Diplomacy by design
Explore the International Chancery Center in Washington, D.C.—no passport required
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 5/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
“Embassy Row” still means Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. So what does that make the International Chancery Center, a hilly 47 acres exploding with a diverse group of new diplomatic buildings? Perhaps Disneyland for contemporary- architecture buffs.
This intriguing counterpoint to fashionable (and crowded) Massachusetts Avenue began developing more than 30 years ago, when Congress set aside former National Bureau of Standards land for international use, responding to the many newly independent countries in need of embassies in the capital. Initially, some missions rejected this “diplomatic ghetto” in Northwest as isolated and lacking in prestige. But they came to appreciate the location’s advantages: increased security and reduced zoning hassles. Israel built first, in 1980, followed by Jordan and Kuwait. As one designer notes, the architecture of these three structures is simply “low-key and safe.” The second wave of building, which started with Singapore in 1991, changed that. All told, 18 embassies will eventually cluster on either side of Van Ness Street, between a residential neighborhood and a commercial strip of Connecticut Avenue. They include Austria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Singapore, Slovakia, and the United Arab Emirates. Morocco has yet to begin construction; China is about to break ground on a complex by I.M. Pei.
One of the most notable chanceries to date is Nigeria’s. The AIA award-winning building by Shalom Baranes Associates Architects consists of two stone-clad elements, one curvilinear and the other angular. Together, they enclose a glazed atrium that’s contemporary in character while drawing on a traditional form that design principal Robert Sponseller discovered when reading up on West African architecture. The reference is to an impluvium: a courtyard ringed by individual structures under a communal roof. Despite Sponseller’s enthusiasm for this metaphor, the client was more interested in bold lines and luxe materials. “The Nigerians didn’t want nostalgia,” he says. “They prefer to be seen as a modern democratic state.”
Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest nations, requested a building to project economic aspirations and cultural pride. “Developing countries need a showplace to compete on the world stage, something with a little flair,” says Edward Garcia, an associate at SmithGroup. Helping the Bangladeshis make an impression, SmithGroup’s 45,000-square-foot chancery displays a striking inverted-gable roof representing an abstract water lily. To save money, the firm limited its use of creamy Mankato limestone to the front and rear facades and specified ground-faced cement block for side elevations. For the atrium lobby’s flooring, SmithGroup applied Burlington slate to rich effect, using the blues and greens to create a “riverbed” pattern. “We focused on bold moves, a neutral palette, and materials that aren’t high-end but can last a long time,” says Garcia. “The architecture doesn’t require certain kinds of finishes to work.”
Budgetary constraints are further complicated by a dilemma particular to embassy design: When security requires heightened separation between public and private spaces, a sense of procession becomes much more difficult to orchestrate. D. Rodman Henderer, vice president and design principal of RTKL, handled that situation beautifully at the Embassy of Ethiopia. With a series of winding stairs, he carries the eye from reception to the ambassador’s offices.
Henderer is aware of the pitfalls of embassy projects. In the words of one anonymous architect, they can frequently be “unique” (a nightmare) because they involve “a lot of very important people” (committees of bureaucrats thousands of miles away) who have “particular needs” (stroking of national egos). To be fair, though, points out Henderer, “You’re dealing with people who’ve never been through the building process before-they’re diplomats. They educate us about their culture. We educate them about design and construction.” Or think about it another way, he suggests: “For U.S. embassies in foreign countries, we wouldn’t be building Mount Vernons.”
The light fixture in the library at the Singapore Chancery echoes RTKL's cruciform plan for the building as a whole.