Artistic Interpretations of Sweden, Inside and Out

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."

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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