Architecture for Fascists, by Fascists
Notice how Dezeen is now calling it it “a Zaha Hadid building in Azerbaijan” rather than the Heydar Aliyev Culture Centre as they did back November 2013? Who was Heydar Aliyev and what did he ever do that was so bad? Find out. Buildings in countries with a ‘poor record of human rights’ are a dime a dozen. Foster+Partners’ Palace of Peace & Reconciliation in Khazakstan springs to mind.
What makes the Heydar Aliyev Culture Centre that much worse is that it has Heydar Aliyev’s name on it. No one is really interested in Dame Zaha Hadid’s political opinions or personal ethics, but she does happen to be one of three directors of a commercially successful global corporation with a business development section seriously light on ethics.
But it’s good to see this decision of the Design Museum getting a bit of flak, although Deyan Sudjic might be leaving himself open to charges of inconsistency. In his book, The Edifice Complex – The Architecture of Power, (ISBN 0-14-101672-8) Sudjic makes a good case for architecture and politics being linked. Rather strongly.
There’s a long second chapter on the architecture of The Third Reich. Sudjic doesn’t approve of the politics of Hitler or Speer but recognises that Albert Speer’s architecture did its job of glorifying The Third Reich rather well.
Gropius and van der Rohe had already gotten out of town for reasons that most likely were more architectural than political. I can’t help but wonder what the history of modern architecture would’ve been like if Hitler hadn’t objected to flat roofs. Probably not much different as America had skyscrapers and steel and willing clients. Brick was for losers. Mies was good at at going whichever way the wind blew.
As, in passing, so was protegé Johnson. Politically and architecturally.
Sudjic also notes that countries whose human rights records are less than perfect have a tendency to use starchitecture as a means of conveying a sense of cultural equality to the world. Good As You.
Sudjic is now asking us to separate architecture from the political motivations responsible for bringing it into existence. In the countries commonly called democracies, the super-rich tend to keep a low profile, especially these days. Elsewhere however, it’s no accident that many clients with staggering amounts money and power and a desire to build also happen to be fairly unsavoury people who:
- may have gained that money through means less than scrupulous
- are likely to have gained their power the same way and
- wish to build something for reasons less than noble or altruistic.
If I’ve said this before, please bear with me. If fuel, heat and oxygen are the necessary conditions for fire, then money, land and a reason to build are the necessary conditions for a building to exist and aforementioned unsavoury people have these three conditions in abundance. They’re the ultimate clients.
If we care about where our coffee beans come from or how our cotton has been grown, then I think we should care more about the provenance of our architecture and on whose blood it has been built. If people had to die or be tortured or oppressed to create the fortunes that allow these structures to be built, then it kind of takes away the fun a bit don’t you think? As intended end-consumers of the relevant imagery, we’re complicit in sustaining this sick state of affairs. Sudjic’s a lost cause now. He’s gone over to the dark side. Along with Hatherley and, probably Frampton (“sometimes we ask of the architectural profession demands which the profession by itself cannot meet”) although he can’t quite bring himself to be clear.
In the light of all this, I think it’s time we rewrite a bit of architectural history and forgive The Italian Rationalists for their political choices. Peter Eisenman’s worked quite hard to rehabilitate the reputation of Guiseppe Terragni’s Casa del Fascio (Como, Italy, 1935). This has to be my favourite image of it.
But what about Guiseppe Terragni himself? The thing I like about him was that he wasn’t some external starchitect hired to sanitize the regime, he actually was a fascist! These days, we may not agree with his political choices but at least we can’t criticise him of double standards. This is refreshing!
I don’t think he’d have had much choice about being a member of the fascist party but he was a founding member of the fascist Gruppo7 whose aim was to strike a middle ground between classicism and industrial-inspired architecture. Mussolini was more progressive than Hitler, architecturally speaking.
Inside Casa del Fascio were some fab murals by fellow fascist Mario Radice.
Terragni did other cool stuff. Here’s his Casa Rustici Corso Sempione (1933-1936).
Here’s another fascist, Cesare Cattaneo (1912-1943).
And don’t forget the exceedingly fascist Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana by fellow fascists Giovanni Guerrini, Ernesto Bruno La Padula and Mario Romano, constructed 1938-1943. Confession time. For many years I thought this was a PostModern building. I like it much better now I know it was designed by fascists. It’s more honest.
Finally, we come to my favourite fascist, Adalberto Libera (1903-1963).
During the Fascist period, all architects were legally forced to join the party; but the most successful went further and became important party members. Like his contemporaries Giuseppe Pagano and Giuseppe Terragni, Libera’s good fortune in this period was due to his close party links.
Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957) was an interesting character too. He clearly liked living on the edge.
In Technique du coup d’etat (1931), Malaparte attacked both Adolf Hitler and Mussolini. [ffs!] Here he stated that “the problem of the conquest and defense of the State is not a political one … it is a technical problem”, a way of knowing when and how to occupy the vital state resources: the telephone exchanges, the water reserves and the electricity generators, etc. He taught a hard lesson that a revolution can wear itself out in strategy. In the same book, first published in French by Grasset, he famously entitled chapter VIII: A Woman: Hitler. This led to Malaparte being stripped of his National Fascist Party membership and sent to internal exile from 1933 to 1938 on the island of Lipari.
He was freed on the personal intervention of Mussolini’s son-in-law and heir apparent Galeazzo Ciano. Mussolini’s regime arrested Malaparte again in 1938, 1939, 1941, and 1943 and imprisoned him in Rome’s infamous jail Regina Coeli. During that time (1938–41) he built a house, known as the Casa Malaparte, on Capo Massullo, on the Isle of Capri. It was a key location in Jean-Luc Godard’s film, Le Mepris, (Eng: Contempt), starring Brigitte Bardot and Fritz Lang, based on an Alberto Moravia novel.
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What I like about these guys is that we can’t accuse them of double standards. Maybe they did turn blind eyes to inconvenient truths but at least they didn’t ask us to as well! This makes them shedloads better than the bunch we have to put up with now.
These architects weren’t designing buildings for despicable regimes they didn’t agree with. They were fascists designing for fascists. They didn’t require or seek our admiration. This also makes them better than what we have now.
They didn’t use their clients’ global propaganda agenda to fuel their own global media agendas. This is the crux of it.
This is where we have to make some personal choices of our own and examine our place in this sick system. Back then there was no global market for architectural imagery with farmed end consumers demanding continuous feeding regardless of how unethically that imagery was produced. Try to wean yourself off the stuff. It might take some time. Don’t give up giving up, etc.
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Trivia(?): Le Corbusier worked for the Vichy regime well after he acquired French citizenship in 1930. In both name and deed, this makes him a collaborator.
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Rather than live or, more to the point, die in Spain under the Franco regime, Felix Candela moved to Mexico and had quite a nice life and career there. There’s always that option too. Good man.
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Finally, here’s the closing chapter of Sudjic’s book. It’s very eloquent. He had me fooled.
The mini-brouhaha we’re witnessing right now is the result of Sudjic backtracking on his 2005 closing sentence, one year before he became director of the Design Museum that justifies its existence by making pointless awards like Building Of The Year.