From Hitler's vision of a new Berlin to Tony Blair's Dome and Michael Eisner's EuroDisney, tyrants, kings and tycoons have erected grand monuments to their own vanity. Deyan Sudjic deconstructs the Edifice Complex
Sunday May 29, 2005
I used to keep a photograph, torn from a tabloid, pinned over my desk. Through the blotchy newsprint, you could make out the blurred image of an architectural model the size of a small car jacked up to eye level.
Left to themselves architects use non-committal shades of grey for their models, but this one was painted in glossy lipstick colours, suggesting it was made to impress a client with an attention span shorter than most. Strips of cardboard and balsawood had been used to represent a mosque with a squat dome fenced in by concentric circles of spiky minarets. The gaudy shapes, and the reduction of an intricate decorative tradition to a cartoon, tried and failed to be simultaneously boldly modern and respectfully rooted in the past.
The questionable architectural details, though, weren't what made it such an unsettling image. What really grabbed my attention was the glimpse of the darker aspects of building that the picture captured.
None of the uniformed figures clustered respectfully around the model looked like the architects who usually feature conspicuously in this kind of picture, but there wasn't much doubt about the identity of the thickset man with the heavy moustache, looking disorientingly like a Second World War British army major in his vintage khaki sweater and beret, or the unblinking fascination with which he was gazing so adoringly at his model.
Saddam Hussein, like many dictators, was an enthusiastic patron of architecture. Unlike Napoleon III, however, whose fastidious tastes are still clearly visible in the parade- ground tidiness of the boulevards of Paris, or Mussolini with his contradictory passions for modernism and Caesar Augustus, Saddam had no obvious preference for any specific architectural style. He did, however, have an instinctive grasp of how to use architecture to glorify himself and his regime and to intimidate his opponents.
From the moment of its conception, the Mother of all Battles mosque had a very clear purpose - to claim the first Gulf War as a victory for Iraq. Saddam was humiliated in that war. His army was expelled from Kuwait. Its desperate flight home left the road disfigured by the grotesque train of incinerated Iraqi conscripts, trapped in their burnt-out plundered cars. Saddam wanted to build his own reality to wipe out that image of defeat.
The message in the newspaper picture of Saddam's mosque is unambiguous. Architecture is about power.
The powerful build because that is what the powerful do. On the most basic level, building creates jobs that are useful to keep a restless workforce quiet. But it also reflects well on the capability, decisiveness and the determination of the powerful. Above all, architecture is the means to tell a story about those who build it.
In Baghdad itself, the notorious outsize crossed scimitars span the road into the city, gripped by giant bronze hands modelled on Saddam's own - but cast in the quintessentially English setting of Basingstoke. In Saddam's day, nets filled with shoals of captured Iranian helmets dangled from the two sword hilts. Such monuments, kitsch as they are, are universal. They date from the victory memorials of the Peloponnesian wars, and the triumphs imperial Rome granted its favoured generals. The idea of the crossed swords was filched without acknowledgement from Mike Gold, an architect based in London who originally proposed it, minus the helmets, as an innocuously whimsical civic landmark for a motorway in Saudi Arabia.
In Iraq, its meaning was completely transformed. Versace's inflammatory caricature of sex and money can be worn with a sense of irony in Milan, but not in Milosevic's Belgrade where the bandit classes took the glitter and leopard skin look at face value. And in Baghdad, a piece of ironic post-modernism becomes the most literal kind of architectural propaganda.
Almost all political leaders find themselves using architects for political purposes. It is a relationship that appeals to egotists of every description. That is why there are photographs of Hitler and Mussolini, Tony Blair and François Mitterrand and the first President Bush - as well as countless mayors and archbishops, chief executives and billionaire robber barons - each bowed over their own, equally elaborate architectural models looking just as narcissistically transfixed as the beatific Saddam beaming over his mosque.
Despite a certain amount of pious rhetoric about architecture's duty to serve the community, to work at all in any culture the architect has to establish a relationship with the rich and the powerful. There is nobody else with the resources to build. And it is the genetically predetermined destiny of the architect to do anything he can to build. The architectural profession has no alternative but to trim and compromise with whatever regime is in power.
