- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2006

Washington finally has a new building worth a celebratory yodel or two. The residence at the Embassy of Switzerland, built on a hilltop in Woodley Park, gratifies in its skillful manipulation of architecture’s essentials: light and space.

This uncompromisingly austere building, inaugurated today with Swiss-themed festivities, is more proof that most arresting architecture in town is being built by foreign dignitaries. Its stark planes of black and white make the recent designs of the Finnish and Italian embassies look fussy in comparison.

The two-story residence is the first building in Washington by Steven Holl, a 58-year-old New York architect admired in design circles for his modernist rigor. His most acclaimed work is the Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, which soon may be eclipsed by his luminous addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., due to open next year.

Maybe it’s because he hails from Bremerton, Wash., where sunshine is scarce, but Mr. Holl has made light his signature, and his adept use of it transforms the boxy Swiss residence into a beacon of design. In this tough little building, light is filtered through translucent and transparent surfaces that challenge conventional notions of window and wall.

Mr. Holl collaborated on the design with Justin Russli, a young Swiss architect who used to work for him and now runs a firm in Lucerne. The pair won a 2001 competition for the embassy building, which replaces a 1926 house (built by Henry Wallace before he was elected vice president) in poor structural condition. For his part, Mr. Russli seems to have pushed his former employer’s minimalism in an even more austere direction.

Part of the Swissness of the nearly 14,000-square-foot main building is its cross shape, an obvious reference to the country’s emblem.

On the ground level of the arms are meeting, dining and reception rooms for diplomatic functions, dully decorated by the Swiss design firm Zed with mostly brown furnishings.

Home to Ambassador Urs Ziswiler and his wife, Ronit, is a no-nonsense apartment on the second floor with a living room open to the kitchen. There also are living quarters for a butler and a chef upstairs, and a separate caretaker’s cottage next to the residence.

Though abstract, the residence reflects the conservative underpinnings of Mr. Holl’s architecture. “I’m very much trying to make my work about a broader sense of time,” the architect says by telephone from his Manhattan office. His calm, somewhat dour building is far removed from the frenetic expressions of the avant-garde, the result of carefully considered proportions based on the golden section, a tool commonly applied to classical architecture.

Tautly composed of planar walls, with nary a curve in sight, the residence pays homage to Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier’s early modern villas and the chancery next door, a 1950s brick pavilion designed by Swiss-born William Lescaze, one of the earliest practitioners of European modernism in the United States.

Mr. Holl and Mr. Russli also deferred to the embassy’s surroundings by accommodating a view of the Washington Monument from the hilltop. The cruciform plan of the building is shifted at a slight diagonal from the street grid so the obelisk can be seen from the rear terrace and, when the leaves fall from the trees, the south-facing salon.

On the exterior, the architects have capitalized on their cross to balance weight and lightness, a recurring theme in Mr. Holl’s work. Rough concrete walls, formed to resemble stone ledges, cover the ends and extend onto the walls enclosing a precinct around the building. Smooth glass lines the L-shaped inner facades that cup terraces and courtyards. In their absence of color, the almost black walls and sandblasted glass might be seen as representing Swiss political neutrality.

“The idea came from my first visit to Switzerland in 1970s,” Mr. Holl says. “I remember sitting on the train and staring out at the charcoal rocks and ice while moving through the Alps.”

Ice certainly is suggested by the crystalline glass facades. The effect is achieved by German-made structural glass planks that can span large distances and don’t require mullions or spandrel panels. Applied over insulated walls, the sandblasted channels look white. Layered over panels of translucent glass, they create shadowy squares and rectangles that make the icy enclosure look as if it is melting.

During the day, these patches appear grayish, while at night, they glow softly next to brighter illumination from clear glass windows. The variation in intensity creates an alluring pattern of light across the facades, unfortunately marred by too-bright floodlights at the roofline.

Inside the residence, the light show continues. At the heart of the building is a two-story entrance hall with a glowing plane illuminating the staircase leading to the ambassador’s apartment. It gives way to diplomatic rooms that embrace the outdoors through tall planes of glass. (Shades automatically roll down over the windows when sensors on the sedum-planted “green” roof detect that conditions are too sunny or windy.)

Portions of the ceilings and walls in these rooms are animated with lighted recesses. Strips of paving in the outdoor spacesbetween the four wings of the cross are similarly cut out and filled with stones and plants.

Such consistent details extend the architects’ vision to nearly every surface of the residence, both inside and out. This is architecture as precisely tuned as a Swiss watch.

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