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2007 May: Ambassador's Residence, Steven Holl Architects (Washington DC, USA)

The architecture of diplomacy has a distinguished recent history. Signalled in 1931 by the embassy and residence designed by Edwin Lutyens that created a grand country house for the British ambassador in Washington DC, it has been advanced by inspired, albeit unbuilt, proposals by Louis Kahn and the Smithsons for new buildings in Luanda and Brasilia, and more recently completed projects like those in Dublin and Berlin designed by Allies & Morrison (AR April 1996), Snøhetta (AR March 2000) and Rem Koolhaas (AR May 2004).

House and garden

House and garden

Like many of these buildings the new Swiss Residence is a strange hybrid. Planned to shelter private worlds it also serves as a cultural focus, business centre and public meeting place. And while this building is located on a site with long views to a distant horizon that characterize the expansive territory of the New World, it is also an emblematic outpost for a tiny mountainous country wedged into the heart of Europe.

Inspired by the particular complexities of this project, Steven Holl worked with Swiss colleagues to develop a plan that collects spaces together into a single building located on a broad flat platform of stone. This conspicuous constructed plateau creates a generous reception courtyard alongside a reflecting pool and herb garden as a memorable place of arrival for residents and guests alike.

A slim porte cochere signifies and dignifies the main entrance

A slim porte cochere signifies and dignifies the main entrance

The building is bracketed to this stone platform by solid end walls of stacked charcoal coloured concrete blocks that echo the colour and texture of the stone terrace. However, a series of four roughly symmetrical cut-aways reveal an inner ice-like translucency. Made up of overlapping skins of glass, these layers of sand-blasted structural glass planks, clear glass, solid infill and framed windows combine to form ambiguous and abstracted patterns that confound the familiar domestic scale of a house. This is contradicted further by changing reflections in the mirror-like surface of the ‘pool and the lit interior spaces that appear at dusk and transform throughout the day.

Internally the spaces have been layered to distinguish between public space and private territory. The public areas - two formal dining rooms, three salons and a reception hall - provide a generous ensemble of rooms that are separate yet connected.Skewered by a diagonal view from the entrance hall which extends through the house to the Washington Monument in the distance, each of these major spaces has also been organised to open out to a terrace defined by the glassy wings of building and views out to the horizon beyond. Upstairs is a collection of rooms defining the residence itself and suites of rooms for guests.

Interiors are modern, elegant and unstuffy

Interiors are modern, elegant and unstuffy

The design commands a stillness yet also reflects the intense collaboration between Holl and his colleague the Swiss architect Justin Rüssli. However, it also locates this project within a larger body of work by Steven Holl - an architect who persistently explores the phenomenological qualities of architecture through radical investigations of the potential of material and the merging of object and field. Many of these studies were inspired by the writings of French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and in his discussions about this particular project Holl has highlighted Merleau-Ponty’s ‘in between reality’ as an influential concept. For Holl it is ‘perhaps analogous to the moment in which individual elements begin to lose their clarity’. I

A reflecting pool subtly amplifies an architecture of coolness and stillness

A reflecting pool subtly amplifies an architecture of coolness and stillness

It is an idea that has clearly shaped the architecture here and at the same time is one that resonates with the essence of this building - a building where the obvious typological precedent of the house regularly loses its clarity and is blurred by the spectacles of entertainment, business and the formal and informal dramas and innuendos of diplomacy.

Speaking of his design for the US Chancellery and Residence in Angola, Louis Kahn suggested that it was inspired by light. ‘You cannot forget’ he noted ‘that light of a certain character has to do with that which distinguishes the architecture of one region from that of another’.2 In this context Steven Holl’s Swiss Residence brings about a remarkable transformation of space and light to create an icy stillness that locates the building between realities.

The scale of the entrance hall reflects the need for ambassadorial spectacle

The scale of the entrance hall reflects the need for ambassadorial spectacle

I. Informal notes by Steven Holl elaborated in Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture, William Stout Publishers, 2006, p45.
2. Louis Kahn, Louis I. Kahn (1961), interview in Alessandra Latour (ed), Louis I. Kahn: Writing, Lectures, Interviews (New York: Rizzoli, 199 I), p124.

FACT FILE

Architect Steven Holl Architects, New York
Photographs Andy Ryan

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