate houses, the refurbishment of the Ambassador’s Residence building, and the re-landscaping of the gardens and site.