The U.S. Consulate General in Guangzhou, China, makes only the quietest of claims within the city's noisy new business district. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), its seven low-rise buildings—offices, screening facilities, a warehouse, and a residence for Marines—dot a 7.4-acre site in the burgeoning Pearl River New Town. Zaha Hadid's opera house lies catercorner to it, and Wilkinson Eyre's supertall IFC Guangzhou and KPF's soon-to-be-supertaller CTF Guangzhou are close by. China's tallest structure, the Canton Tower, for telecommunications equipment, looms across the river. The consulate—built with a warm palette of stone, wood, glass, and weathering steel—is, by comparison, subdued.
The complex replaces five leased spaces scattered throughout Guangzhou, allowing the consulate to make a unified statement within the city. The general public, diplomats, and staff each enter the site at three dedicated one-story security screening facilities, each clad in local granite and topped with a green roof. The pavilion at the site's eastern edge serves as the public entrance and as the consulate's front door, says San Francisco–based Craig Hartman, SOM design partner for the Guangzhou project and for the firm's U.S. Embassy in Beijing, completed in 2008.
The main building on the lot is the Consulate Building. Granite-clad concrete wraps four stories in an inverted U, forming both roof and facade. Rounded roof corners allow Guangzhou's heavy rains to roll down into the landscape. Horizontal windows dot the stone facade. Some are positioned low to provide views for workers sitting at their desks. Others are set high to help bring light deep into the interior.
The public enters the building through the double-story Lincoln Hall, which has louverlike teak slats hung from its walls and ceiling. Daylight penetrates through them and also through deep-set windows. Several types of local stone stripe the floor, and an installation by video artist Jennifer Steinkamp brightens one wall.
The hall is a lively place, hosting up to 2,500 consular visits each day and as many as 200 people for evening lectures and other events. Applicants for non-immigrant visas wait here. Visitors for other services—the Guangzhou Consulate is the only place in China that processes adoptions and immigrant visas—take a glass elevator to more typical upper-floor offices. It seems generous—in a friendly American kind of way—that the consulate offers its grandest space to its Chinese guests.
A sense of approachability pervades the project. While the concrete wall on the north perimeter does not exactly say, “Come on in!” the public eastern entrance is more inviting. It has an openwork fence of weathering steel (Hartman refers to it as a “picket fence”), and its security-screening facility incorporates a glass wall so that passersby can see the Consulate Building. Galt says this transparency sends a “powerful message about . . . how we are open and welcoming.”
The U.S. has had a varying history with its buildings abroad. The modern designs of the 1950s and '60s, by some of America's leading architects, were meant to symbolize democracy through their openness. A security-led approach prevailed in the 1970s and '80s. The Standard Embassy Design program, using stock designs, began in 1999. In 2010, the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) announced the Excellence in Diplomatic Facilities program, which put quality architecture back in the mix. Projects by Morphosis for Beirut and Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects for Mexico City are under way. “Representing the U.S. is not just about representing U.S. policy,” says Lydia Muniz, OBO's director. “It's about representing American ingenuity and creativity.”
Of all the responsibilities—including functionality, security, and sustainability—that the U.S. Consulate General in Guangzhou bears on its rounded shoulders, the one most difficult to assess is how well it conveys a national identity. There is no iconic feature such as the grand colonnades of so many classic U.S. embassies (and even SOM's Beijing Embassy) to suggest its civic purpose. In fact, this consulate is so unobtrusive it could be mistaken for a school. Hartman admits that the subtlety of the design is in part a reflection of his personal ethos. But he also suggests that the building is intentionally self-deprecating. “When we build representations of our values, the architecture should reflect a certain level of modesty,” he says. “It shouldn't be a spectacle.” This attitude toward its Guangzhou neighbors is understandable, even laudable. But to represent the diversity of America, being benign yet bold might be better. Still, opting for quiet amid the noise of Guangzhou may be the boldest statement of all.
Owner: United States Government
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Interior designer: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM)
Graphics: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM)
Engineer(s): Structural - Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM)
Mark Sarkisian, PE, SE, LEED AP, Structural Engineering Partner
Peter Lee, PE, SE, LEED AP, Senior Structural Engineer
Eric Long, PE, SE, LEED AP, Project Structural Engineer
Lindsay Hu, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Structural Engineer
Civil - Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM)
Mechanical - Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM)
Plumbing/Fire Protection - Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM)
Marion Wnuk, PE, LEED AP, Plumbing and Fire Protection Lead
Specifications – Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM)
Lighting: Claude R. Engle Lighting Consultants PC
Acoustical: Cerami & Associates
© Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP | Bruce Damonte, 2013. All rights reserved.
150,000 square feet
Metal/glass curtain wall:
Windows in Office Space in Consulate Building:
Moisture barrier: Fluid applied waterproofing.
Curtain wall: See above
Metal doors: Custom
Wood doors: Manufacturer not known
Fire-control doors, security grilles: Custom
Closers: LCN, Rixson
Exit devices: Von Duprin
Pulls: Ives, Trimco
Other special hardware:
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork:
Paints and stains: Manufacturers unknown
Wall coverings: Maharam
Acoustic Paneling: Stretchwall
Plastic laminate: Wilsonart
Solid surfacing: Dupont - “Zodiaq Quartz Surfaces”
Floor and wall tile: Daltile – Toilet Rooms, pantries, kitchen
Carpet: Masland Contract,Miliken
Special interior finishes unique to this project:
Reception furniture: Knoll Studio
Chairs: Knoll Studio
Tables: Knoll Studio
Upholstery: Knoll Textiles
Other furniture: Knoll Studio
Dimming System or other lighting controls:
Other unique products that contribute to sustainability: