New US Embassy Nearing Completion Fortress America Arrives in Berlin

One thing was clear at the topping out ceremony for the new United States Embassy in Berlin. The new building is a modern-day fortress.

By Sebastian Knauer

The long-awaited new United States embassy is currently nearing completion on Berlin's historic Pariser Platz.

The long-awaited new United States embassy is currently nearing completion on Berlin's historic Pariser Platz.

Officials at the United States State Department still haven't forgotten the 1985 debacle over their new embassy in Moscow. They were forced to drastically rebuild the costly structure after discovering that the Soviets had incorporated listening devices into concrete walls. The problem was so extensive that the embassy's upper floors had to be completely demolished and rebuilt.

Last week the Americans completed the raw construction of yet another new embassy, this time in Berlin. And this time they have learned their lessons from the past -- from Moscow, but also from Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Karachi, where Islamists caused devastating damage with car bombs. For some, the new embassy next to Berlin's landmark Brandenburg Gate is an architectural jewel. But it is also a fortress designed to stop both spies and would-be attackers in their tracks.

The building's top-secret interior is still off-limits. Judging by the amount of CIA and Secret Service surveillance, one could imagine that a new Fort Knox is in the works at the Tiergarten park. Despite the fact that US Ambassador to Germany William Timken Jr. had opened up part of the ground floor for the topping out ceremony and its invited guests, including Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, security was sufficiently tight to ensure that no one could possibly stray into sensitive areas.

Washington acquired the site at Pariser Platz 2 long ago -- in 1931. In 1957, the then-East German government tore down the building that had stood there, and which had sustained heavy damage in World War II. Following a lengthy series of negotiations over the Americans' escalating security demands, the Berlin Senate and the US State Department finally agreed on a concept for the new building in 2002. For security reasons, even the surrounding streets had to be moved, so that ordinary traffic would remain at least 25 meters (82 feet) from the new building.

The concrete foundation plunges eight meters (26 feet) into the ground below. Concerned about the risk of car bombs, the building's planners decided to cancel their initial plan to include an underground parking garage. The decision has puzzled German construction personnel involved in the project. "I suppose the diplomats will have to arrive on foot," says one of the German experts, referring to the fact that the plan seemingly ignores the need for a place to park the embassy's bulletproof limousines. According to embassy officials, there will be a spot for the ambassador's car, but no parking spaces for anyone else.

Instead of an underground parking garage, the €120-million structure now sits on a three-foot concrete plate, which, according to one expert, is strong enough to "support a nuclear power plant." "You won't see any moles getting through that," says one of the German construction foremen.

The Americans didn't cut corners when it came to the selection of materials either. The embassy is being built according to US building standards, which has meant flying in everything from special concrete and left-turning door handles to wall sockets.

Indeed, US building inspectors have even managed to oust their normally omnipotent German counterparts from the site. About the only feature that corresponds to German standards is the fire department hook-up on the edge of the property, ensuring the Berlin fire department can provide emergency services.

"Security is our highest priority"

The hip-level barrier posts encircling the building may look like standard-issue German concrete cylinders, but their internal steel reinforcement material is designed to stop any truck packed with explosives. "Security is our highest priority," says Embassy spokesman Robert Wood. Paradoxically, the new US fortress sits smack in the middle of a constant stream of tourists shuttling between the Brandenburg Gate and the Holocaust memorial. This presents a real challenge to security personnel, even during the construction phase. But John Winiger, the embassy's head of security, feels confident that everything is under control. All construction workers, for example, undergo a three-week security check before being cleared to work on the site. "If anything happens here, I'll be responsible," says Winiger.

German firm HSG Technischer Service GmbH, a subsidiary of Mannheim-based construction company Bilfinger Berger and well versed in the high-security business of building embassies, is heading the construction effort. Other similarly high-profile projects HSG has supervised in Berlin include the French embassy, the nearby British embassy and the renovation of the US consulate in Frankfurt, where security was an equally high priority.

As a 49-percent partner in the project, HSG must work hand-in-hand with US construction company Hensel Phelps, which is in charge of sensitive security areas. Security is so tight that the German construction managers are not even granted access to the building's fourth and fifth floors. "We aren't allowed up there," says one foreman, "the Americans handle that part on their own." Indeed, the stairwell is blocked to unauthorized personnel above the third floor.

Even the new kitchen for the embassy's top floor was delivered under tarps, as if the Americans were in fact crowning their new embassy with some top-secret missile defense system.

The building's power supply and ventilation system will be anything but energy-efficient. Citing security, the architects opted not to include a state-of-the-art ventilation system. "This won't exactly be a low-energy building," says one expert derisively, "European construction standards are a little farther along when it comes to that."

Truck barriers will soon be rammed more than four feet into the pavement on Pariser Platz in front of the future embassy, despite objections by Berlin's senator in charge of construction issues, who called the fortifications a blemish on the downtown cityscape. The nearby French embassy has also yielded to the Americans' security interests by allowing them to install special, steel-reinforced concrete posts surrounding their flowerbeds. But at least the barriers will be true to the square's historic architecture.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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