ARCHITECTURE

A fiery reception

Canada builds a new capital embassy

CHRIS WOOD March 6 1989
ARCHITECTURE

A fiery reception

Canada builds a new capital embassy

CHRIS WOOD March 6 1989

A fiery reception

ARCHITECTURE

Canada builds a new capital embassy

It is the first and only foreign facade to be permitted on the most powerful street-scape in America. For that reason alone, the new Canadian Embassy in Washington was expected to create controversy. But even in a city preoccupied with passionate debate, Canada’s new chancery at 501 Pennsylvania Ave. was drawing praise and raising eyebrows, objections and arguments. In fact, the embassy has been the target of verbal attacks ever since 1978, when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government paid $5 million for the land where it sits—halfway between Capitol Hill and the White House on a boulevard occupied by such embodiments of American nationhood as the National Gallery of Art and the FBI. Eleven years ago, many Americans criticized the Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter for allowing a foreign power to thrust itself so deeply into the symbolic essence of the capital. Now, the building itself has come under fire from architectural critics, politicians and members of the general public. Said Allen Lenchek, a lawyer who works in the adjacent federal law courts building: “It is a jumble of conflict. The architect has tried to

satisfy everybody and has satisfied nobody.” There is no doubt that British Columbia architect Arthur Erickson has combined diverse elements and a wide variety of styles in his design for the $90-million, six-storey embassy. The monumental 186,000-square-foot structure’s halting progress from blueprint to

completion was also dogged by delays, diplomatic embarrassments and cost overruns— in part, due to stepped-up security—which added $20 million to its cost.

Still, when the building opens for business March 15, it will permit Canada’s 300-member diplomatic corps in Washington—now scattered around four separate buildings in the city—to work out of the same offices for the first time ever. Canada’s new ambassador in Washington,

Derek Burney, meanwhile, defended the embassy as “a strong and confident building for a strong and confident Canada.” Added Bur-

ney—whose new office possesses a spectacular floor-to-ceiling view of the Capitol: “It conveys the message that I want to convey: Canada counts.”

The medium for that message is a dramatic open box design constructed of wintry white Ontario limestone, leavened with architectural references to several more familiar Washington landmarks. A large classical rotunda with 12 concrete pillars—one for each province and territory—steals an element from the neoclassical domed Capitol itself. Nearby, a colonnade of fluted cast-aluminum columns skirts the open side of a courtyard, supporting a glass skylight and echoing the Federal Trade Commission across the street. A strikingly sharp triangular pier that supports a walkway also

reflects the angular modernist East Wing of the neighboring National Gallery. Said Erickson: “It shows that we can stand up in Washington with the best.” He added, “I hope that it will elicit pride about our presence in the I United States.” z The building has clearly I delighted some architectural I reviewers. One of its admir| ers is influential National Gal5 lery director J. Carter Brown, who declared, “It is saying to the American people, ‘Come

in, walk through.’ ” And B.C. architect Barry Downs noted that gardens on the building’s several courtyard terraces will eventually soft-

en its stark outlines. He added, “It is a beautiful gift to Washington.”

But its disparate architectural styles have also provoked pointed criticism. Paul Goldberger, an architectural critic for The New York Times, for one, criticized the embassy’s “showy glass” and dismissed its design as “an awkward pastiche.” Added Toronto architect Bruce Kuwabara: “It is not strictly modern nor strictly neoclassical. It becomes an ambiguous chameleon.” And even Erickson’s longtime Vancouver associate, architect Bing Thom, declared: “Usually, his buildings are a gem in a pile of costume jewelry. To my eye, this building is fussy. I think Arthur was trying too hard.”

Certainly, Erickson had to combat persistent criticism and frustrating delays in order to see his design realized. Indeed, when Trudeau overlooked four finalists in an invitational competition and chose Erickson, a personal friend, to oversee the project in 1982, his decision sparked opposition charges of favoritism and unsuccessful demands for a public inquiry. Two years later, the new Conservative government delayed the start of work on the building by a year in order to save money. An additional setback came when Washington authorities spent six months weighing Erickson’s unconventional design before approving construction. As a result of those delays, by the time it opens, the embassy will be 13 months behind schedule.

The constantly shifting timetable for the building’s completion forced several revisions of the celebrations planned for its opening. One proposal for a $20-million gala festival of Canadian performing artists and cultural exhibits has been cancelled—in part also for lack of commercial sponsors. And by last week, with less than a month remaining before the first offices are occupied in the new embassy, Canadian diplomats were still scrambling to finalize plans for its official inauguration.

Still, both the building and its location close to the heart of the American power structure—and several blocks from the other international missions on Washington’s Embassy Row—clearly signal a new Canadian prominence in the capital, one that observers are struggling to define. Said Michael Stanton, architecture critic for the weekly Washington City Paper: “Perhaps Canada is pressing to become the 51st state ahead of [the District of Columbia] and Puerto Rico.”

Even the diplomats who will soon occupy the building admit to some uncertainty about how best to use its lavish facilities. “We could do staff weddings and charity events once or twice a year,” said embassy spokesman Jock Osier. But, he added, “we don’t want to be a hire-ahall for funerals and bar mitzvahs.” As for other Canadians, many of whom perennially suffer from the perception that they are ignored by their huge southern neighbor, the attention generated by the country’s bold new address on Pennsylvania Avenue may well offset any criticism.

CHRIS WOOD

HILARY MACKENZIE

MARY NEMETH