Launch Slideshow

The Ugly American

More than a decade in the making, the new U.S. Embassy in Berlin has been drawing heavy fire from German critics. Is their animosity deserved?

The Ugly American

More than a decade in the making, the new U.S. Embassy in Berlin has been drawing heavy fire from German critics. Is their animosity deserved?

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    Tomas Riehle

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    Tomas Riehle

    The U.S. Embassy in Berlin (center) at the Brandenberg Gate (right).

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    Site Plan 1. U.S. Embassy 2. Pariser Platz 3. DG Bank 4. Hotel Adlon 5. French Embassy 6. British Embassy 7. Holocaust Memorial 8. Tiergarten 9. Brandenburg Gate 10. Reichstag 11. Spree River

The ambassador, a seasoned diplomat devoted to cultivating U.S.-German ties, was incensed. "It was seen as some kind of imperialistic demand to move the street a few feet," Kornblum remembers. At one point, Berlin officials pressed the Americans to give up their central site altogether and move to a plot in the Tiergarten behind the Japanese Embassy, locating the U.S. mission at the singularly awkward address of Hiroshimastrasse. "They wanted to get rid of us," Kornblum says.

A compromise was eventually reached whereby then secretary of state Colin Powell partially waived the setback requirement, in exchange for the Berlin government removing one lane of traffic in the street to the south and moving another street slightly to the west.

In the process, the architects had to pull in the footprint of their original design on two sides. The building lost one wing when it went from a rectangle to a U shape, with the outer wall of an adjacent Frank Gehry-designed bank flanking the east side of the inner courtyard. Complicating MRY's task even further, Congress slashed $50 million off the original $180 million budget, forcing still more modifications to a project that finally broke ground in 2004. Only 80 percent of the embassy's 500 staffers can fit into the new building, with the remainder now posted in what was previously the U.S. Consulate in West Berlin.

In the original competition guidelines, architects were urged to create a "public face that portrays an open, accessible government while accommodating security measures in an unobtrusive manner." The gleeful vengeance with which German critics have savaged the building for its failure to fulfill that brief is testament to something other than a discerning eye. Schadenfreude is, after all, a German concept.

WITH THE BERLIN EMBASSY, MRY has done little to burnish America's image. Its design is a confused and uninspired jumble—largely due to countless compromises made over the project's 13-year gestation—yet it's not quite the architectural calamity critics have deemed it. In truth, the embassy is a vast improvement on the gargantuan, bunker-like U.S. diplomatic complex just built in Baghdad's Green Zone. Rather than be handed the easier option of designing the embassy in a restricted area or outside the heart of the city (like the new U.S. Embassy in Beijing), the architects worked with the difficult, prominent site, which highlights the continuity of U.S.-German ties as well as the centrality of America's role in the creation of the postwar German republic.

The new French Embassy across the square and the new British Embassy around the corner are hardly stellar landmarks, yet the German media subjected them to markedly less opprobrium. Security needs affected the architecture of both. The street fronting the British mission, which was designed by Michael Wilford with ill-fitting colorful Pop elements meant to project an image of "Cool Britannia," has been blocked to vehicular traffic by heavy bollards. At the French Embassy, Christian de Portzamparc touted a public passageway on one side that would provide access from Pariser Platz to nearby Wilhelmstrasse. But security constraints have forced this to be sealed off.

The overall plan for the American Embassy was determined by Berlin's historic street pattern, which the city's recently retired chief planner Hans Stimmann vowed to resurrect. When the MRY design was first chosen in 1995, Pariser Platz was still tabula rasa. But by the late '90s, the square had re-emerged according to its 18th century layout, with the luxurious Hotel Adlon at one end, a collection of banks and the French Embassy at the northern side.

Josef Kleihues designed a pair of classical structures to flank the gate, while directly next to the U.S. Embassy site, Gehry demonstrated to colleagues like Philip Johnson, who loudly bewailed the city's stringent requirements, that it was indeed possible to work within the regulations and achieve design excellence. His project for DG Bank deftly weaves concrete and glass together (tucked inside is a more typically exuberant, biomorphic auditorium) while complying with municipal code.

The U.S. Embassy's four-story elevation on Pariser Platz lacks the compositional elegance of Gehry's façade; so intent is it on avoiding preening gestures, it achieves only reticent blandness, with beige limestone accented by thin, horizontal bands of darker limestone. The asymmetrically placed entrance is marked by a slit in the façade and a curving glass canopy meant to echo the fluttering of the American flag overhead—but it ends up looking oddly like an eyebrow arched at the French just across the way.

From the Pariser Platz, unappealing security doors hamper views into one of the few elements of openness—a glass-roofed rotunda—in a building that members of the general public will probably never experience from inside. The rotunda gives on to what—after the ambassador's own offices—is the most successful aspect of the building. A tranquil inner courtyard, meant to recall the majesty of America's national parks, is a relaxed space within the tightly controlled diplomatic enclave. "With an embassy, you're striving for a certain kind of formality," Ruble explained while showing me around the project, "whereas for most people, the most characteristic American thing is a kind of informality—being on a first-name basis and things like that. How do you put that feeling into a government building? It's a tricky, interesting problem."