by Adam Easter
After visiting Berlin for the first time, one unconventional area of the city left a strong impression on me. Several years later I rediscovered this district as the neighborhood in and around Jannowitzbrücke and Heinrich Heine Street. There are many large, industrial looking buildings near this part of the river, as well as traditional GDR-era apartment towers on the east side, while the west side is home to a series of grungy apartment blocks. Here lays the enormous Chinese Embassy. As the capital of a strong and unified Germany, Berlin is known to host a huge array of diplomatic missions. Simply stroll along the Tiergarten or through Mitte and one finds countless interesting and modern embassies from a diverse range of countries: then there’s China. The Chinese Embassy is situated in a charming area on the west side of the Spree, but the building looks like it was a product of the communist single-party government’s capitalist push for industrialization in the 1980s without regard for the context of Berlin. Essentially, this building is wholly out of place in Berlin – which is particularly difficult, because Berlin is a city of contrasts – and is distastefully authoritarian in character.
The authoritarian nature of this embassy’s design is representative of the country it now represents. Firstly, the repeating series of bay windows on the structure’s outer walls resemble fortification rather than ornamentation. Due to these repeating columns of outward windows, the outer walls look very uniform and provoking. Additionally, the material and colors of the exterior paneling and windows blend together into a sort of absence of color, which contribute to the building’s uniformity and menacing appearance. The facade’s bizarre metallic quality produces a strong reflection of light and thus makes the building seem imposing and opaque. An embassy should be welcoming and transparent, but instead the Chinese embassy lacks transparency and therefore lacks accountability. Instead of building something that complements and asserts itself in Berlin, this building imposes itself and contrasts with the diversity of architecture displayed in the city.
Secondly, the form of the building fails to create a diplomatic environment. As the subject approaches the building, they are surrounded by thick, high walls on either side and funneled inwards towards the opaque tower of glass that is taller than the rest of the building. These elements give the embassy an architectural, monolithic quality that intimidates rather than pleases. Furthermore, this architecture is authoritarian because it makes the viewer feel small and powerless instead of incorporating people into the design of the building.
Finally, the Chinese embassy appears prefabricated and dated. Good architecture aspires to an aesthetic that is timeless, yet this embassy is clearly associated with a particularly unappealing era of design. Not only does the material and color of the exterior feel cold, it looks brittle and cheaply assembled. Additionally, the light and reflective exterior appears drab and dull. This building will not last the test of time.
Berlin is a metropolis full of creativity and diversity. The Chinese embassy on the Spree is a tacky example of authoritarian-designed architecture that contrasts instead of compliments the city landscape.