House of Sweden: Openness, Sustainability and Nordic Light

By Claire Robertson

The House of Sweden in Washington, D.C. was designed by Swedish architects Gert Wingårdh and Tomas Hansen and was opened in 2006. The building is home to Sweden's embassy, as well as Iceland and Liechtenstein’s diplomatic missions in the United States of America. The architects were awarded the Kasper Salin Prize by the Swedish Association of Architects for their sustainable modern building. Located just a few steps away from the idyllic Georgetown Waterfront, the building adds contemporary architectural vitality to an historic neighbourhood. The House of Sweden is a noticeably open public space and invites visitors to engage with Swedish culture. It also uses Swedish design and values to promote sustainability, and to convey the country’s natural beauty through installation art.

Gert Wingårdh and Tomas Hansen,  House of Sweden,  2006  

Gert Wingårdh and Tomas Hansen, House of Sweden, 2006 

The House of Sweden reflects the government’s concern for the Swedish values of “openness, transparency and democracy.” Members of the public are encouraged to enter the building and engage with Swedish culture. Visitors can enter the building easily after a brief security check, and learn about Sweden through exhibitions and hand-outs. This openness encourages intercultural dialogue and a union between the United States and Sweden. A surprising amount of space is dedicated to the public; for example, there are always exhibitions in the entrance area. Currently there is an exhibition called “Story of Migration: Sweden Beyond the Headlines”, which has been curated by The Swedish Institute. Furthermore, House of Sweden runs artist talks, film screenings, performances and workshops. There are events for all age groups and their programme extends to the Room for Children. The use of space encourages any visitor to feel welcome and to engage with a variety of media. The aim of the building is to create “an atmosphere of positive, creative cooperation between two great countries and to create a base for cultural and commercial exchanges.” Glass makes up a large proportion of the building. This is a clear reflection of the desire to create openness and transparency. The building feels accessible because of its open-plan structure. The Anna Lind Hall exhibition area also appears inviting to passers-by. For example, the entrance hall can be seen easily from the outside due to its glass walls. Its location by the relaxed Georgetown Waterfront entices curious people who happen to be walking past to stop by and investigate the welcoming building.

The building’s materials celebrate sustainability, and the interior layout showcases Swedish design and artistry. Protecting the environment is a tightly-held value in Sweden, which is reflected in the use of natural and sustainable materials such as blonde wood, stone and glass. Furthermore, multiple parts of the building reference Sweden’s natural beauty; for example, Swedish artist Ingegerd Råman created a glass wall that features a waterfall on the inside. This is meant to symbolise Swedish ice melting. In the lower lobby, there is a water pool with a black marble base. Glass rectangles lie on top of the water. This represents ice breaking and melting as the warmth of spring comes to Sweden. Numerous Swedish designs are displayed throughout the building, and there are countless exhibitions of Swedish artists’ work in the lower lobby. The House of Sweden’s commitment to sustainable living does not end at design, however. Its website states that the organisation is committed to taking care of the environment through the actions of their staff and by encouraging visitors to be aware of the environment; for example, they are consciously trying not to be wasteful, to use green suppliers, and to educate their guests. Their belief in sustainability is clearly a central tenet of the organisation; the combination of environmentally-friendly materials, installation pieces that focus on Sweden’s natural beauty and efforts care for the planet in their everyday actions show true commitment.

The architecture of the House of Sweden aims to create a sense of Nordic light on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. This also arguably strengthens the bonds between Sweden and the United States. The design highlights a characteristic of Northern Europe and recreates it on another continent. The House of Sweden’s website says that it displays a light and spacious environment. Lighting company Ljusarkitektur managed to create a luminous quality both inside and out. The architects specified that they wanted the embassy to radiate gentle light in its interior, and to resemble the kind of light found in a Swedish wooden veneer lamp. A combination of LED down-lights, fluorescent lights, and glass structures create this effect.  The ceiling contains small holes where small fluorescent lights are placed. This dotted design continues throughout some other interior design aspects of the building and it creates the idea of a morning mist that is unique to Sweden. This motif creates a cohesively-designed environment that celebrates both innovative Swedish design and the country’s natural beauty. The warm lighting creates a stunning effect when viewed at night, particularly from across the Potomac River.

The House of Sweden is truly a hidden architectural gem, nestled into the historic Georgetown neighbourhood. It creates a sense of openness that is hard to find in other embassies across in the city. While other embassies may seem imposing, this building is unassuming at first glance. It then draws visitors in with its installation art and transparent design. It is a highly interactive environment that caters to a wide audience and provides extra vitality to its charming Georgetown location.


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