In a career with the British Council that spans 35 years, Paul Smith has been posted to destinations such as Kabul, Mumbai and new York City. His mission, however, is much more that promoting the English language or British culture. “What we talk about is identity and building bridges,” Smith says. “What matters most to us is inclusion and relationships.” Indonesia Design sat down with Smith to explore this vision, as implemented in Indonesia and in the architecture of his office. Here’s our interview, edited for length and clarity.
Photos by Bagus Tri laksono
Describe the British Council’s different take on the national culture centre.
We are a doing organization, making things happen. libraries, film screenings and string quartets engage with too few people–and attract a limited, segmented audience. The British Council is not for British expats, which might sound quite cruel, but those people are already great friends of Britain. We’re moving beyond that, to young aspiring Indonesians who want some help that we’re able to give them–not who fundamentally want to know about the united Kingdom. We respect the motivations from the values of a person’s own culture. We ask what kind of safe spaces can we open with the ability to discuss issues and hold dialogs and forums? We’ve moved from “come to us” to “go to you” and to face-to-face engagement.
Why emphasize cultural relations?
“Cultural relations” is a real understanding between cultures–and prosperity and security in the 21st century depends on it. The big issues of the day are culturally determined. Culture is politics. It’s not part of some agenda. The British Council was founded in 1934 to do cultural relations when fascism was spreading across Europe. The united Kingdom, in an enlightened moment, said we can do culture in a benign, non-political way. So they set up a separate organization to express those values through an organization that was not part of the political structure. We’re 85 years old now, official but independent. We’re not subject to changes in the government. We are about nurturing relationships and contributing something to the prosperity and security of the country. We don’t have to toe a line.
Is this different from public diplomacy?
We’re separate from public diplomacy. I don’t like the term. Diplomacy is the government of one country communicating information to the government of another country in a benign way. It’s government influencing people for its self interest. What we want to be is
an enabling organization for the people of one country to engage across all sectors of social development. our purpose is to
engender trust, so when the political froth is too frothy, there are sound relations.
How do you do that?
By all of us getting out and about in Indonesia, building relations and nurturing collaboration with institutions, professional groups, collectives and innovative young people and by encouraging their individual initiative, social enterprise, creative industry and 21st century skilling. our mantra is that Indonesia is on a terrific socioeconomic trajectory but with too many people being left behind. It’s all about inclusive and enlightened prosperity and a celebration of this country’s extraordinary diversity with which uK experience, goodwill and zest for collaboration is so ready to engage.
Why have a British Council office in a free-standing space in Jakarta, versus inside a consulate, as in New York City?
The logistics for being independent mean that far more people are passing through the British Council than an embassy would allow. There are 30,000 students coming into the British Council office in Cairo. You’re not going to have an embassy that can accommodate a 30,000-person student body.
Any challenges with the open-plan office?
You can’t leave the clobber and clutter on your desk at the end of the night, so it takes 10 minutes to set up and 10 minutes to break down each day. If you leave anything on the desk, it goes in the bin. Sometimes staff wants to talk with you onfidentially–and people don’t want to book a meeting room to do so. We recognize that the office depends on private spaces. I sometimes feel it might be very strange, when meeting a department head or minister, who expect to meet me in a grand room with a personal assistant, then they find all the people working around me–and no PA!
Favourite British Council Offices
In 35 years with the British Council, Paul Smith has visited some impressive local offices, each with a unique take on the host nation’s culture. Here are a few of Smith’s architectural standouts.
The British Council office in new Delhi, India is the work of the famed Indian architect Charles Correa. Smith praises the in-built art and gorgeous Indian courtyards in the office, which is located in the city’ heart. The facade was the work of Howard Hodgkin, the late great contemporary British master whose works are currently exhibited by the Tate london.
In the mid-1980, Smith was posted to the British Council’s office in Kano, nigeria’s second largest city, just south of the Sahara. once a local potentate’s palace, the office was a “glorified mud hut” with absolutely Saharan architecture that evoked Paul Bowles’ “Sheltering Sky” or Timbuktu. “It was an extraordinary building. The library was inside a sun-baked mud room, which was a little out of place for British pomp.” local designers were tapped to adorn the walls with their artistic creations, making into a “marvellous” place to work, he adds.