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Architecture In a Dictatorship

Words:

Edd Norval
September 12, 2018

It's not just dropping bombs that destroy buildings. It's not just war-torn countries that destroy information and educational pathways. Equal levels of destruction can take place in countries under authoritarian rule, where architecture that doesn’t perpetuate the state’s ideology simply doesn’t belong.

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Earlier this year, Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha, main architect on Lisbon's Museu dos Coches in Belém, picked up the Royal Gold Medal for architecture. When speaking, he declared that the destruction of the architectural education system, during Brazil's 20 year dictatorship that took hold in 1964, was the worst thing that happened during that period.


Despite being a deeply hyperbolic statement, there is no question that the implications were far-reaching.


Architecture definitely changes context when it's produced in a dictatorship or authoritarian regime, leaving architects with many ethical questions to face. If the nation is created in the image of the leader, this might mean that the buildings embody something terrible. Looking at these buildings subjectively is difficult. From an architectural point of view though, some incredible architecture has come from some of the ugliest moments in history.


What happened to architecture in Brazil is a particularly prominent example of a cultural shutdown. After setting up his own practice, Mendes da Rocha was informed that he would have to stop teaching architecture, based on his left-leaning opinions. As architecture is a subject that can be used to physically manifest democratic values, he became a dangerous man.

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The use of architecture and public planning is a mainstay of national values. Very few things embody this idea more than a public square. A place for people to meet, talk and share ideas should be encouraged, unless of course it exists within a tightly controlled oppressive regime. In such cases, having your population trading ideas could be a bad thing. There are two recent examples where the square has become more than a place to gather, but a national symbol of democracy - in Egypt and Ukraine.


Tahrir Square in Cairo was designed to discourage public gatherings, and whilst under the command of Hosni Mubarak, it became illegal to consort in groups of more than a few members. This resulted in the square being reclaimed by the protestors during Egypt's Arab Spring in 2011 to stand in opposition to Mubarak's repressive regime. It was a symbolic action in a symbolic place. After as many as 14 million people occupied the square and the streets over a period of 18 days, Mubarak stepped down after the clashes became particularly violent, resulting in over 800 deaths.


Where this square became a symbol of hope, the 2014 Euromaidan riots in Kiev's Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) became a symbol of conflict. When the riots between pro-EU protestors and the pro-Russian government's military and police turned violent, it was the images from the square that were broadcast worldwide, with the two sides coming together like a socio-political yin yang of opposing dreams. The image became recognised all over the world.


Just like the squares, other forms of architecture to come from dictatorships are designed to portray the power of the leader and the regime. In Italy, under the command of Benito Mussolini, some of Europe's most iconic buildings and monuments were constructed. At the start of his reign he censored many channels of creativity, but left architects be - until he discovered the power that buildings could have if he controlled them too.

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The grand war memorial, Il Sacrario di Monte Grappa is a terraced monolith that pays respect to the dead and offers dramatic panoramic views - a place to reminisce and remember. Completed only three years later was the Sacrario di Redipuglia, an eternal staircase that tapers towards the heavens. Despite their intentions, this is even more personal than the Il Sacrario di Monte Grappa. A marked improvement in ideological projection.


Later in his reign he erected the modernist monolith of the Palazzo della Civilta Italiana, two years before his death in 1945. This masterpiece has recently been acquired by Fendi as their main headquarters, set in Rome. This building was to be the beginning of Mussolini's new Roman Empire, a plan cut short by the ruler's death. The building has become an icon of fascist architecture alongside Albert Speer's iconic Zeppelinfeld Stadium in Nuremberg, constructed for Hitler's Nazi Party as a home for party rallies.


Mussolini's reign unarguably produced some of the greatest architecture in the modern world, but one thing they lacked was consistency, flitting between the styles of futurism and modernism, tainting the legacy of his reign's influence by allowing his flippancy to become manifest.


Other icons of architecture that have come from the throes of a dictatorship include Romania's Peoples Palace, the gigantic, and beautiful construction that used over 30% of the country's national budget annually throughout its 13 year construction time. By completion in 1997 it had been using the same amount of energy in 3 hours as the rest of the city used in 24, making it a demonised vanity project of Nicolae Ceausescu.


The building takes around 1 hour to walk around and houses all governmental and bureaucratic headquarters as well as several museums. Still, 70% of the building is empty and perhaps ironically, Ceausescu was executed before its completion, without his ego having been stroked for the final time.

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Things aren't always as pretty though. Two monstrosities that still belong in an authoritarian government are the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea which looks just like an upside down ice-cream cone made of glass. Not only that, but it juts its ugly head over 1,000 meters into the air, making it rather difficult to hide. The title of ugliest building may not won just yet though. There's still the Pyramid of Tirana from Albania to look at.


This spaceship-looking building was built as a museum to honour Enver Hoxha, designed by his daughter and son-in-law - which might say something about their relationship. Hoxha built his country around the ideologies behind Stalinism, long after the Russian's death. This building was his nation's way of remembering him. It was completed in 1988 and stood until communism fell out of favour with the population in 1991. It then fell into disuse and disrepair, as it still remains. Now, falling apart, it serves as nothing more than a harsh reminder of blind faith and ego.

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The results of these architectural experiments can be grand, with some standing the test of time and presiding high over their country's landscape even until today. Their lasting impact has reverberated around the world's architectural schools and practices.


Others, like the examples in Pyongyang and Romania are more cautionary tales of a country's descent into the depths of an individuals egos and the lengths that people will be forced to pamper it.


Architecture, in its foreboding permanence, is a stark reminder of what came before - both good and bad. Those created in a dictatorship may be aesthetically pleasing, but they're never devoid of lessons, of stories and as a warning sign for what ordinary people are forced to do in extraordinary circumstances.

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