From the Cold War to the present: the history of the futuristic building, designed by the Machonin couple, which houses the Czech Embassy in Berlin

On last November 9, Berlin commemorated thirty years from the fall of the Wall, turning into a giant open-air exhibition. A few blocks away from the Brandenburg Gate, the walls of a building from what was then East Berlin could have overheard beforehand some details about the fate of the “geopolitical artefact” which we will not hesitate to reluctantly call architectural, for its symbolism. One hundred fifty-five kilometres of scar – an extension of geographic proportions – that blemished the face of the city for decades.

Just like the Wall, the building that we are going to talk about is, too, a child of the Cold War. It’s not only the style that suggests it, typical for the years of “peaceful coexistence” between Nixon and Brežnev, but also its dimensions. During the GDR, when it was built, the Embassy of what was then ČSSR – the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic – needed a staff that ranged from three hundred fifty to five hundred employees. Both the size and shape of the building that make its internal division unfathomable created, in a similar context, legends and rumours worthy of the best spy stories. They surged from the fact that an anything but secret “bridge” role nation between the two blocks had its headquarters in the building, behind the smoked windows.

Probably, many of those who let their thoughts wander about secret levels, hidden passages and international intrigues, wouldn’t have expected a twist of events between the political and architectural to emerge shortly after the actions of November 9, 1989. Only seven days later, the Velvet Revolution – partly triggered and fueled by the evolution of the Berlin situation – and the formation of a new Czechoslovak government would, in fact, bring out the names of the designers of the Embassy in Berlin, held secret until 1990. The spouses Vladimír and Věra Machonin and their Alfa Architectural Studio were already known in the 1960s on the national scene. Some of their projects, such as the “Kotva Department Stores” (Obchodní dům Kotva) and the Dbk (Dům bytové kultury – Centre of home design) – both in Prague – became emblematic for the image of the capital in the following decade, along with some other works classified as Czechoslovakian Brutalism.

However, this success concerns mainly the buildings designed before 1970. This was the year when Alfa A.S. – along with other three architectural firms – was pushed out of competitions and publications for refusing to sign specific deals with the regime. In this context, the project for the Czechoslovakian Embassy in East Berlin comes to life, just a few steps away from the wall. Although initially developed for the Kenyan Representation, the design was quickly “taken over” by the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. It formally conferred to the Machonins’ an institutional assignment for a regime that condemned them to a thunderous twenty years oblivion, almost a damnatio memoriae.

Nowadays, due to technology but mostly to the changing scenery on the international level, the Czech Embassy in Berlin has less than fifty people, including diplomats and employees. This would explain most of the last years concerns about the fate of the brutalist building – primarily due to energy issues – most definitely oversized for the current needs. Fortunately, after a few years of debate, the concrete and glass giant created by the Machonin spouses is now safe. The exterior and most of the interiors – especially the reception rooms of the first two floors – will be restored and will retain their original appearance.

Visiting this building, a spaceship in the middle of a vibrant city – as named by the German newspaper Bild, in the years following its construction – would be like taking a dive in the mid-1970s Czechoslovakia. Atelier Alfa, the new studio of Věra Machoninová, will guide the restoration of the entire building for its energy upgrading. It will also restore not only the mysterious and fathomable exterior, with windowsills of Liberec granite and smoked glass, but also the original interiors. The warm shades of wood and the vivid ones of red and yellow panels and furniture intertwine with the visible reinforced concrete structure. Impressive bare pillars and small meeting rooms, like capsules, built-in hollow circular structures with unique decorations of formwork wood imprint, vertically cross the elegant interiors, entirely covered in wood.

Not only offices, meeting rooms and business areas: the cinema hall within the Embassy will be restored as well, with a capacity of five hundred seats. Center of some imaginative stories, the room is an almost unique object, both for the original design of the furniture and for its unusual dimension concerning its location inside a diplomatic representation.

The expressive shapes were achieved through the wise use of unusually heterogeneous materials – concrete, wood and steel combined with plastic and fabrics. They will have to be brought back to life during the restoration with the delicate precision of an artisan work on unique elements – sculptural at times – like stairs, countertops, decorated walls, hidden doors and illumination systems that make us wink at the image of the Soviet science fiction.

Among almost suspended daring stairs and delicate crystal floral compositions that emerge from the false ceiling, equally unique – and certainly not restrained in dimensions, we find wall painted works of art that become true and real characterizations of their locational environments. We must mention a few panels in-between figuration and abstraction with strong oriental influences and some typical representations of Soviet propaganda.

The building co-signed by the Machonins’ and Klaus Pätzmann represents an almost cubic construction, managed by a curious diagonal symmetry that is immediately visible in plan-view but emphasized on the facade by two towers of stairs that seem to hold the entire structure in place. The size of the massive cornices that form the overall mass makes it difficult to estimate the dimension of the building, defining an elevated courtyard that extends into a terrace facing south-east on Mohrenstraße. Simultaneously crossed by the reflections of the windows and the shadows of the mouldings that separate them horizontally from each other, the cornices hide behind their facets a memory of adamantine shapes typical of the cubist experience in architecture, unique for the first decade of the twentieth century in Bohemia.

This controversial artefact that seemed from another world and that, like many other legacies of brutalism, risked continuing its existence only in the pages of a book, is now the Czech ingenuity crystallized on foreign land and a dive in the past. Its enthusiasm fuels the nostalgia for a science fiction future that got whole generations dreaming.

by Alessandro Canevari and Claudio Poddie