Sweden’s new embassy in the USA is located on a virgin site between the shores of two rivers at K Street in the middle of Washington D.C. The site marks the beginning of the historic neighbourhood of Georgetown with its roots in the 17th century; a district bounded in the east by the little river known as Rock Creek and in the south by the mighty meandering Potomac River. The new embassy lies precisely at the confluence of the two waterways. The location was decisive in ending the search by the Swedish National Property Board (sFv) for a suitable site which had been under way since the 1960s.
Given the striking site, it was not surprising that the competition jury for a design for the embassy, entrusted the brief to Wingårdhs, an architectural practice that has a strong reputation for its boldly expressive buildings. The choice of architect challenged the National Public Art Council to choose someone for the artistic treatment of the building with an equally forceful and independent voice: Ingegerd Råman (b. 1943). Visitors to the House of Sweden will, for the first time, be able to see her working in glass on a monumental scale. They will also meet her as a furniture designer for the first time.
March 6 a. m. is the title of her work, chosen as a reminder of the life giving time of the year in Sweden when the ice begins to break up on the rivers and coal-black water washes over frosted ice-floes. The choice of title itself can be seen as an expression of the fact that Ingegerd Råman wanted, right from the earliest stages of the project, her artistic treatment to be understood as an addition to the architectonic qualities of the building. A dialogue with the House of Sweden’s Scandinavian elements which were already apparent when, in 2005, she was selected to undertake the task. This commission gave her an opportunity to operate on a very much larger scale than with the classical ceramic and glass domestic wares that she has worked with and assiduously refined for almost four decades.
As an embassy, the House of Sweden is an unusual construction project. Besides the embassy (on the middle floor) the building also houses apartments (at the top) and premises for conferences and other public events on the bottom two floors. The Scandinavian attributes-such as the blond wood and the large expanses of glass that give a feeling of transparency as well as letting in the light-were among the reasons for the Swedish National Property Board (SFV ) choosing the proposal presented by Gert Wingårdh and Tomas Hansen in 2003. SFV had chosen the site on account of its “typically Swedish character” with close proximity to the natural world.
The Swedish National Property Board was keen that the embassy building should communicate a symbolic view of Sweden. The physical result closely reflects the modern image of Sweden to which the design boom of the 1990s and 2000s has contributed so much. The building thus avoids the pitfalls of miscellaneous styles and competing types of expression, being an architecture that is characterized by the frank simplicity of the aesthetic that also articulates Scandinavian design. And even if, by analogy, one can claim that the building emphasizes traditional welfare-state Sweden rather than present-day multicultural Sweden, the architects Gert Wingårdh and Tomas Hansen employ an aesthetic that they manage with the greatest skill. In the way in which they modulate the reflective glass and the attendant transparency they display no less skill than Ingegerd Råman.
In the two public floors of the building-the entrance level and the conference premises on the floor below that face onto Rock Creek-the walls are glazed from floor to ceiling and sections of them can be opened. In this context the transparency can readily be interpreted symbolically: Sweden is a country that is just as open and accessible as the new building.
Ingegerd Råman’s March 6 a. m. is to be seen in the public part of the building. She has had a great deal of space to relate to, some 30ooo ft in total. And it is an experience to see just how well she succeeds in controlling the space and the vast rise in scale from the hand-driven glass table ware and cylindrical vases that many people associate her with.
March 6 a. m. begins in the narrow entrance to the foyer level-a typical Wingårdh feature that raises our expectations of what is to come and that takes the form of a cube-like wind trap made of glass. Ingegerd Råman accentuates the architecture by literally bringing the water from outside into the building and letting it run slowly down the glass walls of the wind trap. The effect is striking. The technique emphasizes the genuine sensation of coolness on entering the building from what is often, in Washington, a very hot outdoor atmosphere.
Immediately to the left in the adjoining open space the flood of light that strikes the retina is interrupted by something black. The white floor, with intermittent black elements, is here transformed into a 23 ft long rectangle of matt and polished black granite. On the far end of the rectangle, exactly opposite the western end of the entrance cube’s living walls of water, Ingegerd Ramån has placed a glass wall of the same height. The glass has been produced using a traditional technique that makes it look like frozen water with ice-roses. And in the conference premises on the floor below she lets the water assume a state in between frozen and running, a condition that is seen every year when the ice begins to break up. Seven rods made of glass patinated with ice-roses are placed in a row in a shallow pool of water with black granite lining the pool. When the light strikes the glass rods from certain angles they seem like ice-floes beneath the water. The watery element is in precisely that state that it assumes in March, just as implacably dramatic as the spring.
Here beneath the stairs that link the two floors it is the architects who have led the water into the building; a poetic metaphor for a pond in a Swedish forest. The concept of using the material and the shape and blackness of the floor above to reflect the architects’ explicit metaphor creates a current, a totality of the transcendence of the water. From running water to ice and back; from transparently vital bubbling to an unruffled, inky black mirror.
The pool and the floor, the white with black elements that is re-interpreted in her rectangle by black in black, exemplifies the architectural details that Ingegerd Råman has chosen to enlarge upon. Among the more prosaic and, on occasions, awkward demands that prospective tenants are wont to put forward, was the request on the part of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of seating for visitors. There was a proposal to place furniture on the black rectangle, thus encroaching on the architecture and the artistic treatment of the building. This led to an intense and constructive discussion which resulted in a straightforward question: Would Ingegerd Råman be interested in designing the furniture herself?
Now her interpretation of a Swedish school bench, with a high-gloss black finish and leather-clad cushioned seating, is situated on the rectangle, parallel with the outer wall. Opposite there are two asymmetrically positioned high tables. The circular tabletops are made from black granite and they are supported by glossy enamelled tubes embedded in the floor.
It is fascinating to see how the furniture reflects the very precise proportions that characterize her glassware; the aesthetic that makes her artefacts – here in the form of furniture – unmistakably her own. All the inner tension that gives them the appearance of being stretched to their absolute limit is present, as is the characteristic balance that enables them to be at rest in the room; a force that is as powerful, invisible and inexorable as magnetism that gives them a precisely determined and unwavering equilibrium.
When considered in dialogue with the architecture, the material and the theme of the building, this effort to absorb everything into a sense of calm can be said to characterize Ingegerd Råman’s entire contribution. The field of tension between the forest pool, placed edge to edge with the wall od the conference floor that faces onto Rock Creek and the rectangle that is surrounded by running water edge to edge with the glass wall of the entrance floor facing onto K street serve further to emphasize the vertical axis – a glazed lift shaft that runs through the entire height of the building – which is the hub of the architecture.
March 6 a. m. unifies the rooms. And it seems disarmingly natural that, here too, Ingegerd Råman takes water and transparent glass as the central elements. The scale may be much larger and the commission may differ from her previous undertakings; but the aesthetic remains unmistakably hers.