Beijing, China

Given the complex forces connecting China and the United States, the new U.S. Embassy in Beijing, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s San Francisco office, had to negotiate difficult political, cultural, and architectural terrain. The design needed to take into account strict security concerns while accommodating the offices, spaces for visa processing, conferences, receptions, and community outreach that define an embassy program. At the same time, it had to refer to both American and Chinese precedents, providing a secure, yet welcoming image of the United States.

SOM’s design team, led by partner Craig Hartman, started by dividing the huge, 46,500-square-meter program into three parts: one for community and public functions, one for administrative offices, and one dedicated to consular services. A series of gardens and walkways wind in and out of the buildings, connecting the three sections and creating a continuous band of green space within the compound. Hartman cites traditional Chinese types—such as Beijing’s hutong neighborhoods and courtyard houses—as the inspiration for these spaces. A dark granite “dragon wall” links the procession together. Beginning at the ambassador’s residence at the western edge of the site, the wall moves through the site as a continuous element, at times as a freestanding figure, at times as part of a building base, and at times defining courtyards and gardens. The architects and client put together an impressive art program to animate those spaces (as well as rooms inside the buildings), acquiring and, in many cases commissioning, sculpture by significant American artists—Jeff Koons, Ellsworth Kelly, and Maya Lin, among others.

The campus consolidates more than 20 U.S. agencies and 700 employees onto one site. Most people work in the new, 8-story office complex—a gleaming glass box whose curtain wall shifts between transparent, translucent, and opaque glass panels, forming a sort of veil over the entire structure. At night, that building lights up in the manner of a huge paper lantern, a beacon to the outside world.