There is a psychological parallel between making a mark on the landscape with a building and the exercise of political power. Both depend on the imposition of will. Certainly, reducing an entire city to the scale of a doll's house in an architectural model has an inherent appeal for those who regard the individual as of no account. Architecture feeds the egos of the susceptible. They grow more and more dependent on it to the point where architecture becomes an end in itself, seducing its addicts as they build on an ever-larger scale.
Building is the means by which the egotism of the individual is expressed in its most naked form - the Edifice Complex. This is not to equate George Bush the elder's presidential library in Texas, or Tony Blair's Millennium Dome (or his Wembley stadium) with Saddam's mosque. Tony Blair may aspire to be as much of an autocrat as, say, François Mitterrand, and he may have wanted to rebrand Britain, as a glossy, shiny, modern state, but he lacks Mitterrand's instinctive confidence in his own judgment on architectural issues. Blair needs to be told what to like, or rather what to say that he likes. And the fact that there was nobody close enough to Blair that he could rely on for decisive guidance about the Dome contributed to the fiasco over its content.
To manoeuvre at the court of an elected prime minister in order to secure the chance to build involves an altogether less corrosive kind of compromise than the potentially lethal survival dance demanded by a dictatorship. But democratic regimes are just as likely to deploy architecture as an instrument of statecraft as totalitarians. Even so, just as it is as well to keep a careful eye on those leaders with a taste for writing poetry, so an enthusiasm for architecture is a characteristic that should ring alarm bells when present in a certain kind of political figure.
It is uncomfortable, to say the least, for architecture enthusiasts - and I'm certainly one - to find that Hitler chose as his companions for his only visit to Paris, not the army high command, or party leadership, but two architects, Albert Speer and Hermann Giesler, as well as Arno Breker, the Nazi sculptor-in-chief. It was as if George W Bush were to tour Baghdad with Frank Gehry and Jeff Koons. And Hitler's hours spent with Speer and their 100ft-long model of the Berlin that they wanted to build are certainly enough to make you reconsider the apparently innocent charm of the architectural model.
Hitler's trip to Paris is captured in one of the 20th century's most unforgettable photographs, taken on the steps of Les Invalides. Hitler is in the centre, of course, wearing a long white overcoat. Everybody else is dressed from head to foot in black, an eerie precursor of the universal taste for Comme des Garcons suits among architects in the early years of the 21st century. Here is the leader surrounded by his acolytes, the great architect ready to redesign the world.
There are disturbing parallels between the mania of the dictators for rebuilding their capital cities in their own image and the passion for building in our own times. Certainly there is something oddly reminiscent of Stalin - who paced the Moscow river bank in 1931 deciding where to put the Palace of the Soviets - in François Mitterrand's order half a century later for the roads around La Défense to be closed one sweltering August weekend to allow the biggest crane in France to winch a mock-up of the Grand Arche into place. The president wanted to see for himself the effect it would have on the view from the gardens of the Elysée Palace. Like Mitterrand, Stalin clearly saw himself as a great architect. On one occasion he was observed casually picking up a representation of the onion-domed St Basil's cathedral from a model of the Kremlin to see how the city would look without it.
The Edifice Complex is a psychological condition that has afflicted most of the 20th century's totalitarians. But it does not limit itself to dictators. There are perfectly respectable software tycoons, presidents, museum directors, bishops and fashion designers infected too. It's not just that the victims of the condition want things built in their name. They suffer from the delusion that they can design architecture themselves.
When Michael Eisner, a typical victim of the Edifice Complex, set about building EuroDisney he recruited every famous architect he could get his hands on, and insisted on selecting every door knob, tap and wash basin himself. Aldo Rossi, the leading Italian architect of his generation, resigned, and wrote to Eisner reminding him that the last time an Italian architect had this much trouble in Paris, it was Bernini, working for the King of France. 'Clearly I am not Bernini,' he said, 'but unfortunately you seem to believe that you are the King of France.'
I started to collect images of the rich and powerful leaning over architectural models in a more systematic way after I suddenly found myself in the middle of one. The elder statesman of Japanese architecture, Arata Isozaki, had hired an art gallery in Milan owned by Miuccia Prada, for a presentation to an important client. Outside, two black Mercedes cars full of bodyguards were parked on either side of the entrance, alongside a vanload of carabinieri. Inside was another of those room-size models. Isozaki described it as a villa. In fact it was a palace for a Qatari sheikh, who was his country's minister for culture. And the palace had to do rather more than accommodate the sheikh, his family, his collection of rare breed animals and his Ferraris, his Bridget Rileys and his Hockney swimming pool, as well as his Richard Serra landscape installation.
