Embassy architecture German Virtues in Glass and Steel

German Embassy in Washington, Egon Eiermann
German Embassy in Washington, Egon Eiermann | Photo: Reinhard Görner

To this day, the guiding principle for building an embassy is to represent Germany. At the same time, however, local culture and building traditions are to be respected.

The beginnings of state representation abroad as a form of international communication lie far in the past, but embassy buildings as a construction type have been in existence only since the 19th century. At first, governments borrowed from the splendour of past epochs and took over former palaces of the nobility. Examples in Germany’s case are the Hôtel Beauharnais in Paris, the Palais Schuylenburch in The Hague and the Palais Lobkowicz in Prague, made world-famous by the events of 1989. Hans-Dietrich Genscher, German Federal Foreign Minister at the time, announced from this balcony to over 4,000 GDR refugees that they could leave for West Germany.

German Embassy in Istanbul German Embassy in Istanbul | Photo: Friedrich Busam The first building conceived as an embassy was built in 1877 in Constantinople. At the time, even the Preußische Zeitung criticised the Neo-Renaissance building: “The new palace does far greater honour to our massive power than our artistic sensibilities,” adding that the “ugly alien” seemed hermetically sealed and was insensitive to its “fairy-tale surroundings.” Two years later, the embassy in Vienna was opened, a Wilhelminian Renaissance palace reminiscent of the Reichstag. With its colossal columns and the Dioskouroi sculpture on the portico - referencing the Brandenburg Gate-, the Imperial German Embassy in St. Petersburg, built by the young Peter Behrens in 1913, has been unjustly described as a harbinger of National Socialist architecture, but in fact also belongs in the category of representational architecture.

Representation and design

As early as 1877, the criticism of the Preußische Zeitung mentioned above, addressed what later and to the present is considered a guiding principle: an embassy building should represent Germany, but also make use of and respect local surroundings and cultural and architectural traditions. How differently this design programme can be interpreted is shown by the two buildings of the German embassy in Washington, D.C. It was Egon Eiermann, who from 1962-1966 erected the programmatic office building in the capital of Germany’s most important ally. The transparent steel building, nestled in the landscape with its delicate facade grid dispenses with any and all forms of architectural representation.

German embassy in Brasilia, Hans Scharoun German embassy in Brasilia, Hans Scharoun | Photo: Nelson Kon Radically modern buildings intended to consign all associations with the National Socialist period to oblivion arose in 1968 in Brussels, designed by Reinhard Krüger and in 1972 in Brasília by Hans Scharoun. But from 1992-94, Oswald Mathias Ungers designed the residential building in Washington as a rationalised reinterpretation of the palatial form, enthroned on a hill with emphatic dignity. Ungers’ concept was a comprehensive work of art, including the interior decoration right down to the dinnerware and table linen.

Competition German Embassy Tiflis Competition German Embassy Tiflis | design: wulf architekten Contemporary embassy buildings play with both architectural motifs: with representative rows of columns, symmetries and attractive material contrasts, but also with transparency, spaciousness and ease. In addition, orientation towards local architectural traditions is appreciated. Not only because these time-tested architectures might make sense in their respective locations, but also to honour the host nation. Thus the winners of the architects’ competition for the embassy in Tiflis, the Stuttgart firm of Wulf Architekten have included not only modern building forms with long balustrades and ribbon windows, but also facades of dried adobe bricks.

Diplomatic missions include not only large-scale embassy buildings in the capital, but also many consulates in other cities. Missions are often housed as storeys in large office buildings or high-rises. Rented offices offer no options for external self-display. The Foreign Office is endeavouring to develop a corporate design for this situation.

Germany's Corporate Design

A design competition has now resulted in formats for “a functional, representative and uniform corporate design,” as the Foreign Office’s terms of tender expressed it, “a striking, powerful and convincing concept that can be flexibly implemented in various locations, premises, cultures and climatic zones.” Criteria include “identification and orientation on the part of staff members” and also Germany’s “professional image.” Another important issue is increased efficiency of planning and construction processes by means of standardisation. Competition participants worked out a corporate design with Shenyang, China, as application example, from which a general-purpose manual is to be developed parallel to the realisation of the project.

Competition Corporate design Competition Corporate design | design: Dittel Architekten Younger, fresher works were also present, but the jury chose the conservative solution by Dittel Architekten of Stuttgart, whose composition of wood-veneer and glass walls “follows the principles of mass and transparency and width and density.” The design will not make a casual or nonchalant impression, let alone a cheerful one. Instead, it will flawlessly convey German virtues such as solidity, durability and order, and in its timeless and placeless character surely will long retain its validity in many a German diplomatic mission around the world.