Skip to content

Arne Jacobsen's Embassy Building

The Danish Embassy in London was designed by the famous Danish architect Arne Jacobsen. It is a purpose-built embassy in a strong, modernist design, which houses the chancellery functions as well as the ambassador’s residence. Henrik Mouritzen, who worked on the project for four years, describes the layout and intentions of the building.

The Danish Embassy was up to 1977 located in several buildings in Pond Street and Cadogan Square. Due to the inconvenience of this arrangement and the fact that the leases were about to expire, it was decided to build a new embassy encompassing all chancellery functions and the ambassador’s residence.

""
The Danish Embassy on Sloane Street in 2014 (Photo: Kåre Gade / Danish MFA).

Cadogan Estate, the prime landowner in Chelsea, planned to develop a speculative office block in Sloane Street and offered to construct a building which incorporated the Embassy's requirements. However, as Cadogan Estate was unable to carry out the scheme, the site was offered to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on a 99-year lease for them to build a new building to suit the Embassy's requirements.

The brief for the embassy was prepared by The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Embassy headed by the then ambassador Erling Kristiansen. In 1969 Architect Professor Arne Jacobsen's office was appointed to do the architectural design, in line with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ then policy to use venerated Danish architects when establishing representations abroad. Following Arne Jacobsen's death in 1971 the design was carried on by the practice under the name of Dissing+Weitling, working with Ove Arup Partnership in London, which was appointed as the Engineering and Quantity Surveying consultants.

In November 1971, after demolishing the existing buildings, the Danish Government temporarily postponed the development due to economic reasons. The empty site was then for four years leased to a car parking firm to minimise the economic loss. The project and thus the design was revived in 1973, with the architects in Copenhagen and the engineers/quantity surveyors in London, a situation which required frequent visits to London. In 1974 this lead to the establishment of an office for the undersigned in Ove Arup's premises in London to facilitate design coordination, negotiations with the authorities and tendering for the work.

An obvious problem was to fit in a fairly large building (approx. 6500 m2) into the relatively small scale of the neighbouring buildings. The design was made in respect to the scale and the traditional composition of buildings in the area, while at the same time creating a functional entity encompassing the embassy's fairly strict requirements and, naturally, creating a contemporary building.

""
9 June 1975. The Danish Queen Margrethe ll lays the foundation stone (Photo: Henrik Mouritzen).

This resulted in a 6 floor main building towards Sloane Street; with the lower four floors protruding to the height of the parapets of the adjoining buildings, the upper two floors set back to visually respect this level. The elevation towards Sloane Street is divided vertically into five bays reflecting the party walls of the former buildings (as seen in the narrow adjoining houses) as well as horizontal divisions into four levels matching dimensions and decorative details of the adjoining houses. Towards Pavilion Road the building is in two storeys, matching the scale of the adjoining mews houses. The courtyard created between the two buildings mirrors the courtyard across Hans Street.

""
Rear elevation seen from courtyard. Note the original colour (Photo: Henrik Mouritzen).

The original colours of the building were chosen to blend in with the colours of the surrounding buildings. The cladding of the three office floors and the mews upper floor is made from aluminium. The cladding was sprayed in a light sand yellow colour with the recesses and top floor in a darker sepia brown colour to emphasise the buildings modelling. The colour has since been changed.

The ground floor, enclosed by a grey bushhammered concrete wall for security reasons, is detailed in an ashlar type pattern based on the basic design module. The grey concrete and the modular pattern are continued in the visible structural walls. To lessen the rather harsh appearance of the ground floor wall towards Sloane Street, the artist Ole Schwalbe created a mural reflecting the decorative details of the buildings in the area to fit the basic design module.

""
Ole Schwalbe's mural reflects the decorative details of the buildings in the area (Photo: Henrik Mouritzen).

After the start of construction, following the increase of IRA bombings in England, additional security arrangements had to be made. Furthermore, due to strikes resulting in frequent power failures, a standby generator was included.

The building's function is straightforward: The main entrance faces Sloane Street and gives access to the chancellery with the visa and information department on the ground floor. Access to the ambassador's residence is from Hans Street via an entrance hall and lifts. Originally this entrance hall also gave separate access to a lecture and exhibition hall on the ground floor, thus allowing for venues independent of chancellery and outside office hours. Today this hall is part of the Icelandic Embassy with a separate entrance on the corner of Hans Street.

The fifth floor contains the ambassador's semi-private reception rooms, which can be linked and used alone or together, including the dining room adjacent to the kitchen and support facilities. The reception rooms open out to a generous balcony facing Cadogan Garden. Two bays have small conservatories for special plants. To the rear is a more private study with access to a balcony facing west.  The sixth floor is the ambassador’s private area.

""
The Embassy's terrace and staff flats in 2014 (Photo: Kåre Gade / Danish MFA).

The mews building contains four flats for embassy staff. One bay houses the canteen kitchen. The courtyard allows vehicular access from Hans Street to the ambassador's residence. From Pavilion Road there is trade and staff access to parking garage in basement. Part of the courtyard is covered by terraces accessible from the canteen which links the two building and covers the party wall to the neighbouring property.         

A two stage tendering procedure was adopted to speed up work, which means that a main contractor, doing the preparatory work and the coordination of sub-contractors work, was appointed first and nominated sub-contractors subsequently chosen through separate tenders. This procedure meant loads of negotiations and vital design coordination, which again required that the detailed design be carried out in close corporation with engineers and contractors, leading to the establishment of an on-site design office in 1976.

""
Henrik Mouritzen on the Embassy's terrace in 2014 (Photo: Kåre Gade / Danish MFA).

The construction work began in April 1975. Three foundation stones were laid in June same year by Queen Margrethe II, Lord Cadogan and Ambassador Erling Kristiansen and the building was handed over to the Embassy in September 1977.

Ambassador Jens Christensen was appointed in 1977. Ambassador Erling Kristiansen, the then doyen of the Diplomatic Corps, who had been the primus motor of the project, never came to live in the new residence.  

Henrik Mouritzen
Job architect, London