Estonia is one of a score of London’s 160 or so embassies and high commissions which have relocated in the past five years, most moving out of the favoured Blue Plaque, blue chip parts of Belgravia, Mayfair and Kensington. But unlike other diplomatic missions, Estonia’s new home, opened in 2015, is only a couple of streets away from its former building, just south of Kensington Gardens.
Estonia’s blue, black and white banded tricolour now flies from a house in a spacious and pleasingly regimented Italianate terrace, developed in the mid-19th century. Each side of Queen’s Gate Terrace consists of a single continuous block of masonry. Stuccoed in white and cream, with fancy plaster decorations, each block is a like huge rectangular wedding cake, sliced seamlessly into fifty town houses. Though similar in their neo-classicism, they’re not siblings.
While the south side, majestic in its pomp, was built by William Harris in 1856-8, the north side (the Embassy is number 44) is slightly less grand, and dates from 1859-60. Cherry and Pevsner in the Buildings of England guide credit it as the work the “otherwise unknown” James Matthews, praising the balconies and pedimented roof-level dormers of the frontages.
Indeed it’s the elegant frontages which still set the tone of streets around Queen’s Gate; but inside the Embassy, while respecting and restoring the structure and layout as needed, Estonian architects firm, Doomino Arhitektid, has set the stage for interior and lighting designers to create an ambiance of Estonia.
White walled rooms prevail but the designers (KAOS Arhitektid), inspired by nature – Estonia, in its Nordic-Baltic fastness, is a land of wetlands, woodlands, watercourses, lakes and misty terrains – use them as backdrops for creating pools of colour. The theme of nature is reflected in fabrics, carpets, furniture and lighting in every room. Often photographic images of natural features are used directly, or as the basis for fabric design.
The palette is extraordinary for its range and subtlety. In the main first floor room, once the drawing room, chairs are covered with material in tones of cloudy grey, white and black; the carpet that climbs the stairs has all the rich, muted colours of marshland vegetation. And in rooms where once heavy Victorian chandeliers hung there are striking modern ones with a bunch of lights slim and white as birch bark, made by Keha3. (Overall lighting design is by Priit Tiimus and Tipritt Valgusdisain.)
The basic shape and layout of the house accommodates its Estonian design input very well. Like its neighbours, No 44 has four floors, with basement and mews behind; the Victorians lived tall and narrowly. The Embassy has made a few much needed adaptations. The back yard, giving onto the mews, is now an attractive decked patio and spacious toilets have been created on the ground floor. They’re worth a mini-visit because they’re behind a glass wall screen with a huge photo-image of a wild landscape. Once inside there’s a surprise soundtrack No, not a waterfall (that would be a cliché) but birdsong – the call of nature you could say, as Estonia has more than 370 species and almost 50% of its land is covered by forests.
A visit to the Estonian Embassy feels like a short trip to Estonia within London.