Stars and strife

Stars and strife

19th May 2008, Comments 0 comments

The US has just finished its landmark brand new embassy in Berlin, but not everyone is happy about it

The removal of scaffolding from the US embassy construction site in Berlin has triggered fresh debate about this symbol of Washington's power on the site of the former Berlin Wall.

The inauguration is set for July 4, US Independence Day, and tourists are already snapping pictures of the building, which has a front door on prestigious Pariser Platz, with the Brandenburg Gate, French Embassy and luxurious Adlon Hotel as neighbours.

Its completion fills the last gap on an upscale square that in less than two decades has turned into a gallery of contemporary architecture. The US project was delayed by years of wrangling with the city of Berlin over buffer zones to foil car bombings.

Lines of waist-high pillars are the most obvious security features around the four-storeyed sandstone building, which has its longest frontage not on the square but on a four-lane road, which is where most tourists in buses will see it first.

The embassy website says the design is intended to "provide an open yet secure presentation of America."

View from above

From the penthouse, US ambassador William Timken will have a panorama on Berlin history all around him.

The view has been carefully composed to show the Quadriga horses on top of the Brandenburg Gate seeming to ride across the Embassy's rooftop garden of native American grasses. Timken will also have a close-up view of the dome on the Reichstag and the Tiergarten woods.

To the south, he will gaze across the expanse of the sombre Holocaust Memorial to the lofty office towers of Potsdamer Platz, 400 metres away. Timken remembers standing on the site as a visitor to Germany in the early 1990s when it was weed-covered wasteland.

"The Berlin Wall had stood there just a short time before with the 'death strip' next to it," said Timken, who arrived as ambassador in 2005. "I couldn't have imagined it as the site for our embassy."

He spoke of his "wonder" at the embassy's return to the historic site.

Much about the building's design seems influenced by security needs rather than such emotions: the walls are reinforced, the glass bomb-proof, and a strong fence separates the site from the main road where visitors to the consular office enter the building.

The security is part of the price the United States has paid since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

But compared to the old US embassy in Berlin, which is isolated behind ugly concrete and steel barriers with gun-toting guards, the airy, 120-million-dollar new embassy with its many windows seems like a project in disarmament.

Harsh criticism

Gerwin Zohlen, a Berlin architecture reviewer, is not satisfied.

In an interview, he partly blamed the design by California architecture practice Moore Ruble Yudell, calling the newly unveiled exterior "boring" and a "rather uninspired" example of 1980s post-modernism that was already out of date.

He suggested Berliners nickname it "The Pancake" because of the stretched-out, low-rise main-road side that tourists will pass on their way to the Holocaust Memorial: "It gives the impression of being horizontally stretched out."

Instead of projecting the grandeur of a superpower, the building suggested a nation that had given up being world policeman and withdrawn into self-defence, he said. "It would look okay in the US Midwest. But it doesn't suit an inner city in old Europe."

Zohlen also called the stonework shoddy and opined that the building looked "cheap," a view that has a basis in fact. The US Congress pared back the construction budget by 60 million dollars compared to the original proposal.

While Zohlen called the building "bunker style," Ambassador Timken spoke out in defence of the building's security features before the scaffolding came down, saying it was the price of building on the inner-city site.

It would have been easy to build a compound with an ample buffer zone well away from the city centre, but the diplomats had wanted to be "part of Germany" at the heart of Berlin. The municipality wanted that too, and made some concessions so the project could go ahead.

Ebertstrasse, separating the embassy from the park, was slightly realigned so the buffer zone would be wider.

In any case, the US mission is not the only embassy fixated on security.  The British embassy has prevailed on Berlin to close its street to all traffic.

US property

The US link to Pariser Platz goes back to the early 1930s when the United States bought a fire-gutted palace there, but could not restore it at first because of the Great Depression. When Adolf Hitler came to power, the US embassy was in rented premises.

The embassy finally moved to Pariser Platz as Hitler's chief architect, Albert Speer, was drawing up grandiose plans to rip down the old diplomatic quarter of Berlin and put a Nazi showcase in its place. Germany and the United States went to war from 1941.

The post-war communist authorities ripped down the ruins, but the land remained US property and was recovered after the communist system collapsed in 1989. DPA

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