Opinion: Fortress America in the heart of Berlin

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.

Opinion: Fortress America in the heart of Berlin
Photo: DPA

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.

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.