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Artistic Interpretations of Sweden, Inside and Out

(Jahi Chikwendiu - Twp)

The building's geometry provides elegance and, from the river walk, the sensation of looking up at a ship's prow. It is both a lesson in Scandinavian spareness and an argument for the serene lines of the best modernist architecture.

The only suggestion of ornamentation is a marbled ribbon of glass panels, which wraps the upper-floor balconies. That striking pattern is achieved by computer-generated images of wood grain -- perhaps a suggestion of the vast forest tamed, or a reference to the Swedish tradition of wood painting -- sandwiched between panels of glass. When lighted at night, the facade glows like Viking gold.

Or, as the architects put it, "a Nordic light in the dark Southern night."

Inside, the subtler mysteries of Swedish culture come into view. The ceiling is layered with maple panels cut through with holes. The intent was to filter light "like an inverted cloud," according to Gabriella Augustsson, the Swedish foreign ministry's project manager for the building.

Exterior and interior glass walls provide unobstructed views of Rock Creek, which slips into the Potomac along the building's east side. Designers created their own course of water alongside, contained in black marble. The waterway appears to flow through a glass wall into a manmade pond that burbles under the grand staircase.

According to the ambassador, who paused on the steps this week, the black water is meant to recall the mysterious, bottomless tarns found in the deep woods. He pointed to milky white panels of glass on the staircase, which connects exhibition space to the Alfred Nobel "black room" below. The glass panels were dotted to defuse the light into fog. Mix a little fog, the black tarn and dense maple woods and "then you have Sweden," Lund says.

There were no Swedish meatballs on a preview tour, but one executive apartment furnished by Ikea and Bang & Olufsen offered an upscale version of the nation's well-known domestic style.

The four special exhibitions introduce less conventional aspects of Swedish culture.

"Sweden in Ten Perspectives" is an artistic exploration of fashion and high-tech textiles. Mannequins representing seasons and aspects of the Swedish psyche will be visible at street level on the boardwalk. The exhibition had yet to be installed on a visit Thursday, but Augustsson promised fashion with cultural meaning.

An exhibition of gold and silver art will show 90 objects, from walking sticks to bridal crowns. There will also be a display of award-winning innovative products, ranging from toys to an emergency rescue boat. A Volvo designed by and for women, which was briefly displayed two years ago at the National Museum for Women in the Arts, is recalled only in video. The green shag car mats are available for stroking.

The architecture honors Sweden's respect for the natural environment, although Anders J. Ericson. the embassy press counselor, acknowledges that there are no overtly "sustainable" ecological features in the design. The rooftop terrace is surrounded by crushed rock rather than a strip of plantings, he says.

More enlightening is the image of a stay-at-home father in a permanent display of digital photography.

Mysteries remain, though. The exhibition of artisan creativity from the island of Gotland includes electric light stools, which resemble small rocks embedded with rows of Christmas lights. Exhibition curator Tomas Bostrom has one of the stools at home. He uses it as a foot warmer.

"Life in Gotland is very gray and close to the sea," he says. "There's no way you can hide from the circumstances. You have to overcome it."

Sweden on the Potomac will open Wednesday at the House of Sweden, 901 30th St. NW. Wednesdays through Fridays, noon to 7 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays: noon to 4 p.m. Free.

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