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Danish Embassy Sets the Standard for 20th Century Modernism in DC

By Anthony L. Harvey

Images accompanying this feature can be viewed in the current issue PDF

Set back from the street on a picturesque, 12-acre site at the top of a hill on a dead-end stretch of Whitehaven Street in northwest Washington, the Royal Danish Embassy presents a jewel box of an understated, modernist masterpiece building to its visitors when approaching at either end of the building’s recessed rectangular façade that faces the street across a handsomely landscaped drive and a small, surface parking area. One first encounters the Chancellery entrance on the right, followed by that of the Ambassador’s residence and reception room to one’s immediate left which, with its open foyer and three-level staircase in gleaming white marble from Greenland, is especially welcoming.

Protected by Denmark as an historic landmark — with the exterior, interior, and landscaped site all being designated — the celebration of the Embassy’s 50th anniversary included its being awarded the AIA Washington chapter’s 2010 annual award for historic stewardship.

The Danish Embassy building has the added cachet of being designed in the late 1950s by one of Denmark’s greatest 20the century architects, Vilhelm Lauritzen, in collaboration with famed German-American Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, then teaching at Harvard. With the site being what had been an undeveloped, eastern-most portion of Dumbarton Oaks, thus giving the embassy a rear view facing the park of that same name to the northwest and Rock Creek Park to the northeast.

The building’s rear façade is richly articulated with balconies, sliding doors, shutters, and a terrace — all of this directly looking over Dumbarton Oaks Park. Both front and rear façades are designed in a modernist style — modest in size and scale — and one that transforms such a style into a stunning, show-stopper example of a humanist version of modern architecture at its best; it is a purpose-built structure where human beings work and live in a design environment that accommodates and enhances human endeavor.

The crisp and sleek lines of the front façade — both the entrance to the Ambassador’s residence and the more subdued one to the Chancellery — continue to this day to gleam as though just constructed, as does that of the more articulated rear façade facing the parks. Beautiful glass curtain walls and windows on both sides of the building are framed and complimented by white marble panels and slender white reinforced concrete columns.

The design program of the building’s interior reflects this same level of rigorous attention to detail and overall effects. Environmental aspects of the site were also closely examined, with topography, soil conditions, climate — high temperature and high humidity being very different from that of Denmark, for example — all taken into account in selecting materials and determining design parameters.

The cost, quality, and durability of the materials used throughout the building, together with the high quality of craftsmanship in fashioning the materials and the workmanship of the structure’s construction are evident to the eye — both during the natural light of day and when artificially illuminated at night — as are the results of the Embassy’s aggressive and proactive program of building maintenance; glass and frames were renovated just four years ago, for example.

All this has provided Washington with an architectural model for comparative use in the on-going examination of mid-century modernist construction by the District’s Historic Preservation Office and the DC Preservation League. Many, if not most, of Washington’s modernist structures of the 1950s and 1960s are woefully deficient in these qualities of excellence exemplified in the Danish Embassy and its on-going program of building maintenance.

Even this short review, however, would be remiss if no mention were made of the interior design splendor of the Ambassador’s reception rooms, and the Danish modern furniture and fixtures throughout the public areas, the residence, and the Chancellery section. These were selected by Danish designer Finn Juhl, whose design program was such that he only selected furniture that was mass-produced and on sale at the time the Embassy was being constructed; it echoes the quiet modesty of the building’s exterior and at the same time provides the pleasures of sitting in such furniture as Arne Jacobsen’s famous swan and egg chairs. And the glass bell chandeliers are among the Embassy’s marvelous lighting fixtures — these being in the formal dining and reception rooms.

Interior spaces are further heightened with ingenious transom-like glazing on one wall, for example in the Embassy’s library. The second floor Chancellery hallway presents another ingenious approach to hallway lighting, with repeated sconces richly illuminating with indirect light a strictly rectilinear series of office rooms on either side of the hallway.

Travelers to Copenhagen are afforded opportunities to see other of Vilhelm Lauritzen’s architectural creations — outstanding among which are the Copenhagen Airport and Train terminal, known when constructed between 1937 and 1939 as Terminal 39 and renovated as a VIP terminal 60 years later; a second airport and train terminal built between 1955 and 1960; the National Broadcasting Building of 1936-’41; and the People’s Palace for the Joint Labor Organization of Denmark, under construction between 1953 and 1956.

Editor’s note: Special thanks are extended for the assistance provided by the Embassy’s intern, Mathias Holm Pedersen, to our reporter in connection with the preparation of this article.