Diplomatically Speaking

Project Canadian Embassy, Berlin, Germany

Architect Kuwabara Payne Mckenna Blumberg Architects, Gagnon Letellier Cyr Architectes, Smith Carter Architects + Engineers Inc., Pysall Ruge Von Matt Architekten, Rave Architekten, Hok International Ltd./Urbana Architects

Text John Bentley Mays

For some members of the design community, the recently completed Canadian embassy in Berlin is less a declaration of national pride and identity than a symbol of process travestied and subverted. An international architectural jury was solemnly empanelled by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, which then, in March 1999, overturned the eight-member jury’s recommendation for lead architect (Saucier + Perrotte with Dunlop Farrow Architects), and handed the coveted commission to a large consortium led by Bruce Kuwabara, partner in the Toronto firm Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg (KPMB joint-ventured with Quebec City’s Gagnon, Letellier, Cyr Architects, Winnipeg’s Smith Carter Architects and Engineers Inc., and others). The subsequent open protest against the Department’s action came from every quarter of the profession: architects across the country weighed in against it, jury members expressed disappointment, and the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada said the Department’s decision “demonstrated a lack of understanding of the architectural process, and created the unwelcome appearance of a closed, if not overtly political, process.” The chorus of professional dismay was backed up by critics and commentators in the national press.

The uproar attending the design selection is imprinted indelibly on the story of the $35-million embassy at 17 Leipziger Platz and the history of architectural practice in Canada, and it cannot be ignored in any account of this small, significant project. But now that the embassy is built and occupied, it is perhaps time to set the selection controversy aside for a moment and reflect on three issues raised by the building as we have it now: the effectiveness of the embassy in representing Canada’s interests in Germany, its contribution to the urban fabric of Berlin, and its role as a monumental manifestation of Canada’s intellectual and artistic maturity.

In its final report, the German-Canadian jury said the KPMB design gave “the impression of the headquarters of a large corporation.” Instead of presenting “the vision of an inviting and open accessible place,” a proposed opening into the structure seemed to be “more of an entrance hall for an exclusive apartment building.” While they apparently did not like what they saw, the jury correctly predicted the overall effect of KPMB’s scheme.

Developed by Kanada Haus KG, a private German real estate company in partnership with the Canadian government, the 14,500-square-metre building comprises for-profit apartments, offices and shops, and a 7,500-square-metre facility that has been leased to the Canadian mission for a period of 35 years. Curiously, the menu of the ground-floor restaurant is Mexican; the place is operated by Bangladeshis.

Coming into this building through the main embassy entrance off Leipziger Platz is very much like arriving in a corporate office or a consulting firm. To one side is the reception desk, while to another is the Timber Hall, a conical, fir-lined pavilion suitable for diplomatic receptions and small conferences, forming the curved centre of the otherwise rectilinear architectural ensemble. The architectural elements combine to produce less an environment of welcome than an atmosphere of businesslike seriousness and entrepreneurial purpose. There is the cladding of light Manitoba Buff Tyndall stone on the three street faades of the five-sided infill building–toward Leipziger Platz, busy Ebertstrae and little Vostrae– and the polished black granite floor of the reception area. The ostensibly “democratic” Northwest Passage, which cuts through the building and is supposed to provide a pedestrian connection between Leipziger Platz and Ebertstrae, was closed and locked when I visited the embassy shortly after its opening in May, 2005.

And what could be more appropriate to Canada’s interests than such a mindfully elite institution? Because Germany has traditionally supplied only a small minority to the population in Canada, Canada understandably has limited cultural ties with Germany. Our political interests are stronger; they are based on common membership in NATO and powerful bonds to the United States, and on our liberal-democratic systems of government. But the largest role the Berlin embassy has to play is surely in the economic area. According to Canadian government sources, Germany is Canada’s fifth-largest export market, especially for raw materials (wood pulp, iron ore) and such manufactured items as machinery and medical instruments. Canada is in Germany to do business with the private sector, starting with the developers of the country’s outpost in Berlin, and doing business is the activity Kuwabara’s mixed-use structure speaks most clearly about.

