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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Swedish Embassy's Design Brings Outside In

This is the sixth in a series on embassies and ambassadorial residences.


On Mosfilmovskaya Ulitsa, just behind an incongruously placed Finlandia vodka billboard, is a modern brick compound that houses the Swedish Embassy and ambassador's residence and could be overlooked as yet another banal Soviet-era institution.


But the Volvos and Saabs darting to and fro, the yellow and blue potted pansies recalling the Swedish colors and the three golden crowns on the front facade -- Sweden's heraldic symbol -- clearly identify the compound's tenant.


The complex, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary of construction this month, is a monument to its time and origins. In Moscow, such minimalist design often conjures up images of poorly built, hulking Soviet monoliths that visually and functionally symbolize an oppressive regime. But the embassy compound is an outstanding example of the human character of Scandinavian modernism.


In the 1950s, it became clear that the Swedish Embassy had outgrown its quarters on Povarskaya Ulitsa in central Moscow, and a new location had to be found, said Ambassador Sven Hirdman and his wife, Marianne. The embassy's move far to the west of the city's center was not an attempt to ostracize the Swedes, who have had diplomatic relations with Russia since 1674 , but merely a matter of land availability.


"When we were first assigned to Moscow in the mid-1960s, the site was merely a cow pasture," said Hirdman, who served as an attach? then.


The program for the architectural competition of the new embassy stipulated that it "should reflect Swedish design," the ambassador said.


In the late 1960s, Swedish architect Anders Tengbom won the competition for the embassy. His team's design included many elements that followed an architectural philosophy then popular in Scandinavia, which he described to Marianne Hirdman as "organic-humanistic functionalism." At the time, he saw two architects as his inspirators -- American Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto of Finland.


As with many modernist designs, the Swedish Embassy is composed of distinct, unadorned geometric shapes that are linked to create a cohesive whole. Squares, rectangles and cylinders intersect and take their forms from the discrete functions they house within; a cylinder, for example, would house a staircase. In theory, this rational "functionalism" becomes organic and humanist by its low-rise profile that blends with the land and its floor-to-ceiling windows connecting the outside environment with the interior.


In contrast to raw concrete or prefabricated tiles, natural materials largely imported from Sweden, such as exposed brick, rich woods and metals, further humanize the building.


The ambassador's residence has the most prominent position in the embassy complex, which includes staff housing and a lawn that serves as a sort of town green for the community.


In the courtyard in front of the residence stands Swedish artist Bror Marklund's abstract sculpture "Figure in Storm," symbolizing the then-contemporary theme of the peace movement.


The entrance was constructed in a variety of dark woods with a copper roof, tempering the pure geometrical form of the residence block with natural materials.


The interior shares the simple aesthetic of the exterior, and likewise appeals to rich materials to create texture and warmth. In the front hall, with its cool, gray marble flooring, a giant, bulbous knob taken from a Swedish birch tree -- the national tree -- has been carved out to create a seemingly abstract bowl on the long entry table.


Sliding doors made of naturally patterned Swedish birch open to reveal the multistory atrium that serves as the main hall. Vertical windows let in rays of light to illuminate the room.


White walls, bright contemporary artwork from the Hirdmans' own collection and from the National Art Museum in Stockholm, bright-colored upholstery and sea-foam green carpets enhance this luminescent quality.


The ambassador's study, a sitting room, a dining room and a second sitting room containing 18th-century furniture spin off from the main hall. These rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows that connect the interior with the landscape and let in light to further the organic feel.


Sven Hirdman said he enjoys the house's modernist "open plan," in which the residence's spaces flow into one another.


"You can be sitting in here with 20 people or just one and you don't feel you are getting lost," the ambassador said, sweeping his hand across the view of the main hall.


Off this hall, the sitting room affords a more human scale and a more eclectic decoration. An abstract painting simply executed with vertical lines in different colors adorns one wall, while an older landscape hangs across the way. A 17th-century Dutch grandfather clock stands in a corner, while a modern glass sculpture that at first appears to be St. Basil's but on closer examination is a glass sculpture done by Swede Ulla Forsell, sits across the room.


Upstairs, the private quarters have a more intimate feel than the public areas. While the ambassador and his wife are usually great admirers of the residence, Sven Hirdman did bemoan the small size of their diminutive kitchenette. The design presumed that the ever-social occupants would always be entertaining in the grand dining room downstairs.


The couple's own taste does not stray far from the public spaces; sofas in a mauve-pink leather and futuristic bookshelves with slots for books to be placed horizontally give their living room a contemporary feel. But all is not sleek and modern -- an old Chinese chest and set of chopsticks attest to the Hirdmans' extensive travels, as well as their diverse aesthetic appreciation.


Behind the house, the Hirdmans can entertain their guests on a terrace, from which you can see as far as Park Pobedy.