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author: Geoff Berridge

Room for Diplomacy: The history of Britain’s diplomatic buildings overseas, 1800-2000

2017

Mark Bertram joined the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works after reading architecture at Cambridge and remained in the civil service as architect, project manager, administrator, estate manager and – in his own words – ‘quasi diplomat’ for the next thirty years.
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He was the ministry’s regional architect in Hong Kong in the 1970s, moved to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office when it secured control of its own buildings abroad (the ‘diplomatic estate’) in 1983, and was soon head of the estate department. On surrendering that role in 1997 he became a professional adviser to the FCO. He is therefore exceptionally well qualified to have written a book of this nature.

The structure of his work, which has 20 chapters, is a good blend of the thematic with the chronological: for example, ‘Chapter 4: Consulates 1850-1900’, and ‘Chapter 5: Legation Houses 1850-1900’; and ‘Chapter 13: New Commonwealth 1947-1983’, and ‘Chapter 14: Roles, Rules and Rations 1950-1970’. Its greater part consists of detailed descriptions of building types and individual buildings during different periods, together with accounts of the debates their planning prompted at home, some of them acrimonious. Interleaving most chapters, however, are illuminating discussions of the general questions prompted by the subject, and it is these that I found particularly interesting.

The first among these questions to mention because it helps to understand the others, even though it will probably be the one of least interest to students of diplomacy, is where in the government machine overall responsibility for the diplomatic estate should lie. In Britain, this rested from 1824 until 1983 with an already long-established government department responsible for all of central government’s public works (e.g. the British Museum), among which, therefore, the diplomatic estate was only one part; after the 1870s, the Foreign Office did not even have a budget allocation for the overseas estate for the forthcoming year. For most of this period the ministry with overall responsibility for diplomatic buildings abroad was known as the Office of Works, latterly as the Ministry of Works, then the Property Services Agency (PSA). It had its own architects, quantity surveyors, structural engineers, project managers, and so on. In 1983, this all changed when both the responsibility and the money were given to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; accordingly, the title of the penultimate chapter of Bertram’s book is ‘Diplomats in Control’, with charge of 4,067 properties in 132 countries. The question is: Was this a good thing? The PSA thought that the diplomats would give insufficient attention to long-term value for money, while the diplomats believed that only they were able to give the right priority to the estate as ‘a tool of British diplomacy’ (p. 403) – and henceforward would be in a position to do so, while being determined to make it cost-effective. Provided a foreign ministry is held to account by a well-qualified select committee of a parliamentary assembly, I am sure that the author is right to support the diplomats’ view.

The second general question is how to acquire and hold property. Initially, envoys and consuls had to find and rent their own, in the last case sometimes – notably in nineteenth century China – even boats moored offshore. Subsequently, governments such as that of Britain assumed the responsibility but were then faced with the choice of whether to lease or purchase existing properties of promise – or build their own. Britain took its first steps in the last direction in the early nineteenth century. Bertram examines, too, a variant on leasehold that began to be exploited by the British in the early twentieth century in cities with ‘relatively sophisticated property expertise (p. 227).’ This was the ‘developer deal’, in which a developer agreed to provide an acceptable site and erect on it a building to an approved plan; in return, the government signed up to rent it for a fixed term of years, usually a long one. The British consulate-general building in Jakarta was erected on this basis at the beginning of the 1930s and continued to be leased by the government until 1981. The advantages and disadvantages of the various options in different circumstances are thoroughly considered.

The third question to arise when the government began to build embassies and consulates was how to design them. When the first resident embassies were established in the early modern period ambassadors and their companions (official and unofficial) lived and worked together in one house. In the British case, Bertram tells us, the growing demand for office space consequent upon the expansion in diplomatic responsibilities following the First World War led to a feeling in London that embassy offices should be lodged separately from the ambassador’s house: the offices (henceforward ‘the embassy’) in the business centre and the ambassador’s living accommodation and ‘machine for entertaining’ (henceforward ‘the residence’) in the cheaper and more spacious suburbs, with the corollary that separate accommodation also had to be offered to the other diplomatic staff. But to the extent that this change came fully to pass after the Second Wold War it was not accepted without stiff resistance by the senior diplomats, who argued that the old design was more efficient as well as more convenient and that, besides, civil servants in London did not grasp the prestige that attached to having one large building in a city centre. A downside to the separation of embassy from ambassadorial residence felt more strongly in London was that it ‘opened the way for more individualistic and transient enthusiasms to flourish on the part of incumbents’ in regard not just to furnishings of the residence but also to modifications to existing buildings and plans for any replacement. ‘The scope for altercations [with London],’ writes the author with feeling, ‘was endless’ (p. 326). Not least because incumbent ambassadors were likely to have left their residence for a new one before any major building works were completed and their successors might possibly have quite different ideas, London’s tolerance for their views had to be strictly limited.

