Architecture of the Embassy
In 1956, the Czechoslovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to construct a new building of the embassy for the diplomatic mission in London. Czechoslovakia leased a land on the borderline of Kensington and Notting Hill on the corner of Kensington Palace Gardens.
Moving from Grosvenor Place where the Embassy was originally situated meant leaving the neighbourhood of Buckingham Palace and London government quarter. Nevertheless, Kensington Palace Gardens represents apparently the most exclusive address in the capital, which is sought after by the most influential and affluent members of the London society. Thus, Czechoslovakia gained more than a dignified substitution.
The new Embassy was designed by the architects Jan Bočan, Jan Šrámek and Karel Štěpánský from the atelier Beta Prague Project Institute. The first phase of project planning started in 1965; the construction was completed five years later.
The building of the Embassy of Czechoslovakia was divided into two parts. The smaller one, facing Kensington Palace Gardens, was used for the working activities of the embassy. A great hall designated for representation events pervaded the first two floors. Other rooms, situated on the ground floor and the mezzanine, were similarly intended for social meetings. Offices were placed on the upper floors. The bigger object, facing Notting Hill Gate, should function as a residential building. Four floors were filled with employees’ flats, most of whom had a duplex character. The ground floor consisted of consulate offices and smaller representation rooms. The mezzanine was full of offices belonging to the commercial section of the embassy. There was a dining room on the fifth floor. Changing rooms, garages, a spacious cinema auditorium and connecting corridors between the buildings were situated in a basement.
The construction of the Czechoslovak embassy in London was considered a modern creative act. Czech architects sidelined the social realism of the preceding century and claimed their allegiance to the then modern brutalism. The objects of the embassy were made of reinforced concrete panels, glass creating long rows of windows and wooden partitions separating the interiors. The austere architecture refused any decorations. The aesthetic effect of the building lied in the combination of coarse concrete and glass surfaces. Instead of embellishing the buildings with decorative ornaments, the makers favoured traces arising during the construction process in contrast to traditional architectural styles. Therefore, the decoration was replaced with remaining uncovered joints between panels and by grooves caused by pneumatic drills and removed formwork.
The decoration of the embassy was not limited only to brutalist austere effect of concrete. It was further completed with paintings, sculptures, reliefs, graphics and tapestries in the interiors and partly in the exteriors, as well. The works of art with a strongly abstract overtone inconspicuously fitted into the whole. Šrámek’s atelier gave chance to then starting designers who count today among the most famous names of the contemporary Czech modern art and whose masterpieces can be found in the collections of the National Gallery. Stanislav Kolíbal, Adriana Šimotová, Aleš Veselý, Jiří John or Eva Kmentová – these are the names of the reputable artists who participated in the decoration of the embassy in London.
The construction of the embassy was in motion at the same time when a complex of buildings serving as a new cultural centre built in the spirit of the same architectural style, situated on the southern bank of the River Thames, was being completed. Robert Matthew, an author of the Royal Festival Hall, constituting the most important object of that complex, collaborated with Czech architects on the final realisation of the embassy. His authority contributed to the fact that in 1971 the embassy in London gained the most prestigious architectural award from the Royal Institute of British Architects for the best building in the United Kingdom created by foreign architects.
After the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, the complex of the embassy was divided between both successor states. The original building of the embassy passed to Slovakia whereas the Czech Republic gained the building designated for flats and the commercial and consular section. The Slovak part is more abundant in art elements. Nevertheless, even the Embassy of the Czech Republic contains many appreciated works of arts such as abstract reliefs on perimeter walls by Stanislav Kolíbal.