It’s 9:15am at the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi, and HMA Ambassador Philip Parham is leading a daily breakfast briefing in the dining room of his official residence. As talk turns to an energy summit currently happening in the city, Luz, the residence’s housekeeper, tops up everyone’s teacups and replenishes the platters of fresh fruit.
‘We find people enjoy being welcomed into something that they think is a home much more than something that they feel is an institution,’ says Parham. ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it.’
After a decade working in the private sectors of Tokyo and London, Parham traded in investment banking for foreign diplomacy in 1993, rising through posts in Washington DC, Riyadh, New York and Dar es Salaam to become British Ambassador to the UAE. ‘If you’re walking around, particularly in the area around the embassy, it’s a very peaceful place to be,’ he says of the Abu Dhabi neighbourhood he and his wife Kasia relocated to six months ago.
“We don’t really feel like it’s an office. We feel that it’s definitely a home”
The residence and its surrounding embassy complex occupy a large, one-block compound in the district surrounding Qsar Al Hosn, just a short hop from Abu Dhabi’s Corniche and waterfront parks. An old photograph, blown-up and hung in the residence’s ground floor study, shows the site in the 1960s. ‘It’s just sand,’ Parham points out.
The residence was designed by the late John Harris, a British architect schooled in modernism at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. Despite having designed Dubai’s World Trade Centre, one of the most iconic buildings in the UAE (so much so that it decorates every 100 dirham banknote), Harris’ work has been largely undocumented; the exact date of the residence’s construction is unknown.
‘It feels very much of a ‘70s period,’ muses Marco Sosa, an architect and assistant professor at Zayed University, who researched Harris’ work while acting as head of design at the National Pavilion of the UAE for La Biennale di Venezia in 2014. ‘It has such a modest elegance around it. It’s so nice that they have kept it just as it is,’ he adds.
Harris’ residence for the British Ambassador is modernist, restrained and, in Parham’s words, ‘functional’: a simple, whitewashed, two-storey villa, with a wood-screened wraparound balcony that overlooks a large, verdant lawn. ‘It’s suitably modest, but I think it’s very welcoming,’ Parham says. ‘It’s not obtrusively stylish, but I like the design, particularly the entrance atrium, which goes all the way up to the roof. So, you know, it has local features – a bit of a local feel to it.’
Though a modernist, Harris designed the residence as he did the majority of his work in the UAE – to incorporate traces of an existing, Emirati vernacular. ‘Because he worked with HH Sheikh Rashid so closely, his work shows modern elements but, at the same time, is so much more sensitive and so much more culturally responsive than most works of a modern architect,’ says Adina Hempel, an architect and colleague of Sosa’s, both at Zayed University and the National Pavilion of the UAE.
The entrance atrium, Parham’s favourite spot, forms the heart of the home – rooms on the ground floor, such as the formal sitting room, ‘official loos’ and dining room, are entered by passing through it, while a gallery on the first floor overlooks it.
Although the atrium’s floor is tiled traditionally (with what Parham has heard to be the tiles from the former British Ambassador’s residence in Muscat, Oman), contemporary artwork from the UK Government Art Collection adorns its walls: a Hamish Fulton here, an Ian Whittlesea there.
A hologram portrait of the Queen – a gift from a Jersey minister to one of Parham’s predecessors – illuminates one corner of the atrium, like a ghost. ‘I have to say, I find it rather alarming,’ Parham says, flicking a switch to turn it off.
The atrium was designed by Harris as a nod to the layout of traditional homes throughout the UAE. ‘I think that’s one of the interesting bits,’ Sosa says. ‘You have this lobby which echoes the idea of an inner courtyard in, say, a traditional Arab household. You almost expect it to have a fountain in the middle.’
As the heart of the home, the courtyard forms the core of what Sosa describes as its ‘layers’ – the privacy settings of the residence. ‘You’ve got the garden, then the external façade of the building – the screens – and you can see that behind them is a balcony. Inside, you then have private spaces,’ he explains.
Only nosy neighbours living in the modern skyscrapers nearby can see beyond the residence’s perimeter wall. ‘This is the British Embassy compound,’ one of the surrounding towers’ residents wrote when blogging a picture of the view from her window. ‘Spy that I am, binoculars work well observing the many formal garden soirées, or when some distinguished sheikh arrives.’
Still, Parham’s private living quarters are upstairs and out of sight, comprising a private kitchen, a living room and one of five bedrooms. The other four bedrooms are used to accommodate visiting ministers, senior officials and one, or several, of Parham’s seven children, whose faces beam out from photograph frames that dot almost every spare surface.
‘The furniture comes with the house, and the pictures in the so-called “representational areas” come from the Government Art Collection. Family photographs are perhaps the main way of making an embassy feel like a home,’ Parham says, sweeping a hand towards his family portraits.
Despite both living and working in the same building, Parham does not feel as though he sleeps under his desk. ‘We don’t really feel like it’s an office. We feel that it’s definitely a home,’ he says.
Hempel attributes this to the architect. Harris’ design, she says, was kept at a human scale. ‘What’s astonishing is that it keeps a balance between its semi-public function as an ambassador’s residence, but it’s at such a scale that you can see there is human detail in it,’ she says. ‘There is actually a thought to how it would respond to a person.’
PHOTOGRAPHER Rebecca Rees
WRITER John Burns