Another question of design that caused tension was the extent to which the operational requirements of a new building should be moulded by stylistic considerations, whether with a view to making it blend into the local milieu or – more usually – project a desired image of the sending state. A related question was whether or not commissions should be awarded to high-profile private architects, who would probably be more difficult to control than those in government employ but might be expected to produce eye-catching results. Style did not begin to become a significant consideration until the late 1950s, when architectural anathemas were heaped on the ‘straight blocks’ to which the Ministry of Works had given birth after the Second World War. At this juncture, private architects were commissioned to design diplomatic buildings for the first time since, exceptionally, the famous Sir Edwin Lutyens had been employed to design the new embassy and residence in Washington, completed in 1930. But the experience of the Ministry of Works with the three projects concerned was not, says Bertram, a good one. Neither the new residence at Lagos by Lionel Brett, occupied in 1961, nor Basil Spence’s Rome Embassy, opened ten years later, were judged to have been operationally ideal by their occupants, and the design for a new embassy and residence at Brasilia by Peter and Alison Smithson was abandoned after a three-year struggle, in part because it was too ambitious and could not be afforded. Henceforward, the government took more care to appoint in-house architects with good track records, better match the professional strengths of private architects to the challenges of each project when commissioning, and tighten up project management.

A further question of design that caused difficulties for traditional reflexes as its importance increased in the last quarter of the twentieth century was how to modify existing buildings or build new ones with physical defence in mind: the question of what is now usually called ‘diplomatic security’. Unfortunately, although understandably, British practice in regard to the defence of diplomatic buildings against attack by terrorists or politically agitated mobs is a subject on which Mark Bertram is noticeably reticent. Nevertheless, here and there his book contains interesting asides on it. He says, for example, that the post-Second World War decision to build residences separately from embassies was later reinforced for reasons of security (p. 358), although he does not say why. Presumably this was chiefly to reduce the likelihood of harm falling to ambassadors and their families by virtue of living in buildings that not only needed to be open to the public but were also correctly assumed to be ‘nests of spies’. (This was a major reason for the notorious attack on and occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979.)  He also mentions the security advantages of compounds in the Middle East and Asia, which ‘derived from the military cantonments of India’, and reminds us that they were also prompted with a view to providing a ‘healthy, communal, uncrowded, fairly self-sufficient living and working environment’ (pp. 87, 335) – points I had omitted to mention in my article ‘Diplomatic security and the birth of the compound system’ . He mentions more than once that secure or ‘classified’ offices were always placed on the top floor of buildings (p. 314), which is well-known. Further, during the Cold War, such very limited work as had to be done on British missions in Warsaw Pact countries was done by security-cleared personnel from the UK and all materials were UK-sourced and delivered by diplomatic bag (p. 258). And he gives a brief mention of the FCO’s 1985 security review, which ‘made proposals for relocating some [buildings in unsafe environments] and strengthening the defences of others in respect of site perimeters, gates and barriers, and glazing’ (p. 418). But that – apart from the account of the building of the new embassy in Moscow, opened in 2000, where measures designed to prevent electronic eavesdropping were the main security concern – is it as far as this subject is concerned.

With the reservations that there is – albeit understandably – too little on security and perhaps too much on the careers of individuals, Mark Bertram has written a book on his subject of unrivalled authority and with great clarity. Occasionally, too, a droll sense of humour shines through his text (‘It is an illusion to imagine that bureaucracy lessened in time of war: it just used smaller sheets of thinner paper’, pp. 232-3). The author is at ease with the diplomatic lexicon and provides just the right amount of political context. The book is also carefully sourced, with many references to documents located in The National Archives in London; and it has innumerable illustrations, a bibliography, and good analytical index. It is also supplemented by full descriptions and illustrations in a ‘Catalogue of British embassy and consulate buildings, 1800 – 2010’ on the Web which is freely available hereRoom for Diplomacy is unique in accounts of British diplomacy and I cannot recommend it too strongly. The author’s publisher, Spire Books was dissolved in 2016, but it can still be obtained, most cheaply direct from the author via this page.

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Francesco Guicciardini was born into a long-established patrician family in Florence in 1483. He trained and then practised successfully as a lawyer, but in January 1512 was sent by the signoria, despite his youth, as ambassador to Spain.1 His mission was conducted against a background of acute tension and at a time when the goodwill of Ferdinand the Catholic — that master of deceit’ 2 — was of the first importance to the republic. (Ferdinand’s soldiers, only recently allied to those of Pope Julius II against Florence’s ally, France, were entering the nearby Romagna.) Guicciardini re...