With regard to Kuwabara’s scheme in the urban fabric, it has long been clear that any architect selected to do the project would be straitjacketed by decisions made in Ottawa and Berlin before the shovels hit the German earth. The exterior of the embassy has almost zero oomph or street presence, but that’s simply because it couldn’t. This die was cast when Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy picked the spot on Leipziger Platz, for reasons best known to himself: he did not respond to repeated requests for an interview about the location. When I asked Canadian ambassador Paul Dubois about this matter, he said the new embassy was in the centre of things.

Which is true, at least historically. The octagonal Leipziger Platz and the immediately adjacent Potsdamer Platz were laid down in a doppelplatz scheme in the 1730s, as part of an ambitious urban expansion program. The separation between the two squares was marked, after 1823, by a fine pair of customs houses designed by Schinkel. Before Allied bombs severely damaged Schinkel’s gateway buildings and everything else in the twin plazas–the East Germans finished the job by levelling the entire area when the Wall went up–Leipziger Platz and Potsdamer Platz indeed lay at the centre of Berlin’s business culture and the city’s famously hectic network of streets and transportation links. But the bombing and the Wall ended the historical and cultural importance of Leipziger Platz–if not forever, then at least for a generation.

With the breaching and subsequent demolition of the Wall, and the opening of the wasteland around Leipziger Platz for development, this sector came back into Berlin’s imagination of itself. But it did so in a curious manner that has always struck me–since I lived in Berlin shortly after the Wall came down–as neurotically conflicted and extreme even in a city where heated arguments about everything are a way of life.

On one hand, post-Wall Berliners have displayed a powerful dislike for certain reminders of their history, an obvious manifestation of which was the fastidious erasure of almost every trace of the Wall. As I am writing this, controversy is raging over the proposed teardown of the former East German Parliament building on the site of the old Imperial Palace, which was itself condemned by the East Germans as a vestige of Prussian nationalism in 1950 and ripped down. Sweeping away historic symbols every so often is an activity deeply ingrained in the Berlin urban temperament.

On the other hand, Berliners, especially since the Wall came down (but similarly long before) have seemed determined to resurrect certain obliterated urban scenography. Cases in point: the proposed rebuilding of the Imperial Palace razed by the East Germans; and the civic determination to reconstitute Leipziger Platz as it was before its destruction, despite the shift of Berlin’s post-Wall commercial and political culture north, east and west of this district. In pursuit
of this fantastical exercise in imaginary recreation, Berlin–desperate for investment, staggering under the immense cost of reunification, caught up in the turmoil of again becoming the national capital–made the characteristically improbable move of surrendering the land around Potsdamer Platz to big-money corporate development–the result of which is a heartless, remorselessly touristy district dominated by Helmut Jahn’s gigantic Sony-Areal; then imposing the most prim, moodily nostalgic restrictions on the rebuilding of Leipziger Platz next door.

While the most inventive architects could probably figure out a way around official Berlin’s draconian expectations–as Frank Gehry has done brilliantly in the DG Bank building in Pariser Platz–the challenge would have been steeply substantial. Among the regulations: an exact 22.5-metre eaves level with a 33- to 35-metre total height limit, an exact faade geometry of openings and opacities, and the requirement that the building be clad in either light sandstone or light limestone. The inevitable blandness of the project was mandated from on high, it seems; the good game of getting a distinctive embassy building for Canada was lost before it really began. Hans Stimmann, the imperious director of Berlin’s urban development since 1992, agreed to an interview with me via e-mail, then did not answer the questions I forwarded to him.

It is an open question, of course, what might have been accomplished in Berlin had Lloyd Axworthy picked another, less rigorously managed site in 1998, when the future site of embassy was purchased for $28.5 million. A freer design for the embassy could have been realized in the prewar diplomatic quarter south of the Tiergarten, or in the old parts of East Berlin near the US, British and French embassies at the Brandenburg Gate; or, like Rem Koolhaas’ much-discussed Dutch embassy, no place special. It’s a great missed opportunity for Canadian architecture.