Each piece of the building had been allocated to an individual architect or designer. Ron Arad was doing one room, Tom Dixon another, John Pawson a third. Isozaki's assistants were marshalling them for an audience with the sheikh. The architects waited, and they waited, drinking coffee and eating pastries dispensed by waiters in black tie until the sheikh finally arrived, almost two hours late.
Here was the relationship between power and architecture in its most naked form, a relationship of subservience to the mighty as clear as if the architect were a hairdresser or a tailor. In fact the villa never got built, and the last report I heard of the sheikh was that he was under house arrest while police investigated details of his purchases of millions of dollars-worth of art on behalf of the government.
The individual house has, in our times, come to represent a particularly virulent form of the Edifice Complex. In Los Angeles, a house designed by Frank Gehry has come to rank so far ahead in the infinitely competitive game of social status that a Warhol portrait hardly registers. The tycoon who already has everything and still needs reassurance can console himself with the thought: here is a man, spoken of in the same breath as Frank Lloyd Wright by no less an authority than the director of the Guggenheim, who is ready to spend his precious time planning MY bathroom, and manipulating the spatial relationship of MY swimming pool with MY living room.
People who commission Frank Gehry to design houses for them are a group unlike any other. Among their characteristics, self-doubt is conspicuous by its absence. The client for the house, Peter Benjamin Lewis, became chairman of the Guggenheim's board of trustees in 1998 and is a man who has personally contributed $77 million to the museum. He is certainly a flamboyant figure. He has a 255ft boat named the Lone Ranger, big enough for an on-board swimming pool and a crew of 18.
When the Lewis house design was exhibited in the Guggenheim Museum's massive retrospective exhibition of Gehry's work, according to the catalogue, 'the plan to renovate the original house was quickly abandoned in the face of mounting needs that overwhelmed the structure'. This is an interesting use of the word 'needs', suggesting that a team of dour engineers had been wrestling with a series of sober, functional imperatives driving the design as if they were the inexorable laws of physics.
Lewis asked for a 10-car garage, and Gehry designed it. Then he said he needed storage for his art collection, and the design changed again. Then he needed a private museum - later to expand when Lewis said he needed space for a director for the museum, and space for a curator; and for a library. And, of course, for a-state-of-the-art security system, including panic rooms, an escape tunnel and somewhere for a collection of Persian rugs; and still the house kept growing.
Gehry was dealing with that very special form of indecision associated with an excess of wealth, the kind that makes a grown man unable to make up his mind whether he needs one guest house or two. Or whether he would rather keep the garage out of sight of his front door than get wet walking to the house from his car - and all the other vanities and neuroses and insecurities that even a great architect cannot always keep from looking absurd.
In Lewis's eyes, at least part of the point of the house was to get his own back on the Cleveland establishment. Lewis wanted to put a 75ft-high Claes Oldenburg golf bag in his garden that would have been visible from the grounds of the neighbouring Mayfield Country Club. When he was younger, he had been a victim of the anti-semitism rife at the club.
But presentations turned into circus performances. 'Every time I went to see him he'd have a film crew in tow.' Gehry says. 'On one of his birthdays he flew back the model and he invited the governor of Ohio and many other guests to a big party. I had to make a presentation of his house to this party.' Gehry responded by making a model the size of a playpen. The budget kept rising from $5m, to $20m, $65m and even $80m. Lewis is divorced, and his children are all adults. It's hard to imagine how all of those rooms would have been used simultaneously. America's obesity epidemic had evidently hit its domestic architecture as well as its waistline. The film crew did, however, manage to complete their film on the non-building of the Lewis house. Jeremy Irons contributed a reverential voice over.
The appeal of architecture to those who suffer from the Edifice Complex lies in the way that it is an expression of will. To design a building, or to have a building designed is to suggest: 'This is the world as I want it. This is the perfect room to run a state, a business empire, a city, a family.'
It is the way to create a physical version of an idea, or an emotion. It is the way to construct reality as we wish it to be, rather than as it is.
- The Edifice Complex is published on 2 June by Penguin.