September 18th, 2012

Revisiting the Fortress Embassy

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Architecture, Books, Europe, Politics by Christopher Szabla

Security forces intervene during the protests at US Embassy Cairo. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim.

There are probably at least a few in your city, hiding on the upper floods of office buildings, secluded in elegant townhouses, tucked somewhere behind high fences out of view. Nearby cars’ license plates are sometimes their only identifiable feature. Whether embassies in capital cities, consulates elsewhere, most diplomatic offices articulate an architecture that often seems as if it’s striving to be as discreet as the professionals practicing statecraft inside.

The foreign bases of diplomatic heavyweights are another story. In New York, small island states’ representatives to the UN often share the same small office suites, but the Chinese consulate occupies looming concrete monolith along the Hudson River. France’s massive embassy in Berlin is situated right next to the Brandenburg Gate on a square named, appropriately, Pariser Platz (Parisian Square).

US Embassy Abu Dhabi. Photo by Ryan Lackey.

Few of these countries lay claim to more conspicuous diplomatic real estate than the US. Ottawa’s American mission stretches the width of a neighborhood. In London, the US Embassy has long been considered a blunt statement of the most disfigured principles of American foreign policy. And perhaps no diplomatic complex in the world is as infamous as the Green Zone, Saddam Hussein’s palace-cum-fortress from which Iraq’s long, bloody occupation was run; the current US compound in Baghdad is as large as Vatican City.

For all its recent stumbles and whispers about its relative decline, the US remains the world’s sole superpower. The size of its embassies reflect that fact — and so do measures taken to protect them. Walking through Cairo’s Garden City, home to some of Egypt’s largest foreign delegations, it was always impossible for me to avoid feeling intimidated — even as a US citizen — by the American Embassy’s fortresslike ramparts, its deep setback, and the security forces who manned roadblocks at either end of the street that ran between it and Britain’s also very fortified (if more elegant) facility. That lasting impression left me all the more shocked when, last week, protesters breached the compound’s walls; in Egypt, only military bases had ever seemed less vulnerable.


November 21st, 2011

Terminal Curiosity

Posted in Europe, Transportation, United States, Video by Christopher Szabla

It’s one way to see a city: pick a subway line, any line, and ride to the end. In theory, whatever narrow perceptions you’ve acquired by sauntering through any metropolis’ most busy downtown streets will be balanced out by impressions of its flavor of ragged urban edge.

That’s precisely what my friend Tanveer and I did when we were trying to think, a few years ago, of a creative way to explore Lisbon. Miles out from the tightly gridded 18th century streets of Baixa, the Portuguese capital’s heart, a sprawling housing estate greets anyone arriving at the end of the line with splashes of bold color — and creepily empty streets. It was exactly the contrast with the Lisbon depicted on postcards and tour guides I that would have imagined.

Most termini, though, aren’t very representative of the city’s outer rim. The end of the line is also a starting point — a place where many begin their journeys on cities’ rapid transit systems after disembarking from buses and cars. That means they’re often hubs of activity that mirror the bustle of urban cores — with the crucial distinction that they’re rarely as well-known or experienced by anyone who doesn’t live nearby, as foreign to most residents of those cities as to travelers.

In Berlin, I lived in a bizarre neighborhood of vast, snaking concrete buildings a long walk from the final stop on the U6 line. At Alt-Mariendorf, the line’s last station (or, depending on how you looked at it, its first one), there was a bustling pedestrian plaza that was a hive of activity. Yet, for all the relative action that seemed to transpire there, and not the languid courtyards closer to home, few Berliners were really passing through. The end of a ride they never took to its conclusion, Alt-Mariendorf is, for most regular passengers of the U6, more aspiration than destination.

“Almost everyone in Berlin knows their names,” filmmaker Janosch Delcker introduces his recent short film, which takes viewers to the stations at each end of every Berlin U-Bahn line, “but scarcely anyone has ever been there”. He could be speaking about the last stop of any subway line in the world.


August 24th, 2011

Walk This Way

Posted in Art and Design, Europe, United States by Christopher Szabla

Maya Barkai’s crowdsourced art installation has brought pedestrian crossing symbols from around the world to New York’s streets

Only a block north from the construction barriers surrounding the former site of the World Trade Center, which brim with boastful renderings of progress on the nearly-complete September 11th Memorial, another, less conspicuous hole opens up in Lower Manhattan’s lapidary landscape. Compared to the blocks bordering Ground Zero, it’s a stretch of Church Street that’s relatively empty. Maybe that’s part of why the netting surrounding this construction site was passed up as glossy adspace showcasing the real estate to come and instead given over to art — currently, Israeli artist Maya Barkai’s installation “Walking Men,” which juxtaposes images of pedestrian walk signs from around the world.

In North America, it’s easy not to devote much thought to the design of “walking men”. While the pictograms are relatively new to the US — until recently, it was still not uncommon to come across a spelled-out “WALK” sign on the streets of New York — bright-white walk symbols are now not only fairly uniform across dense American cities, they’re also uniformly ignored by jaywalkers, who normally treat the signals as well-meaning but unnecessary suggestions.

Elsewhere, though, walk signals are much more diverse — and sometimes more meaningful. In Germany, pedestrians who cross against the light aren’t really braving traffic as much as the reproachful glances of those dutifully remaining at the opposite corner. From Munich to Münster, old women wait at otherwise empty street crossings for the signal to change — on principle. Ordnung — the organizing principle of German civilization — begins at the intersection.


November 9th, 2009

November 9th

Posted in Europe, History, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Berlin Wall 1985

Berlin after the wall

A city was reunited twenty years ago. There’s plenty to read about the demise of the Berlin Wall, which fell on November 9th, 1989, but what occupies my thoughts is Robin McMorran’s 1985 photo, which I originally posted in 2007. It says a lot about the arbitrariness and absurdity of separation walls, which in the case of Berlin passed right through the middle of streets and neighbourhoods like a clumsy butcher’s cleaver. McMorran returned to photograph that same spot in 1990, and though the wall is gone, the void it created isn’t.

November 4th, 2009

Building Blocks

Posted in Architecture, Canada, Europe, Video by Christopher DeWolf

When I saw this fun Berlin-commie-block-as-Tetris video, I immediately thought of Habitat 67, Moshe Safdie’s experimental modular apartment building. When it was built, by assembling prefab housing cubes into a jumbled whole, it looked more or less like what you see in this video. Unfortunately, Safdie’s vision of customizable, prefabricated apartment construction wasn’t as feasible as he had hoped, so instead of the deconstructionist cubes of Habitat 67, we have a world filled with lookalike boxes.

Below is an excerpt from Stuart Cooper’s 1977 movie The Disappearance, starring Donald Sutherland as a hitman who lives in Habitat 67. There’s plenty of great shots set to a very appropriate soundtrack.


November 7th, 2006

Can’t Get Enough of Berlin

Posted in Europe by Olga Schlyter

Warschauer Strasse, Friedrichshain

Kastanienallee, Prenzlauer Berg


October 28th, 2006

Berliner U-Bahn

Posted in Europe, Transportation by Olga Schlyter

Alexanderplatz, Berlin

Kreuzberg, Berlin