China's New Chancery; East Meets West in an Elegant Building by I.M. Pei and His Sons

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 7, 2008 | Go to article overview

China's New Chancery; East Meets West in an Elegant Building by I.M. Pei and His Sons


Byline: Deborah K. Dietsch , THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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