They built this in Rome, and next to Michelangelo last building design, the Porta Pia gate in Rome’s Aurelian walls.
The Brits periodically blast their concrete embassy with water jets to clean it up, so this is about as bad as this 1971 Brutalist effort by Sir Basil Spence ever looks before they hose it down again. Of course, when they were building it, they thought it looked new and clean compared to all the dirty old buildings in Rome designed by Michelangelo, Bernini, and Borromini.
But then it turned out that A) you could jet blast the old piles and get the soot off them; and B) their new concrete buildings got dirty really fast, even now when far less coal is being burned.
Something that fascinates me is the change in tastes over time. One weird thing is that people in different eras don’t just disagree over tastes, they can have a hard time seeing what seems obvious to people at other times.
Today, for example, this 1971 upside down step pyramid is reminiscent of similar Brutalist designs of the era, like the widely hated 1972 Boston City Hall. Some people like them, other people don’t.
You might think that observers back then would say things like, “Hoo-boy, these early 1970s buildings sure look early 1970s-ish.”
But back in 1971, the New York Times was most struck by how much the new British embassy resembled the 400-year-old Michelangelo building next door when it should have looked more early 1970s-ish. It was criticized not for looking like an upside-down MesoAmerican human sacrifice platform, but for being too “fussy and stylized” with an “overconsciously esthetic exterior” for the modernist tastes of the time in which decor was despised as reactionary.
Sir Basil Spence, the architect, has obviously tried to design the embassy in harmony with the historic Porta Pia, built to Michelangelo’s designs for Pius IV in 1561. The exterior of the embassy is made of blocks of travertine in three layers, giving a fortress‐like impression. This choice of style was apparently suggested by the sturdy gate and crenelated wall of Porta Pia.
The stonework of the embassy is the same beige color and the top of the massive iron entrance is the same shape as the Michelangelo gate.
Yet critics generally feel that Sir Basil has not succeeded as he did with his most famous work, St. Michael’s Cathedral at Coventry, built next to the ruins of the old cathedral destroyed in World War II.
“The embassy building is too fussy and stylized,” a young American architect said recently. “Using single pilotti to support the building causes extra complications, not to mention expense. But a prime objection must be that the exterior has nothing to do with the interior.
Thirty years later, everybody was agog over Frank Gehry’s L.A. Disney concert hall, which is a box hidden under a big metal abstract sculpture.
Why have so many odd‐shaped and arbitrarily grouped rooms, punctuated by little stairways, bathrooms pushed into odd corners, and more rooms against the inner wall, put there as if by accident? I feel the inside has been made to accommodate the overconsciously esthetic exterior.”
Granted, the ancient Romans loved concrete buildings too.
But here’s an example of a second century AD Roman concrete building.
All-in-all, postwar British architecture was remarkably bad.
But in defense of this building, bomb-proofness was a priority because the previous British embassy in Rome had been blown up in 1946 by Zionist Irgun terrorists.