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A History of Diplomacy in the International Development of Europe, vol. 3

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The Diplomacy of Ancient Greece – A Short Introduction

Employed against a warlike background, the diplomatic methods of the ancient Greeks are thought by some to have been useless but by others to have been the most advanced seen prior to modern times.

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The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America’s Embassies, 2nd ed

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Amarna Diplomacy: The Beginnings of International Relations

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Ottoman Diplomacy

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Summits: Six Meetings that Shaped the Twentieth Century

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Twentieth Century Diplomacy: A case study of British practice, 1963-1976

Book review by Geoff Berridge What is so original about the book is that the author has asked himself: What are the major forms of diplomatic contact? And followed this with the question: How and to what effect were they each employed by one state over a period sufficiently short to make detailed research possible […]

English dragomans and oriental secretaries: the early nineteenth-century origins of the anglicization of the British embassy drogmanat in Constantinople

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Just a Diplomat

Close students of the new, Conservative Party Mayor of London, the at once engaging and alarming Boris Johnson, will know that he has Turkish cousins. One of these is Sinan Kuneralp, a son of the late Zeki Kuneralp, probably the most distinguished and well liked Turkish diplomat of his generation. Sinan Kuneralp is a scholar-publisher and runs The Isis Press in Istanbul, a house at the forefront of publishing scholarly works and original documents on the Ottoman Empire, chiefly in English and French. The three works noticed here are all its products and reflect the publisher’s own special in...

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Side-Lights on English Society, or Sketches from Life, Social and Satirical

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Regionalism in the Post-Cold War World

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Kautilya’s Arthasastra on war and diplomacy in Ancient India

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Diplomacy at the Highest Level: The Evolution of International Summitry

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The History of Diplomatic Immunity

This is a massive book in more than one sense. It is over 700 pages long, including an invaluable bibliography which itself stretches over 70 pages. While dwelling chiefly on the Western tradition, it also takes in the Ottoman Empire and the Far East. It begins in ancient times (though having less on the second […]

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Bertie of Thame: Edwardian Ambassador

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A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor and the Standards of the West

Note: The author of this review compares Noam Chomsky's A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor and the Standards of the West and David Fromkin's Kosovo Crossing: American Ideals meet Reality on the Balkan Battlefields.

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British Envoys to Germany 1816-1866

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Documenting diplomacy, Evaluating documents: The case of the CSCE

Part of Language and Diplomacy (2001): Rather than individual documents, Dr Keith Hamilton looks at the process and purpose of compiling collections of documents. He focuses on his own experience as the editor of Documents on British Policy Overseas, and particularly on his work publishing a collection of documents concerning the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe from 1972 until 1975.

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A Diplomat in Japan

The first portion of this book was written at intervals between 1885 and 1887, during my tenure of the post of Her Majesty's minister at Bangkok. I had but recently left Japan after a residence extending, with two seasons of home leave, from September 1862 to the last days of December 1882, and my recollection of what had occurred during any part of those twenty years was still quite fresh. A diary kept almost uninterruptedly from the day I quitted home in November 1861 constituted the foundation, while my memory enabled me to supply additional details. It had never been my purpose to...

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Years of Upheaval

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Under the Wire: How the telegraph changed diplomacy

Nickles, who is a State Department historian, has written what I believe is the first full-length study of this important and intriguing subject. Excluding an introduction and short conclusion, it has seven chapters presented in three parts ('Control', 'Speed', and 'The Medium'), each having a chapter devoted to a case study: the Anglo-American crisis of 1812, the further Anglo-American crisis of 1861 ('the Trent affair'), and the Zimmerman telegram of January 1917 - which of course also involved the United States.

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English Medieval Diplomacy

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Munitions of the Mind: A history of propaganda from the ancient world to the present era

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Byzantine Diplomacy: Papers of the Twenty-fourth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies

The papers presented at the 24th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, held in Cambridge in 1990, are collected in this volume. It is a detailed examination of Byzantine diplomacy from the empire’s emergence in late antiquity to its death throes when the Ottoman Turks conquered it. This is not just a narrow study of political […]

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A History of Diplomacy in the International Development of Europe, vol. 1

Although special questions and particular periods of diplomatic history have been carefully studied and ably discussed by historical writers, it is a noteworthy fact that no general history of European diplomacy exists in any language.

