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?"
Not all unions share that sentiment, however. Tom Owens, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO's building and construction trades department, which represents 2.5 million plumbers, iron fitters and electricians, said that the union understands that foreign countries feel compelled to use their own workers.
"We would love to have the jobs, but at the same time we understand diplomatic security," he said.
Wang Baodong, an embassy spokesman, said he is unaware of the reason that China brought in its own workforce, nor could he detail how many workers were brought in at any time, except to say "several hundred." He also could not say how much the project cost.
Wang said, however, that a local construction company he identified as Cherry Hill was hired to work on the site before the building was constructed. In explaining why Chinese workers were imported, he said the custom "is not special to China. It's an international practice to have your own workers build embassies."
Nicole Thompson, a State Department spokeswoman, said that it is unusual for foreign governments to use only workers from their countries. Thompson also said that a bilateral agreement between Chinese and U.S. officials, enacted for the construction of the two embassies, allowed the countries "to use their own workers to build their respective facilities."
Building an embassy on foreign soil has often been fraught with cloak-and-dagger complexity, especially between superpowers that do not trust each other. In 1985, the United States halted construction of an embassy in Moscow after U.S. officials found electronic surveillance devices in the walls.
The United States has shown that it, too, can dabble in embassy espionage. In 2001, federal investigators revealed that the United States built a secret tunnel beneath the Soviet Embassy in the District, with the hopes of checking up on Russian chatter.
In Beijing, as well as anywhere else that the United States builds embassies, American workers construct the areas in which intelligence or sensitive information is disseminated, said Joseph Toussaint, managing director of project execution for the State Department's Bureau of Overseas Building Operations.
American-hired contractors are free to employ local workers for unclassified areas, such as a cafeteria, parking lot or auditorium.
In Beijing, where the United States' $464 million embassy is to open Aug. 8, contractors employed as many as 1,000 Chinese workers, Toussaint said. He said 300 to 400 Americans worked on the project.