This week I had the good fortune to visit the Swedish Embassy (House of Sweden) in Washington DC. (No, I did not visit the DC IKEA...) What I found was a beautiful piece of modern architecture showing many of the traits people have come to expect from contemporary Scandinavian design. Powerful themes such as water, ice, forests, stone, the darkness of Nordic winter and the lightness of Arctic summer echo through the architectural form and material palette of the building. Combined throughout the interior and into the spatial experience, these primal elements reinforce the architects vision that the visitor is stepping into a cooler Nordic environment filled with glowing light, dark lakes and pristine forest.
House of Sweden architects, Tomas Hansen and Gert Wingardh of Wingardhs Architects, were given a very simple design brief. "Design a building that communicates the message that Swedish government and politics are characterized by transparency and openness." The designers add that "We are proud to say that we have a transparent and open form of government in Sweden, and so we wanted the building to match this transparency by showing what goes on inside. We have tried to create a building that conveys something uniquely northern, like the low setting sun at dusk that creates a very reddish light. We wanted the building to glow with the same light."
The concept of a Nordic Light is used repeatedly in the embassy. Most dramatically, the architects placed a cantilevering glass rectangle at the third level which is imprinted with computer generated images of wood veneer. (The original intent was to use real wood veneer, but due to the humid climate in Washington the designers were forced to improvise.)
“We decided to go for a computer-generated, exaggerated wooden veneer, which was printed on a film,” says Wingårdh. “This goes back to the great Swedish tradition of imitating wood and marble in what used to be a rather poor country.”
Elsewhere in the building glazed panels are screened with a gradient density dot matrix to create the effect of fog. These panels are used to illicit a sensation of descending through space in areas like the grand staircase to the exhibition halls and the exterior egress stair.
The wood veneer presented on the exterior of the building is again reinforced on the ceilings, walls and detailing of the interior. Lay-in maple veneered ceiling tiles with randomly placed circular holes create a ceiling plane that designer Hansen describes as "cloudlike." Handrails and curtain wall panels (where not just butt-jointed) are light maple wood.
To contrast the warm wood ceilings and floors, the architects also introduced water elements. For instance, water cascades gently down both sides (right and left) of the entry vestibule to mark the passage from exterior to interior. The water is sandwiched between two layers of glass so there is no splashing or spill onto the adjacent surfaces. The effect is quite calming and unexpected. The second water element is located on the basement level under the stair at the exhibition level. It is a dark (slate possibly) shallow pool of water designed to recall the "dark bottomless tarns found deep in the woods of Sweden. Interestingly the pool parallels the Rock Creek flowing just feet away from the building.
Spaces inside the 69,000 sf, five story, building include the main Swedish embassy, several exhibition spaces, a daycare center, and two floors of apartments and offices for use by the Swedish business community. "House of Sweden [is] a highly visible platform for the country and its commerce, culture, science, and diplomacy."
I must also add that it was a pleasure to visit the embassy. It does just what the architects claim in terms of openness and transparency. The feeling was more of being in a well designed museum space than a bureaucratic labyrinth. One quote in particular stands in contrast to most ideas about embassy design (especially US embassy design):
"The House of Sweden's combination of public and official activities and the broad expanses of glass run counter to the prevailing notion that embassies must be fortified bunkers.... few nations can afford to do it... we can"
- Ambassador Gunnar Lund