By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, November 25, 2006
Thanksgiving weekend can bring to mind the word "smorgasbord," one of those wonderful nouns that somehow sound like what they represent.
Imported from Swedish to English, smorgasbord means a buffet piled high with various and presumably delicious foods. Used metaphorically, it can describe diverse arrays of anything, including architecture.
Characterizing a building as a smorgasbord suggests either a mix of functions or a melange of architectural elements chosen to satisfy multiple aesthetic palates.
A case in point is the new House of Sweden, erected in Georgetown at the confluence of Rock Creek and the Potomac River. Compared with other embassy buildings, it is a functional smorgasbord and somewhat less of an aesthetic smorgasbord. It contains not only the Embassy of Sweden but also public exhibition spaces, conference rooms, outdoor terraces and, on top, two floors of apartments for corporate tenants with links to Swedish business and commerce.
The Swedish foreign ministry and its project architects, Gert Wingardh and Tomas Hansen, started with a very valuable site. Anchoring the southeast corner of Georgetown, the rhombus-shaped, commercially zoned property faces south and has spectacular views up, down and across the Potomac River.
With Rock Creek along its east side, the parcel is bounded on the west by 30th Street NW and Washington Harbour, itself a visual and functional smorgasbord designed more than 20 years ago by Arthur Cotton Moore. The city's only appropriately dense, mixed-use commercial complex directly abutting the Potomac River, Washington Harbour has been very successful in animating the Georgetown waterfront.
Immediately north of the House of Sweden, Moore more recently designed a new office building with massing and proportions similar to the embassy. It fills out the long, narrow block between the embassy building and Whitehurst Freeway.
Architects Wingardh and Hansen were in Washington last month to attend opening events at the House of Sweden. Winners of the 2002 embassy design competition sponsored by Sweden's foreign ministry, they made presentations explaining their architectural strategy for this unique site and unusual functional program.
The Swedish National Property Board's project director, Jan Thews, introduced the architects by stating the Swedish foreign ministry's primary aspiration: a building that would say "Sweden." The government sought architecture expressing Swedes' culture, technology, design sensibility and even Swedish democracy. The building was to embody and display the "soul of the country."
This aim called for "openness, refined simplicity and transparency." In architectural terms, it suggested plenty of glass and no concrete barriers. It implied highly visible and very inviting modern architecture that would capture both light and views. And it meant paying little homage to Washington's Colonial or neoclassical design traditions.
The new edifice generally achieves the ministry's objectives. The architects made liberal use of large sheets of glass. Rather than making a bold design statement by juxtaposing contrasting shapes or crafting a three-dimensional collage of colliding forms, they opted for rational, rectilinear geometry. The formal simplicity is enhanced by a limited palette of exterior materials.
Cantilevered upper floors are the only visually dramatic massing gesture, yielding a two-tiered, emphatically horizontal box perched lid-like atop the building. Because of the setback and transparency of glass-enclosed floors below, the cantilevered box seems to float yet looks ponderous.
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.