Articles - September 2016

A Country Estate

Spain's Purpose-Built Embassy Residence
By Roland Flamini

The trend in Washington is for embassies to acquire large mansions from their wealthy American owners to serve as ambassadorial residences, the French playwright Paul Claudel, who was his country's ambassador to the United States, advised his ministry in the early 1930s. He pointed to the example of Spain which in 1926 acquired a large house on 16th Street for its combined residence and chancellery.

That was true at the time, but by the year 2000 the Spanish government had hived off the chancellery in a separate building, and had engaged Jose Rafael Moneo, one of Spain's leading architects and winner of the 1990 Pritzker Architecture Prize — highest accolade in the profession -- to construct a new residence on a purchased lot on Foxhall Road in Northwest Washington.

Purpose built embassy residences are still rare in Washington, and the Spanish house is a distinguished addition to the small group. Moneo created a discreetly modern structure that is clean-lined and rectangular. Faced with the challenge of a narrow site sloping sharply away from Foxhall Road, he made virtue of necessity, creating a long narrow structure with one floor at street level and the second below it blending in with terraced, wooded grounds cascading down the hill.

It is meant to serve a dual purpose -- providing living quarters for the ambassador and his family, and at the same time spaces for public functions on a suitably grand scale, plus guest suites for visiting diplomats and dignitaries. The multi-level, compact exterior, is deceptive, however, and the expansive interior space comes as something of a surprise: a long, high vaulted reception room with three elaborate chandeliers, spans the depth of the building; a grand stairwell leads down, instead of up, to the next floor's equally extensive official dining room with a black glass topped dining table of enormous proportions that seats 40.

The 20,000 square foot residence was built using thin, long "Roman" bricks in soft earthen hues imported by the thousands from Spain for the purpose, which already sets it apart from Washington's brick buildings. But it's in the interiors that the Spanish character and culture resonates more strongly. Responsible for the design was Pascua Ortega, a trendy Spanish designer who opted for a traditional approach as a counterpoint to Moneo's modern structure. Ortega had available more portraits of kings and queens than there are in a deck of cards and made the most of them. But he also had two prize possessions in the shape of two giant 17th century Flemish tapestries for which auctioneers or museum directors would sell their grandmothers, and they act as anchor for his design strategy.

Each is from an important and well known series of hangings woven in Flanders, then under Spanish control and the undisputed center of tapestry making' and each dates back to the same time frame of 1620 and 1637. They are part of a collection in the royal Pardo Palace in Madrid.

The Death of the Consul Decius Mus in the Battle of Veseris (11 ft x 17 ft) is one in the series on the life of the Roman consul. Woven by Jan Raes and Jacob Geubeils the series was based on cartoons by Peter Paul Rubens — a cartoon being a full scale design for a tapestry. The second tapestry narrates the exploits of Theseus in Greek mythology, and is also by Jan Raes. Theseus Vanquishes the Bull of Marathon, is a scene of jubilation showing the Athenian leading the conquered bull to Athens, accompanied by musicians and dancers. The work serves as a reference to Spain's unique bull fighting tradition (now disputed in some areas) in which toreros, like Theseus, face death in the afternoon in the bull ring.

A number of seating arrangements with sofas and chairs upholstered in neutral colors line the walls. Antique demi-line tables providing landing ground for coveys of personal photographs, and gilded mirrors are the only other furniture in a space designed to accommodate large scale social occasions. Among the royal portraits are two pastels side-by-side of child princesses by Louis Michel van Loo, one of King Felipe V's daughter Maria Isabel of Naples, who died aged six, and Princess Maria Luisa de Parma, later wife of King Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor. Much larger are the more-than-life size portraits of King Alfonso XIII, the monarch whose reign was brought to a close by the Spanish Civil War, and his wife Queen Victoria Eugenia, Queen Victoria's youngest granddaughter, who gave new meaning to the phrase "well connected." The princess was first cousin to King George V of the United Kingdom, Queen Maud of Norway, Empress Alexandra of Russia, the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, Queen Sophia of Greece, and Queen Marie of Romania. The two portraits are by the prolific Spanish painter Alvarez de Sotomayor. The eye-catching carpets are from the Royal Tapestry Factory in Madrid.

In the long entrance hall that runs parallel to the big reception room are large portraits by Alwin Van der Linde, a Dutch painter living in Spain, of King Juan Carlos I, a pivotal figure in Spain's post-Franco peaceful transition to democracy and Queen Sofia. Juan Carlos abdicated in 2014 to make way for his son, now King Felipe VI. Between the two portraits is a copy of a well-known likeness of King Carlos III by the German portraitist Anton Raphael Mengs. The ground floor includes the two guest suites, the larger of which is justifiably known as the royal suite because Juan Carlos has slept there.

The paneled dining room is dominated by the Ortega-designed table on which a small plane could make a comfortable landing. At one end of the room is an eye-catching splash of color in the form of a quintessentially Spanish painting of a woman, dressed and reclining on a couch. The work of Antonio Ortiz Echague (1883-1942), it was painted in the 1930s at the height of the artist's career, along with another of the same woman undressed, the two being an obvious reference to Goya's famous pair of paintings on the same theme. The Echague work was bought by the Spanish Foreign Ministry specifically for the new residence.

On the same level is the three-bedroom living space of the ambassador and his family, with its own reception room and private dining room.

The dining room leads into a covered patio, called the orangerie, lined with tiles in geometric patterns imported from Andalusia and including a small wall fountain from which rain water cascades. The dining room opens out onto a wide terrace and a small swimming pool, with wooded land beyond sloping into a natural valley where foxes and deer roam and birdsong competes with the faint rumble of Foxhall Road traffic.

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