Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

House and Home

The strange thing about Beijing’s diplomatic district is that, while it is the city’s most diverse neighborhood culturally, it is one of its most homogeneous architecturally. Most of the buildings were constructed around the same time, the 1950s, when the leaders of the newly formed PRC decided to move the city’s diplomatic center from the Legation Quarter, a walled territory that had been the site of bloodshed during the Boxer rebellion and was tainted with connotations of foreign aggression, to its current location in a neighorhood known as Sanlitun.

The buildings constructed in this new district reflected the spirit of self-determination, egalitarianism, and modest means that defined the early years of New China. They were made of concrete with minimal ornamentation, and to this day almost none of the buildings in Beijing’s diplomatic district has any sort of national character beyond a flag or the occasional display case for tourist board posters and portraits of leaders. Many had been painted in bright colors originally, but time has worn them down, and they now sit languishing in a chromatic wasteland somewhere between the vitality of primary colors and the elegance of pastels.

Dirk Jan Postel’s ambassador’s residence is admirably committed to distinguishing itself from the socialist block dollhouses that surround it. When I spoke to the architect days after my visit, he explained that his client, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wanted the house to make a “design statement” – to be not simply a repository for Dutch cultural quality but the physical embodiment of it. The design process, he told me, had started with this ambition, which the architect interpreted through a set of references that he felt defined the best of Holland – open-mindedness, enthusiasm, etc. These formed the foundation of the design and many were apparent before I’d even entered the house.

Unlike its more heavily fortified neighbors, the Dutch Ambassador’s Residence has no fence to separate it from passersby. This doesn’t mean it is freely accessible, of course, but its privacy is indicated subtly – a row of metallic broom sticks line the property, implying “fence” but providing very little actual obstruction. When I pointed this out during my visit, the ambassador’s son Vincent, a Shanghai-based lawyer in his thirties, confessed that when he needs to return to the house late at night, rather than disturbing the guards, he simply slips through the bars, like a prisoner in a cartoon.

Past the semi-fence is a forecourt decorated with tokens of Dutch irreverence – a life-size statue of a cow rendered in Holland’s signature orange, a grass oval surrounded by twinkling black asphalt, a trio of trees sporting metallic stumps, like something out of a Tim Burton movie… Then comes the house itself, or rather a mass of materials that one would assume contains a house. For all the gestures toward openness that take place before it, the Dutch ambassador’s residence displays itself to the street as a wall, with a few tiny windows and the top of a mysterious glass box – that could possibly be a house or a gallery or a car dealership – peeking over from behind.

Before I finally entered, I took a few moments to admire Postel’s wall. It looks beautiful and, especially for a wall, surprising dynamic. It is comprised of a mixture of three textures of Mongolian granite – cut, polished, and broken – arranged in an irregular, horizontally articulated pattern. The diversity of the material and unpredictability of its arrangement gives the facade a feeling of fragility and agitation. From certain angles, it looks like you could push the entire thing over, from others it appears ready to take flight. Like the fence in front, it is a kind of anti-barrier, a wall that desperately longs to be something else.

Through a modest glass opening, I entered the house. In an ambassador’s residence, more than most others, it is essential to provide visitors with a strong sense of arrival. The vestibule therefor bears a heavy burden, as the first point of contact and the stage for a wide range of socio-political rituals. It is also the area where the fundamental challenge of designing a diplomatic residence – how to balance the house’s public functions with the private needs of its residents – is most apparent. As I stepped further into the house, past the obligatory portrait of the Queen and a row of public toilets, toward the enthusiastic welcome of the ambassador’s two dogs, the extent Dirk Jan Postel’s challenge become clearer to me.

Like the neighborhood in which it resides, the Dutch ambassador’s residence has a split personality. It is formal on one hand, a sort of model home designed for political entertainment, and intimate on the other, a place where children will recover from colds, parents will argue and make love, dogs will bark and alarm clocks will ring. Rather than combining these functions and risking a muddled, unreliable condition, Postel responded to the house’s competing needs by proposing separation. His design divides the program into two wings – one professional, comprised of meeting rooms, a dining room and service areas, and one private, made up of living quarters. I’d read about this strategy in the architects’ statement, and was curious to feel it out, but as I stepped deeper into the house, the interest evaporated as I felt myself drawn, more or less involuntarily, toward a nearly four-meter tall wall of glass that revealed a third “wing”, the stately garden.

