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U.S. to open Berlin embassy on symbolic land

German critics have lambasted the building's design ahead of its festive July 4 inauguration.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 4, 2008

P4 Pariser Platz: The embassy has added security features, like thickened walls. Defenders of the design say it blends in well.

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Berlin

The July 4 inauguration of the United States Embassy in the heart of this city is the last stone in the postwar edifice of a whole and free Europe, diplomats say.

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But Berliners are calling the building – perhaps unfairly – an architectural 'triumph of banality' more fitting for a Kansas cornfield.

Either way, the event is rich in symbolism. The embassy reopens on land the US owned in 1941 when Adolph Hitler declared war on the US. The property abuts the Brandenburg Gate, a noman's land in the cold war, and is a block from the German Reichstag.

"It's a very big piece of history," says John Kornblum, a former US ambassador. "It's a look back and a look forward at a time when Europe is going to change very fast, at a time when the Germans see they can't always live under a big US umbrella."

The German reaction to the new embassy has been almost universal dismay at the building itself with some saying the security-manic Americans should have built it in the relatively safe suburbs.

"We could have built an embassy out in the woods at half the cost and twice the security," current US ambassador William Timken Jr. said early this year. "We are here as a symbol of our desire to be a partner to Germany."

Mr. Kornblum, now a Berlin resident and counselor for the firm of Norr Stiefenhofer Lutz, says, "We were determined to be here because of the history.... If the Nazis couldn't chase us off the site, we weren't going to let the mayor of Berlin do it."

The site, first procured in the 1930s, was returned after the Berlin Wall fell and then haggled over for more than a decade. The US Congress cut building funds by $50 million to $130 million. Feelings in Berlin ran high, with one former mayor saying the US should put a McDonald's restaurant up instead. The State Department allowed a security accommodation when Berlin city officials refused to push a safety zone out into prime Pariser Platz real estate. Indeed, Pariser Platz, anchored by the four-horse chariot – topped Brandenburg Gate, is one of the most significant spaces in Germany – the place where East Germans poured into the West in 1989, and close to where President Reagan challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this [Berlin] wall," the symbol of divided Europe.

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