Opinion: Fortress America in the heart of Berlin

Opinion: Fortress America in the heart of Berlin
Photo: DPA
The US Embassy has returned to its historic location on Berlin’s Pariser Platz with an underwhelming architectural statement. But the new building presents a fittingly confused image of America to Germany and the world, comments Daniel Miller.

America is back in the heart of Berlin, but is America’s heart in really in it?

Looking at the much-criticized architecture of the new US Embassy to Germany, one could be forgiven for thinking the United States doesn’t really want to be next to Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate.

Of course, the US diplomatic residence is being opened on July 4 with much fanfare and both US and German officials are hailing America’s return to the historic spot of its pre-war embassy. However, the new building seems to prioritize security over aesthetics on every level.

Set back from the street in order to protect against terrorist bombings, drive-by shootings and mob attacks, the embassy is decked-out with an array of defensive systems. It features rocket-proof glass, computerized surveillance, explosion-proof walls, and an innovative air filtration system built to defend against poison gas. All of this is sheathed behind a drab salmon façade which, complete with a sloping portico and plunging atrium, appears bland, quaintly postmodernist, and somewhat provincial.

It’s almost as if America decided to build an al-Qaida-proof Division of Motor Vehicles or some other soulless government agency right next to Germany’s most prominent national landmark.

Granted, the area around the Brandenburg Gate – Pariser Platz and its environs – isn’t exactly bursting with architectural bravado. Most buildings around the symbol of German reunification are squat beige wonders.

And according to the embassy official I spoke to recently (a friendly, if spooky individual whose previous postings included Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Baghdad and who preferred not to give his name) the essential ambition of the new building is modesty.

“The idea is not to detract attention from the Brandenburg Gate,” he said. On both the Pariser Platz side, where the downbeat exterior matches those of its neighbours, and also from a good distance on the other side of the gate, where the building’s skyline mirrors that of the Palais am Pariser, this aim is largely achieved.

Up close to the side of the building’s longest frontage on Ebertstrasse, though – a street which was actually partly rerouted in order to meet US security needs – things go somewhat awry. Here, the lumpy, stronghold-like, and faintly tacky quality of the structure becomes difficult to ignore.

Easy to mock, but hard not to respect

To me, the new US Embassy summons the image of a nightclub bouncer dressed in a Sears suit, swapping stock tips with European nobility at a Nevada cocktail party – easy to mock, but hard not to respect.

This situation is perhaps not entirely the fault of the architects Moore Ruble Yudell, whose original proposal had $60 million shaved from its budget by the penny-pinching US Congress at a time when many US politicians thought the world needed America more than the other way around. Why pay for some fancy building overseas when it’s just a bunch of foreigners over there, right?

Charged with the symbolic task of proclaiming a nation’s identity, embassy architecture tends to reflect the general state of a country during a particular era.

The US embassies of the 1950s were expressions of America’s post-war status as a rising superpower admired around the world. The State Department hired modernists like Walter Gropius (Athens) and Eero Saarinen (London) to construct glass-walled, airy and welcoming buildings. Situated in city centres, they often featured pavement access to exhibition and library space, and were geared towards functioning as billboard advertisements trumpeting both the openness of US democracy and its capacities for flexibility and change.

But in a post-9/11 world where the Bush administration’s favourite mantra has been that America is under attack, security concerns trump openness at the new US Embassy in Berlin.

Of course, not even the most blatantly anti-American German architecture critic is trying to blame the underwhelming new structure on US President George W. Bush, since the torturous process leading to its construction started long before he took office. But it does seem an appropriate reflection of how the world has come to view the United States during his tenure.

Daniel Miller is a freelance British journalist based in Berlin – just a short bike ride away from the US Embassy.