Opening NOTES

Design versus diplomacy

ROBERT SHEPPARD May 3 1999
Opening NOTES

Design versus diplomacy

ROBERT SHEPPARD May 3 1999

Design versus diplomacy

Opening NOTES

Like most architects, Bruce Kuwabara doodles when he talks. Elegant doodles, mind you, much like the man himself: dark suit, matching colour shirt, no tie—all subtle lines and constrained energy. In this case the squiggles in fine felt-tip pen represent downtown Berlin, the new German capital that is rising like a designer’s dream atop Adolf Hitler’s grave. It is a city the Hamilton-born Kuwabara has visited three times in his life, but has now become inextricably linked with his professional reputation, to his great pride— and no little embarrassment.

After a competition that lasted almost a year, Kuwabara’s Toronto firm Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects won the right to design the new Canadian Embassy in Berlin, a $37-million glass and limestone structure that looks to be one of the last great plums of national largesse. The only catch: unbeknown to most people at the time of the March announcement— including Kuwabara—the jury of eight prominent Canadian and German judges had chosen someone else from the five finalists. Six of the eight judges had picked Toronto’s Dunlop Farrow Architects in partnership with an edgy Montreal firm, Saucier and Perrotte. One judge went with Kuwabara and his large partner firms in Quebec City, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg. Another wanted the vision of Montreal architect Dan Hanganu. But in the end, none of this mattered.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy overrode the jury selection, sending up a collective moan from the country’s architectural establishment. This is Washington all over again, some said, referring to 1982, when then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau rejected a selection committee’s

recommendation in favour of the design by his friend Arthur Erickson. Last week, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada waded into the fray with a letter to Axworthy asking for a review of the way future competitions will be carried out. “The outcome created the unwelcome appearance of a closed, if not overtly political, process,” says Eva Matsuzaki, the institute’s Vancouverbased president.

Back up 10 years. The Berlin Wall tumbles down, East and West Germany unite and a decision is made to move the capital from sleepy Bonn to historic bomb-ravaged Berlin, setting off an orgy of international design on the rubble of the Cold War. This includes regional offices for Sony and DaimlerChrysler, monumental glass structures encompassing a 20-screen multiplex, the largest casino in Germany and a luxury hotel. Across the street on cozy Leipziger Platz will sit the new Canadian Embassy, a nine-storey building that will pay for itself by renting out pricey office and residential space. The view from the ambassador’s office on the panoramic sixth floor will sweep in the historic Brandenburg Gate as well as the shiny glass dome of the new Reichstag, inaugurated last week by German parliamentarians. “The hurt here goes way beyond just winning and losing in the same breath,” says Michael Moxam of Dunlop Farrow, the jury’s choice. “This was a chance to build in the most exciting city in the world.”

Now back up to April, 1998, when Ottawa launched the competition that attracted 31 of the nation’s top architects, including Erickson, Moshe Safdie and Eberhard Zeidler. ‘The government can just com-

mission buildings on its own without a competition,” notes Essy Baniassad, the Dalhousie professor who oversaw the contest in which the firms competed anonymously. But the German rules required a competition, and Canadian architects have been pushing the feds for years to hold binding arms-length jury selections, so Ottawa went along—up to a point. The key out: competition rules permitting Foreign Affairs to make its decision only “in light” of the jury’s report, not on the basis of it. “I should have read the rules more carefully,” admits finalist Hanganu. “Legally, the government did what was allowed. But this is not how governments should act.”

Neither he nor Moxam blame Kuwabara for what happened. Kuwabara says he did no lobbying. So why was his team chosen five months after the jury had handed in its report and waxed so enthusiastically over the Moxam-Saucier design? The government’s stated reason—that technical and financial studies swayed the decision—does not convince the design community. These are all details that are commonly worked out after a vision has been selected. What’s more, the jury had considered all the bureaucratic reports save one: the analysis by Canadian ambassador to Germany Gaëtan Lavertu, whose report came in after the jury made its recommendations.

Was it the Axworthy-Winnipeg connection that tipped the scales, as some have suggested? A key member of the KPMB team is Winnipeg firm Smith Carter, an engineering specialist that worked on the recent facelift to Canada House in London. As well, the Berlin embassy is to be clad with Manitoba’s tyndall limestone, and filled with Quebec maple and B.C. Douglas fir. Or was it something more imperial? The view from the ambassador’s window and giant sixth-floor patio, perhaps?

Both the Kuwabara design and the jury’s choice offer a ground-floor plan that is open, indeed encouraging, to pedestrians— something that intrigues the securityconscious Germans. The jury’s choice was much more high-tech: visions of Canada and its technological prowess flashed on the walls of the walkway. The ambassador’s suite on the other hand, looked out only on a leafy courtyard. The jury was looking for a building that would symbolize Canada to Europeans; Foreign Affairs looked at it from a different perspective. Kuwabara feels he had the embassy design: “The only criticism I’ve had from the minister and the ambassador was that the formal dining room should be on a higher floor so that it, too, could look out over Berlin. You know, country to country.” The insider’s view.

ROBERT SHEPPARD