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

When the United States last occupied an embassy next to Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, in 1941, the diplomat George Kennan watched from its windows as Hitler passed by en route to the Reichstag to declare war on Washington. Nowadays, at the resurrected U.S. Embassy on the same site, diplomats peering out of the blast-resistant windows are likely to spot hostile German architecture critics lining up to denounce the building's design.

The Berliner Tagesspiegel newspaper called the building a "triumph of banality." The Süddeutsche Zeitung dubbed it "a Fort Knox at the Brandenburg Gate." The Tageszeitung compared one façade to a "social housing building" with an entry like "a prison courtyard."

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was the harshest. "There is hardly a modern building in existence — aside from bunkers and pesticide-testing centers — that is so hysterically closed off from the public realm as this embassy," the paper's architecture critic, Niklas Maak, wrote. "The embassy gives the image of a country traumatized by 9/11 and the effects of globalization" and might as well be "on the route to the Green Zone in Baghdad," he added. One windowless expanse, Maak suggested, "must be home to the 'wellness and water-boarding' area."

Few U.S. government commissions have been as vexed by controversy. But is the new embassy really that bad?

THE OLD EMBASSY BUILDING, housed in the 19th century Blücher Palace, was severely damaged in the final days of World War II. At the start of the Cold War, its shattered remains were torn down, and the plot ended up on the no-man's- land fronting the Berlin Wall.

After the Wall came down, the State Department recognized the importance of the commission to erect a new building there. In 1995, it organized its first competition for an embassy since the contest Eero Saarinen won to design the U.S. Embassy in London four decades earlier. Thirty entrants were winnowed to six: the offices of Venturi, Scott Brown; Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo; Robert A.M. Stern; Bohlin Cywinski Jackson; Kallmann McKinnell & Wood; and Moore Ruble Yudell. In deference to German sensitivities, the jury included former West Berlin Mayor Klaus Schütz, who dissuaded the panel from Stern's approach. (Neoclassicism is problematic in Germany, due to Hitler's overblown versions of the temples of antiquity.)

Dozens of new diplomatic outposts were built in Berlin after the Federal Republic of Germany completed the move of its government seat from Bonn in 2000. These included an intriguing enclave of Nordic embassies housed behind a single, curved green copper façade and drawn up by an array of architects, Oslo-based Snøhetta among them. Elsewhere in unified Berlin, the Netherlands hired Rem Koolhaas, Austria called on Hans Hollein, and Mexico looked to Teodoro González de León, all of whom had leeway to fashion unconventional showcase structures.

By contrast, the U.S. Embassy site on Pariser Platz—the rebuilt square facing the Brandenburg Gate that Berliners like to call their city's gute Stube, or front parlor—was subject to tight city regulations specifying building height and setbacks, as well as window size and symmetry, and requiring stone façades. The parcel off the square's southwest corner is a complicated one, with Pariser Platz at the northern end, the leafy Tiergarten park on the west, and the vast, somber Holocaust memorial by Peter Eisenman to the south. The winning embassy design, by Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners (MRY) of Santa Monica, Calif., sidestepped any unified aesthetic in favor of what principal John Ruble calls "an assemblage of many parts."

The original design mutated considerably before U.S. diplomats finally moved in this past May. After the winner was announced in 1996, the project was put in deep freeze as the State Department grappled to come up with financing. Then, in August 1998, truck bomb explosions outside U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania left 301 people dead and injured more than 5,000. In response, the State Department drastically tightened security restrictions for new embassies. Already, a 1983 bombing outside the U.S. mission in Beirut, Lebanon, had brought a 1985 mandate that embassies be set back 100 feet from the street.

Such requirements were difficult to meet at Pariser Platz because of the German desire to re-erect the square according to its original plan, and led to a protracted clash between the U.S. government and the city of Berlin, which was still adjusting to its post-Cold War sovereignty. So when then U.S. ambassador John Kornblum asked Berlin authorities to either move a street behind the embassy or eliminate a lane of traffic to create the required buffer zone, it turned into a test of wills. Relations were strained to the point that Berlin's mayor at the time, Eberhard Diepgen, publicly taunted Kornblum, suggesting "he should just go ahead and build a McDonald's restaurant on Pariser Platz instead of a United States Embassy."