Building an embassy – the practical and poetic

Australia’s new embassy in Washington will be an important tool for trade and business. It seeks to express a uniquely Australian design aesthetic and capture our nation’s character, says Bates Smart project director Tim Leslie.

Bates Smart won the competition to design the new Chancery building on Massachusetts Avenue late last year, which has a total project budget of $237 million. The new design will replace the ageing 1960s embassy which ironically was also designed by Bates Smart.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced that the new embassy, situated just a kilometre north of the White House, will “promote an enduring vision of a contemporary and innovative Australia, paying tribute to the Australian landscape”.

Work in Washington will begin in October 2019, with an expected completion date of November 2021.

The existing 50-year-old embassy is typical of Washington buildings, featuring a “massive centre core floorplate” which makes it “dark and deep”, Leslie explains. He says working on the replacement is an “intriguing but highly-rewarding proposition”.

“The original 1960s design was quite beautiful, with its feature staircase and metal screen work. But the design was eroded over the decades with changing security levels and various extensions. The building now lacks its original joy, and doesn’t meet contemporary requirements.”

Leslie says his team wanted to provide a “uniquely Australian approach” to the design of the new embassy – one that was also “sympathetic to the Washington context”.

“The trickiest component of the whole design process was clarifying the Australian character,” Leslie says.

Typical Washington architecture reaches back to the democratic architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, which Leslie says doesn’t necessarily sit well with an emerging country and culture like ours.

“We landed on the idea of landscape to express the defining qualities of the Australian character. Visitors to Australia often talk about the endless blue skies, the brightness of the light and the vastness of the space,” he explains.

The team also looked at Australian art, and how artists, particularly those in the 20th century and indigenous artists, expressed “flat expansive plains and the natural colours of the red earth”.

This idea of space, light and sky translates well into a contemporary workplace. Leslie says the guiding principle of significant central axial voids offers a “clear and democratic vision” throughout the building, with sightlines all the way to the sky providing strong connections with nature.

The glass atrium at the heart of the building serves both a practical and symbolic purpose. The distribution of light throughout the building enhances workplace health and wellbeing, while also capturing the sense of expansiveness that characterises Australia.

Bates Smart also wanted to capture the idea of Australia as a “communal, friendly society”, Leslie says.

“Buildings are an important tool for doing business – they can showcase innovation and thought leadership, as well as bringing people together. The design of the central hub is important, as it expresses a dynamic workplace and a culture of Australian agencies working together.”

Materials have been carefully selected to reflect the Australian landscape – from the feature timber staircase that connects each floor to the treated copper façade which evokes red deserts.

But picking the right species of Australian flora proved challenging. After working closely with the landscape architects and CSIRO, it was determined that our native plants would not survive in the harsh Washington climate.

Instead, the team has designed a landscape that responds to the local climate, and is interspersed with courtyards paved with natural Australian stone – limestone from New South Wales, bluestone from Victoria, marble from Western Australia and granite from Tasmania.

To capture the hearts and minds of the senior government officials during the competition phase, Bates Smart used virtual reality, which Leslie says was “critical” to helping key stakeholders appreciate the scale, volume and context of the building.

“Two dimensional plans are hard for the layperson – and indeed even some design professionals – to comprehend. The VR goggles immersed senior government officials in the space and helped them to understand what the design would look like.”

Ultimately, the building also showcases Australia’s world-leading capabilities in workplace design.

“When you travel around the world, it’s clear that we really are leaders in the development of contemporary workspace. This is something we can proudly promote overseas.”

Speaking at the opening of the current embassy in 1964, former president Richard Nixon hailed it as “a tangible sign of the vitality and the permanence of the Australian-American relationship”. Our new Australian embassy will not only strengthen those ties, but celebrates the Australian landscape and the people who live in it.

Australian Design Team:
Architecture/Interior Design: Bates Smart;   Structure/Services/Facades: Aurecon,   Landscape Architecture, Taylor Cullity Lethlean,   Specialist Lighting: Electrolight,   Graphics/Signage: Fabio Ongarato Design,   Kitchen Specialist: Chris Love Design
Washington Delivery Team:
Architecture/Interior Design: KCCT;   Structure: Keast and Hood,   Services: Interface,   Landscape Architecture/Civil/Surveyors: Wiles Mensch,   Land Attorney: Holland & Knight,   Traffic: Wells and Associates,   Kitchen Specialist: Culinary Advisors;   Heritage: EHT Traceries;   Geotechnical: Schnabel Engineering