Britain rebuilds Berlin embassy

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BRITAIN RECLAIMED yesterday a corner of old Berlin, breaking the ground at a derelict site where her new embassy is set to rise upon the ashes of the old.

The ceremony, described by the city's Mayor, Eberhard Diepgen, as an "important stage in Berlin's progress towards becoming the real capital of Germany", was replete with symbolism for both countries.

Power, and some measure of splendour, will flow back to Wilhelmstrasse when German ministries and emissaries of distant lands return next summer after a gap of more than half a century.

Our man - or woman - will be working within short walking distance of the Reichstag, the Air Ministry of Goebbels and Goring's Propaganda Ministry, all of which are to reopen under new management.

In a neighbourhood haunted by ghosts and criss-crossed by the fading boundary between East and West, the returning politicians and diplomats will testify to Germany's resurgence and the rehabilitation of Prussia's former capital.

Those returning are making statements of their own. Britain, France and the United States are coming back to the real estate that was laid waste by the RAF, clustered as it was around Nazi Germany's heart of darkness.

Each of those countries, who controlled Berlin's post-war destiny, is projecting its own identity through the buildings.

Britain's is a fashion statement, as well as a summation of current philosophy. It will stand on the hottest address in the city, next to the luxurious Adlon Hotel, which was rebuilt a year ago.

It is perhaps best to skim over what is being built on the other side: an old people's home for the super-rich.

The embassy's winning design, by Michael Wilford, seeks to combine elements of the local vernacular - down to the type of polished stone used in the facade - with the modern.

The stone is of the kind that covers the Brandenburg Gate, which stands around the corner. The modern bits are represented by the multi-coloured metal cladding above the entrance, and the revolutionary interior.

The building is defined by two internal courtyards - an echo of 19th- century Berlin chic - see-through partitions and sweeping vistas. An English oak will stand in the middle of the entrance court.

Visitors, if they are important enough, will be escorted up on a grand staircase towards the piano nobile and the winter garden.

The design is fresh and daring but the revolution lies elsewhere. "We want it to be a shop-window for Britain," said the ambassador, Sir Paul Lever, at yesterday's ceremony. Visitors, even ordinary Berliners, will be not only admitted but invited in.

There will be a cafe and a library, and something of a shopping-mall atmosphere, sealed off from the staff's "private areas" by walls of glass. The idea, presumably, is to demonstrate how hard the diplomats work.

The financing also breaks new ground. Although Britain will retain the land, the building itself will, in effect, be leased from the German consortium that is putting up the cash. The Berlin embassy will thus be the first example of the public finance initiative which has taken nearly three years to negotiate. The Government expects to pay something in the region of pounds 50m between completion and the expiry date 30 years hence. At that time the contract will be renegotiated.

The embassy will be ready by the summer of 2000, merely a year after the German government moves to Berlin. The present embassy in Bonn has already been sold to the telephone company Deutsche Telekom.

t A former Red Army Faction terrorist who had part of her conviction overturned in March was resentenced yesterday to the same term: life in prison without parole.

Birgit Hogefeld, 41, was convicted in 1996 of participating in a 1993 prison bombing in Darmstadt; of murder in connection with the 1994 bombing of a US Air Force base; and of the attempted murder of a German official in 1988.

She asked the judges to take into consideration her courtroom plea to the faction to disband. The court refused to make her eligible for parole, citing the severity of her guilt.