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The official architecture of paranoia - click opera
February 2010
 
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Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 08:28 am
The official architecture of paranoia

Hisae and I took a couple of our favourite magazines to lunch yesterday -- 032c and the excellent new interiors magazine Apartamento. Right after a little feature by me about a Sister Corita art show, 032c runs a very interesting article by Niklas Maak (arts writer for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) giving the ugly new American Embassy in Berlin a slamming ahead of its official July 4th opening by President Bush.

Apartamento (read Shift's interview with its creators here) is "an everyday life interiors magazine", which means it consists of colour photos, printed on matt paper, of the spaces people live in. Not styled, not filled with shiny new products, just quietly and carefully observed, patina, scratches and all. Short texts interview people like Elein Fleiss and Mike Mills about their habitats. It's a great read, and the reason why brings us back to Niklas Maak's article about the American Embassy in 032c. Rooted in aesthetics, these articles inevitably go beyond into the realm of ethical and political values.



Just as a person's apartment expresses how he or she feels about life, an embassy building projects the beliefs and values of the nation it represents. That's part of its function, along with diplomacy and the administration of entry and exit. But, for Maak, the new Berlin embassy shares with the new US embassy in Baghdad a bunker mentality and a horror at the very idea of public space and the other. In negotiations with the German government, the Americans failed to get permission to turn Pariser Platz into a restricted zone filled with 30 metre security fences, but succeeded in getting Berlin to move Behrenstrasse some way to the south, to increase the gap between the embassy building and passing traffic.



"There are few modern buildings -- apart from military bunkers and pesticide testing centers -- that present such a hysterically buttoned-up image to the public as this embassy," says Maak, echoing Martin Kemp's view in The Guardian that the Baghdad embassy is "a monster" which can hardly be dignified with the name of architecture. Both writers, however, see the embassies as sadly successful visual metaphors for what the US has become.

"In retrospect," writes Kemp, "we should have seen the signs in the fortified villas of Hollywood and the gated communities that insulate growing numbers of the American rich from the majority of citizens in their country. The failure of a nation even to live in tense comfort with itself provides not the slightest encouragement that its values can be exported to societies with very different cultures."



Maak's reading of the Berlin building draws a similar message: "Public spaces, which once seemed to promise so much, are now seen as a threat. The unknown and the stranger, formerly considered as a projection screen for the most beautiful collective and private fantasies, could be a terrorist, or have AIDS, or be carrying the menaces of globalization: factory closures, floods of immigrants, bird flu."

The opening of this peculiarly closed American embassy in Europe hits newspapers at pretty much the same time as the announcement by Homeland Security honcho Michael Chertoff that Europeans -- even those exercising their right to visit the US under the visa waiver scheme -- will henceforth have to register details about their health, criminal records and the purposes of their proposed visit to the US over the internet 48 hours before traveling. This is added to recent additional fingerprinting and photography requirements.

According to Maak, this policy is already encoded in the Berlin building: "The American Embassy does not present the image of a country that used to be a melting pot of peoples from all around the world, a place for new beginnings and promising futures. This embassy instead presents the image of a country traumatized by 9/11 and the consequences of globalization, a nation so heavily armoured that it can no longer perceive the world outside."

To German eyes, the embassy's projection of American values is a negative one. "In all its details," says Maak, "the new embassy displays a shoddiness of materials and workmanship that is symptomatic of the United States in almost all product groups. Anyone who has ever seen the interior of a normal American car has trouble believing that something like that could seriously be produced by one of the world's leading industrialized nations... with the exception of Apple computers, Nike shoes and the iPod, there is hardly a modern American industrial product out there that is setting new visual standards today."



The embassy windows "look as if they were purchased by a bankrupt shack owner at a Home Depot store somewhere in the Midwest to fix up his home for winter". But there's a kind of honesty in this determined American failure to impress or charm. According to Maak, "the country has taken a piece of its own center, a provincial government office from New Jersey, and plonked it onto Pariser Platz to show Germans what America really looks like: fearful, stale, and nostalgic."

