30 Abr

IH Talks (Club) – Architecture and Power

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Date(s) - 30/04/2019
12:30 pm - 1:30 pm

IH Nuevos Ministerios


This month we will be looking at the connection between architecture and power. From the pyramids of Egypt to the palaces of Saddam Hussein there has always been a fascinating relationship between architects and their clients – be they rulers or corporate megaliths.

Tuesday April 30th from 12.30 to 13.30 in room 7 at IH Nuevos Ministerios.

Why We Build Power and Desire in Architecture by Rowan Moore

Extracts from chapter 5, Power and Freedom:

Architecture is intimate with power. It requires authority, money, and ownership. To build is to exert power, over materials, building workers, land, neighbours, and future inhabitants. To imagine otherwise is innocent or pretentious.

A recurring trait of dictators is a fondness for commissioning buildings. Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan has built a new capital, Astana, with a long central axis pinned at one end with the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a 62-metre-high pyramid designed by Foster and Partners, and at the other by Khan Shatyr, a tent-shaped shopping mall also by Foster. Between these poles are the Presidential Palace, a version of the White House improved by a large blue dome, and the Bayterek Tower, which, with a sphere mounted on spiky steel, represents the poplar tree where the mythical bird Samruk laid a golden egg. It is known locally as Chupa Chups, thanks to its resemblance to a well-known lollipop.

The young Adolf Hitler, to take another example, applied unsuccessfully to work for the Viennese architect Otto Wagner; he later planned to make Berlin into the mighty imperial capital of Germania, an idea that obsessed him until his last days in the bunker, to the extent that it is not entirely clear what was more important: that Germania should be created to serve the Reich, or that the Reich should be created to make Germania possible.

For their part architects–some, at least–like to flirt with power. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe lingered longer in Nazi Germany than was decent, apparently in the hope that the regime might adopt his architectural style. He proposed a design for the German national pavilion at the 1935 International Exposition in Brussels, complete with swastikas, which according to the official prospectus was to act as the symbol of ‘National Socialist fighting strength and heroic will’. Philip Johnson, a young American admirer of Mies who became one of the most influential figures of twentieth-century architecture, went further: he praised Mein Kampf, helped found an American fascist party known as the grey shirts, and in 1939 followed the Wehrmacht into Poland, where he described the burning of Warsaw as ‘a stirring spectacle’. Le Corbusier, whose efforts to secure the patronage of Soviet Russia ultimately failed, later courted the collaborationist regime of Vichy France.

It is not just an accidental or convenient relationship. Dictators and architects alike are driven by the desire to dominate and shape the world, and they like this quality in each other. Whether manifest through scale, and the sense for the spectator of being in the presence of something great, or through mastery of detail–the ability to bend materials and labour to an exacting will–some of the most admired tourist destinations in the world have as a large part of their agenda the placing of some people over others. Domination is confirmed in the language attached to architecture: master craftsman, master planner, master builder, modern master, masterpiece.

The signs and implements of power in buildings are many. There are scale, mass, height, and cost, which can be exploited to overawe, or to include. A large building might be seen as intimidating or inspiring, depending whether we feel a sense of connection with its size: whether its magnificence is for them or us.

Symmetry, doubling, and repetition are signs of might. They show that client and architect had sufficient command over their workforce to get them to do the same thing, in the same way, over and over, and that the cost of duplication and redundancy can be afforded. Symmetry demonstrates a victory over the often asymmetric pressures that function and site can have on a building: rooms might need to be different sizes, while a site might slope or have irregular boundaries.

The way materials and building workers are directed, with what degrees of freedom or control, is manifest in the finished building. The use of power in the making then suggests the degree of control that a building might exercise over future users. When an architect insists that parts of a building are joined in particular ways, or fails to get his or her way, it expresses the relations of power and cooperation between architect, builder, and client. Such power can be wielded generously, collaboratively, or selfishly, in pursuit of public good or personal obsession or, often, in contradictory combinations of these impulses. If an architect demands a well-made threshold or seat, or achieves beauty through persistence, it can inspire gratitude for generations, but if the purpose is only fussy egotism, it irritates.

It is an uncomfortable truth that part of the thrill or impressiveness of architecture lies in its exercise of power and, sometimes, cruelty. Occasionally, in India, you can find a handful of tombs outside an exquisite monument, which honour the craftsmen who built it, slaughtered by their ruler-client so that they could not do anything more beautiful for anyone else. Today there is a revered Asian architect who is known to beat and punch his staff, breaking noses, and to force them to sleep (inasmuch as they sleep at all) in his office, so that he can extract the greatest possible part of their lives for the service of his work, work to which he himself has given all his being. Human sacrifice and construction are old companions. Successful architects have immense will. They need it, if their designs are to survive the many pressures applied from conception to completion: from clients, planners, and contractors, from budget, site, and brief, and from the accidents of the process of construction.

