Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.

Walking Embassy Row

Written June 27

In some countries, embassies are simple compounds, built out of secure but cheap and local materials due to the remoteness of the place, the volatility of the political system, and the level of import the larger nations put in relations with that country weighed with the desire to not look opulent and elitist.

In some countries, embassies are fitted into pre-existing buildings, ones that have stood in the capital city for centuries, that have been around longer than the countries that occupy them.

And in Australia, embassies are purpose built.

Being a purpose built capital that didn’t exist prior to the creation of Australia the Independent Country, Canberra had the ability to set aside land for a neighborhood of embassies. Being a relatively recent country, the modern system of embassies was already in place to be factored into the plans.

And so, in walking around this morning, I walked past plots of land that belonged to other countries. Islands of various nations, run side to side, abutting Australian streets, just off of the Australian Parliament circle. Within some of these plots stood only trees. Still others contained fences around trees with signs proclaiming which country would soon have a building on site. And many contained large buildings, complexes to house the diplomats and representatives here to lobby or negotiate or discuss.

The conditions being what they were/are here, most of the embassies could be built in a style representative of the country that it housed, with input from or entirely by that country. After reading the first few names on a map, I started to try to guess the nation based on the building alone. This worked remarkably well. Not foolproof, but still.

The United States embassy looked like Colonial Williamsburg, all old red brick and white mortar, set within a fence that said, “Back away; we don’t trust you.” It was also the only one where the guards kept their eyes trained on me and didn’t seem particularly pleased when I pulled out a camera.

Great Britain looked like a building you could imagine James Bond going into for a debrief.

Canada seemed clean and simple enough, not characterless, not imposing, with maple leafs imprinted on the concrete fence posts.

New Zealand had no fence, but did have corrugated iron cows in the yard.

South Africa had a colonial stately building, giant white and imposing atop a hill.

Korea was set back too far to see, but the gates and posts out front gave me enough to guess correctly.

Malaysia and Thailand both occupied houses with tall A-frame roofs that were reminiscent of temples.

China was in a humongous and imposing complex, industrial, business-oriented, with the type of roof I’d expect to see on the government buildings there.

Germany’s windows were lined in gold and red boards.

A simple eggshell-colored rectangular building was defined mainly by the black lines horizontally at the roof and vertically every so often. It reminded me of a screen that would divide a house in Japan. Sure enough…

Another much more modern building gave me no impression of a country, but of a business complex. The type of building that Microsoft might have on its campus. Someone high tech, all business, and with money. I give up. Who is it? Singapore.

Clean and elegant light-beige brick long curved house that didn’t have flourishes but looked classic and yet chic. Scandinavian? Netherlands.

One building was vertical glass and stairs, modernist and stylish without being garish, with a glass awning sticking off the front. Scandinavia? Yep, Finland.

Another complex set too far back from the road to see, clearly lined by sturdy fences, but the fences hidden completely within the beauty of well-manicured hedges, bushes that seemed they should be growing berries. Sweden.

Soviet era concrete block building built for efficiency more than architectural aesthetic. Poland.

The complex with a sculpture out front, two bronzes figures on horses, one with a lance, standing in front of three windmills. Don Quixote. Spain.

After passing all the embassies in the area, having completed my game, and having reached a time when museums would be opening, I made my way back to the car. I took a long last look at the US embassy. The soil of my country so close I could reach out and touch it. And yet so protected against intrusion that I couldn’t. Set up such that someone could spit on it in anger and yet not grasp it in friendship. I didn’t know quite what to make of that.

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This entry was posted on July 1, 2012 by in ACT (Canberra), Australia.

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