Open and transparent, modern and democratic -- these were the ideas swirling through the mind of Voytek Gorczynski when he started to design the Canadian embassy in Warsaw. It needed to be secure and functional. But Gorczynski also wanted to render the building as an image of Canada -- its architecture should speak powerfully about the society he himself had discovered after emigrating here from Poland.
The Canadian embassy, recently opened to critical acclaim in Poland, is architecture imagined as a sophisticated ambassador. Designed by Gorczynski for the Webb Zerafa Menkes Housden Partnership of Toronto, it is an open, glassy pavilion set on a plinth and situated next to a park in an elegant, historic district. The Polish parliament is across the street. The French, German and American embassies are a stone's throw away. But, through its embassy architecture, Canada is newly released as the fresh, sophisticated face.
Architecture plumbs directly into the psyche of politicians. American embassies, like the one that hunkers down on Sussex Avenue in Ottawa, increasingly are being designed as bunkers. Canadian embassies, in contrast, are opening themselves generously to the foreign cities they find themselves in. Much of this comes in response to the directives of former minister of foreign affairs Lloyd Axworthy. Our country is open for business, for trade, for newcomers -- this is the message that Canadian architects are translating into embassy design.
The Foreign Affairs Department has triggered its own construction boom. Many of its embassies, 30 years old, have outgrown their buildings. Because of handsome profits made from recent sales of excess properties held by Canada, there is money to construct solid structures using advanced building technologies and elegant materials. New embassies are being built in Port-au-Prince and Nairobi for about $20-million each. Requests for proposals have been issued for Seoul, an embassy estimated to cost $50-million, as well as for chanceries in Ankara, Kuala Lumpur and Dakar. A historic building recently has been purchased in Rome and will be retrofitted to accommodate a Canadian embassy for a total cost of $50-million.
Gorczynski came to an idea of architectural transparency by way of his personal history. He was born and raised in communist Poland and, as a young architecture student, was jailed for nine months for allegedly conspiring against the government. Upon his release, he applied to leave his home country. He remembers vividly his interview at the Canadian embassy: How he was encouraged that Canada needed young architects -- in Regina. Who would have guessed that, years later, he would design a new Canadian embassy that the Polish Business News has honoured as "Best Building of the Year" in its annual survey of "The Best and the Worst Buildings of 2001"?
At 40,000 square feet and three storeys, the embassy is modest in scale but it asserts a strong, bold personality over the site. Its main volume is cantilevered with chutzpah beyond the basement foundations of the original embassy; another glazed volume breaks from the second storey to announce the main entrance of the consular section and to double as a front entrance canopy.
The building is clad in French limestone, a crisp, brilliant material that accentuates the long, ribbon windows that are set well back from the façade to reduce sun glare.
Gorczynski custom-designed the German curtain-wall system -- clear, double thermal glass -- and specified an unusually thin three-millimetre aluminum plate to express the front entrance canopy with extra precision.
As is the Canadian way, there is attention to ceremony but no sign of overwrought, pompous behaviour. Visitors climb a set of black granite steps for either the consular or immigration entrances, cross a short pedestrian bridge overlooking a river-bed garden with prairie grass before gaining the consular entrance. From one of the main streets bounding the embassy site, you can read the word "Canada" laser cut into a large, stainless-steel sign inside the double-height interior at the immigration entrance.
Elsewhere in Europe, the idea of Canada as an open, generous country is being interpreted by Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects. Ground has been broken for the $90-million Canadian embassy in Berlin -- the granddaddy of built Canadian diplomacy -- which is expected to be open by April, 2004.
Canada has secured remarkable sites for its embassies in Paris, London, Washington and Tokyo. The Berlin site, equally impressive, is located just south of the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag at Eberstrasse and Leipziger Platz. The 10-storey structure will house the Canadian mission, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade; half of the site will accommodate commercial and retail space as well as exclusive apartments in the building's upper two storeys. The complex is being developed and held by the Hanover Leasing Group for the next 35 years before property rights are returned to Canada's Foreign Affairs.
Berlin's city planners and its elected officials are notoriously rigorous about new interventions in the city's historic centre. Sustainability is legislated and, to a certain degree, so are aesthetics. There are strict urban guidelines for building heights, operable windows and the colour of exterior stone cladding: light, buff tones being the only acceptable choice.
On all of these fronts, the Canadian embassy demonstrates excellent behaviour. It is clad in the creamy, textured Tyndall stone from Manitoba. There are aluminum louvres with acoustical buffers on the Ebertrasse elevation to reduce noise and solar glare. The building wraps itself like a predictable perimeter building around its large urban block, presenting a polite but dull face to the street. The excitement comes within the building's courtyard where a monumental cylindrical tower called the Timber Hall provides a public lounge and private meeting rooms several storeys high that rise up to a skylit roof.
More urban excitement comes from the fact that the courtyard is accessible not merely to trade officials but to all Berliners. In this way, the project reminds Germans that Canadians make generous neighbours.
"The key idea in our concept is the development of an open public passage," says the project's principal-in-charge, Bruce Kuwabara. "They now call it the Canadian passage. Planning officials in Berlin are really impressed that an embassy would allow for that."
Axworthy briefed KPMB on his ambitions for the embassy. "He chose the site," Kuwabara says. "He was very interested in the idea of creating a more open embassy as compared to the more closed, defended embassy."
And, underlying the program of the Canadian complex is a progressive notion of urban life, one that actively invites the dynamic and sometimes unpredictable mix of public and private interests.
Because Canada is not the United States, its embassies can call out to foreign countries: We are a decent people -- know us through our architecture.