The residence’s garden occupies most of the site and wraps around the building’s L-shaped footprint. It unites its two wings, but doesn’t bring them together. Once outside, I noticed that the private quarters are separated from backyard in the same way that the public quarters are closed off from the street. The wall of Mongolian stone returns, providing a dramatic, bunker-like counterpart to the public wing’s transparent back. A “dry river” made from grass, gravel and concrete, perforated by flower beds, trees, bushes, and bamboo winds through the garden countering the residence’s emphasis on straight lines and right angles.

From the back, the public wing is a glass box sandwiched between two oversized slabs. The interior is flexible, with an open plan that one would associate more with a museum. The carefully considered decorations, which the architect later told me were stipulated by the client, would also be more at home in a white cube than a home. The furniture is boxy and dark and most of the art sits in heavy black frames, which, in combination with the heavy gray wall, give the interior a dour, anal-retentive quality. From a distance, but even more once I’d re-entered, the inside of the residence’s public wing struck me as cold and overly masculine.

The feeling intensified once I noticed the house’s inflated scale: everything felt somehow overdimensioned, as if the house were designed for lumberjacks or sumo wrestlers. When I spoke to Mr. Postel after the visit, he explained that the enlarged scale was inspired by Mies, a ghost whose spirit is present throughout the house. “When I started designing the ambassador’s residence,” he told me, “I tried to recall the I experience I had first visiting the Tugendhat House. I knew this house by heart, from the plans and the books I’d read about it, but [when I visited] I was amazed at the scale. Mies purposely made his ceiling height 3 meters 70, because he considered that to be twice the height of the average ‘new European’, although he was small himself. And it gives the space a sort of prestige, because it’s also the dimensions of old Noble houses here in the Netherlands.”

Combined with its transparent walls, the residence’s expansive scale gives it a wide-openness that seems right for a house that is also a stage set, restaurant, and social hall. A diplomat’s home is ultimately a piece of social infrastructure, and finding a way to maintain its potential for entertainment without compromising intimacy is a challenge without obvious solutions. “That was the hardest challenge in terms of program and design,” Postel told me, “finding a balance between the occasions of 100+ visitors or twenty or two… On the Queen’s birthday, there were over 200 people [at the residence] and at that scale, it’s no longer a house, it’s a restaurant.”

Then what about the part of the residence that is “just” a house? The more time I spent in the public wing, with its industrial kitchen, its political ornaments and huge, boardroom-like dining table, the more curious I became to see the private quarters. When I finally entered, through a small opening next to an indoor garden that the two wings share, I was amazed at how different it felt. For the first time, I was confronted with coziness. The scale seemed to contract and I at last saw the evidence of true human habitation – an exercise machine, a dishevelled couch, doggie dishes, books with text… The rooms in the private wing are arranged according to a linear plan, similar to the railway apartments of New York and San Francisco. The three bedrooms were planned for the far end to maximize privacy, but when I visited, a room closer to the entrance, originally planned as a study, had been reinterpreted as a room for the youngest son.

When I finally met the Ambassador, he mentioned that his family had gone off script in the public wing too. “The architects had thought that if we hadn’t anybody to entertain, we would sit in [the private] part of the house, but actually we always sit here,” he told me, as we passed through the smallest room on the public side. “We eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner here.” I asked what he thought about his residence and, after briefly waxing nostalgic for a 17th century palace he’d lived in while Ambassador to Sweden and offering a few mundane criticisms – “The lighting in this room is too dark to read… I don’t like these chairs so much… It’s a well-functioning kitchen, but the machines make quite a lot of noise…” – he ultimately said he liked it. As he led me out the front entrance, he asked if I’d noticed one of the house’s most surprising features – rows of LED panels embedded in the front facade that, when illuminated, give the residence a lively, inviting character totally unlike anything around it. “It’s a bit tacky, I find, but it’s fun,” he said after having the guard run through the spectrum of available colors. “After all, the house is made for entertainment… It’s a fun house.”

Originally published in Architectural Digest 92 (September 2008)