May 25, 2020
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The Vaastu Overture

What's the newest landmark in grey, wintry Berlin? A festival of India, in stone.

The Vaastu Overture
When foreign minister Jaswant Singh inaugurated the new Indian embassy building in Berlin on January 18, it not only heralded a new beginning in Indo-German relations but also sought to enrich and diversify the architectural style of Germany's capital city. An exquisite red sandstone structure that squats on a sprawling 8,200 sq m area in the diplomatic quarter of Tiergartenstrasse, the new landmark has added an enchanting red hue to the formidable wintry grey of Berlin.

With its traditional Indian architectural elements, the new embassy already has many gushing. Georg Lechner, head of the German festival in India, is one of them. Says he: "This is a good investment and it will go a long way to publicise and improve India's image in Germany and this part of the globe."

With India still perceived in Germany as either the land of the exotica or abysmal poverty, the new embassy will now shift the focus to its more modern self. Says architect Konrad Wohlhage, one of the partners of the Leon Wohlhage Wernik Architekten, which designed the building: "This building represents in its form and image the modern Indian state. A contemporary building referring to our times."

The need for a new building arose following the shifting of Germany's capital from Bonn to Berlin, 10 years after the Berlin wall collapsed and the two Germanys united. But making a virtue of necessity, the new edifice is envisioned as more than just a utilitarian structure. Boasting a facade of red sandstones, brought all the way from Rajasthan, its interior has a mix of green limestone of Kota and black granite stone from Jhansi. And to impart a typical oriental touch to the building, huge jaalis, made by Indian craftsmen, adorn the embassy walls. None of these architectural traits are found in any other Berlin building.

Water, like in so many other buildings in India, is the principal motif here too. At the entrance is a pool, which then leads to a hall. Beyond that is a garden with a cascading waterfall, redolent of the Mughal architectural style. There is also a remarkable use of light and space. The ambassador's office is in a rotunda (a building with a circular ground-plan) in the garden and is connected to the main building. While the first and the second floors are for public business, the top three house offices of the embassy staff. The embassy also houses a Tagore Centre for cultural events. Says Malay Mishra, minister, political and information, at the embassy: "This new building is a gesture to recognise the two country's sovereignty and renew our 50 years of friendship."

Such sentiments apart, there are also many who are questioning the wisdom of such a resplendent style of architecture, wondering what such ostentation might have cost a cash-starved Indian government. While reports suggest that the new building has been acquired and built (including the land cost) at a conservative estimate of 40 million Deutsche Mark (equivalent to Rs 80 crore), Wohlhage and other embassy officials are tight-lipped and non-committal when quizzed about it.

The expenditure is mammoth by Indian standards but is considered reasonable by the prevailing German land rates and building costs. Says Dieter Oel of Embassy Exchange, a section of lfw Immobilien Services GmbH, which provides advice and quotes prices on property market and possible sites for diplomatic missions: "I have no idea of the amount spent to purchase land or the building cost since this time the embassy did not do it through us. But if this is the actual cost incurred, it is indeed a good price." The previous house of the Indian ambassador was purchased through Embassy Exchange.

Although none of the Indian officials in Berlin are forthcoming about the actual cost, the construction was carried out at tremendous speed. Wohlhage and his firm completed the task in a record time of less than a year, an achievement by any Indian standards.

But does the new building have anything other than its aesthetic value to boast of? Apparently, there is. Says Georg Lechner: "Previously India was inclined towards the eastern bloc. But the relations improved after the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification.... Privatisation opened up possibilities of German investments in India. Germany is also keen to employ Indian software professionals. More Indian students are being invited for higher studies in the German universities. So, this new building is a good investment as it refurbishes India's image in Germany."

With the German media concentrating on an India that is backward and poor—often considered synonymous with child marriages and slums—the new embassy building will surely shift the focus to an India that successfully blends tradition with modernity.

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