Architect Wanchul Lee; Designed Secure, Innovative U.S. Embassies

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 15, 2008

Wanchul Lee, a leading Washington architect known for his work on U.S. embassies abroad and for his innovative design of public buildings in the District and Northern Virginia, died Feb. 15 at his home in Washington of complications from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 72.

Mr. Lee was recognized as a pioneer in finding ways to provide greater security to U.S. diplomatic facilities with the least possible sacrifice in accessibility and aesthetic quality. He completed more than 80 projects for the State Department, designing new embassies or renovating existing ones in Finland, Denmark, Chad, Ethiopia and other several countries. His work often involved considerable personal risk, his family said.

He redesigned U.S. embassies in Beirut and Tel Aviv during times of great instability, and the State Department turned to him to build new facilities at the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania immediately after the former embassy was destroyed by terrorists in 1998.

The American Institute of Architecture recently recognized Mr. Lee's lifetime achievement in embassy design by selecting him as a fellow.

Born in Seoul, Mr. Lee endured the ravages of the Korean War as a teenager. Although his family was displaced and rendered penniless by the war, he graduated from the Kyonggi Boys' High School, which has produced many of Korea's top leaders.

He then spent a year at Seoul National University before accepting a full scholarship to Miami University of Ohio, where he received an architecture degree in 1961. After working with prominent architects in New York and Boston in the 1960s, Mr. Lee established Wanchul Lee Associates in 1973.

Throughout his career, he worked on government offices, hotels and motels, schools, multi-unit residences, offices and restaurants. He gained prominence in the Washington area in 1983 through his design of the Mondrian apartments at 12th and N streets in Northwest Washington.

In a 1983 Washington Post article, then-architecture critic Benjamin Forgey praised Mr. Lee's "low-key Modernist approach" in designing the apartments, which consisted of three buildings: -- two nine-story blocks on N Street and a row of four-story units facing 12th. "Lee's thoughtfulness yields dividends," Forgey said.

Lee said at the time: "I didn't start with a design style in mind, but with the idea of building a place for people to live in. My feeling is if you do that right, then the building will automatically be interesting."

Mr. Lee also upgraded schools and other public buildings in the District and Northern Virginia. His most visible projects in Washington include the Republic of Korea and Cote d'Ivoire chanceries on Massachusetts Avenue's Embassy Row.

At the time of his death, Mr. Lee was associated with the Washington office of KlingStubbins and looking forward to projects in Korea and Boston.

Survivors include his wife of 38 years, Virginia Lee of Washington, and a daughter, Lilian Lee of New York.

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