IDENTICITY

BERLIN - AN 'URBAN LABORATORY'

IN THE SEARCH OF IDENTITY

Embassy design opens one of the windows into the exploration of identity. After the fall of the Wall in 1989 with the reunification of the federal republic of Germany, the government moved its headquarters from Bonn back to Berlin and all diplomatic missions followed. This turned the city into a 'Pavilion' of global architecture and reinstalled the pre-WWII 'Zoo' of national identities7.

Currently Berlin accommodates around 150 embassies, more than any other city in the world8 and its centralised location in Europe makes it the place to be in the future of diplomacy. Furthermore, as embassy sites belong to their respective countries, they do not need to comply extensively with Berlin's strict planning laws, offering further scope for experimentation.

"Berlin is unique,

not only in Europe but worldwide

because of its variety of newly built embassies which,

designed by the most outstanding architects of their countries,

stand for a self portrayal of these countries in the 21rst Century".

(Wilfred Rogasch, Botschaften der Welt: Berlin Embassies)

THE TRANSLATION

AND EXPERIMENTATION

OF IDENTITY

IN BERLIN'S EMBASSIES

A short study looking at how, architecturally, embassies respond to their countries' perceptual identities – Focusing on the Embassies of the Netherlands, Mexico and the Nordic Complex (Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark), which simultaneously reflect the power of design and its capacity to push and break through boundaries as well as question and redefine certain aspects of diplomacy and national identity.

NORDIC

COMPLEX

The Embassies for the Nordic countries were the first to attempt unification, advantageously creating a bigger imprint on Berlin's city fabric and increasing their influence and trading potential through association.

 

"With the creation of the Nordic Council, comes the idea of
Cultural Identity, Political Unity and Economic Cooperation"
(translated from article by María Ocón, Arquitectura Viva,
La Arquitectura de las Embajadas de Berlin)

 

In the case of each individual country, national identity takes a step back and what emerges is a mixture of a geographical and cultural identity. The Norwegians employed a direct geographical link by integrating a solid piece of 12 tonne stone used to represent its mountainous landscape. The Icelandic embassy aimed for something even more literal with a lava garden and the use of rare Icelandic stone to clad the embassy. The Finish embassy is more minimal and its identity is represented with a natural aspect by using timber screens to clad it, inside there is a terrace with a single sorbus (rowan) the old magic tree of the north. The Swedish embassy clad the outside with two different kinds of Swedish stone and the inside with birch veneer, which has been compared to the beautifully crafted interior of a musical instrument9. Finally the Danish Embassy opted for a "fashionable" rain screen cladding of perforated stainless steel panels with a "blond" band of undulating timber wrapping the interior.

NETHERLANDS

The Embassy for the Netherlands is not found in the usual clusters around the west side of Mitte, instead it sits in a quieter area next to the river Spree, across from the Chinese and Brazilian Embassies. It has been described as "a spatial fantasy of Koolhaas"10, with its trajectory cutting into a cube; it really is an architectural beacon in this 'identicity'. It does not have any apparent national identity; perhaps its architect was more preoccupied with the function and form of the building rather than worry about something as volatile as national identity.

The incorporation of Dutch furniture and art, along with some "splashes" of orange, are hints of "dutchness", however, the success of this design comes from the way it has been moulded to its context and the architect's vision. The embassy also pays homage to its host by framing views of the city including the TV Tower in Alexander Platz and the neighbouring finance centre built before the war.

Interestingly one of the reasons for placing the embassy next to the river Spree was its resemblance to the canals and waterways found in the Netherlands, reinforcing a geographical approach to identity, something which the ambassador who chose the site at the time, was perhaps keen on manifesting.

MEXICO

In the case of Mexico, the aim of this embassy's architect (Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon) was to "create a building with an unmistakable image that is registered in the urban memory."

This "image" is created by a striking façade of sloping concrete columns and entrance which act as a bridge between the building and the city.

We find a small suggestion of "Mexican Identity" in that the internal cylindrical courtyard mirrors those of "typical" Mexican city architecture, however, the architecture it refers to is from the Spanish colonial period, so can this accurately be called "Mexican" and be used as a way to portray national identity abroad?

Maybe the architecture approach with this "image" for the embassy was a more tactical way to side step the definition of a national identity and concentrate instead on its presence in Berlin in order to avoid even further confusion.

EMBASSIES

AS BUNKERS

Other embassies in Berlin have become "monuments" or reminders of current issues in global politics. Embassies such as the UK, France and USA near the Brandenburg Gate, showcase an architecture strongly influenced by the demands of "National Security".

With staggering figures of up to 75 million Euros for the construction of the French Embassy and £50 million for the British, has the issue of national security taken diplomatic architecture to the extreme? Surely such a heavy presence in the city conveys a message of hostility instead of transparency and openness.

"Just after 9/11 you couldn't get within two blocks of the American Embassy, for a while we didn't even know if the staff were working in the embassy building or in some other part of the city."
(Ecuadorian Consulate to Berlin, 2009)

 

 

HYBRID

IDENTITIES

The Embassy for the Nations of the Tropical Andes can follow the lead of the Nordic countries towards the exploration of identity and union in the architecture of diplomacy.


Since many wars and conflicts have started in the name of nationalism or "National Security", the issue of national identity is one that has to be dealt with care. As Benedict Anderson points out, nations are imagined communities in that citizens of a nation state will not necessarily know everyone else comprising this unity, making it valid only as far as people imagine it to be.


National identity is something interpreted differently by each nation. In analysing Berlin's Embassies what seems to be prevailing is an identity geared towards a country's geographical or cultural character, resulting in more exciting diplomatic architecture.


In the case of the nations of the Tropical Andes, their traumatic history and constant state of political upheaval means that they are unable to attach themselves to any permanent identity.


Maybe the way forward is not to continue the difficult translation of national identity into architecture but instead to use a 'hybrid' of values and characters to represent countries abroad.

"Identities can be and - if necessary -
must be newly invented and reconstructed
...Examples from East Asia, South America and Mexico,
demonstrate that the construction of new identities in architecture
using 'packages' from a wide range of origins
is a powerful device to create environments that
local people identify with (and foreigners appreciate)
...Yet, identity can never be an essentialism.
It is, rather, relational.
And when cultural ideas and practices are transplanted,
they do not only carry the marks of history
they also get translated.
Hybridity is at the heart of Identity."

(Peter Herrle, Architecture & Identity)