The Spectator

March 15, 1997, The Spectator

Building on the Spirit of America

A U.S. architectural billboard in Berlin

After the State Department hired the high-profile modernist Eero Saarinen to design a new American Embassy in Grosvenor Square in London in 1955, British critics lambasted his monumental building as gaudy and aggressive. Some were particularly irked by the massive eagle of gilded aluminium looming over the entrance. No sooner was the eagle’s 35-foot wing-spread unveiled than a Labour Member of Parliament took to the floor of the House of Commons to demand that local authorities “give it the bird.”

Aware that architecture and design can elicit strong reactions, the United States is now treading with care as it prepares to construct its most important embassy in decades – the new American mission in Berlin. To select the design, the State Department held its first architectural competition since Saarinen landed the London job.

Beyond their function as workaday quarters for diplomats, embassies serve as billboard images for America. “The United States Government,” stated the Berlin competition guidelines, “envisages the new embassy as a tribute to contemporary American architecture — offering a statement to passers-by and visitors on the spirit of the United States.” Architects were urged to create a “public face that portrays an open, accessible government.”

Successfully achieving such an image was complicated by the 1983 bomb attack on US Marines in Beirut. Congress subsequently imposed severe security constraints on embassies, rendering their design more like bunkers than beacons of democracy. High perimeter walls and blast-resistant facades, mandated by federal law, hobbled architecture’s use as a tool of diplomacy and spawned the concrete equivalent of The Ugly American. The new American embassy in Santiago, Chile, for example, has been likened to a “designer abattoir” and “an academy for secret policemen.” In another recent embassy project in Lima, Peru, the Miami-based firm of Arquitectonica valiantly sought to use a wild colour scheme resembling a woven Indian textile to mute the building’s fortress-like visage.

For security reasons, most new American embassies have been relegated to outlying areas of capital cities. By contrast, the Berlin site could not be more prominent or symbolically laden, located directly on Pariser Platz, the square fronting the Brandenburg Gate. The site not only served as the backdrop to communism’s 1989 collapse and was the same spot where America’s ambassador toiled until Nazi Germany went to war against the United States, but it also abuts the proposed location of Germany’s national memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Pariser Platz was heavily bombed in the second world war and the ruined embassy property came within the desolate no-man’s-land around the Berlin Wall. When the Wall fell, city authorities were determined to recreate the square’s original proportions and set strict design guidelines for rebuilding what is perhaps Europe’s choicest real estate. Even the exuberant Frank Gehry has capitulated, setting aside his signature expressionist mode for a rigid limestone-fronted office building due to rise soon next door to the embassy.

Knowing that Germans are finicky about the future look of their rebuilt capital, and in view of the importance of the US-German relationship, the State Department recruited top talent for Berlin. This recalled a Cold War tradition whereby Washington harnessed architectural firepower in the battle for hearts and minds. Then the State Department enlisted star architects like Saarinen to draw up distinctive designs around the globe as testimony that American prowess went beyond the military and economic. With Moscow having opted for a wedding-cake classicism as its house style, America turned to modernism’s avatars. Walter Gropius, for example, did a streamlined take on the Parthenon for the embassy in Athens.

The architectural profession’s consensus for a thrusting modernism has since given way to a far more splintered field, a development coinciding with the loss of certainties about the projection of American power in a no longer bipolar world. The confusion is reflected in the images of American embassies of a more recent vintage that hang along a corridor at the State Department’s Office of Foreign Building Operations in Arlington, Virginia. Looking at these far-flung outposts, one sees that USA Inc. makes little attempt to forge an overarching image for its foreign operations. And given American society’s freewheeling nature how could it be otherwise? “There are no simple, formulaic answers,” says the State Department’s chief architect Patrick Collins. “It’s not a recipe.”

In addition to Berlin, major new embassies are on board for Moscow and Ottawa. But due to Germany’s role as Europe’s powerhouse and the centre-stage position of the Pariser Platz property, the Berlin project is absorbing most of the State Department’s energies. “There are few buildings in this century anywhere in the world that are as important to us,” Collins says. Robert A.M. Stern, Kevin Roche and Robert Venturi were among those who vied for the plum commission, only to be beaten by Moore Ruble Yuddell, the Santa Monica-based firm founded by the late Charles Moore.

Local tradition could not be ignored in Berlin, where Hitler’s shadow still hangs heavy over architecture as well as politics. Because of the Fuhrer’s predilection for classical forms, their use has long been virtually taboo in post-war German state architecture. “Too Prussian,” was how one juror viewed Stern’s proposal, which fumbled in drawing heavily on a classicism that pleased Jefferson but still discomfits many Germans. At the other extreme, Venturi’s design was overly slack, taking the notion of embassy as billboard too literally by proposing a joky facade striped red, white and blue. It also would have incorporated a giant electronic screen broadcasting images of American culture such as symphony performances and baseball games.

In their winning scheme, Moore Ruble Yudell avoided the pitfalls of either strict modernism or classicism, providing a dignified granite and limestone-faced structure that will fit well on to the complicated plot. Its symbolic references are tried and true, albeit unimaginative. The building will be crowned by a copper and glass cupola that the architects call the “Liberty Lantern.” At night, the illuminated beacon will complement – but not compete against – the dome of the nearby Reichstag and the Quadriga statue atop the Brandenburg Gate. When the embassy is complete in 2001, the Pariser Platz facade will have a glass porte cochere opening into a rotunda inspired by the US Capitol. This domed ceremonial space will be easily visible from the square; another entrance to the building will he emblazoned with quotations from the Declaration of Independence.

If Saarinen’s crisp modernism for London didn’t hesitate to shout amid its discrete neo-Georgian setting in Grosvenor Square, the Berlin design is at pains to be well-behaved. Post second world war, Britain may have been thought to be a fitting locale for a bold assertion of American power, but in the capital of a reunited Germany, whose future direction remains to be seen, the United States has side-stepped daring new architecture in favour of stressing democratic tradition and the importance of partnership.