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EmbasSEEING – Sightseeing Embassies Around the World

If I hadn’t lectured at the Italian Embassy in Washington,

(Photo Caption: “Berlin Embassies (Top, Left to Right), The Austrian Embassy, The Netherlands Embassy, (Bottom left to right) The US Embassy. The British Embassy.”)
I’d never have realized that embassies in themselves are attractions for art, architecture and culture that are too often bypassed by tourists and even locals.


I was under the impression that the audience for my lecture would be composed soley of members of diplomatic delegations – professional courtesy. I was surprised that my lecture “Been There, HAVEN’T Done That – Italy” was open to the general public. That entire experience was more akin to my lectures at museums around the world than I had imagined. The Italian Embassy had a beautiful auditorium and even an elegant cafeteria with photos of famous Italian exports such as Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni – but in different photos. 


Above all lecturing at the Italian Embassy provided another perk. Visiting one of Washington’s great modern buildings, which I had always wanted to experience on the inside. In fact, the building reminded me of one of my favorite Le Corbusier landmarks In France – Notre Dame du Ronchamp. In fact, I’d say the Italian Embassy was twice as beautiful as that 20th-century French church. The Italian Embassy looked as if it was composed of two Notre Dame du Ronchamps – situated back to back separated by skylines creating a sun-filled glass-enclosed lobby –gracefully and almost invisibly connecting the two buildings. 


And if you’d like to visit embassies – the place to go is cities that are the capitals of their respective countries. Tourists flock to World’s Fairs to see exhibitions in pavilions of the participating countries. Think of a capital city as a permanent world’s fair – with dozens of foreign pavilions except they’re now called “Embassies.” And just as world’s fairs showcase a country’s culture, art and design– from food to fashion to furniture – so do embassies. And what better why to display a country’s best than to showcase it in a magnificent building designed by that country’s most famous architect. In other words, a flashy embassy is a country’s best ambassador — of Public Relations. Embassies show a country’s power, creativity – and frequently – both.


And during the Cold War –to express the “Openness of America” Modernist – with glass facades –became the architectural style of choice – as best expressed by Edward Durrell Stone’s US Embassy in New Delhi. (A “dead ringer” – or rather a “boring ringer” –for the Washington DC’s Kennedy Center a few years later.)


And since we’re already in Washington, DC – let’s leave the museums on the Mall and visit the embassies on “Embassy Row.” Embassy Row lives up to its name. Massachusetts Avenue was the “in” place during the “Gilded Age” to build mansions. And when the gilding wore off during the depression – foreign countries bought those mansions for their embassies. “Washington, DC has more than 175 embassies – about half of these are located on Embassy Row” according to Barbara Noe Kennedy, author of National Geographic’s excellent guidebook, “Walking Washington, DC: The Best of the City.” Barbara further explains, “I love the opportunity each embassy offers to experience its country’s culture. The embassies are attachés for their country’s cultures, so they offer all kinds of fun events to the public ranging from tango lessons at the Embassy of Argentina, a grand Bastille Day celebration at the Embassy of France, musical concerts, cooking classes, film screenings, and the list goes on.”


With so many embassies in Washington — you never know where one will turn up. Just off Connecticut Avenue is my favorite — the Embassy of China – by China’s most famous architect – I. M. Pei. It’s built of limestone to fit in with many US government buildings and yet its design is quiet elegance. In fact, the Chinese Embassy reminds me of my favorite museum in Japan – the Miho Museum near Kyoto – also designed by I.M. Pei. (Hey, if Frank Gehry can steal from his own designs, why can’t I.M. Pei?)


Raphael Moneo’s Spanish Embassy design (or rather redesign) reminds me of Norman Foster’s Hearst Headquarters in New York — a modern building perched on top of an older one. 


As new nations were created and recognized — new embassies in Washington DC followed. However, the greatest number of new embassies arose in the shortest period of time with some of the greatest modern architecture by the world’s greatest architects in just one city – Berlin – as it was recreated as Germany’s capital. In the 21st century, Berlin is the world’s ground zero for “Embasseeing.” 


When the Berlin Wall fell — the walls of new embassies from around the world rose 


Just as my favorite hotel in Germany – Berlin’s Adlon — rose from the ashes of its prewar location — in one of Germany’s most elegant and prestigious locations – Pariser Platz — so did the Embassy of France just opposite the Adlon. And considering its name, Pariser Platz in German – means “Paris Square” – so the French Embassy is back right where it belongs. It’s designed by the French “Starchitect,” Christian Portzamparc – who designed New York’s LVMH building on East 57th Street off Madison Avenue with angular prism-like projections. 


There are zoning restrictions requiring that facades in Pariser Platz must conform in building materials, height, and allowed projections. Christian de Portzamparac’s unique angularity is recessed within the façade much the same way just across Pariser Platz Frank Gehry’s DZ Bank’s façade conforms without any typical Gehry eye-popping glaring showmanship. For that you have to go to the back of his his bank to see his offbeat “popping windows” – which are disturbingly apropos when viewed from starchitect Peter Eisneman’s extremely moving Holocaust Memorial. 


