Photograph by Ludovica Colacino
Welcome to Elsewhere
Essay on the strange border politics and domestic frontiers of embassies, for NOIT 5: Bodies as in Buildings, an edition of Flat Time House Gallery’s journal produced by RCA MA Writing students as a collaborative publication. The book is available here.
A shorter version of the essay was published in June 2021 as ‘The Doorstep is a Border’ in the zine accompanying The Courtauld Institute’s MA Curating show, Both Sides of Here: Artistic Encounters at the Threshold. The zine can be viewed in full here.
In London’s classic consular districts, the square white townhouses seem benignly regular in their near-orthodontic alignment. The embassies of Mayfair, Belgravia, and South Kensington are modestly marked by brass plaques and national flags. We would rarely reflect on the strangeness of these independent territories in such affluent settings – wide, solid streets lined with wrought- iron railings and fatly-established broadleaf trees. Here, their blank facades appear neutral, naturalised, normal.
Through the glass patio doors to a glamorous evening reception: cocktail frocks, candelabra smoulder, slicked hair, clustered roses. The Ambassador, ‘known for his exquisite taste’, nods knowingly at his white-gloved and bow-tied butler. A golden pyramid of Ferrero Rocher is borne amongst the guests, who ‘delicious’ emphatically in multiple tongues. An almost parodically French woman whispers flirtatiously over The Ambassador’s shoulder: ‘Monsieur, with these Ferrero Rocher you are really spoiling us.’
In kitsch soft-focus, the 1993 commercial indulges a pop-cultural fantasy that each ambassador is a professional party host – and they have indeed chosen a career dependent upon an ability to receive and be received. Guests in another nation, with an official ‘home’ always open to compatriots in need of urgent assistance, their success hinges on constant bilateral hospitality.
Next time I seek an American visa, I will step off the South Bank streets into the United States, into a billion-pound ‘home’ where nobody lives, where the walls speak for themselves, where artworks allegedly testify to our shared knowledge in their common tongue, yet cannot possibly protest against anything. The strangest part is that such absurdity goes unnoticed – the rules of the game appear perfectly reasonable.
Art works as a welcome, and it works hard. As one press release enthused, Flat pack house ‘greet[s] most embassy visitors as they enter into the lobby through the consular court’. It would be quite fantastical to be personally received by this cookie-cutter dwelling from another era, an affordable option for working-to-middle class aspirants looking for space beyond the city. But what is Flat pack house supposed to say to me, as I enter the supposed residence of one the world’s most powerful diplomats? Ambition, fresh starts, independence, progress, the American Dream. All flattened into aesthetically gentle geometry, consecrated in concrete, writ in the walls.
Image & Design: Emily Schofield