Artistic Interpretations of Sweden, Inside and Out

(Jahi Chikwendiu - Twp)
By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 21, 2006

Some national distinctions might blur in an era of globalization, but there's no mistaking the gleaming glass prow on the Potomac for anything but a new Swedish embassy.

Themes of water, ice, the black of night, the whitest snow and the clear light of the longest Nordic day are expressed in expanses of glass, marble, smooth Swedish maple and the unexpected presence, indoors, of lakes and ponds. Two cascading waterfalls set the stage at the front door. A visitor experiences the uncanny sensation of walking into an Ingmar Bergman film.

This is Swedish design diplomacy in action.

Three years in the making, the bold, angular building on 30th Street NW will be inaugurated tomorrow and Monday by Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia. Hundreds of blue and yellow flags will flutter in Georgetown. Leading Swedish rock band the Ark will supply a 21st-century soundtrack for outdoor boardwalk festivities.

Wednesday, the public will be invited to step through the glass entry chamber to view the building. Four design exhibitions await, the first in 18 months of architecture and design exhibitions intended to introduce Washingtonians to the House of Sweden.

"They will see terrific architecture, a building that epitomizes Swedish and Nordic openness," Ambassador Gunnar Lund says.

The exhibitions promise a glamorous excursion into high-tech fashion; no-nonsense product design (including safe helmets for skiers and ergonomic handles for bicycles); tantalizing artistry in gold and silver; and two rooms devoted to the island psyche of Gotland, otherwise known as the place where the incomparable Bergman lives and makes films.

The 70,000-square-foot embassy building is set at a bend in the river between Washington Harbour and Thompson's Boathouse. The spare mix of white stone, blond maple and glass has already become a striking new landmark on the Georgetown waterfront.

The Swedish architects, Gert Wingardh and Tomas Hansen, anchored what is essentially a six-story glass box with marble steps and a simple colonnade. Upper floors extend outward to take advantage of the needle-shaped site. A rooftop terrace offers one of the best views in Washington -- the Kennedy Center ahead to the left, the Key Bridge just visible to the right, and the brilliant autumn leaves of Theodore Roosevelt Island across the water.

Embassy staff moved into the building in August. In keeping with a desire for more openness rather than less, the structure was designed to accommodate conferences and exhibitions. Upper floors include corporate apartments, several with balconies overlooking the passing boats and sculls.

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 doing it," Lund said. "We can."

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