Architectural calling cards abroad

Interview with art historian Christiane Fülscher


Embassy buildings are both political symbols and social expressions of their era. The architect and art historian Dr.-Ing. Christiane Fülscher has analysed and compared German embassies and consulates abroad. Mrs. Fülscher, embassy buildings are considered “architectural calling cards”. What significance do they have for foreign policy?

Dr.-Ing. Christiane Fülscher teaches and conducts research on the theory and history of modern architecture in the Department of Architecture.

Mrs. Fülscher, embassy buildings are considered “architectural calling cards”. What significance do they have for foreign policy?

States use new buildings for diplomatic missions to present a certain image and transfer their own specific concept of society. The main question in said representation is how a country wishes to be perceived abroad. Architecture is a key tool in this context. In contrast to other state buildings, new foreign embassies are the result of highly complex diplomatic processes. Political messages are not only communicated by the presence and size of the building itself but also by the buildings’ ability to humbly integrate into the scenery and local context of the host country. This can also be influenced by the choice of materials or through specific architectural forms.

You primarily focus in your dissertation on the history of the diplomatic missions of both German states between 1949 and 1972. What was the situation in the post-war period?

Since the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1949 , it had been the occupying powers that decided how these two countries would develop their external relationships with other countries. After it was given full sovereignty in 1955, the FRG gained greater independence towards its foreign policies . Although the GDR had already been permitted the establishment of a foreign office in 1949, it had not been accompanied by any real decision-making authority. Overall, the reconstruction of the state and society and its representations abroad after the Second World War were associated with architecture that demonstrated their political commitment to the respective occupying power.

How did this present itself in the embassy buildings?

A good example is the building project of the GDR embassy in Warsaw. The first design was clearly based on guidelines issued by the USSR. Inspiration had been taken from the Soviet embassy in Berlin. The plans involved the construction of a three-wing building in a prominent position in the city – essentially a form of palace architecture for the working classes in the style of socialist realism. However, even though Moscow adopted a more functional architectural language after the death of Stalin,this major project was never realised due to political and financial reasons. Despite some references to Western examples, the embassy project in Budapest was also meant to reflect the socialist ideal by making use of architecture. This was achieved by emphasising the artistic features and dispending any standard hierarchies: for instance a ground-level entrance without any stairs, a rather unprestigious ambassador’s residence, and building extensions for apartments and social facilities.

Did the GDR use its embassy buildings to further its foreign policy goals?

For certain. This can be clearly seen in the trade mission that was built in Helsinki in the middle of the 1960s. Finland was neutral and therefore granted privileges to the trade missions from both German states that were usually reserved for diplomatic missions. The GDR purposely commissioned a local architect to produce a design that would attract international recognition. With this project, the East German state abandoned its aim of reflecting socialism in architecture and instead based the building completely on US embassies. In the struggle for international recognition, the building was supposed to reflect GDR on an equal footing as a German state with the FRG. The West German state, in response, observed this project with extreme suspicion.

What was the development in the Federal Republic of Germany?

In contrast to the GDR, the Federal Republic of Germany soon had a much larger operating radius. It still struck the Government as important, however, to be initially represented in a more reserved manner towards western countries. The first embassies were thus highly inspired – both in their architecture and facilities – by the three-storey elongated buildings of the US general consulates that had been constructed in the Federal Republic of Germany from 1952 onwards. In the 1960s, the embassy buildings started to reflect the country’s growing self-confidence as it grew to be increasingly accepted by the western community. The architects were able to add individual accents, which lead to the development of two different tendencies : the organic approach in which the building formed a harmonious whole with its surroundings, such as the embassy in Vienna, and the stringent functionalist approach that was reflected in the chancellery of the embassy in Washington.

The embassy built by the FRG in the newly created diplomatic district in Brasilia marked a major turning point.

That’s right. The Federal Republic of Germany was one of the first countries to move its embassy from Rio de Janeiro to the newly established capital city in the centre of Brazil. This meant that the architect Hans Scharoun was not compelled to integrate the building into an established group of diplomatic missions and had much greater freedom in his design. He chose to let the building rise vividly from the landscape and to merge the chancellery and ambassador’s residencein order to form a unified architectural design. Scharoun’s design had a decisive influence on the representative buildings constructed abroad by the FRG.

Did the East-West conflict influence the building projects?

In the Cold War, the rivalry between the competing systems was present in the field of architecture as well. The so-called “Hallstein doctrine” from 1955 dominated everything. It was enacted by the Federal Republic of Germany after it established a second German embassy in Moscow. The doctrine served as a warning that the Federal Republic of Germany would break off diplomatic relations to other states as soon as these would start negotiating with the GDR. This meant that the GDR could only send ambassadors and engage on an international stage to socialist or communist states . The Federal Republic of Germany was often the more attractive partner for neutral countries such as the former colonial states.

What changes did the Basic Treaty in 1972 bring about?

The Federal Republic of Germany recognised the GDR as a sovereign state with the signing of the Basic Treaty. This ended the international isolation of the GDR and opened diplomatic relations with 73 states over the following two years. Nevertheless, the GDR only planned and built abouta dozen new buildings for diplomatic missions after 1972. Its freedom of action still remained limited.

What happened after 1989?

That is a very sensitive subject. The GDR had already withdrawn its diplomats before reunification and abandoned its embassy buildings. This was primarily for financial reasons. Aside from a very few exceptions, such as the embassies in Sofia, Pjöngjang or Phnom Penh, the reunified Germany closed down the East German buildings and building projects. The embassy building in Helsinki was sold to the Ukraine and a new building was constructed. The embassy in Budapest was converted into an administration building and the one in Cairo was handed over to the Goethe Institute.

The interview was conducted by Jutta Witte.

In her phd-thesis, Christiane Fülscher reconstructs the origins of the German diplomatic missions abroad and classifies them according to their historical, political and institutional context for the first time. The resulting publication maps these building projects from thebeginning of the German Empire, beyond the National Socialism up to the post reunification period. The main focus is placed on the period between 1949 and the signing of the Basic Treaty in 1972.


Christiane Fülscher: Deutsche Botschaften. Zwischen Anpassung und Abgrenzung (German Embassies. Between Adaptation and Distinction). Jovis-Verlag, 536 pages, ISBN 978-3-86859-652-6 (brochure), (E-Book)

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