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House of Sweden, a Multifunctional Space With a Sense of Place

The Swedish Embassy, public spaces and apartments are all part of the multitasking House of Sweden in Georgetown.
The Swedish Embassy, public spaces and apartments are all part of the multitasking House of Sweden in Georgetown. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

Memorable as this gesture is, the lack of facade articulation and detail also makes the building's scale enigmatic. Vertical facade expression has been suppressed, further emphasizing the uninterrupted horizontality.

The interior is more of a smorgasbord. While floor, wall and ceiling surfaces are systematically modulated, finish materials, colors and textures are diverse. Designers employed varieties of wood, painted plaster, stone and stainless steel, along with clear and artistically etched glass.

Views from inside are fabulous. Entering from 30th Street NW, visitors immediately see a fully glazed exhibition and reception space occupying the entire south end of the entry level. It offers a panoramic, 180-degree river vista.

Because the site slopes down toward Rock Creek, the floor below entry level opens out to the eastern landscape. The architects exploited the topography well by placing a spacious foyer, meeting rooms and an auditorium on this level. Descending from the entry level to the lower level, an open stair slides past a two-story wall of glass separating a rectangular pool of water inside the lobby from a matching pool of water and terrace outside, overlooking the creek.

Except for the auditorium, painted black with a ceiling too low for the proportions of the room, this level works well for receptions, giving visitors a view of the creek instead of the river.

Vertically punctuating all this is a free-standing, steel-framed, glass-clad elevator shaft and cab providing access to upper levels and the two floors of apartments. They also have magnificent views of the Potomac River and the city, but only if you stand and walk out beyond floor-to-ceiling glass walls onto the cantilevered, wrap-around balconies. The apartments are intentionally hidden behind the opaque, horizontal facade bands that serve as balcony guardrails.

With monthly rents in five figures, apartments have small bedrooms but beautiful kitchens and stylish, European baths. Of course, most appliances, cabinetry and furnishings are Swedish, much of it supplied by Ikea.

Illuminated at night, when it stands out noticeably on the Georgetown waterfront, the House of Sweden glows with its radiant, horizontal bands of amber and white. Indeed, the building is easy to spot in the evening not only from distant points located up, down and across the river, but also from airplanes flying over the river.

The House of Sweden undeniably shines, even without quite becoming stellar architecture. Yet by committing to openness, transparency and accessibility, it sets an admirable example for building design in the nation's capital, just as a few other embassy buildings have done.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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