Finally, there is the question of how well the embassy describes Canadian creative imagination in a European setting. For people who believe (correctly) that Canada is a land of magnificent forests and rivers and mountains, Kuwabara’s treatment of the embassy’s surfaces (Quebec maple, British Columbia Douglas fir, Ontario limestone, and so on) must seem gratifying. The trouble with Europeans in general, and Germans in particular, however, is that they tend to view Canada as merely a land of magnificent forests and so on, and little in the embassy scheme (other than a room named after Marshall McLuhan) troubles this illusion. Even the artworks, which are by some of Canada’s best artists, seem to have been chosen to reinforce the romantic German notion: a riverine pattern by Barbara Steinman in the entry hall’s polished granite floor, abstracted weather patterns on windows by Barbara Astman, a bronze canoe by John McEwen installed, with obvious attention to symbolism, in the Northwest Passage.

But in the consistency of such artistic details, I believe, is a clue to the motives behind Axworthy’s nod to Kuwabara’s design. I am not inclined to think the decision was made because KPMB chose to join forces with an architect in Axworthy’s Winnipeg riding, as alleged by media pundits at the time the government announced its choice. There was simply no desire on the part of the Canadian government to contest the stereotypes of Canada popular among Germans and others, and the KPMB plan contained no elements that could inspire controversy.

In that broadened sense, of course, the pick was entirely political. But, come to think of it, why on earth would anyone imagine that anything Ottawa did would not be political? The fact that many people actually expected the government of Canada to change its spots, ignore politics and accept the aesthetic judgements of German and Canadian architects is perhaps the most interesting thing about the controversy that swirled through the early history of the Berlin project.

The Canadian Embassy in Berlin was recently awarded with the Real Property Institute of Canada Award, acknowledging the contributions made by individuals and teams in setting a high standard and contributing to the real property field through innovation, achievement, quality and leadership in research, analysis, project management, partnering, communications, environmental practice, sensitivity to heritage, and use of technology. It is an award that is granted by peers and professionals in the industry, presided over by an independent juried selection committee.

John Bentley Mays is an architecture critic and writes regularly for The Globe and Mail.

Client Government of Canada, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Architect Team Kpmb: Bruce Kuwabara, Luigi Larocca, Andrew Dyke, Bill Colaco, Deni De Filippo, Brian Graham, Simon Haus, Robert Kastelic, Riki Nishimura, Shadi Rahbaran, Bruno Weber, Franciska Cape, Brian Graham, Karen Petrachenko, Carolyn Lee, Dan Nawrocki. Gagnon Letellier Cyr: Marc Letellier, Michel Gagnon, Simon Brochu, Jean-Sebastien Laberge, Pierre Michaud, Real St-Pierre, Guylaine Lehoux. Smith Carter Architects: James Yamashita, Takashi Yamashita, Colin Gibbs, Jim Mcewan, Gary Hornby, Howard Procyshyn, Steven Smart. Pysall Ruge Von Matt Architekten: Peter Ruge, Philipp Von Matt, Matthias Matschewski, Tobias Ahlers, George Bradburn, Nicole Kubath, Nora Heiner, Bart Kisielewski, Paul Stringer, Junji Yonehara, Yolanda Yuste Lopez, Rolf Zimmerman. Rave Architekten: Rolf Rave, Roosje Rave. Hok International Ltd./Urbana Architects (Interior Architects): Arthur Miller, Gordon Stratford, William Mitchell, Angelo Montenegrino, Alexandra Paul.

Structural Gse Ingenieur-Gesellschaft

Mechanical/Electrical Happold Ingenieurburo

Landscape Cornelia Hahn Oberlander (Vancouver); Cornelia Muller (Berlin)

Developer Hannover Hl Leasing, Tercon Immobilien Projektentwicklungs

Project Manager Diete + Siepmann Ingenieurgesellschaft

Contractor Alpine Bau Deutschland

Area 14,500 M2

Budget: $35 M Construction; $37.7 M Interiors and Other Project Costs

Completion April 2005

Photography Ben Rahn/A Frame, Thomas Weinhold/Foto Design