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Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana

This book went to press after the much-publicised handshake between US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in December 2013 – but before their historic, simultaneous announcements a year later, assisted by a prisoner exchange and the good offices of the Vatican, that they were resolved […]

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The origins, use and development of hot line diplomacy

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The Office of Ambassador in the Middle Ages

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The Power of Small States: Diplomacy in World War II

This Is an inquiry into how the governments of small and militarily weak states can resist the strong pressure of great powers even in crisis periods. The continued existence and, in deed, startling increase in the number of small states may seem paradoxical in the age of superpowers and the drastically altered ratio of military strength between them and the rest of the world. It is well known that the ability to use violence does not alone determine the course of world politics. Some of the other determinants can be observed with exceptional clarity in the diplomacy of the small ...

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British Diplomacy and the Descent into Chaos: The career of Jack Garnett, 1902-19

I am in favour of biographies of relatively obscure individuals like Jack Garnett because there are plenty of them on the famous; moreover, studies of this kind often turn up interesting details (including how the famous were seen from the foothills) and stimulate thought on bigger questions. John Fisher’s well written and thoroughly researched study of this early twentieth century British diplomat, into which contextual detail is expertly woven, is no exception.

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Diplomacy and Secret Service

Intelligence officers working under diplomatic protection are rarely out of the news for long, and the last two years have been no exception. How did the relationship between diplomacy and secret intelligence come about? What was the impact on it of the bureaucratization of secret intelligence that began in the late nineteenth century? Is diplomatic immunity the only reason why intelligence officers still cluster in embassies and consulates today? What do their diplomatic landlords think about their secret tenants and how do the spooks repay the ambassadors for their lodgings? These are among ...

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The evolution of diplomacy in the Caribbean

This paper will focus on the development of diplomacy in the Caribbean and how it impacts the development of small Caribbean States, paying attention to the regional, bilateral and multilateral levels of diplomacy.

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Guicciardini on Diplomacy: Selections from the Ricordi

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Curing the Sick Man: Sir Henry Bulwer and the Ottoman Empire, 1858-1865

This is the first book of a very promising young historian. Laurence Guymer, who is head of the Department of History at Winchester College and a research associate in the School of History at the University of East Anglia, has produced a biography of Sir Henry Bulwer that successfully challenges the conventional account of this colourful mid-Victorian figure. It also raises the question of how ‘diplomatic success’ is judged.

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The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and third president of the United States (1801-9), was one of the warmest and most influential American supporters of the French revolution. He had also been a diplomat. In fact, he had joined the American mission in France in 1784, and replaced Benjamin Franklin as minister in the following year. He witnessed the outbreak of the revolution in 1789 and was then appointed secretary of state by George Washington. This scintillating book by Conor Cruise O'Brien, himself a former diplomat, analyses the blossoming and slow - very sl...

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Tilkidom and the Ottoman Empire: The Letters of Gerald Fitzmaurice to George Lloyd, 1906-15

Gerald Henry Fitzmaurice was Chief Dragoman at the British Embassy in Constantinople before the First World War and George Ambrose Lloyd was a young Honorary Attaché based in the Embassy from the autumn of 1905 until the end of 1906. In Gerald Fitzmaurice (1865-1939), which leans heavily on the private letters that Fitzmaurice wrote to Lloyd between 1906 and 1915, I describe the ups and downs of the close friendship which developed between them. I also deal more or less fully with many of the subjects raised in the letters. Why, then, publish them separately?

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The Origins of the Diplomatic Corps: Rome to Constantinople

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A Manual of Greek Antiquities

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The Rise of Modern Diplomacy, 1450-1919

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The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present and Future of the United Nations

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Diplomacy with a Difference: The Commonwealth Office of High Commissioner, 1880-2006

Book review by Geoff Berridge

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Politics and Culture in International History, 2nd ed

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The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics 1851-1945

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Room for Diplomacy: The history of Britain’s diplomatic buildings overseas, 1800-2000

Mark Bertram joined the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works after reading architecture at Cambridge and remained in the civil service as architect, project manager, administrator, estate manager and – in his own words – ‘quasi diplomat’ for the next thirty years.

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Politics and Diplomacy in Early Modern Italy: The structure of diplomatic practice, 1450-1800

This collection of essays, edited and well introduced by Daniela Frigo of the University of Trieste, reflects the comparatively recent rediscovery of interest in the diplomacy of their own peninsula by Italian historians. (The only non-Italian contributor is Christopher Storrs.) All of the essays are of a high standard and most contain much new research. Adrian Belton is, therefore, also to be congratulated for making them accessible to English readers by means of his excellent translation.

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International Diplomacy Volume I: Diplomatic Institutions

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The Diplomats, 1939-1979

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The Imperial Component in Iran’s Foreign Policy: Towards Arab Mashreq and Arab Gulf States

One of the most important developments the Middle East has witnessed in the 20th centaury was the success of the Iranian revolution of Islamist ideology, with ambitions to control.

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The First Resort of Kings: American cultural diplomacy in the twentieth century