The Czech Embassy. A representative of brutalism.

Backside of the Czech Embassy, Berlin-Mitte (January 2014). Photo by Joep de VisserIt is a construction, critised with the cliche sentence “You have to hate it, unless you love it” and I clearly don’t belong to the group of haters. I’m talking here about the Czech embassy, standing in the historical ministerial quarter. Most people think of this embassy as a cold hearted UFO from an outdated communist era, or in short: a heap of concrete. For me though, it is mostly an artpiece of (semi-)vanguard architecture from the 1970s. Eversince I’ve investigated this embassy, I changed my opinion about this style of appearance – widely known as brutalist.

The embassy only has a history of 35 years, when it opened as the Czechoslovak embassy at the Otto-Grotewohl Straße. Already in 1948, the Czechoslovakians had a representitive in the Soviet sector. When the GDR was proclaimed in October 1949, the Czechoslovakian authorities acceded their comrade-state only eleven days later. By 1953, the original representitive mission officialy turned into diplomatic relation. It remains unclear, but I’ve got the impression that the Czechoslovakians were not given an embassy for themselves. So, in despite of being befriended nations – this situation don’t come too amicably to me. In 1973 though – the Czechoslovakian Republic improved their relations with Western Germany. I am not sure whether the improved status with GDR’s rival contributed to it, but shortly after – the Czechoslovakian comrades were given a parcel in the ministerial quarter in East Berlin.

When they were given this building site in the 1970s, it is said that the Czechoslovakian representitives were not amused by its location at all. In stead of the majestically neighbourhood which the Wilhelmstraße once was, the area wasn’t much more than a wasteland fairly next to the Berlin wall. At the other side of the Wilhelmstraße, Hitler’s bunker was being deconstructed in the meanwhile. As far as there were embassies, they were populated by befriended regimes. At the eastside of the Czecoslovakian parcel, the cheerful Peoples Republic of North Korea builded its embassy at the Glinkastraße by that time.

Between 1974 and 1978, the brutalist design by Vladimír Machonin and his wife Věra Machoninová was realised. By fact, the design was already finished when they got the assignment. It was already intended to be the embassy of Kenya, where it somehow wasn’t realised. Not only the construction, but also its interior was designed by the architect couple. The characteristicly round pillars at the ground level have actually two functions. They make the embassy look like it hovers over the ground, while it also hides the entrance from the public eye. Inside, the main colours yellow, orange and red reveal that the embassy is from the 1970s indeed. At the first and the second floor, the cinephile civil servants even had a cinema in their embassy! Its interior was decorated in a fitting way: blue seats, wooden orange walls and a blue velours curtain. The rest of the embassy though, was filled with office space for -at its peak- 250 employees.

When the embassy opened in 1978, the architects were not rewarded for their efforts. This had nothing to do with a negative receival by fellow architects, on the contrary: the success should stay a secret. After the liberal movement of the Prague Spring in 1968 was knocked down that same autumn, many reformers -among them the Machonin couple- were excluded from their professions. That means, officially: in reality, it was held a secret that the dissident architect couple were the masterminds behind the brutalist embassy, up till the communist regime fell in 1990.

With the fall of communism, the story didn’t end for this embassy yet. While Germany united itself in 1990, Czechoslovakia splitted up at New Year’s Day 1993. The Slovakian embassy got themselves a parcel at Tiergarten, while another embassy in Bonn -capital of united Germany- hosted another Czech delegation. Moreover, a bunch of jobs actually were redundant – since the former communist state wouldn’t leave anyone workless. All together, the number of employees at the Wilhelmstraße decimated till about 30. Up till nowadays, most of the office space is unused. Since November 2012, the Tschechisches Zentrum (Czech Center) is opened at the backside of the building, facing the North Korean embassy – which now is a youth hostel. This is though a temporary solution against the vacancy. According to an article in June 2013, the Czech state looks for an interested real estate to take over their embassy, while a parcel to construct a new one is looked for again.

Sold or not, it is clear as the day that the embassy should be listed as a protected building (which it is not nowadays!). The Czech embassy could be the best example in its architectural style, at least in Berlin. While brutalist architecture usually is sensitive for unintended effects -such as graffiti tags or small constructions with an antenna at the rooftop- this guarded building kept its charm. Speaking for myself, I fervently hope that its current appearance remain untouched. Moreover, the intact retro design comes as absolutely unique to me. Before the embassy closes, I -somehow- hope to get to see one of Chytilová’s films in the notorious cinema!

Frontside of the Czech Embassy, Berlin-Mitte (January 2014). Photo by Joep de Visser

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