Meanwhile, BBC Radio 4's psychology magazine programme All In The Mind has an interesting feature this week on the relationship between paranoia and public space. Presenter Claudia Hammond examines "the unfounded fear that people are deliberately trying to harm you". Such symptoms, she says, can signal serious mental health problems like schizophrenia. But new research conducted at the Institute of Psychiatry in London suggests that up to a third of all Britons have paranoid suspicions about other people, making such thoughts, if not correct, at least "normal".

Dr Daniel Freeman from the Institute put together a virtual subway carriage full of avatars showing neutral expressions, then asked experimental subjects -- after four minutes with these projections -- to describe their impressions of the "attitudes" of these silent virtual strangers towards them. The questionnaire found that about one in three thought someone was staring at them in order to upset them, or trying to isolate them.

Dr Freeman was understanding; this wasn't always irrational. "Paranoia probably stems from our normal judgements about whether to trust or mistrust," he told the BBC. "Paranoia only becomes a problem when it becomes exaggerated."

61CommentReplyShare

qscrisp
qscrisp
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 08:27 am (UTC)

Armed policeman guards the US embassy in London:

http://www.september11news.com/02_911PoliceUSEmbassyLondon.jpg

http://jeanne_and_trev.tripod.com/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderpictures/usembassylondon.jpg


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 09:35 am (UTC)

lol posting from 2002.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 09:59 am (UTC)
Braun again

Apple and the iPod "setting new visual standards"?


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 10:02 am (UTC)

I'm not going to defend the (pretty awful) aesthetics of the new embassy, but come on, less than a decade ago two U.S. embassies were blown up killing over 200 people. And that was before GW Bush, before 9/11, before Iraq, in the (relatively) benign days of the Clinton administration. I don't think the U.S. could get away with anything but draconian security measures for one of its most important embassies in the world. Is it paranoia if the threat is real? And is the threat mainly a response to Bush-style unilateral aggression? If so, how do we explain the numerous terrorist attacks on U.S. installations throughout the nineties?

More generally, I'm dubious of taking embassy aesthetics as some kind of metaphor for the country itself or its attitudes. It's too easy. I look around Paris, I see that the U.S. embassy here is an elegant mansion just off the Champs Elysées. No doubt they could demolish it or sell it and build a bunker if they wanted to, but they haven't. Does that tell you anything about U.S. foreign policy or how it perceives the world? Er, no. The New Zealand embassy is a Haussmannian townhouse, the Australian embassy is a forbidding brutalist affair. What does this tell us about the two countries? Not much.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 10:36 am (UTC)

Embassies express the values of the countries they represent where local building regulations allow.

According to Wikipedia, the Paris US Embassy "was built in 1931 following the demolition of an existing structure and was designed by the New York City architectural firm of Delano & Aldrich with a facade that conformed with other buildings on the Place de la Concorde as required by French law."

If only the current German government could have obliged the Americans to keep the Berlin embassy consonant with its next door neighbour on the Pariser Platz: a bank building by Frank Gehry!


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mcgazz
mcgazz
McGazz
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 12:39 pm (UTC)

My favourite embassy story: http://mcgazz.livejournal.com/172913.html


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 12:44 pm (UTC)

Surely any talk about paranoia and mistrust should touch on how a portion of the arab world covers its women from head to toe in black cloaks so that nobody can cast eyes on their physical charms?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 01:04 pm (UTC)

We all know they only do that so that even identity politics-influenced liberals can get down with the program of bombing them to smithereens.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 01:09 pm (UTC)

"Holland hasn't had 9/11. But neither has the US, since 9/11." Well, it's not like such horrible events happen all that frequently. It has only been 7 years. And maybe it not happening again has something to do with extra security. And isn't it completely obvious that the US is a much more symbolic and attractive target to terrorists than Holland is?

I don't quite understand why anyone thinks making an embassy an "open space" is a good idea. Surely, it would invite an attack. These are not unfounded fears that someone is trying to cause harm. They are legitimate.



