Foreign Ministries I have known

I am not a huge architecture fan. But I am of course interested in the ways in which international politics is institutionalised, reified even, and on my way home from work the other day I was pondering on the architecture of the various public buildings I visit. So, I thought, why not make an LJ entry on my impressions of those foreign ministries I have been to twice or more, listed in order of population of country below.

USA: The Harry S Truman Building, so renamed in 2000, built in 1947-1961 (see me standing outside it here). A rather soulless office environment, though full of bustle and with a strong sense of internal hierarchy. Most memorable for the entrance hall with flags of all the states with which the USA has diplomatic relations – see picture here – which is just as well as you tend to spend a long time in the entrance hall clearing security. From 1875 to 1947 the State Department was in the Old Executive Office Building, which I find much more atmospheric, although also a bit more dilapidated (now home to among others the National Security Council, which is why I go there).

Germany: The Auswärtiges Amt at the Werderscher Markt in Berlin. Perhaps the most architecturally interesting of the foreign ministries (with compretition from the Irish). Certainly the most historically interesting (in German here). Originally built as the Reichsbank between 1934 and 1940. Badly damaged in the war (its president condemned to life imprisonment at Nuremberg for complicity in war crimes and genocide). Became the seat of the East German Conmmunist Central Committee from 1959. Was then the meeting place of the short-lived multi-party Volkskammer of the DDR, and thus the place where reunification was ratified by the former East Germany. Foreign Ministry since 1996. The old 1930’s core building is now fronted by a beautiful 1990’s entrance with water features, but the most memorable feature must surely be original, the paternoster lift which takes you between floors – somewhat nerve-racking when you first encounter it.

UK: The building on King Charles Street between Whitehall and St James’s Park was built between 1861 and 1868, the Foreign Office as such having been created in 1782. George Gilbert Scott famously wanted to build Gothic, but Lord Palmerston, then Prime Minister, insisted it be Classical and so it was (if you want to consider what might have been, Scott also designed and built the Albert Memorial and St Pancras Station about the same time, and was given more of a free hand). Originally the building housed the India Office, the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office and the Home Office, but the Foreign Office absorbed two of the others and kicked the third out. The aerial photo demonstrates how difficult it is to get a feel for the exterior of the building in the cramped architectural environment of Whitehall; the Foreign Office have however put on a nice on-line tour of the interior. Feels inside like what it is, a building that has been used as office space for 150 years, with the inevitable cycles of decay and regeneration.

France: The Quai d’Orsay is the oldest purpose-built foreign ministry building on my list, built between 1845 and 1853. The picture here shows the gardens at the back and the formal entrance, and if you took the on-line tour you could get the impression that the whole building is like that; however, I usually get the unprepossessing business entrance on the quayside, and then find my interlocutors in windowless rooms off peculiar landings of staircases that would once have been much grander. The Foreign Office in London must have been like this not so very long ago, and I hope the French make some effort to improve the working environment since the function rooms are so very impressive.

Italy: The Farnesina Palace (not to be confused with the sixteenth century Farnesina Villa downtown). Unlike their German counterparts, the official ministry website is a bit coy about what exactly the building was doing in the first quarter century of its life, before the Ministry moved there in 1959; it is, however, impossible to describe the architecture accurately, however coy you may be about it, without using the word “fascist” somewhere. It has to be said that it is a well-designed office building – reputedly the biggest or second biggest office building in Italy – along three principal corridors with different departments clearly labelled, and gives off a certain hum of professionalism. The worst thing about it is that it is so far to the north of the city centre.

Austria: The Bundesamtsgebäude, between the Ballhausplatz and the Minoritenplatz, house the Chancellery, the Interior Ministry and the Foreign Ministry, and were built between 1983 and 1987.




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1 Response to Foreign Ministries I have known

  1. steepholm says:

    Interesting. Is the person in blue a child, or a short woman – or were pillar boxes taller in those days?

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