Embassy Opening Puts Spotlight on China's International Stature

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2008

Soon after Richard Nixon's historic trip to China in 1972, Chinese officials opened diplomatic offices in downtown Washington, a dozen rooms at the Mayflower Hotel.

In a symbol of its growing stature, China inaugurated its new Washington embassy this week, a fortress of glass and limestone that consumes almost the length of an entire block of the international enclave just off Connecticut Avenue.

The opening last night drew a large crowd of diplomats and politicians, many of them swooning over the vaulted ceilings, skylights and wood-paneled walls. The building, which is far larger than neighboring embassies, was designed by two sons of I.M. Pei, the renowned Chinese American architect who beamed from the stage.

Construction of the China's chancery over the past three years has been a neighborhood curiosity, as well as a source of contention. The work was performed by laborers flown in from China, hundreds of men who took over two three-story barracks across the street and an entire Days Inn hotel on New York Avenue NE.

The embassy, which is a mix of triangular and square roof lines, does not overtly convey Chinese culture in its overall design. The 250,000-square-foot building includes a dramatic entrance hall with a 50-foot-tall ceiling, a 200-seat auditorium and spacious wood-lined conference rooms. Walls are made of limestone imported from France, and the floors are from granite brought from China. On the grounds are traditional Chinese rock gardens.

"We told the Chinese that the building should say something about China and its position in the world, as an emerging power," said C.C. Pei, who helped design the embassy.

"The design itself is not intended to be a visual interpretation of China itself," he said. "The sense of Chinese architecture that we're trying to bring out is more incidental, a sense of axis and symmetry."

Martin Moeller, a curator at the National Building Museum, said the embassy's architecture suggests I.M. Pei's taste for geometric forms, a taste that has shown up in his design of the National Gallery of Art's East Wing and the pyramid at the Louvre in Paris.

"You look at the building, and to the untrained observer it doesn't say Chinese architecture," he said. However, Moeller added, Pei's architectural vocabulary "carries with it the influence, indirect at least, of his home country."

China's decision to import its own workforce has prompted criticism from some U.S. labor leaders, who contend that the jobs should have gone to American workers, particularly at a time when an economic slowdown has rattled the construction industry.

The labor leaders point out that American-hired contractors employed hundreds of Chinese workers to build the U.S. embassy that is about to open in Beijing, a compound made up of five buildings on 10 acres.

"We're allowing them to import Chinese construction workers to do work that American construction workers should be doing," said Terry O'Sullivan, president of the Laborers International Union of North America, a Washington-based group that represents 508,000 construction workers. "We play by their rules in their country. Why shouldn't they do so in our country, with all due respect?"

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