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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 01:20 pm (UTC)

I don't quite understand why anyone thinks making an embassy an "open space" is a good idea.

Do you think making the world an "open space" is a good idea?

Do you think that a defensive attitude makes attack more or less likely?

Do you think embassies have anything to do with diplomacy, and diplomacy has anything to do with dialogue?

What message does a building expressing mistrust, suspicion, and paranoia project about a nation?

How will that message, projected around the world, affect the ultimate fortunes of the nation sending it?


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niddrie_edge
niddrie_edge
raymond
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 01:49 pm (UTC)
accomplished missions

Interesting piece.
I still like the definition of agora phobia as being fear of the market place. Dr "Freeman" may be right that it is almost natural to mistrust the crowd. Our lives are in a sense exaggerated forms of communal living. I have never found out if the source of this is top down or bottom up pressures. Did we all want it this way or are we living with a socio-economic projection?
As for the American Mission, one can see both the internal and external perceptions. An armoured individual may become numbed to external messages, failing to open up and reach out and ultimately holding fort.
Like cognitive therapy, a retelling or repositioning of the stories may be a way to get one out of one's self and back into the world.
It may be trite but it brings to mind another bunker in Berlin.


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cerulicante
cerulicante
cerulicante
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 02:15 pm (UTC)

Another foaming-at-the-mouth, gibbering anti-American screed brought to you by Apple, the company that uses cheap Chinese labor and materials to supply whiny, effete socialists with laptops that LOOK CUTE.


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reflejos
reflejos
erasmo spicker
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 02:57 pm (UTC)
Tags

¿Have you considered using tags in your posts?
It would be a very nice way to do connections. To keep some old posts "alive". And in the tag cloud you could see a nice reflection of yourself. It would even be a nice strategy to develop some of your own concepts.

Thinking in that sort of "reflection of the soul" some friend did this project with delicious' tags:
http://www.6pli.com/moebio

He also did this:
http://moebio.com/spheres/english.html


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microworlds
microworlds
Sparkachu Maelworth
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 06:47 pm (UTC)

Such PARANOIA in that wrapper!


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desant012
||||||||||
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 03:35 pm (UTC)

USA is satan, we will defeat them. Ertra kneels to pray or to shoot. We don't give up, we sacrifice. I am in USA now. I am going to school and have a good job in USA and help my country by sending a lot of money. I never buy BMW or Lexus. I only eat cheap food and save money to send to Ertra to defeat USA.



wedi shire zeng yerhwo seb beles ayndeli teshekemti ayndeli kab kne ertra kttketatelu twelu nedetatkum abotatna aflutna belwen atum eryrayat ESEYAS dea bun cab shwa begiee cab mekele endamtse bkofkum zeykonen nertra hadas hagaer ertra ertrea abilwa zelo gena dma ERTRAN ERTRAWYAN awald'n wedebna kulu neana kondafat lementi keneat hasadat adetatkum bgusmat zgbera znebera ESEYAS ESEYAS aytbelu keneat bknee natkum bhsdnakum zdehal sebay aykonen kem merahtkum adkum blementn rshatn tebelia kelas ESEYAS entay bele ktblu leahastie nai hagerat merahti koynkum terfkum mesakin.......


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thomascott
thomascott
Thomas Scott
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 04:16 pm (UTC)
..go together like a horse and carriage..

Is there any more wholesome image than that of a young man with a grenade launcher and a book of scripture?


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 03:55 pm (UTC)

Reading this post makes me wonder just who is paranoid, the Americans, or or Momus? Your view of America is like something out of a comic book. People working at a big U.S. embassy at the moment have every reason to fear being blown up, don't they? I mean, it's happened quite a few times in the last dozen or so years, with some horrible casualty figures. If that makes for a little bit of ugly architecture, then so be it. I mean, the Nazi-era fascist temple that is the Japanese Embassy in Berlin is no great beauty either, is it? Does it, too, serve as some simplistic metaphor of Japan? Please tell us.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 04:49 pm (UTC)

But why do people who work at US embassies have every reason to fear being blown up? Is that just a given? And is the solution Israelization, or is it diplomacy and a better projection of a better set of American values than the ones we've seen emerge over the last eight years?

