Davis Brody Bond on Embassy Row

Like the nation it serves, the new addition to the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. is all about change.

And contrasts – and transparency.

The new space – once a driveway between the former ambassador’s Cape Dutch residence from the 1930s and a chancery built in the same style during the 1960s – is now defined by a curtain wall completely wrapped in a stainless steel, tension mesh.

“We added a new arrival hall and entry atrium – you can see it from the front of the building,” says Rob Anderson, director of the Washington, D.C. office of Davis Brody Bond. “It’s about openness, and contrasts the weight of the historic buildings with an ephemeral space.”

The firm’s main mission was to expand the chancery function. To do that, they linked the two older buildings with a large, multi-functional space.  It offers a greeting and reception area, and doubles as an events center for South Africa Day – one that fills the building top to bottom. Above, on the second and third floors, they added a conference center.

“The assignment was to expand the overall mission by taking out the ambassador’s residence and expanding it up to 55,000 square feet.” says Burt Jackson, senior project manager. “We added 18,000 square feet.”

Black granite flooring now connects the front to the back of the central hall, reflecting the same materials on the walls. “We looked at how materials can explore the history of a building,” Anderson says.

They found their inspiration in discussions with South African Ambassador Barbara Masekela, who spoke about the rebirth of her nation and connecting the cultures there. “We wanted to create a dialog about old versus new, heavy versus light, and dark versus light,” Anderson says. “It’s about the discovery of contrasts and how different materials can complement one another.”

It’s also about a nation emerging out of apartheid and into openness. “There’s the contrast between the old South Africa to the new South Africa, and the old building to the new,” he says. “And it’s about the integration of space and attitude.”

But at the end of day, this one’s all about transparency.

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