New super-secure U.S. Embassy in Berlin

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Germany Correspondent  |  July 1, 2008 at 11:08 AM
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BERLIN, July 1 (UPI) -- The new $143 million U.S. Embassy in the heart of Berlin opens on Independence Day. Its architects have set themselves with the Herculean task of designing it to represent freedom while providing top-level security.

Tucked away in the southwestern corner of the Pariser Platz, next to the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin's and probably Germany's most famous landmark, the fortress-like embassy will be officially opened on July 4, in a ceremony to be attended by former U.S. President George H.W. Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Hans Stimmann, who from 1991 to 2006 was Berlin's chief architectural planer, remembers well how the Berlin government and U.S. representatives rowed about size and design of the new embassy building. The Americans wanted an opening in the middle of their building, a design element the Germans felt should be reserved for all eternity for the Brandenburg Gate.

High-ranking German officials lobbied in favor of the Americans, however -- after all, they had airlifted Berlin through a Russian blockade and helped bring down the Berlin Wall.

"The mayor called me and said: 'Hans, just let them have their opening. After all, you wouldn't have that job if it wasn't for the Americans,'" Stimmann remembered Tuesday, standing just a few steps away from the entrance of the new U.S. Embassy, where three police officers were talking to a person costumed as a bear, Berlin's heraldic animal.

However, Stimmann isn't too happy with the design of the building, which features a high-security steel and armored glass entrance, bulletproof windows and thick walls designed to withstand bomb attacks.

"On the one hand one wants to portray democracy and openness, on the other hand one wants to construct a building that withstands a bombing. Of course that doesn't work," he said.

The Pariser Platz is one of Berlin's busiest squares; thousands of tourists flock here every day. While the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, unlike the one in Baghdad, isn't walled in, it has a set of steel bollards aimed at keeping out potential car bombers. It's nevertheless easy to walk through the bollards and right up to the embassy building -- a fact that had caused security officials considerable concern. Berlin city officials nevertheless resisted closing off parts of the Pariser Platz.

U.S. architecture firm Moore Ruble Yudell designed the building as early as 1995 but had to overhaul its plans several times because of Berlin's demands and heightened security standards after terrorists attacked U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and, three years later, New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.

The U.S. government nevertheless pushed for the Pariser Platz site, where a previous U.S. Embassy had stood until it was destroyed in the Second World War.

"For the Americans, it was unthinkable to move somewhere else, for example next to the Italians, Spaniards or Russians," Stimmann said, in a reference to the many open spots available in Berlin's embassy district. "Those were the Axis powers, the losers (of World War II). Here, at the Pariser Platz, sit the winners."

The U.S. Embassy is the final element of the Pariser Platz reconstruction, which began in the early 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall and has since turned the platz from a Cold War death strip into the lively city square it is today.

Across from the U.S. Embassy towers the French Embassy, a classy black-and-white building that looks secure and at the same time stylish -- in a Le Corbusier sort of way.

"I think it's a great example of how to combine security and design," Stimmann said, adding that the windows of the U.S. Embassy looked like they were made from cheap plastic.

Stimmann's comments reflect the unanimous tone of the German media, which has harshly and sometimes hysterically criticized the building.

Der Spiegel, the country's most prominent news magazine, called the embassy "Fort Knox," and even more conservative newspapers, like the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, have lashed out at the building.

"The embassy is the picture of a country traumatized by 9/11 and by the consequences of globalization, of a nation so heavily armored that it can no longer see the world," it wrote.

Yet Jane Loeffler, who teaches architectural history at the University of Maryland, says the embassy bashing is grossly unfair.

"Instead of walling off the building, or drawing unwanted attention to it by surrounding it with concrete barriers -- as the United States has done in London and at its embassy in Ottawa -- (the architects) included security elements while incorporating civic gestures to engage the public, including a skylit rotunda that opens onto Pariser Platz, a glassy lantern tower that glows toward the Tiergarten at night and a street-corner pavilion that gives passersby a glimpse of a colorful Sol LeWitt mural commissioned for the south lobby," Loeffler wrote in a commentary for Newsweek. "The building is neither loud nor ego-driven, as many U.S. embassies were in the '50s, when these buildings were gathering places and civic centers.

"Sadly, German critics have chosen to ridicule the security mandate, and have misread the building as a reflection of current U.S. foreign policy when it stands for the very opposite -- an affirmative expression of the trust and mutual respect that makes diplomacy possible."

As with most stories, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The criticism also reflects a deep European yearning for a new U.S. administration that is less eager to launch pre-emptive military campaigns and more willing to listen to its European allies.

"We want to be able to love America again," Helmut Schmidt, a former German Chancellor, wrote in a commentary for Germany's most prominent weekly Die Zeit.

Even the most hideous embassy shouldn't be able to prevent that.

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