Monday, May 26, 2008

Fortress America

A new American Embassy opens for business in Berlin this week. It was built on land that the American government had owned since 1930, the southwest corner of the Pariser Plaz, which is home to the Brandenburg Gate. The original embassy built on that site was bombed during World War II and demolished by the post-war East German government. So this new Embassy building represents somewhat of a homecoming or, as William Timken, the current American ambassador to Germany, put it, "the closing of a circle." It has also been received poorly (to say the least) by the German architectural critics, whose reactions were so consistent in their annoyance to merit a summary report on SPIEGEL ONLINE. Even those who rarely (if ever) read architectural criticism are likely to find this report fascinating.

The strongest criticism, published by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, may also be the most representative, since it ends up saying in more direct language what is waltzed around with more discretion by other writers. Here is the Spiegel account of this analysis:

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."

The Spiegel report attributes this fortress mentality to an increased focus on security in the wake of the 1998 terror attacks on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as 9/11. However, I left Singapore in August of 1995, right around the time of the completion of the new American Embassy building there; and even the slightest glace at that structure reveals that the fortress mentality was already in place, even in a supposedly friendly country with a strong sense of law and order. So, while the invocation of the Baghdad Green Zone is probably appropriate, the spirit behind that invocation is far more deeply rooted than either Spiegel or its sources may have imagined.

My personal conjecture is that it is a reflection of the "New World Order," which Bush I declared after his Desert Storm mission was "accomplished." This would make it both appropriate and ironic that the official opening of the Berlin Embassy building will be presided over by the elder Bush and will take place on July 4. This is about as symbolic of the New World Order as one can hope to get, even if Bush II has managed to reduce the New World Order vision to piles of rubble scattered across Iraq and Afghanistan accompanied by a faint taste of ashes in our collective mouths. However, without trying to detract from the physical damage, the greatest damage done by the Bush Administration has been to the reputation of the United States in the world community; and Bush II was already building up that damage prior to 9/11 with his obsessive defiance of both the Kyoto Accord and the International Criminal Court. We now have an architectural symbol of our presence in the heart of the European Union which practically screams out that same obsessive defiance; as such, it may also serve as the best possible symbol of the magnitude of the challenges that will face the next occupant of the White House.

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