'Fort Knox at the Brandenburg Gate' German Critics Slam New US Embassy

The new US Embassy in Berlin opens for business this week. But the building's design, with its focus on security, has been panned by German architectural critics, who call it a "triumph of banality" that would be more at home in Baghdad than Berlin.
Von David Gordon Smith

Every architectural project represents a compromise between the creativity and vision of the architect and the financial and technical restraints dictated by the client. But few would envy the architects at the California-based firm of Moore Ruble Yudell, who had to work under massive restrictions while designing the new American Embassy in Berlin. The building, which opens for business Tuesday, has already been slammed by German critics.

First there was the historical burden of the location on the southwest corner of Berlin's prestigious Pariser Platz square, which is home to the Brandenburg Gate, a symbol of the German capital. The ill-starred property has belonged to the Americans since 1930, when the US purchased the palace that once stood on the site as a location for its embassy.

But a fire delayed the opening of the embassy, and it was not until 1939 that staff finally moved in, almost a year after the US recalled its ambassador following the Kristallnacht, or "Night of Broken Glass" pogrom, which saw Nazis attack synagogues and Jewish businesses acorss Germany.

The building was bombed during World War II and its ruins later demolished by the East German government. The return of the embassy to the historically charged location has been described by the current US ambassador to Germany, William Timken, as "the closing of a circle."

From the get-go, the project has been plagued by creative restrictions. There were the architectural restrictions imposed by the city of Berlin. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Pariser Platz -- which was largely destroyed during World War II and formed part of the Berlin Wall death strip during the Cold War -- has been rebuilt according to the principle of "critical reconstruction," where the spirit of the pre-war square is retained in the design of the new buildings. Hence the architects faced a number of restrictions in terms of the height of the building, the size of windows and the symmetry of the design.

Money was also a factor, after the US Congress decided to slash the building's budget from $180 million to $130 million.

But most significantly, Moore Ruble Yudell had to deal with the security restrictions imposed on embassy designs in the age of Islamist terrorism. The Santa Monica-based firm won an architectural competition to build the Berlin embassy in 1995. The 13 years since then have seen the 1998 terror attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

In the wake of those attacks, the US State Department imposed strict new guidelines on embassy designs. These restrictions, which included a 30-meter (98-foot) security zone around the building, were incompatible with Berlin's plans for Pariser Platz, as they would have effectively closed off a large part of the square and caused two nearby streets to be re-located. Eventually the US authorities and the city of Berlin found a compromise which involved only moving one street and shifting many of the necessary security measures inside the building.

A 'Triumph of Banality'

But by then the architects' original design had been modified several times. The final building, which will be officially opened by former US President George Bush senior on July 4, is an unremarkable block of a building with little decoration which has been slammed by Germany's architectural critics. Writing in the run-up to the building's opening on Tuesday, hardly any German newspaper had a kind word to say about the design.

In its Monday edition, the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel describes the building as a "triumph of banality" and a "barely disguised castle pretending to be a contemporary building."

"The US Embassy will be the opposite of what American embassies, consulates and cultural centers once stood for," the newspaper writes. "The foreign representations of the US are no longer marked by inviting openness, but instead by rejection and control. ... The fact that this situation is given concrete form -- in Berlin of all places, the city that owes its current freedom and reunification in a large part to the decades-long commitment of the US -- is a bitter fact that the stage-managed jocularity of the coming opening celebrations cannot conceal."

The paper has little positive to say about the building's architectural merits either. The building is "at first glance an example neither of exciting nor abhorrent architecture, but is instead an utterly banal office building. One wishes that the saplings along the street at the side of the building would grow in record time in order to conceal the façade with its square windows and their chunky protective sun grids."

The left-wing daily Die Tageszeitung is similarly unimpressed. "The embassy has turned into a plain building," it writes. "The Pariser Platz side resembles a banal four-story social housing building." Even one of the few decorative features, a rotunda visible through a gap in the façade, fails to impress -- the newspaper compares it to a "prison courtyard."

