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Master thesis by a Weimar student: About history and architecture of the embassies in Bonn

Master thesis by a Weimar student : About history and architecture of the embassies in Bonn

In her master's thesis, Weimar student Lina Kratz is exploring the history and architecture of embassies in Bonn. In an interview, she talks about the results of her research and why people in Bonn were somewhat disappointed after the construction of the Japanese Embassy.

Just 21 former embassies in Bonn were newly built during the Rhineland's capital, most of them in the Bad Godesberg district. Lina Kratz dealt with this topic in her urban studies master's thesis at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, entitled "New Embassy Buildings in the Federal Capital Bonn between 1950 and 1991," which she recently completed. Lina Kratz spoke with Michael Wenzel.

How did you come across the topic in the first place and what prompted you to deal with it in a master's thesis?

Lina Kratz: I came across the vacant former Algerian Embassy in Rheinallee during a walk in Bad Godesberg last summer and later other embassy buildings, such as the Syrian or South African Embassy. I was interested in looking into this former diplomatic district in Bad Godesberg and the individual embassy buildings. Especially during the pandemic, when no one could travel, I found it very appealing. Twenty-one new embassy buildings and two remodels in the former federal capital of Bonn provide material for a wealth of political, architectural, art historical, urban planning, and social science research. Most of the embassy buildings are not outstanding in their architectural quality, but together with my supervising professor, Dr. Ines Weizman, I believe that this "second row" definitely deserves attention, especially in such a special context.

What situation did you find during your research on site, especially in Bad Godesberg? Could you imagine that just 20 years ago this was a small city of the world, with New Year's receptions of the Federal President, diplomats in the cityscape and the everyday feeling of being the center of the Federal Republic?

Kratz: For me, the photographs in the Digital Image Archive of the Federal Archives were a discovery. I was amazed and moved by many of the photographs, for example of the visits of Japanese or Nigerian delegations or young international students at the DAAD reception in the Redoute in the 1960s, but also of Christmas parties for the diplomats' children. And, of course, the photographs of state visits - such as the Iranian Shah Reza Pahlevi, the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, Nelson Mandela or Mikhail Gorbachev. This sophisticated flair was still perceptible and visible to me in Bad Godesberg in some places - the ensemble of the town hall from the 1950s with the drinking pavilion in the spa park, which was added later, is such a place for me.

You describe the locations of many former representations as "anomalies in residential areas." How did this come about and what response did the city of Bonn have to it in the 1980s?

Kratz: The decision to make Bonn the provisional capital presented the city of Bonn with significant space problems. Bonn was already very densely populated at that time, and it was a challenge to accommodate all the institutions. The urban area of Bonn was therefore to be reserved for the institutions of the federal authorities. For the diplomatic missions, it was decided to locate them mainly in Bad Godesberg. By the end, more than two-thirds of the diplomatic missions were housed in old buildings, many of them in the villa district, because this was where the largest stock of prestigious buildings existed outside the Bonn urban area. The Villenviertel, previously a purely residential district, thus became the embassy district. For the new embassy buildings, plots of land were spread out over the entire city area - in the far south, for example, for the Turkish and Yugoslavian embassies in Mehlem, and in the north for the Romanian embassy in Castell. Some of these plots were located in or on the edge of residential areas, where such use was not actually intended. It should be noted, however, that the typology of the embassy has changed over the decades and today's new embassy buildings cannot be compared to the new buildings in Bonn, especially in terms of size. In the past, for example, it was more common to combine the residence of the ambassador and his family with the consulate on one property. This is less common today. The consular and administrative functions of embassies have increased, and this has been accompanied by greater space requirements. Starting in the mid-1980s, the city of Bonn planned to develop an "embassy mile" in the new Hochkreuz district, which was to become part of the new cosmopolitan government district. However, only the Syrian Embassy was realized here.

What influence did the German government actually have on the expansion of diplomatic missions in Bonn in the first decades after the founding of the republic? There were definitely particularly conspicuous features, as you note in your work?

Kratz: For a long time, Bonn was not supposed to establish itself as the "provisional capital" through large-scale representative construction projects - until the late 1960s, the federal government repeatedly ordered construction stops. Accordingly, the diplomatic missions waited and hardly built any new buildings during the first 20 years of the Federal Republic. Parallel to the first large-scale urban planning idea competitions for the expansion of the federal capital at the end of the 1960s, more foreign governments then acquired building land in Bonn. Most of the new embassy buildings were constructed in the 1970s and 80s. The last new building, the Japanese Embassy, was inaugurated in 1991, a few weeks before the capital city decision.

Let us turn to the design dimensions of the new embassy buildings. They were as heterogeneous as the building states, you write. And: the "exotic" backdrops were positively received.

Kratz: In my research in newspaper articles from the city archives, I have noticed that those embassy buildings whose architectural language corresponds to the image of the traditional architecture of the sending states - and thus least to an international architectural style or one known in Bad Godesberg - are often received particularly favorably. In the case of the Japanese Embassy, for example, one can even perceive a certain disappointment that the building has not become more "Japanese". The previously non-existent design languages were thus perceived as enrichment. I found this exciting - when is a new design language associated positively and when negatively as "foreign" in the cityscape? In my work, however, I have not yet been able to explore this aspect in depth.

In addition to numerous essays and journalistic works on the topic of "Former Embassies in Bonn" in recent years, your thesis is the first master's thesis around this topic. In your opinion, does the topic lend itself to further academic study?

Kratz: I think definitely. In my thesis, I was able to gain an initial overview of the emergence of the embassy buildings and the urban planning context in Bonn. Bad Godesberg as a diplomatic district and the individual embassy buildings can be studied in more detail on many levels - from art in architecture to research on the social environment of the diplomatic "noble migration". And then, of course, there is the question of whether and how to develop post-use concepts for the vacant embassy buildings in order to preserve them. I found it fascinating to discover this international cosmos in an environment I was familiar with.

(Original text: Michael Wenzel, Translation: Mareike Graepel)