The Embassy of the Nederland’s in Berlin is a project designed to fit between the fine lines of public transparency and government confidentiality. Earlier this week I was lucky enough to do a tour of the building together with a group of architects. The tour guide was very knowledgeable and not only did she answer all of the very particular questions made by the architects, but she also sparked an interesting debate amongst the group regarding the sincerity of architectural form versus the occupier’s need for privacy.
The project was designed by OMA architects and according to the tour, the project team was presented with a strict set of requirements imposed by the building authorities: the new build had to be attached to the neighbouring buildings, respect the heritage of the location, including a courtyard (typical for Berlin) and allocate 20% of the total area for residential living, etc.
In an act of creative defiance, OMA architects presented their Dutch clients with a proposal that included an independent building in the shape of a cube, this 1st volume would become the new Dutch Embassy; and a 2nd volume, fully detached from the 1st and separated by a courtyard. It was built along the neighbouring buildings, thus fulfilling the remaining requirements as it also housed the residential apartments. The 2 volumes are linked through a series of bridges.
According to the tour, the original brief was for the new embassy to symbolically represent transparency and be open to the public. This was without any doubt an unusual request for an embassy due to the sensitive nature of diplomatic confidentiality. To meet the brief, OMA architects designed within the embassy building a publicly open and serpentine-like pathway that would start at the 1stfloor entrance, spiral up through the various floors circulating around the entirety of the building and end on the top floor with the potential to continue to the roof (the stairs to the roof are closed to the public).
However, the construction of the project coincided with the tragic terrorist attacks of 9/11 in New York and since then, security policy was altered to not allow public access. After some deliberation, the Dutch embassy found an adequate balance between the original design intent and the new security policies that had been set in place; public visits are now possible but require online pre-approval.
To now get to the experience of the tour: there are a number of intricacies that make this project unique. The materials used: concrete, aluminium, wood, glass, etc. are all exposed and presented to the visitor in a raw form. I believe this to be a reinforcement of the concept of transparency. The concept is taken to such a level that even the suspended ceilings use perforated metal sheets because, for this project brief, the inner working of the building’s mechanical services are equally worthy of the visitor’s eye. All the rooms have a window or view to the outdoors. There is only one exception, a meeting room that due to floor plan is landlocked. But even this landlocked space has more to tell as, after further inspection, you can find a window in the floor opening downwards to the public foyer, a noble effort to achieve transparency considering the floor plan constraints.
The building also presents a complex interlacing of floors, where levels and half-levels fold over one another. The public pathway is part of this complexity as it unfolds in a sort of dance around the various spaces. The tour guide described how this creates a fascinating relationship with the users of the building as they end up creating their own personal mind map of it all, a mental plan that guides them through their workplace. This plan develops slowly over time growing with each new discovery.
And now, what I consider to be the true moment of discovery during my experience of the architecture: at a certain point in the pathway, the visitor gains sight of a diagonal void that is cutting through the 2ndvolume. The void is designed in such a way that it is perfectly framing the Berlin TV, a lovely moment of architectural detail that is harmoniously, and with precision, placing the building within its surroundings.
Due to security restrictions, photos of the interior are not allowed.