An ambassador's residence can never be just a family home, it must serve as staff offices and quarters; must accommodate distinguished guests in considerable comfort; provide a suitable backdrop for cultural, social and political events (over 400 a year in this instance); and it must, subtly, advertise the country and its people to the host nation and to the world. Even so, in Steven Holl's New Residence at the Swiss Embassy in Washington DC the almost domestic scale of the plan and the external form of the Residence belies the grand scale of the interior spaces that reflect the building’s formal public function.
Steven Holl won the 2001 international competition with the Swiss architect Justin Rüssli - the Swiss-American collaboration was a requirement of entry and this was the only true partnership planned to last throughout the project. Their winning design reflects somewhat literally the Swiss flag, with its cross-from deriving from the confines of a defined building plot. External and internal spaces are interlocked to give a suite of function rooms, terraces and outside spaces. Internally, circulation moves diagonally across the plan from the entrance to the external terrace. Four courtyards allow for intriguingly partial views both in and out - due to the fact that the each of the elevations is clad in white low iron U glass reminiscent of Japanese Shoji screens. The white glass is another literal reference, this time to the snow-clad mountains and the glaciers of Switzerland. Thus the colour and the materials express both the character of the building and appropriately a Swiss heritage.
The building is designed according to Swiss, rather than American energy standards. With a south façade using passive solar energy, a fifth façade in the shape of a sedum roof decked with photovoltaics, this is, by US standards an extraordinarily energy-efficient building. An intriguing plan, deftly developed spaces and careful detailing all combine to make this an exceptional building.