I could write a book about all the magnificent new embassies in Berlin – here a few of my favorites. “Location, Location, Location” also applies to Berlin’s embassies. Less noted for its beauty – and more for its location and size — is our home away from home –the America Embassy also in its prewar location – Pariser Platz


Returning to its prewar Berlin site on Wilhelmstrasse is the British Embassy –roughly the same size as the French Embassy – also with a predominance of set-in windows. However, the British Embassy goes even further “outside the box” – while remaining inside. Interior rooms serving different functions are contained within their own exterior cubes which are still recessed within its façade. It’s only when you stand directly in front of the embassy that you can see them. From the side views the cubes disappear — leaving them hidden out of view on the façade — on the same plane as its immediate neighbors – just like the French Embassy.


One of my favorite architects is Rem Koolhaas, who designed my favorite Beijing building – the iconic gravity defining cantilevered CCTV Tower. Koolhaas applied that dazzle designing Berlin’s Netherlands Embassy. Another spectacular Berlin Embassy is Hans Hollein’s Austrian Embassy, which like the Spanish Embassy in Washington, looks as if it is composed of several different buildings – but in Berlin that effect was creatively intentional. (FYI: Hollein’s son, Max, is the latest Director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – so artistry runs in the family.)


There’s yet another tour one can take in Eastern Berlin – sightseeing embassies of the former East Berlin – too many of which have been demolished. Before we leave Germany I have a travel wish I hope to fulfill in by 2022. I would like to travel to Bonn – West Germany’s former capital –to see what became of Bonn’s former international embassies – and visit Beethoven’s Birthplace while I’m there


Now on to other European embassies — which are also my favorites — but for different reasons. So far, we’ve visited newly constructed embassies. However, with all the palaces in Europe and the dearth of ruling rich royals to fill them – embassies luxuriously fill the void. 


If you want to see a palazzo in Rome designed by Michelangelo and a High Renaissance ceiling fresco by the great Annibale Carracci (second only to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling) you must visit the Farnese Palace – to which I take most of tour groups. It’s only open by special appointment to American tourists – but not, if you’re a French Tourist – since the Farnese Palace is also the Embassy of France in Italy. 


(While in Rome I visit what I call “The Farnese Trifecta” – the Farnese Palace, the Farnesina — former Farnese country home now in the center of Rome — with Raphael’s sensational fresco, “Galatea.” And a half-day trip from Rome is the Farnese Villa with its spectacular water garden without the spectacular crowds of the Villa d’Este.)


And if you like Embassy palaces – it’s Prague with many former palaces doubling as embassies. You’ve all heard the expression, “You can’t go home again” – but you can do the closest thing if you’re ever in an emergency abroad – go to your nearest American Embassy – which is exactly what I did in Prague – one of my favorite cities. Just a few months after the Velvet Revolution I returned to the “Free Prague” – which was also became “free” — since someone “lifted” my wallet and passport. Leaving the next day for home – I had to get a new passport ASAP. The concierge at the Intercontinental Hotel remembered that I was a television writer and told the US Embassy’s cultural attaché that I wrote for “The Joan Rivers Show.” Not only did I get a new passport the same day – I actually got to tour the US Embassy – the sumptuous 17th-century Schönborn Palace with it’s magnificent rear garden ascending Petrin Hill. And I even got to have tea with the American Ambassador – the first Black ambassador to (what was then) Czechoslovakia – Shirley Temple Black. 


If you like Italian and French architecture with an embassy designed by Mies van der Rohe visit the former German Embassy designed by van der Rohe’s then boss, Peter Behrens – built just before the start of WWI. In fact, the German Embassy which in beautiful St. Petersburg (then Russia’s capital) was part of WWI Russian history. On the day that the First World War was declared – a mob ransacked the German embassy and tossed the Quadriga Sculpture from the roof. (Maybe it was a dress rehearsal for the Russian Revolution’s “Storming of the Winter Palace” just a few years last and a few blocks away.) This former (and still beautiful) embassy was predilection for a modern trompe l’oeil (trick of the eye) inherent in one of my favorite New York skyscrapers, Eero Saarinen’s CBS Building aka “Black Rock.” Moving around the CBS Building the supporting piers (attached columns) are affected by the changing light as seen from different angles – looking different from the previous view. The same thing happens to the piers of the St. Petersburg building a half-century before.


Speaking of the great Eero Saarinen — if you want to stay overnight in an embassy – an Eero Saarinen Embassy – you may soon have your wish. Eero Saarinen’s landmark American Embassy in London on Grosvenor Square will soon become a hotel – replaced by a new US Embassy near the Thames – a glass cube – which to me looks like an “Ice Cube” that melted (into its moat). An “Ice Cube” that’s not so hot. 

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