"One does not need to be a prophet to predict that no one will sing the praises of the new building at the opening celebrations," the paper continues. "The embassy lacks any kind of special character or expressiveness. It also lacks any kind of openness to the city, any inviting gesture, good materials -- and naturally also elegance."

'A Maximum-Security Prison'

"The American embassy building has a grand past," writes the Berliner Zeitung. "But its current design on the other hand looks somewhat terrible." The embassy, the paper writes, "has been turned into a fortress, a maximum security prison made of reinforced steel and bulletproof glass that can withstand exploding trucks and rocket fire. It was the architects' task to turn the bunker into a building and to give the fortress a civilian façade. ... The end result is in fact a piece of architecture, but the architects were fighting a losing battle -- one that deserves our respect but also a certain amount of sympathy."

"The whole inconspicuousness of the building's appearance, the practically defensive reserve, could be taken as the polite gesture of a superpower that does not necessarily want to slam its fist on the table in the living room of an allied nation," the paper continues. "But the new building on Pariser Platz is not a public place or a location with an urban spirit. Rather it is a place of military self-defense which tries to conceal that fact with a few well-intended gestures."

"In America there is a huge passion for symbolic acts," the paper writes, before making the damning conclusion: "It is hard to believe that the US -- the country where public relations was born and where the art of symbolic exaggeration is mastered like almost nowhere else -- has decided to occupy this location with a piece of run-of-the-mill architecture that says nothing."

Other commentators are equally unkind. "The embassy runs along the side of the Tiergarten park like a post-modern, cream-colored castle, surrounded by a high fence," writes the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which dubs the building "a Fort Knox at the Brandenburg Gate." Meanwhile the Frankfurter Rundschau describes the building as "well behaved, but a bit boring," and asks, in reference to the US's history of commissioning exciting architecture in post-war Berlin, "Is this supposed to be an American embassy?" The newspaper also laments the new security-conscious philosophy: "Transparency and open doors are a thing of the past."

A Home Depot Knight's Castle

But the harshest words come from the respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The paper's critic singles out the embassy's windows for scorn, saying they "look as if a bankrupt homeowner had bought them in a home-improvement store near Fargo in order to get his house ready for the winter. Such windows are exactly what the 'critical reconstruction' approach is meant to prevent -- the invasion of the industrially produced throwaway aesthetic, the plastic culture of the suburbs in the historic city center."

"On the whole, the American embassy -- with its cheap materials, its narrow windows which resemble arrow slits, its defensive tower which has everything except for battlements -- looks as if it was originally planned for another, more unsettled part of the world," the author continues. "Of course an embassy needs security features -- but the French, British and Italians manage to achieve that without giving the observer the impression that he is about to enter the Green Zone in Baghdad. Is that the message of the embassy: that the Americans suspect that their German representation is located in a completely uncivilized wasteland, located beyond the permafrost line and populated by aggressive maniacs, and that they want to secure it as a result?"

"The new US Embassy in Berlin fits together with trends towards nostalgia in architecture -- it is the knights' castle that you can knock together with items from the home-improvement store," continues the FAZ's critic. "On the other hand, there is hardly a modern building -- with the exception of bunkers and pesticide testing centers -- which is so hysterically closed off from public space as this embassy. There is not a single window on the upper part of the building's south side. Here America shows itself as living a completely impenetrable, erratic bunker existence. One doesn't need to be as bitchy as certain angry passers-by, who postulated that the top part of the building must be home to the 'wellness and waterboarding' area, to be disturbed by such a lack of windows."

"If a building could stand with its arms crossed, it would look like this one," the paper writes. "Perhaps it is also typical of the first decade of the 21st century that public space, which once looked like a promise, is now perceived as a threat. The stranger, who was once the projection surface for the most beautiful collective and private fantasies, could be a terrorist, have AIDS or be transporting the plagues of globalization like factory closures, migration flows or bird flu."

"The American Embassy does not reflect the image of a country that was once a melting pot for immigrants from around the world, a place for new beginnings and reinventing oneself. The embassy represents a country which has been traumatized by 9/11 and the consequences of globalization -- a nation which is now so protected by armor that it can no longer see the world."