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DISSECTING THE DIPLOMATIC.

In an innovatory approach to the relationships of diplomacy and the city, the Scandinavian countries describe their ethos in space and light.

When Berlin became the capital of re-united Germany, much of its centre was soon covered with a spindly forest of construction cranes (AR January 1999). Until recently, one of these hovered over a big site in the southern Tiergarten, the hunting park of the Prussian kings just west of the old city centre (the Mitte). In 1937, the area was declared to be a new diplomatic quarter [1] and some of the villas of the rich were converted to embassies. Afterwards, when Berlin was cut in half, the place became meaningless and partly deserted. Now, its diplomatic functions are restored, and the first major new contribution has been completed.

The new Nordic embassy enclave is an odd creation in many ways. You see it first as you drive down St[ddots{o}]lerstraBe, the urban highway which defines the southern rim of the park. A flowing wall of patinated copper lamellae presents an impassive front to the road and park. The scale of the place is quite different from its surroundings, and though the plates are sometimes raised to allow suggestions of what might be happening inside, they are largely smooth and flat, rather like the armour of an emerald armadillo. The complex is largely inscrutable, inward turned, offhand to its surroundings. For architects, the scale and form (if not the material) inevitably recall Aalto's curved perimeters, themselves a soft echo of the gentle flowing contours of the lakes of the glacially smoothed Finnish landscape.

Inside this mysterious barrier is an unusual organism. For years, the governments of the Nordic countries have toyed with making embassies in common. [2] Berlin offered the chance to try the idea out for the first time. The wandering Aaltoesque wall is the perimeter of the new compound. It contains the five separate embassy buildings, and a sixth one, the Felleshus (common building).

The strategy needed a carefully thought out approach. Two competitions were held. The first, for the masterplan, had 222 entries from all over Europe. [3] It was won by the Austrian-Finnish firm Berger + Parkkinen with a scheme very similar to what has been built. Their arbitrary green copper perimeter, which only in certain places reflects the road pattern of the block, [4] contains an amoebic area which has been equally arbitrarily carved by a smash of open axes. These define the building blocks of the individual embassies, but they do more than that. Tapering from wide and generous semi-public space at their southern ends on Rauchstra[beta]e to quite thin terminations up against the inside of the copper wall on the northern perimeter, these internal streets have a sixteenth-century proto-Baroque understanding of the apparent nature of space, for their plan shapes exaggerate the perspective effect, making them seem longer than they really are, the individual buildings bigger, and, curiously, people at the other end of the vistas, taller. Comparisons with Palladio's Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, that wonderful set for the parade of Humanist drama, are almost inevitable -- and not entirely inappropriate.

After the overall design had been determined by Berger + Parkkinen, individual national design competitions were held for each country's own embassy. These had to fit the strange shapes generated by the overall plan -- plots which were both spiky and curved. It is a mark of the ingenuity of the different architects (who were selected in a second round of national competitions), that their buildings have a degree of comradely congruity, yet express something of the countries they represent.

As designers of the general plan, Berger + Parkkinen were also responsible for the Felleshus. It contains most of the public functions of the embassies, leaving the individual national buildings as not much more than decent little office blocks. In the Felleshus are the functions and events, the cocktail parties, lectures, receptions, meetings, exhibitions and visa issuing which most of us associate with an embassy.

A tented canopy forms a ceremonial portico to the whole compound, offering views of the internal streets; under it is a toughened glass fence which separates the general public from the little city within the copper wall. (A separate entrance at the corner of Klingelh[ddot{o}]ferstra[beta]e and Rauchstra[beta]e serves the consular section.) To make the complex more easy to understand, this and the other buildings in the place are described separately on the following pages.

Does the compound work as a whole? It is efficient and must be relatively economical, for the pooling of consular and formal spaces is clearly a money-saving move. Internal and external spaces are elegant, have appropriate drama and a degree of gentleness appropriate for social democracies. But there remains a question about the edge. That green-scale skin is scarcely a welcoming device, and even though it is replaced on the entrance side in Rauchstra[beta]e by more friendly, urban and permeable elevations, the place is rather hermetic and even slightly sinister. The effect is increased by the amorphous plan and, inside, it is added to by rather blank and inexpressive individual buildings which sometimes cause the inner urban theatre with its exaggerated perspectives to have unsettling overtones of de Chirico. No-one doubts that embassies have to be protected, and that security is one of the key determinants in their design, but do they have to be quite so stern and impervious? The compound may have scale su itable to the urban freeway (indeed it makes a pleasurable moment on an otherwise rather dull drive), yet the nobility of Nordic social democracy has not been properly celebrated. Perhaps the place should be thought of as a good first effort: maybe next time the countries will be able to express some of the generosity of their cultural ethos more directly.

(1.) The traditional one was in the Unter den Linden and Patiser Platz. Here new French, American and British embassies, among others, are being built on their original sites.

(2.) Though they are very different topographically, they share long-standing historical links, a sort of common culture, and to some extent, language. All are social democracies; all have a high official regard for architecture as the built expression of a decent state. Though Icelandic is an archaic form of western Scandinavian, and Finnish is completely different from any other European language, Swedish is that country's second language as Danish is of Iceland.

(3.) It would have been illegal under European law to have restricted entries for such a large project to Scandinavia. And architects from Iceland and Norway (not EC members) had to be allowed to enter too.

(4.) The site was originally rectilinear sntil St[ddot{u}]lerstra[beta]e was made into an urban freeway, drastically curving its north-west boundary.
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Author:DAVEY, PETER
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Mar 1, 2000
Words:1135
Previous Article:REVEALED IN LIGHT.
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