Of course purpose-built embassies project the values of the nations they're built to represent. I haven't seen the Japanese embassy in Berlin; was it purpose-built?


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pay_option07
pay_option07
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 04:01 pm (UTC)
impressions

I think it might be flattering to Germans that the inspiration
may have come from a Fritz Lang "Metropolis" film.


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thomascott
thomascott
Thomas Scott
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 04:09 pm (UTC)
The power of (recurring) nightmares.

I think you may be over-playing your hand a little here with the suggestion that embassy buildings are effective aesthetic emissaries of their representative nations value systems.
Your other points concerning the perpetuation of the culture of fear are however well-considered.
When does the siege mentality end?


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sirwilliam
sirwilliam
William
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 05:59 pm (UTC)

One final thing to add - the US "embassy" in Baghdad is a travesty in every conceivable way. But in this case it truly is a fortress, or as one person observed, "the world's largest mortar target."

And the US embassy in Turkey is just awful, too. It looks like the kind of place you might never leave... alive.



But again, form follows function, eh?


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desant012
||||||||||
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 06:13 pm (UTC)

Yes, but you have to remember the kind-of talk Momus quotes in this post is very fashionable among certain circles of people. So I'd say the argument has more of an aesthetic function than actually being a piece of critical analysis.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 06:28 pm (UTC)

just how many american embassies are there? is every single one supposed to be some monument to everything good that America stands for? in my city, every foreign embassy is a simple building that is there strictly for business and not some sort of cultural grandstanding. with taxpayers dollars on the line why should an embassy even be architecturally innovative?

i would be embarassed to print such a single-sided article that decides to ignore intelligent discussion and present simple-minded slander. The last point about american business products failing to set some new visual standard is mind-boggling. if this person is unfamiliar with simple business mechanics and the idea that for most products the 2 main issues are utility and cost efficiency, he probably shouldn't be trying to make blind stabs in the dark to needlessly degrade a country.


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microworlds
microworlds
Sparkachu Maelworth
Fri, Jun. 6th, 2008 06:48 pm (UTC)

*throws up*


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nedofbaker
Ned Baker
Sat, Jun. 7th, 2008 12:07 am (UTC)

Momus, I enjoy reading your thoughtful posts on your blog, but this one is quite a stretch.

"Just as a person's apartment expresses how he or she feels about life, an embassy building projects the beliefs and values of the nation it represents."

To be more accurate, the embassy reflects the beliefs and values of just those tasked with building the embassy. The embassy reflects the values of the nation as a whole only to the extent to which that group represents the entire nation. The concerns of Department of State employees in the course of their work certainly differ from whatever the standard set of American values typically are.

It is probably true that some Americans suffer from a bunker mentality these days, especially those in government responsible for defending the country (and thus their own careers -- sometimes this is just Cover Your Ass security), but drawing this conclusion based on the architecture of the embassy buildings is stretching it pretty thin. Your quotes from Martin Kemp push the boundaries of logic even further. Do you really think it is reasonable to characterize all Americans as so neurotic?

I haven't had a chance to watch the BBC video yet, but the "study" done by Dr Daniel Freeman sounds entirely unscientific. How closely do our feelings toward avatars represent our feelings toward real human beings? I wonder if the paranoia of the subjects can simply be explained by the Uncanny Valley?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Jun. 7th, 2008 02:45 am (UTC)

To be more accurate, the embassy reflects the beliefs and values of just those tasked with building the embassy.

This takes literalism and individualism and empiricism to absolutely stubborn lengths. It also denies the possibility of metonymy -- that a part could ever represent a whole. And of course, given this kind of atomist logic, everything falls apart -- culture, science.

Naturally you suspect Dr Daniel Freeman's experiment, because for you it cannot say anything more than how an experimental subject feels about avatars in the lab. Nothing can ever be anything more than what it literally is. Nothing can represent. Language, for you, must be one big lie! And politics!


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