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America's Berlin Bastion

Mathis Winkler
October 10, 2006

US diplomats Tuesday will host a topping-off ceremony for their new embassy in central Berlin. A dispute over security precautions caused major delays for what some see as a symbol of German-American friendship.

A poster reading embassy with a picture of the new US embassy behind a fence
The embassy's construction site is already a high-security areaImage: DW/Mathis Winkler

A sharp-toothed iron fence atop massive concrete slabs currently separates America's representatives from the German people.

Concrete cylinders protect the entrance to the current US embassy in Berlin
Not exactly welcoming: The current US embassyImage: DW/Mathis Winkler

Just off Berlin's Unter den Linden boulevard, the US embassy sits in a street that's blocked off for traffic. German police behind rows of concrete cylinders prevent unwanted visitors from getting too close. "No Photography" signs attached to the fence add to the inhospitable atmosphere.

All that will change to a certain extent in the spring of 2008, when American diplomats are expected to move three blocks down the street to the new embassy on Pariser Platz. Home to Berlin's landmark Brandenburg Gate, which became the symbol of reunification, the square draws hordes of tourists, becomes party central on New Year's Eve and serves as the backdrop for major celebrations such as the 2006 soccer World Cup, when millions of fans gathered to cheer their teams.

Making a statement

It's hardly a dream location when it comes to security: The square cannot be completely cordoned off like the nearby street where the British embassy has set up quarters. But soon after German reunification, US officials decided to make a statement by building their embassy on the very spot where US diplomats had once worked before World War II.

"The decision of the United States to return to this historic site symbolizes America's support for a unified Germany," former Ambassador Daniel R. Coats said at a groundbreaking ceremony in 2004.

Model of the new US embassy
The 180-million-euro ($228-million) embassy, sitting on the right corner, was designed by Santa Monica-based Moore Ruble Yudell Architects, who count the Tacoma campus of the University of Washington, a courthouse in Fresno, an office complex in Beijing and several churches among previous projectsImage: Moore Ruble Yudell Architects

Skylights and security zones

Almost exactly two years later, the building shell has been completed. Still missing are a glass conference room on top of the roof that is meant to illuminate Berlin's sky at night as well as a "green band of trees, gardens and walkways" along the street fronts. Already in place, however, are dozens of poles made of steel and concrete that are meant to guard the building against terrorist attacks.

Schloss Neuschwanstein Deutschland Tourismus
Would Neuschwanstein castle have been a better place for the new embassy?Image: dpa

Security concerns were also the main reason for a decade-long delay of the project. Following the 1998 bombings at US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, US legislators called for more protection at new diplomatic missions. Confronted with the demands, Berlin officials were especially irked by a 30-meter (100-feet) security zone between the building and the street that would have required a complete redesign of the surrounding historic streets.

The dispute reached comical proportions when Berlin's mayor reportedly said that Americans should instead build a fast-food restaurant at the site, and the US ambassador jokingly suggested moving the embassy to Bavaria's world-famous (and certainly secure) Neuschwanstein castle, where Americans had always been welcome.

A very good compromise?

Both sides finally agreed to compromise by reducing the safety zone to 25 meters and shifting streets a little.

"The overall design has been enriched by extensive critique and collaboration with the urban planning authorities of Berlin and a sensitivity to the surrounding historic quarters," reads a text on the embassy's Web site. Embassy officials were not available for comment Monday as the embassy was closed for Columbus Day.

Bauarbeiten an der neuen US-Botschaft am Pariser Platz neben dem Brandenburger Tor in Berlin
The embassy's shell on the left closes the gap along Pariser Platz. Only a bank's building separates it from Berlin's famous Brandenburg Gate, seen on the rightImage: DW/Mathis Winkler

Meanwhile, Petra Rohland, a spokeswoman for Berlin's urban planning department, looked on the bright side.

"We found a very good compromise," she said, adding that it addressed the American security concerns as well as Berlin's desire to keep the surroundings of Pariser Platz open to the public.

Closing the gap

Wuchtige Poller sollen die neue US-Botschaft am Pariser Platz vor Anschlägen schützen. Bauarbeiten an der neuen US-Botschaft am Pariser Platz neben dem Brandenburger Tor in Berlin
These poles are still waiting for their historic coatsImage: DW/Mathis Winkler

"It closes the gap," Rohland said, referring to the last bit of wasteland along the square that has now disappeared. "As good hosts, we'll now have the embassy in this truly beautiful place."

Besides, some of the security precautions will actually return some history to the square, Rohland said: The poles will look like ones used as roadblocks in previous times.

Incidentally, the American need for security will also bring some increased security to the French embassy, which sits diagonally across on the other side of the square. For reasons of symmetry, preservationists required the same poles to be installed there as well.
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