A highly decorated United States Navy officer in dress whites strolls into the rear entrance of the US Embassy early in the morning. With a black bag in one hand and a paper coffee cup in the other, he strolls past a German police officer and an American guard. A few friendly words and then he's through the glass doors of his new office.
The scene looks relaxed. The police let cyclists ride along the wide sidewalk and bollards that separate the embassy from Behrenstrasse. The calm is the opposite of what has recently been written about the new building in the Mitte neighbourhood of Berlin. The reviews have come across filled with hardened anti-Americanism. "Embassy bunker" wrote the left-wing Die Tageszeitung -- predictably. "A hidden embassy," the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel called it, as if the French and British equivalents were more open. And the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung called the windowless upper section the "wellness and waterboarding Area" as if a torture chamber was about to move in.
It was more of the same when it came to the German-American relationship: The aesthetic of the building, which one can criticize, became the screen onto which German essayists and critics projected their concerns over American foreign policy.
The former US Ambassador John Kornblum sometimes gets upset when he hears about such reactions. The 65-year-old, who spent years in Bonn, stayed on in Berlin after his State Department service and knows Germany like few other Americans. "The Germans," he says, "criticize almost everything that gets built." It's a "sort of public sport," as was demonstrated by the opposition to the new Chancellery in Berlin.
Then, too, lots of papers poked fun at that building. Often it was hard to tell if the comments were about aesthetics or just the sheer desire to tweak Helmut Kohl, the man who authorized the plans of architects Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank. Today the Chancellery is one of Berlin's most-photographed buildings, and its critics have largely been silenced.
The new US Embassy is facing this same process. Perhaps the building would get the same criticisms if it opened when (and if) Democrat Barack Obama were in the White House. But George W. Bush is in office, a man who is at the very bottom of the popularity scale in Germany.
'A Good Measure of Bush-Bashing'
For Kornblum, there's a connection. "Behind the sometimes unjustified criticism of the new building in certain media there's a good measure of Bush-bashing," the former ambassador says. German perceptions of America have never been worse. "That's why there's a greater willingness and a greater desire to say or write something negative about the embassy."
The US President himself won't be at the embassy on the 4th of July (America's Independence Day), when the building, open since the end of May, is officially inaugurated. His father, former US President George H. W. Bush, is coming to do that along with 4,000 invited guests including Chancellor Angela Merkel. The next day there will be a big public party on the Strasse des 17 Juni, a boulevard that cuts through the city's massive Tiergarten park.
Perhaps then the back and forth of the past few years can be forgotten and the new building can find some peace. Since reunification in 1990, the American Embassy's return to its historical home has been a foregone conclusion. The embassy was once in the Blücher Palace, which the US acquired in the 1930s and abandoned after British bombs damaged the structure early in World War II. The US cut of diplomatic relations four days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
But after the attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 -- and, especially, the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington -- the US State Department increased the security requirements for its outposts abroad. In Berlin, there was a year-long struggle with the state government over the American request to have Pariser Platz blocked off. Eventually a more practical solution was found, namely narrowing the street behind the embassy to create a buffer for the building. Other than that, there will be bollards installed all around the embassy, not unlike those at the British Embassy just 100 meters away -- where an entire street has been closed off to motor traffic.
The new standards also changed the building. A bid from American architects Moore, Ruble and Yudell was approved in 1996, but it had to be reworked several times. On top of all that, the US Congress reduced the building's construction budget from $180 to $120 million. In the fall of 2004, the building finally began taking shape.
Every critic seems to think that the building can't compete with its elegant and sleek neighbour, the Gehry-designed headquarters of DZ Bank. The design had to fit within the strict rules set by the city of Berlin for the rebuilding of Pariser Platz, which had remained totally barren since World War II -- a no-man's land that separated Cold War East Berlin from the West. It couldn't be over a certain height, and had to be made of sandstone and glass. The one exception, made by the city's former building director, Hans Stimmann, was made for the glass facade of the Academy of Art. Today, the facade seems like a foreign body on the square.
As always, the critics write and write. But the square that the US Embassy finally completes is beloved, at least by the tourists who flock there day after day. As more-or-less talented street musicians play, acrobats tumble and breakdancers practice, the quiet square slowly turns into an amusement park. Some call the scene quintessential Berlin -- others call it tacky.
But there's no trace of a bunker feeling. After the celebrations the square will be given back to the public. "To this day, I don't know why the discussions over the security measures got so heated," says Kornblum. It sometimes seemed as though, despite rescuing West Berlin with the Berlin Airlift, the US wasn't supposed to ask for anything after 1990, he added. "When you stand in front of the embassy today, you get the impression that the security measures are quite civil," says Kornblum, and that all the controversy "was pointless."