Given the current state of world affairs, one might conclude that a new embassy should be designed with a fortress mentality—that is, as a massive and inward-focused building providing safe haven from unpredictable attacks. Not so at the new House of Sweden, that country's secretariat and cultural center in Washington, D.C., which appears to have all the protective power of delicate crystal. “When we started out, we asked the clients about their security needs,” says John Jessen, head of the D.C. office of VOA Associates, the project's architect of record. “But the Swedes said, ‘No, we are friends to people. We want the building to be transparent.'”
That mandate produced a jewel that shimmers along the banks of the Potomac River, providing occupants with views of nearby Roosevelt Island and landmarks such as the Kennedy Center. In concept, the building was intended as a metaphor for Sweden's natural assets: clean water, crisp light, and blond wood. The embassy's lead designers, Swedish architects Gert Wingårdh and Tomas Hansen, won the commission in a competition among five of the country's top architects. Their charge was to bring all things Swedish into the project, resulting in a facility that incorporates Swedish building materials, highlights Swedish businesses and products, and even demanded the involvement of Swedish workers in the making.
Dedicated in October 2006, the 85,000-square-foot embassy is a symbol of Swedish hospitality. It provides administrative offices, exhibition space, a high-tech business event center, and 19 apartments that open onto balconies distinguished by dramatic, backlit, wood grain–patterned glass panels. The two lower floors—which house publicly accessible spaces for conferences, exhibitions, and special events—showcase an architecture of wood, glass, and stone. All of this is composed in the spirit of Scandinavian minimalism and bathed in natural light, which in the northern latitudes of Sweden is considered a luxury in itself.
Balconies Viewed by day or by night, the most compelling aspect of the House of Sweden is the band of projecting balconies that wraps the building façade. Wingårdh first likened the balconies to a traditional Swedish lantern and initially designed their outer surfaces as a wood veneer sandwiched between sheets of tempered glass. Mockups of the assembly were ordered to gauge the cost, but the pricing exercise also raised concerns about fading, mold, delamination, and different rates of expansion between wood and glass. “The panels looked great, but we decided against them because the manufacturers wouldn't warranty the system,” says VOA project manager Warren Wick.
The alternative choice was to render the wood grain on a graphic film that had fewer maintenance concerns and offered a wide range of opportunities to manipulate the pattern's color and scale. For the wood-grain design, Wingårdh's firm enlarged a maple pattern. Scandinavian Glass Systems (SGS), a Swedish company, used a special PVB (polyvinyl butyral) film for digital printing. After printing, the film was placed between two tempered glass panes and baked at a high temperature in an autoclave. SGS manufactured as well as installed the ½-inch-thick panels.
To give the fourth-and fifth-floor balconies a uniform nighttime glow, linear fluorescent lights were concealed behind aluminum cover plates beneath the lower balcony floors inside the building's glass curtain wall. There is a circuit on each façade on every floor, so the building manager can independently control all the lighting fixtures in each face of the building. The balconies are post-tensioned concrete cantilevers.
Rain Screen Opaque sections of the building façade consist of a rain-screen assembly that highlights another Swedish building system. Made in Belgium and fabricated in Sweden by SGS, the glass panels extend from the building surface on a matrix of 12-inch stainless-steel pin mounts. Wingårdh specified a ceramic frit pattern on the glass that references Scandinavian winters. “It recalls a kind of fog, the condensation you get on glass in the Nordic region,” explains Wick. Close inspection reveals that the rain-screen glass is transparent on the lower level, with panels that become increasingly opaque as they rise up the face of the building. (This pattern of increasing opacity contrasts with the glass stair tower on the north façade, which gradually turns transparent as it reaches the sky.)