Last year, Bates Smart was chosen to design the new Australian Embassy in Washington, to replace the embassy that had been designed by the same firm in 1964.
Bates Smart’s competition-winning design is a departure from the aesthetic of other embassies in the area, as well as from Bates Smart’s previous design. According to project director Tim Leslie, the existing embassy is typical of buildings in Washington, which tend to be “dark and deep” and feature “massive floorplates”.
“The original 1960s design was quite beautiful, with its feature staircase and metal screen work. But the design was eroded over the decades with changing security levels and various tensions,” Leslie explained to the Property Council of Australia.
“The building now lacks its original joy, and doesn’t meet contemporary requirements.”
The replacement design provides a deliberate contrast to other embassies in Washington. Australia is a young nation, and as such it didn’t seem appropriate or authentic to design the building in the Roman- and Greek-influenced architectural style that other countries have drawn from.
According to Bates Smart’s firm director, Kristen Whittle, the design for the new embassy has been inspired by the “Australian landscape”. The most obvious example of this is the sheer amount of light that filters into the building. Bates Smart’s façade design almost entirely consists of huge, vertical glass plates. Inside, a glass atrium draws large amounts of sunlight into the centre of the building re-distributes it throughout the building.
“We landed on the idea of landscape to express the defining qualities of the Australian character,” says Leslie. “Visitors to Australia often talk about the endless blue skies, the brightness of the light and the vastness of the space.”
To this effect, the material palette has been selected to reflect the Australian landscape. For instance, the treated copper façade is intended to evoke the red deserts of Australia’s interior.
“The environmentally-sensitive design embodies the spirit of Australia through direct references to the distinctive Australian landscape: its bright and clear natural light and open skies, its warm materiality and its vast scale,” reads a design statement by Bates Smart.
“The use of these associations will create a civic building and symbol of Australia that is both enduring and welcoming.”
Originally, Bates Smart had toyed with the idea of planting Australian native flora in and around the building, but after consulting with CSIRO, it was determined that the species would not survive the Washington climate.
As well their symbolic function, the façade and atrium also serve practical purposes. The glass-clad façade is thermally efficient, and its energy performance is supplemented by a green roof with an extensive photovoltaic array.
The landscape is not the only element of Australiana represented in the design. Bates Smart also wanted to capture the idea of Australia being a friendly and communal society. This is primarily expressed through the layout of the office spaces, and the incorporation of the atrium as a central hub.
A sequence of multi-purpose spaces feeds into the central ground-floor hub, including an open exhibition gallery and function spaces equipped for both ceremonial and public functions. From the atrium, a timber feature staircase winds through the building and connects the flexible working spaces of each floor.
“Buildings are an important tool for doing business,” says Leslie. “They can showcase innovation and thought-leadership, as well as bringing people together.
“The design of the central hub is important, as it expresses a dynamic workplace and a culture of Australian agencies working together.”
The Bates Smart design for the new Australian embassy in Washington was the winning entry in a competition initiated by the Australian government in 2015, after it was reported that the condition of the previous embassy building was deteriorating. Bates Smart is working with local Washington practice Karn Charuhas Chapman & Twohey (KCCT) for the design.
The new embassy is slated for completion in 2021.