Following the establishment of full diplomatic relations with the United States in 1979, China housed its embassy in the Windsor Park Hotel, an 8-story brick building (1946), well located on “Embassy Row” in the northwest quadrant of Washington. The area was once the city’s premiere residential district, but during the Great Depression many mansions were sold, increasingly to foreign governments for diplomatic use. In time, progressive countries called on their own architects to design unique homeland identities; (indeed, modern architecture was introduced to Washington largely by these new embassies). To create a symbol of the Peoples’ Republic of China and its importance in the world theater, I.M. Pei, the renowned Chinese-American architect and senior statesman of modernism, was the obvious choice, but, 82 years old, he suggested instead that he serve as Design Consultant to his architect sons at Pei Partnership.
At 116,207 square feet, the new embassy is the largest of some 300 diplomatic compounds in Washington. Designed to complement its distinguished neighbors, it is clad inside and out with honey-colored limestone to achieve a sense of solidity and timelessness. (The same stone, much preferred by Pei, was used for the Louvre, MUDAM, and other late projects). The embassy’s design continues I.M. Pei’s lifelong ambition to define a specifically Chinese language of modern architecture, drawing on the essence of its age-old cultural traditions to meet contemporary needs. With balanced asymmetry, its south-facing entrance gives on to spatial sequences, outdoor features, and gardens in harmony with built form.
The embassy is organized in east and west office buildings on either side of an octagonal entrance pavilion that links the whole together. The entrance is announced by a hovering canopy and pure geometric forms that facet up with cubic dimension to a small skylit tower. (Pei explored a similar sculptural massing for the Goulandris Museum in 1993 and developed it more broadly for the Museum of Islamic Art, contemporary with the embassy). Guests proceed to public areas, including reception rooms, banquet halls, a Grand Hall for important diplomatic functions, and a 200-seat auditorium, all equipped with state-of-the art facilities.
As Pei knew well from his previous diplomatic commissions for the United States Chancellery in Montevideo, Uruguay and the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations in New York, security was a paramount concern. In Washington, solid mass is relieved by great glass window walls, whether elevated or otherwise protected from the street. They admit natural light of an especially soft and luminous quality, as it rakes across the masonry walls. The windows borrow outdoor views in continuation of cultural tradition, framing serene Chinese gardens with special plantings and rockworks (part of the modern and traditional art the embassy was designed to showcase).
Design Team: Pei Partnership Architects; I.M. Pei, Design Architect