Ask somebody to picture an embassy in London, and their mind will likely conjure up images of grand buildings dotted across the heart of the city. China’s townhouse on Portland Place, for example, or the Netherlands’ mansion in South Kensington, which is just a few doors down from the Royal Albert Hall, or the imposing Grade II listed Australia House on the Strand.
Few would instinctively veer towards a surburban house in Willesden, north London, which looks no different to any other on its road – aside from, that is, the flag pole in its front garden. Or to a semi-detached in Ealing. Or to an office block in Hammersmith. But for countries like Cambodia, North Korea and Tajikistan, their embassies are metaphorically and geographically miles away from the palatial splendour enjoyed by the majority of London’s diplomatic corps.
So strange appears the Cambodian Embassy’s suburban location that it became the subject of Zadie Smith’s short story, The Embassy of Cambodia, which opens: “Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia? Nobody. Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it. It’s a surprise, to us all. The Embassy of Cambodia!”
Smith’s book points towards the commonplace assumption that embassies are, at the least, grand buildings located in the parts of London that very few could afford to live in. Does maintaining this aura matter in 2019? According to both diplomats and experts: not really.
Iulian Fruntasu, the former ambassador of Moldova to the Court of St James’s, has positive reflections on his time spent based in Moldova’s quaint embassy in leafy Chiswick. He described the joy of his commute to work, a seven-minute bike ride, and wryly noted that with regards to embassy locations “diplomacy now is played everywhere, including the Millennium Hotel, where tea comes with polonium instead of sugar or manipulation of referenda”.
Fruntasu also pointed towards the symbolic importance of the US embassy’s move to Nine Elms last year, long planned since George W Bush’s presidency. Its former Grosvenor Square location, arguably one of London’s most famous embassies, failed to meet the heightened state department requirements for embassy security introduced following the 1998 bombings at the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. In 2006, it even provoked a hunger strike from a local resident, who just happened to be a Russian countess, over the potential security threat brought to those living in the area by the embassy’s presence.
Evidence also suggests that avoiding the London property market’s sky-high prices is proving irresistible to many countries in a post-Great Recession world. In 2013, Greece sold its consul’s Holland Park villa for £23.3m as part of a privatisation programme to address its sovereign debt crisis. The Netherlands, also set to move to Nine Elms, was estimated in 2014 to have saved its foreign affairs ministry €185m with the sale of their South Kensington embassy, allowing them to halt the closure of consulates in Antwerp, Chicago, Milan, Munich and Osaka.
In 2013, the Evening Standard described the sale of central London embassies as creating “£3bn of super-prime homes in the most exclusive streets in the capital”, something that strikes a discord six years later in a UK acutely aware of the dire consequences manifesting from housing shortages. Fears that Nine Elms and the area around the new US embassy would become filled with hundreds of “buy to leave” properties appear not to have manifested to the extent many feared, but it is clear that for most embassy sales those benefitting in the long run are those least in need of new residences.
But why were these huge buildings so important in the first place? According to Venetia de Blocq van Kuffeler, the editor of Britain’s foremost diplomatic publication Diplomat Magazine, much of this boils down to how, in the days before mass tourism, an embassy was often the only representation that many would see of a country, and was therefore of huge importance as a manifestation of a nation’s identity.
“Hundreds of years ago an embassy and the physical building in London was the main impact that [a] country had in London, in the UK, and in many countries case in Europe” she explained, adding that “the physical manifestation was really important in terms of their image”, noting that in an age of globalisation and 24-hour news cycles this is now of little importance.
That’s not to say that being close to the heart of power isn’t something that is still being taken into account by London’s diplomats. According to John Mulyran, the managing director for Nine Elms’ property developer, Ballymore, one of the things that sealed the deal when the US was choosing its new embassy location was that Nine Elms is a shorter walk to the Houses of Parliament.
Is the era of Mayfair, Belgravia, and South Kensington being the must-have embassy areas coming to an end? Nine Elms is marketed as “London’s new diplomatic precinct”, but has yet to see any big moves beyond the US and the Netherlands, which is yet to actually move, with China deciding against moving there in 2018 and instead going for a space in the City of London.
What is clear is that in an era in which countries have had far greater financial priorities than the prohibitively expensive maintenance of Kensington Palace Garden mansions, the spaces in which diplomacy in London is played out will continue to expand – meaning suburban embassies like Cambodia’s will become increasingly less surprising.