The “jewel of the Embassy Row”, the Embassy of Finland building turns 20 years old this November. Since its inauguration in 1994 the building has become one of the most well-known embassy buildings in Washington D.C. and an architectural landmark famous for its modern design and sustainability.
The current location was not the first for Finland in Washington D.C. We established our diplomatic presence in 1921 in a downtown office building. The embassy relocated several times and finally found itself in a colonial-style building on New Mexico Avenue in 1979. By the late 1980’s the Finnish diplomats were actively looking for a new lot to purchase. After three years of searching they found the right piece of real estate on Massachusetts Avenue N.W. directly across from the U.S. Naval Observatory and the Vice President’s residence.
After finding the perfect location, Finnish architects Mikko Heikkinen and Markku Komonen were hired to design the new building. The architects were provided with specific instructions regarding the building’s functionality, but they were granted full creative freedom otherwise. Their vision was clear, but the question was how the building would coexist with the very extensive Normanstone Park surrounding the property. “The lot was tight and it took us several weeks of hard work to devise a feasible plan”, Mikko Heikkinen recalls.
The architects chose to marry function with form and created a unique building which reflects some of the values that Finns hold most dear. The Finnish taste for modernity resulted in the building’s thoroughly contemporary design. Finland’s commitment to transparency is reflected in the embassy’s wide-open spaces and extensive glass surfaces. By blending harmoniously with the vines and trees of the neighboring park, the embassy reflects Finland’s deep respect for nature.
Receiving the construction permit was not as simple as the Finnish officials had anticipated. In the early 1990’s nobody had got a permit to build on the Embassy Row for the past ten years. The main reasons for this were the strict building and environmental regulations as well as the neighbors’ resistance. The Ambassador at the time, Jukka Valtasaari, and his spouse joined the neighborhood association and engaged with the neighbors by providing them all the material they could have asked for. In the end, the association supported the project and wrote a favorable letter to the reluctant city planning board. The day after Finland had received the permission to start the project, the construction work was in full swing.
One specific part of the embassy’s design is the large copper and bronze lattice on the Massachusetts Avenue side of the building. When this part was constructed, taxi drivers started to refer to the embassy as Sing Sing, the infamous prison in New York. The embassy wanted to change this image as quickly as possible, so the architects set up a large cardboard sign which showed how the building will look like once finished.
Next to the sign was a tall silhouette of Rita Hayworth from the movie Gilda. The building was named a “jewelry box with a modest exterior but a rich content”. Thanks to the picture of Gilda, people became very curious about the building and stopped referring to it as Sing Sing. According to Ambassador Valtasaari, the idea behind Gilda was the concept that diplomacy is like a play. The main character should be the guest, not the host, who makes a grand entrance to the embassy like Rita Hayworth in her evening dress in the movie Gilda. Therefore the grand staircase of the building has been called the “Rita Hayworth staircase” ever since.
Although the architects factored environmental aspects into their design, issues surrounding energy efficiency were not as widely considered as they are today. Transforming the embassy into a truly green building became timely in the mid-2000s. It all started when the property manager at the time, Markku Nieminen, began thinking how the embassy could be more energy efficient. He changed light bulbs into LED lights, installed water-saving devices into the restrooms and adjusted the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems to correspond with the actual use and occupancy. The results were encouraging, and in 2008 the embassy received the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star.
As a next step the embassy’s green team began to investigate the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and environmental Design (LEED) certification, the most prestigious green building stamp of approval. Rigorous policies were implemented to ensure sustainable practices: occupancy sensors were installed in offices, recycling became a major priority, and all procurement became subject to environmental considerations. The results have certainly been worth the efforts, and in 2010 the embassy was the first embassy building in the U.S. to receive the LEED Gold certification. At the moment the embassy uses 50 % less electricity, 65 % less gas and 30 % less water compared to the mid-2000s.
As the embassy celebrates its 20th Jubilee, Ambassador Ritva Koukku-Ronde summarizes, “We are very proud of this building. The building is very much like us Finns: innovative, modern, transparent, and in close contact with the nature. This is not only a beautiful and green building, it is also a smart building. It gives me great pleasure to welcome American and other international guests to this outstanding landmark and present them our architectural knowhow and cleantech mentality.”