Visit: Embassy of the Netherlands, Berlin

DSC_0549.JPG

With the end of September and beginning of October taken up by Essay 4 (a paper on the implementation of the thesis project), my final week of October was spent in Berlin. Although I had previously been informed that there were no tours available over the dates that I was in the city, I received a phone-call shortly after landing informing me that someone had dropped out and to turn up the following morning.

The embassy was designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and was completed in 2003. After the war, the Netherlands sold their old embassy site and purchased this new one next to the River Spree in the Mitte district (a very Dutch looking site indeed!). In this area there are quite strict planning policies which solicit that new buildings should reflect the local 19th century architectural style i.e. touching neighboring buildings, building on all four corners of the site, and having a courtyard in the centre. OMA were very keen to push these parameters and the client was keen to have a building that was separate and stood in isolation from its neighbors.

To overcome these obstacles, OMA proposed the idea of a wall (housing accommodation for embassy staff and visitors) which was disconnected from a “disciplined cube”. This not only created a courtyard space between the two structures, but it also ticked the box of building on all four corners of the site. The L shaped accommodation block, which also houses most of the technical services, is connected to the cube by 4 walkways at different levels. By using a semi-opaque facade, the wall allows for the neighbors to see through the structure and adds a lightness to its form which provides focus to the isolated cube.

The main cube itself houses the embassy offices, library, gym space, and restaurant - all of which is dissected by a ‘trajectory’ which works it way throughout the building. The tour itself followed this trajectory, and although no photography could be taken inside, I’m not sure I would have been able to portray the complexity of this building.

Each space has a visible connection to another, and the space you can see from one room is not necessarily on the same floor (the tour guide has been there for 10 years and said she has to consciously think of how she is going to get from one part of the building to another as quickly as possible as there isn’t an obvious stairwell or copied floorplan as seen in most offices. Having said that, she did mention that this means the building never gets boring!)

The tour follows the trajectory of the building upwards, starting at the library through to the restaurant space at the top. The trajectory itself is also the main source of air circulation throughout the building, therefore we were informed that although there is a mechanical opening in the restaurant ceiling to get onto the rooftop, this is rarely opened as it instantly releases all the warm air which takes quite some time to heat up again.

 Perspex model showing the cube and L shaped wall forms (Source: Office for Metropolitan Architecture)

Perspex model showing the cube and L shaped wall forms (Source: Office for Metropolitan Architecture)

 Section of Netherlands Embassy, Berlin (Source: Office for Metropolitan Architecture)

Section of Netherlands Embassy, Berlin (Source: Office for Metropolitan Architecture)

Unraveled trajectory of the Netherlands Embassy, Berlin (Source: Office for Metropolitan Architecture)

There are two particularly notable points on the trajectory tour. The first being a direct sight line to the Fernsehturm (TV Tower) from the bottom of a staircase in the middle of the building which is provided through an opening in the outside wall. This line of site is now protected and it was mentioned that because of the complex design of the building and the requirement for so many temporary supports in the concrete construction, they could not see if this line of site worked until the scaffolding was taken away towards the end of construction (!)

The second key feature is when the trajectory overhangs the building by the use of a glazed walkway. This provides a strategic view of the River Spree, but also from the outside you can see the operation of the building in action as this trajectory is the only way for staff to circulate the building. There is a fire escape stair in the centre of the building but once you enter you can only exit from the bottom floor.

 View of TV Tower through the opening in the L Shaped wall (Source: Office for Metropolitan Architecture)

View of TV Tower through the opening in the L Shaped wall (Source: Office for Metropolitan Architecture)

 The cantilevered walkway as seen from inside (Source: Office for Metropolitan Architecture)

The cantilevered walkway as seen from inside (Source: Office for Metropolitan Architecture)

In looking towards the development of my own design thesis, this building definitely shows how these institutional architectures can incorporate ways for the public to tour the building without significantly disturbing its daily function. Although I did find some of the connecting ‘views’ between each of the spaces to be a bit of a gimmick and not particularly of any use, the trajectory is definitely the most impressive aspect to this building and its visibility from the outside showing the embassy in operation as staff move around is definitely an aspect I intend to incorporate into my own design in the effort to increase the visibility of the machines of government even if the public can’t access the building at certain times.

Tom Ardron