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House of Sweden celebrates 10th anniversary

By Anna Gawel

Location, location, location. Sweden took that real-estate mantra to heart in 2006, when it built its sleek, singular embassy along the Georgetown waterfront, far removed from the traditional diplomatic confines of Embassy Row, Van Ness and 16th Street.

On Oct. 20, the appropriately named House of Sweden celebrated its 10th anniversary with “an explosion of sound, food, taste, drinks, objects and texts,” as Swedish Ambassador Björn Lyrvall put it. Lyrvall encouraged his hundreds of guests to roam the modern, glass-encased structure, whose 80,000 square feet houses not only the Swedish and Icelandic embassies but also a suite of offices, an expansive events center and 12,000 square feet of meeting space.


From left, Swedish Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Göran Lithell, Swedish architects Tomas Hansen and Gert Wingårdh and Swedish Ambassador Björn Lyrvall attend the 10th anniversary gala for the House of Sweden on the Georgetown Waterfront. Photo: Embassy of Sweden

To mark the occasion, 10 stations were set up to reflect issues the embassy has focused on over the last decade through its myriad public programs. Themes examined “water and environment” in the outdoor reflecting pools facing Rock Creek Park; “cars and transportation” on the terrace fronting the Potomac River; “globalization and migration” in the Alfred Nobel Hall; and “living green, earth and space” on the rooftop overlooking the Kennedy Center.

“This is a magnificent vision of wood, light and water — really a piece of Sweden on the Potomac,” Lyrvall said as he stood on the contemporary staircase that accentuates the main hall.


Swedish Embassy public diplomacy, press and communications counselor Monica Enqvist, center, talks with Kate Novak and her husband Alan Novak, a prominent local real estate developer who owned the land on which the House of Sweden was built. Photo: Embassy of Sweden

The ambassador praised the House of Sweden as the embodiment of Scandinavian simplicity. Acclaimed Swedish architects Gert Wingårdh and Tomas Hansen, who won a national competition to design the embassy, were on hand for the gala. They said the goal of their design was to capture values for which the Nordic nation of 9.5 million is renowned: transparency, honesty, modesty and a love of nature — as symbolized by the embassy’s proximity to the Potomac and Rock Creek Park.

Blonde wood, stone and glass define the light, airy space. Outside, the dramatically angled structure contrasts with the bland office buildings that line the waterfront. Inside, the décor is elegant but understated.

Notably, in a time of heightened security when many embassies resemble bunker-like fortresses, the House of Sweden emphasizes the country’s long tradition of openness and transparency. Floor-to-ceiling windows wrap around the first two floors, which are anchored by white pillars and illuminated by a belt of light. At night, the shimmering structure looks as if it’s floating on the water.


Elaborate arrangements of food were spread throughout the House of Sweden for its 10th birthday party. Photo: Embassy of Sweden

That was precisely the point, said Kate Novak, the Swedish wife of Alan Novak, a prominent local real-estate developer who owned the land.

“We are like water — clear, transparent, flowing, vital. And I said to my husband, this is where a building should be. Sweden belongs on the water,” she told the audience. “And I think the mere fact that this building glows at night is one of the most beautiful parts of the building. To drive into Washington and see this lantern on the water — it is Sweden calling.”

Kate pushed her husband to develop the abandoned plot of land on the waterfront. When asked by Monica Enqvist, the embassy’s press counselor, how Kate convinced him to go ahead with the project, Alan’s answer was simple: “The lesson for every man here for a successful marriage — and we’ve been married 56 years — [is] two magic words: Yes dear,” he quipped. “So we owned the land … and my wife said this should be the Swedish Embassy. It will make a small country large. And I said, ‘Yes dear.’”


From left, U.S. Protocol Chief Peter Selfridge, Kathryn Minor, Alexandra Adams and Swedish Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Göran Lithell attend the House of Sweden 10th anniversary celebration. Photo: Embassy of Sweden

But the process was far from simple. In the 1970s, the Novaks’ twin boys were friends with the children of Jan Eliasson, who would go on to become Sweden’s ambassador to the U.S. in 2000. When Eliasson took the post, Swedish diplomats lacked a permanent embassy and worked out of an office building.

According to John Shaw, a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat who wrote about Eliasson for his 2006 book “The Ambassador: Inside the Life of a Working Diplomat,” Eliasson lobbied the government back home to invest in an embassy that represented Sweden’s status as a prosperous, innovative nation. He took on the “seeming interminable struggle” to construct an embassy along the Potomac and overcome concerns about flooding, costs and navigating the thicket of required building permits.


Guests gather to listen to the architects and designers behind the House of Sweden. Photo: Embassy of Sweden

“With Washington as the world’s only superpower, nations from around the world have been scrambling to build glittering, impressive embassies in the city,” Shaw wrote, noting that Finland, “Sweden’s Scandinavian friend and rival,” opened an embassy in 1994 that caught the attention of Washingtonians for its striking design and plethora of public events.

“When Eliasson hosted a reception in 2002 to announce that Sweden would open a new embassy on the Potomac, his words conveyed a sweeping sense of history and a gentle sense of competition,” Shaw recalled. “‘This is the most powerful country in the history of the world and we need a showpiece for Sweden,’ [Eliasson] said. ‘Like the Finnish Embassy,’ he added.”

Lyrvall also credited Eliasson, now deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, with getting the House of Sweden off the ground. The ambassador said the building not only conveys Swedish values, but also puts them into practice.


House of Sweden designer Ingegerd Råman joins Johan Marcus, executive director of the Swedish-American Chambers of Commerce, and Helena Marcus on the Swedish Embassy rooftop.

“The House of Sweden is not only the flagship of Sweden’s public diplomacy in the United States, it’s also a forum for the exchange of ideas … on politics, trade, research and culture. In the past 10 years, we’ve had no less than 600,000 people passing through those front doors to enjoy seminars, concerts, see exhibitions on the weekends and attend family events,” he said.

In fact, the embassy has organized more than 230 seminars, nearly 120 concerts, 87 exhibitions and 50 family days. Current exhibits range from an examination of gender equality to a book-lined children’s room, to stunning images of the Arctic, African savannah and other natural landscapes by photographer Mattias Klum. Also on display are IKEA glassware, ceramics and other crafts by Ingegerd Råman, the interior designer behind the House of Sweden.


Ambassador of Iceland Geir H. Haarde and his wife Inga Jona Thordardottir attend the 10th anniversary celebration for the House of Sweden, which is also home to the Icelandic Embassy.

The embassy has also attracted big names over the years. “For example, Al Gore was here some months back talking about sustainability. We have the Nobel Prize Laureates here all the time,” Lyrvall said. “I can confess to you I have not been able to get Bob Dylan to agree to be here, but we’re working on it,” he added, referring to the American songwriter who won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature.

Lyrvall said the embassy strives to be on the cusp of cutting-edge diplomacy, noting that it hosted a bisexual rave party and is active on social media. “If it’s not in social media, it didn’t really happen,” he joked.

At a centennial birthday celebration for iconic Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, for example, the reach of the embassy’s social media presence surprised Lyrvall. After dancing to music by the Cotton Club, a Swedish big band, the ambassador came home and discovered that his moves were a big hit online.

“My daughter said to me, ‘Dad, you won’t believe it but you’re trending on Snapchat!’”


Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.

 
 

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