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Jonathan Allen

Former Ambassador to Bulgaria

Part of UK in Bulgaria

30th April 2014

The Architecture of How We Work

In recent weeks, I have walked into three very different sorts of buildings and had three very different sets of reactions.

With Labour Day approaching, this has got me wondering: are buildings designed to have an impact on those that work in them, those that visit them, or both? Do people behave differently in a different workspace? Or do our buildings simply reflect the time they were constructed, making them of greater interest to the historian than the manager?

My first visit was to the Council of Ministers building in Sofia, one of the triangle of communist-era government buildings. Once inside you walk up a staircase beneath an enormous crystal chandelier, before emerging into a vast marble hall, overlooked by numerous arches and pillars. The scale of the hall is clearly designed to impress, but how?

There are two impacts that I felt from this building. Its grandeur says “we [the governing] are powerful; you [the citizen] are puny”. And the many arches and pillars allow for perfect hiding places. You would never know who was watching and listening to you. So it also says, “we know who you are and what you are”. It is not a place I could feel comfortable as a visitor; how about as a worker there?

The second building was the UK’s Foreign Ministry, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). I saw it through the eyes of a visitor when I walked up the main staircase with President Plevneliev.

This is Victorian grandeur at its height. In contrast with the FCO’s working rooms, which are plain in décor with modern furniture, and cramped, the Grand Staircase and Locarno Rooms are ornate and lavish. There are enormous frescoes depicting Britannia in various classical victorious and benevolent poses, normally with her foes at her feet and her allies clustered around her. It is fair to say the frescoes would not be considered the height of contemporary good taste.

The aim is also to impress, not, as with the Council of Ministers building, through scale and might, but through opulence and longevity. The building says “welcome to the home of a great power, with a proud history, that has won great victories and achieved great accomplishments; welcome to Great Britain”.

However, a visitor (or even an employee) might wonder about the age and style of the decoration. Is this a contemporary message? Is the FCO living on past glories, or present realities?

And so to my third workspace, the modern glass and chrome offices of a leading UK company. This was a place of light and space, of open-plan working and meeting pods. Furniture was modern, décor minimalist. Silver birch and steel dominated. I suppose it too was designed to impress, with a message of modernity, openness and, through its prime location, affluence.

For all that, though, it lacked any distinctive quality. The building could have been anywhere in the world, let alone the UK. The occupants could be doing anything. Whatever the origins of our government buildings in Bulgaria and the UK, they remind us who we are and that we work there.

In both the FCO and the Council of Ministers, we need to be comfortable with our pasts, reflected in the design of the buildings. Confidence in our history enables us to navigate our futures. But we cannot remain stuck in the era of construction. As I write, a major refurbishment is underway in the FCO, to transform the working offices into modern, open-plan spaces that can encourage modern working practices.

The embassy too has been transformed into an open plan, collaborative environment, in which I have given up my office and sit with my team. Diplomatic and local colleagues sit together; all are equally valued. A modern office such as this encourages open minds and sharing; it encourages communication between colleagues and collaboration. Transparency and openness are of course the values we aspire to in public service; maybe if we practice it ourselves, we are better able to show it to the public.

Perhaps this fusion of old and new will be the best reflection of all of today’s Britain. That’s an inspiring thought for a British diplomat to take to work with him.

About Jonathan Allen

Jonathan Allen was British Ambassador to Bulgaria from from 2012 to 2015. He then returned to the UK to take up the position of Director for National Security at the…

Jonathan Allen was British Ambassador to Bulgaria from from 2012 to 2015. He then returned to the UK to take up the position of Director for National Security at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

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