[Paleopsych] NYTBR: Leaders Who Build to Stroke Their Egos

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Wed Dec 28 03:01:14 UTC 2005

Leaders Who Build to Stroke Their Egos
Books of The Times | 'The Edifice Complex'

[But I want comparisons with democracies, such as that under Roosevelt II.]


     Deyan Sudjic
     How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World
     By Deyan Sudjic
     403 pages. Penguin Press. $27.95.

     The pyramids, Versailles, the Taj Mahal, the Kremlin, the World Trade
     Center: it's hardly news that the rich and powerful have used
     architecture to try to achieve immortality, impress their
     contemporaries, stroke their own egos and make political and religious

     So how artfully does Deyan Sudjic explicate this highly familiar
     observation? His new book, "The Edifice Complex," is a fat,
     overstuffed jumble of the obvious and the fascinating, the tired and
     the intriguing - a volume that feels less like an organic book than a
     series of hastily patched together essays and ruminations. It is a
     book in dire need of heavy-duty editing, but a book that
     intermittently grabs the reader's attention, making us rethink the
     equations between architecture and politics and money, and the myriad
     ways in which buildings can be made to embody everything from national
     aspirations and economic might to narcissistic displays of potency and

     Mr. Sudjic, the architecture critic for the London newspaper The
     Observer, looks at the architectural dreams of the great monsters of
     20th-century history - Hitler, Stalin and Mao - and at the more modest
     fantasies of assorted tycoons and democratically elected politicians.
     He deconstructs the symbolism of the presidential libraries of Richard
     Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush;
     looks at the dubious construction of London's Millennium Dome on Tony
     Blair's watch; and re-examines the debates over ground zero in New

     In addition, Mr. Sudjic provides some brisk assessments of such
     high-profile architects as Philip Johnson, Frank Gehry and Daniel
     Libeskind. And he examines the propensity of many prominent architects
     to hire themselves out to unsavory - and in some cases, morally
     reprehensible - clients. He notes, for instance, that Walter Gropius
     and Le Corbusier took part in a competition to design Stalin's Palace
     of the Soviets and points out that Albert Speer and Mies van der Rohe
     "were both ready to work" for Hitler, the only difference being that
     Speer "devoted himself entirely to realizing the architectural
     ambitions of his master," while Mies, for all his political
     expediency, "was unyielding about architecture."

     As for Rem Koolhaas, who declined to take part in the ground zero
     design competitions because of what he saw as the project's
     "overbearing self-pity," he vigorously pursued the job of building the
     new headquarters of Central China Television, the propagandistic voice
     of the state.

     In reviewing such cases, Mr. Sudjic comes to the conclusion that "the
     totalitarians and the egotists and the monomaniacs offer architects,
     whatever their personal political views, more opportunities for
     'important' work than the liberal democracies." This is not an
     entirely persuasive argument, given the construction of iconic
     buildings like Jorn Utzon's Opera House in Sydney, Australia, and Mr.
     Gehry's Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, on one hand, and the
     nightmarishly grotesque architectural plans of many tyrants, on the

     In the most interesting chapters in this volume, Mr. Sudjic goes over
     some of those dictators' plans. We see Hitler, who once contemplated
     becoming an architect himself, working with Albert Speer to perfect
     the use of architecture as propaganda - as a tool for glamorizing his
     own rule while intimidating and impressing his subjects. The scale of
     Hitler's Chancellery was deliberately heroic - halls that were 30 feet
     high and doorways that were 17 feet high. And the plans to remake
     Berlin as "Germania," the Führer's own version of Rome, were similarly
     outsized, with a gigantic, 1,000-foot-high dome that would have
     accommodated 180,000 people and grand crossing street axes (possibly
     based "on Louis XIV's bedroom at Versailles, positioned at the
     crossing point of two of the most important roads in France").

     Stalin's plans for Moscow were equally grandiose: his Palace of the
     Soviets was to be taller than the Empire State Building and topped by
     a gargantuan likeness of Lenin that was to be bigger than the Statue
     of Liberty. Stalin also set about erasing historic landmarks - like
     Moscow's great 19th-century basilica - in an effort to make his
     transformation of Imperial Russia into the Soviet Union irreversible.
     In fact, Mr. Sudjic notes that demolition can be "almost as essential
     a part of the process of transformation as new building" - as
     demonstrated by Haussmann's Paris and Ceausescu's Bucharest.

     The decision by Brazil's leaders to move the national capital out of
     Rio de Janeiro and build a new seat of government in the empty heart
     of the country was, Mr. Sudjic writes, "a deliberate attempt to create
     a new identity" for the country: the use of "an architecture entirely
     free of historical memories" was meant to symbolize the rejection of
     "centuries of political and cultural subservience to Europe."

     In the case of the new Germany, Mr. Sudjic reports, leaders were "less
     prepared to wipe out the traces of Hitler's Berlin" than they were
     ready "to eradicate the traces" of the former Communist-controlled
     East Germany. Indeed the physical legacy of vanished authoritarian
     regimes poses a difficult question for current governments. "Italy to
     this day," Mr. Sudjic writes, "is full of rotting buildings, many of
     real quality, that were put up by the Fascists to house their party
     organizations. They were confiscated by the postwar government, and
     nobody knows what to do with them. To demolish them all both would be
     profligate and would represent a historical whitewash, and yet to
     restore them could suggest a rehabilitation of the regime that built

     It is in raising such philosophical questions about architecture and
     its symbolism that "The Edifice Complex" is at its most original and
     pertinent, persuading the reader that the volume is probably worth
     reading - or at least skimming - despite the huge amounts of dross
     surrounding its nuggets of insight.

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