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Germany

Oft-Criticized US Embassy Prepares to Open on July 4

China's may have the better view, and Finland's the better architecture, but America's is the biggest. DW-WORLD.DE sent Jefferson Chase to check out the much-maligned new US embassy in Berlin.

US embassy

There are sure to be more flags waving at the embassy party on July 4

For some reason, I found myself humming Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee" as I cycled up to the back entrance. Perhaps I was nervous. After all I was bringing a camera and Dictaphone into what was sure to be a high-security area.

Two days ahead of the opening ceremony, workers were indeed already shifting security fences around the site near Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. But the fencing, a local policewoman informed me, was largely being carted off from the fan mile of the Euro 2008 soccer championship.

Nor did the two American guards at the entrance seem particularly uptight, although they asked only be identified as "John" and "Tom," and said it was against regulations to photograph them.

Pre-world War II embassy

The pre-World War II embassy had more grandeur

"I guess it's to protect us from a 'terrorist' coming up and killing us on the street," said "Tom," making ironic air quotation marks and adding a humorous expletive to make it clear he didn't feel his job was particularly endangering his life.

"We're looking forward to it," added "John," referring to the embassy's official opening ceremony on Friday, July 4th. "Everybody's just going to have a big party."

It was a surprisingly low-key atmosphere ahead of the public premiere of a building that has been the center of an unusual amount of squabbling.

Back to the future

The new building occupies the same spot on Pariser Platz, the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate, as the pre-World War II US embassy to Germany. It is located in the formerly communist eastern part of the city, a stone's throw from the site of Ronald Reagan's famous "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" speech of 1987.

Thus, the new embassy can be seen as a symbol of America's victories in both World War II and the Cold War.

A piece of the Berlin wall in the embassy courtyard

There's a piece of the Berlin Wall in the embassy courtyard

But the architects who designed it, from the California firm of Moore Ruble Yudell, have drawn poor reviews, with many critics dismissing the structure as an example of outmoded 1980s postmodernism.

The city of Berlin and the US State Department also squabbled for years because US security requirements, put in place before and after 9/11, forced the narrowing and diversion of streets to ensure that cars did not get to close to the building.

Many Berliners feared that the new embassy would create traffic jams, and a few even suggested that US diplomats should pack up and move out of the city center to avoid inconveniencing residents.

Ironically, the building that was meant to embody the West's triumph over communism ended up being caught in debates about how much security was needed vis-a-vis threats from those who don't like America or its role in the world.

"We could have built an embassy out in the woods at half the cost and twice the security," US Ambassador to Germany William R. Timken told reporters in early 2008, as the new embassy was nearing completion. "We are here as a symbol of our desire to be a partner to Germany."

End of an eyesore

Tourists outside the embassy

Tourists were already trying to get a peep at the building on Wednesday, July 2

Whatever the new building's architectural shortcomings, its inauguration means that the fortifications surrounding its predecessor can be removed.

When reunified Germany moved its capital from Bonn to Berlin in 1990, the US was forced to use its former embassy to communist East Germany, situated on a narrow side street near the Brandenburg gate, as its formal diplomatic headquarters in Germany.

The street had to be completely cordoned off with metal fencing and concrete pollards, yielding a spectacle reminiscent of Checkpoint Charlie at the height of the Cold War -- or Belfast, Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

As people geared up for the official launch of the new embassy, policemen in construction helmets were busy dismantling the fortifications around the old one.

Former US embassy in Berlin

Thankfully, the previous US embassy is history

The street will be reopened to traffic, meaning that, if anything, the area around Pariser Platz may become a bit less congested.

Expat Opinion Divided

And what do the 12,500 US citizens who reside in the German capital think of their diplomats' new home? Being Americans, they disagree.

"I think it's misguided, embarrassing and ugly," said Todd Cameron, an art gallery assistant who works not too far from Pariser Platz.

Others feel that more sensitivity could have been shown toward residents' concerns.

"I though it was a typical US thing to do, to just go ahead and build an embassy and make others move," said Brian Landry, a cook at a local restaurant. "They also wouldn't let me in when I tried to go have a look."

But on the blogs, most Americans seemed to think the new building was basically all right.

US embassy with stands

Stands from the Euro 2008 fan mile still had to be cleared

"I think it looks fine," wrote one user of a forum for American ex-pats in Berlin. "It also seems to be a design that won't look utterly ridiculous in 30 years, unlike some new construction."

Guests invited to the opening ceremonies on July 4th, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will get a chance to inspect at closer range an embassy that once had some people up in arms, and now seems like little more than just another big building.

Maybe they'll even play some Merle Haggard.

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