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Architecture for Fascists, by Fascists

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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.

the edifice complex

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:

  1. may have gained that money through means less than scrupulous
  2. are likely to have gained their power the same way and
  3. 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.

Casa del Fascio

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).

Giuseppe Terragni Casa Rustici Corso Sempione

Here’s another fascist, Cesare Cattaneo (1912-1943).


Here’s my second favourite fascist building. Casa Cattaneo (1938).

casa cattaneo

I also admire the fascist buildings of fascist Guiseppe Pagano (1896-1945). Read some about him.


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.

He also designed Casa Malaparte for Curzio Malaparte on the island of Capri (1938), although there is continuing controversy as to whether Malaparte himself was the main designer.


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.

• • •

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.

• • •

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.

• • •

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.


• • •

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.

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  • First and not really to the point: What’s your problem with Heatherley’s article? Seems to make a lot of sense to me as it talks about the importance of social housing over starchitecture of any kind, something I would have mentioned if I had gotten around to reply to your answer to my last comment.
    Second and maybe a little more to the point: You’re talking about us being consumers of the images of that kind of architecture and I suppose we are. But you also often point out that architecture should be more than just about images, about liking or not liking. To me, any true criticism of architecture should first of all point out that images of buildings really say nothing about them. If we leave behind those images, don’t you think that an actual study of actual buildings can help form criteria of what good architecture is? I like to think so because otherwise I really wouldn’t see any reason to care about architecture anymore. With that kind of study, of course it will always remain very relevant to know in what kind of society, for whom, with which money something is build. But if it’s a building that has something to offer for a truly human architecture, how can it not count? I’ve never seen any of those fascist buildings you mention, so I can’t really talk about them. But if a fascist building, built by whomever, has something good, something human about it, why not? To build something good, you don’t have to be a good person. It’s absolutely possible to hate an architect for his political choices but still see the worth of his architecture. Good architecture, of course, can never be an excuse for bad politics. But I believe it is possible, and necessary, to see both.

    • Hello Philipp and thanks for your considered comments. Hatherley did talk a lot of sense and I particularly agreed with his call for a legally binding code of conduct for RIBA members. I hope that was his main objection and, despite me tossing a lot of emotive words around, it was my point as well. Hatherley says it clearly: “Third, it immortalises in its name a brutal and principle-free politician who exploited economic collapse and war to guide the country from being one of the most developed republics of the USSR to becoming a hugely unequal and dynastic oil state.” but that’s his third point. It’s my first. Hatherley also sees this “problem” as some sort of personal attack on Zaha Hadid herself and this is how many “followers” of architecture will see it too but, for me, it’s a case of ethical business more than anything else. For media fans, it’s all about the personality themselves and their perceived artistic capabilities. It’s never about the face that fronts the corporate money-making machine or the figurehead who, by distancing him/herself from any real-word complications, sustains a false image of that company’s operations and priorities.

      I’m with you on everything you say Philipp. I’m continually saddened/annoyed that images of architecture have taken the place of architecture, and that many of the buildings we see, seem to have been designed for how well they are expected to photograph. In many cases, We’ve probably already seen the render to make us look forward to the photograph. Images of buildings only say what the architect wants to say about them and in a media situation, that’s only ever going to be the visuals. Me, I think Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater was the first building to have been designed for media consumption. To this day, it remains “America’s favourite building” and FLW is America’s “most famous architect” by popular choice. The two are correlated so I don’t think the consumption of architectural imagery is going to stop.

      Like you, I also think that focussing on other qualities of buildings is the way out of this situation and think that if this doesn’t happen then there’s no point caring about architecture anymore. It becomes exactly like the movies and the first must-go-see blockbuster of the year. Even now, sometimes it’s difficult to care.

      Another way out of this mess could be to split the idea of architecture into two. One side can feed the global media-image circus and the other side can explore actual buildings and what a socially useful architecture might be. This is basically the situation we have now except one of the sides is stealing all the oxygen and fighting very hard to make sure that nobody thinks architecture is anything else but what they say.

      It’s not a battle. A good building is still a good building even if it’s not called architecture. I like your thinking. It’s quite likely the name of architecture will become completely devalued and no longer give us any reason to care about it anymore. Maybe it’s time to kill it as a concept and see how well we can get along without it? Societies might get some better buildings. People might start to hear about them. That’s my hope anyway. Thanks again Philipp.