- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2008

Now a world economic power, the People’s Republic of China is eager to establish an impressive presence in this country and its new chancery on Van Ness Street Northwest goes a long way to elevating the nation’s profile in Washington.

This nearly 430,000-square-foot complex of offices and reception rooms projects a much more sophisticated image than the dowdy Chinese Embassy in the former Windsor Hotel on Connecticut Avenue.

The sprawling, limestone-sheathed building reflects the confidence of a nation recently boosted by the success of the Summer Olympic Games. It is more diplomatic than daring, blending Eastern and Western elements in subtle ways, and possesses all the requisite qualities of a Washington government building — solidity, dignity and monumentality.

The name behind the design, unsurprisingly, is famed Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming Pei. A standard-bearer of late modernism, Mr. Pei long has sought a new architecture for his native land in projects reflective of its changing identity. In 1979, the architect distilled Chinese architectural traditions into a contemporary aesthetic for Beijing’s Fragrant Hill Hotel and has continued to explore this hybrid aesthetic in recent decades.

In designing the chancery, the 91-year-old Mr. Pei collaborated with his sons Chien Chung “Didi” and Li Chung “Sandi” who run the Pei Partnership Architects in New York. The firm has recently completed several projects in China, including a museum in Suzhou, I.M. Pei’s home town northwest of Shanghai, and a headquarters for the Bank of China in Beijing.

Of course, the sculptural shapes and crisp planarity of the chancery invite comparisons to the elder Pei’s best known Washington commission, the celebrated East Building of the National Gallery of Art. Like that museum, the new building reflects the architect’s preoccupation with obsessive geometries and dramatic public spaces to wow visitors.

Where the East Building is an inhabitable sculpture enjoyed from a distance, the chancery is a village of buildings constrained by neighboring buildings and an awkward hillside site within the International Chancery Center. Assembled from three lots, the hemmed-in property was offered by the State Department to the Chinese in exchange for land in Beijing on which to build the American Embassy, which was opened by President Bush during his China trip in August.

C.C. Pei, who headed the Chinese chancery design team, consulted for both governments and compares the behind-the-scenes negotiating as an “incredible international tap dance.”

In Washington, the Chinese made the most of every square foot, stretching the chancery to the property lines with little room for their hallmark gardens. The building abuts the Singapore Embassy to the east, International Drive to the west and a federal office building to the south, and the Pei team matched the scale of these neighboring structures so the large chancery doesn’t overwhelm them.

Facing Van Ness to the north, the rear of the building extends to two stories behind a fence but various projections and a tree-planted courtyard keep it from looking like a stone fortress. The more inviting front stretches along the crest of the hill on International Place where a one-story block of diplomatic reception and meeting rooms is set back within a courtyard paved in Chinese granite.

This symmetrical frontage with its south-facing entrance reflects Chinese traditions without resorting to curved tile roofs and other cliches. In the center bay, an entrance for VIPs is clearly designated with a projecting glass-and-metal dome - an obvious nod to Washington’s neoclassical architecture.

Though mostly blank, the limestone-covered facades and roofs are nevertheless animated by angles, facets and vertical projections reminiscent of chimneys. “Windows in an embassy are a particularly sensitive issue given the potential for spying,” says C.C. Pei. “Inside, you want light and views but you also don’t want to give people the opportunity to eavesdrop.”

Judiciously placed, diamond-shaped openings in the walls to either side of the entrance canopy focus on large boxwoods. “In Chinese architecture, windows are not just rectangular openings whose purpose is to let light in,” says Mr. Pei. “They are like picture frames in the wall to define interior and exterior views.”

The interior of the entrance pavilion turns out to be more impressive than the exterior. What look like chimneys from the outside turn out to be dramatic light scoops from the inside. These big skylights crown the octagonal lobby and stairways at both ends of a grand hallway lined with handsomely appointed meeting and reception rooms.

Walls and ceilings matching the geometric shapes of the exterior are lined in the same French limestone to resemble traditional, load-bearing construction. Combined with pointed archways and patterned floors, the stark, stony spaces evoke the feeling of a medieval castle or cathedral.

The skylit stair halls connect the street-level meeting and reception rooms to a 193-seat auditorium, large conference room and banquet hall on the lower floor. So visitors can always tell where they are, the staircase on the west side is spiral in shape, while the one on the east runs straight past a window wall before turning to descend to a fountain on the bottom level.

From the VIP entrance lobby, doors open to a terrace on the taller, northern side of the building. This outdoor space focuses on what looks like a diamond-shaped picture frame. The Chinese-inspired device helps to animate the Van Ness Street side of the building but from the terrace, it merely calls attention to the ugly concrete buildings of the University of the District of Columbia across the street.

Making up for the lousy view is a marvelous sculpture by Chinese artist Liu Dan whose totemic grouping of hole-riddled rocks, imported from Suzhou, is one of several intriguing artworks in the building. In the meeting spaces, calligraphic and landscape paintings combined with anigre wood paneling help to soften the austere formality.

Staff will begin moving into the chancery in December and, during a recent tour, their offices behind rows of square windows remained off-limits. Standing outside the building, project architect Bing Lin explained that the recessed vent to the side of each glass panel allows fresh air to circulate when the window is opened from the inside.

In typical Pei fashion, no detail was spared from design scrutiny. Inside the great hall, the lighting fixtures, strung horizontally between the stone walls, mirror the building’s octagonal geometries. The staircases are crisply outlined in steel and glass, and even the most prosaic of architectural elements - stair treads - curve upward to provide sculptural interest.

The new chancery, built mostly by Chinese construction workers who were brought in for the job, is another solid addition to the city by Mr. Pei. Like the embassies built by Switzerland, Finland, Italy and others, it proves once again that the best contemporary design in Washington is built by foreigners.

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