June 6th, 2008


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."