Power in buildings is manifest in one of the basic distinctions in architecture, that between object and space.

Buildings are most obviously objects, and if you look at the standard histories you will see a series of temples, cathedrals, palaces, and important modernist villas standing against a clear sky. Architectural magazines and websites also tend to celebrate the making of singular objects, photographed to minimize context and inhabitation. An architect is most often commissioned to design a thing, a building, whose boundaries are defined by legal ownership, a construction contract, and a budget. Construction workers are not paid to build, laboriously and in all weathers, an absence, but a thing of mass and hardness.

Yet the purpose of the object is largely to make or modify spaces. It makes rooms inside and on the outside joins with other buildings to make a street, or a square, or at the very least a huddle of objects with gaps between them. The object is supposed to provide the right protection, stability, climatic control, dimensions, acoustic, lighting, comfort, and imagery for whatever might happen in and around it. If it is in a landscape, it will alter the kind of space that that landscape is, either a little or a lot. A cottage in a field changes space, as do the cooling towers of a power station.

Space allows freedoms, and qualifies them. It makes certain actions more possible or less so, depending whether it is a parade ground, dance floor, bedroom, or hillside. It changes with time. It can be intimidating or intimate, open or enclosed, unrestricted or rule-bound. It can be profoundly altered by barely perceptible adjustments. A street scanned by security cameras, for example, will look much like one that is not, but the two will be different kinds of place. Tungsten lights, or fluorescent, or neon, or halogen, or hard or soft acoustics, change rooms.

Space is something for the imagination to inhabit. Such things as material, scale, light, and ornament give a space a climate, which prompts associations, harbours memories, and provokes images. Its power lies in its multiple nature, that it is experienced through both body and imagination. Spaces, with few exceptions, are shared, and have to accommodate different people’s interests and imaginings. If they are precisely tailored to a single world view, as happens in the most extreme forms of totalitarian architecture, or in the architect-designed house of Loos’ poor little rich man, they become oppressive.

At the same time a space cannot be equally available to all possible uses and people; it will always belong to some more than others, mean more and have greater purpose. The absolutely blank or neutral place, that might in theory be infinitely flexible and available, is as inhuman as one that is over-prescribed. A large part of the job of an architect is, or should be, the working between these extremes, the search to achieve both openness and definition.

The object, the building, the thing often designed by architects and built by contractors, is an instrument for making space. It has an effect whether a living room has high or low ceilings, whether a shopping mall is glazed or cavernous, or whether a square is walled or colonnaded. It makes a difference whether an opera house, as it was in nineteenth-century Paris, is designed with the beaux-arts pomp of Charles Garnier or, as in modern Guangzhou, with the freeform curves of Zaha Hadid, and the difference is made both to the opera and the city around it.

A building is a powerful instrument, but it is just that–an instrument more than an end in itself–and it is not the only one. Such things as laws, light, ownership, climate, patterns of behaviour, custom, networks of communication and surveillance, maintenance, cleaning, smell and financial value can have as much influence on the nature of a space. ‘When it’s raining on Oxford Street the buildings are no more important than the rain’, said the architect David Greene, who, perhaps because of the honesty and modesty shown in this observation, has spent more of his life teaching than building.

But it can suit the vanity of architects and the agendas of their clients to overstate the importance of the object. If a building is exalted, so is the professional who designed it. If a business or a government can point to a miraculous monument of its making, it can draw attention from actions or omissions that are less beneficial to the public. It is easier to build and publicize an eye-catching building than it is to keep all of a city’s pavements in good order, or run a fair and effective housing policy. If London property developers want to bend or break planning rules that impede their wish to build as big as they would like, they dress their plans in ‘world class architecture’. If the People’s Republic of China wants foreigners to talk about something other than human rights, it holds the Olympics, and commissions a beautiful stadium.

With the exaltation of the object goes an exaltation of the sense of sight. Architecture can fairly be said to be more an art of the visual than of any other sense, but it is not exclusively so. Sensation, sound, and scent also make spaces and, although it is rare outside the tale of Hansel and Gretel to taste a building, the interaction of food and space, in restaurants, markets, and shops, is fundamental to cities. In Dubai and Houston, Texas, your social status can be calibrated by the amount of time you spend in air-conditioned space, or in heat and humidity. What makes the favelas of Rio de Janeiro into slums is less their look–at a casual glance they resemble desirable Italian hill towns–than their stench.

Nor is the experience of architecture just one of standing back and looking at it, as you might a sculpture. It is more enmeshed, bodily, and temporal. Yet, when buildings are promoted or published, they are presented as pure and static images and discussed almost exclusively in terms of their visual appearance: do they look ‘futuristic’ or ‘traditional’; are they ‘spectacular’ or ‘elegant’; do they resemble a gherkin, a cheese-grater, a pile of cardboard boxes, or a 1930s radio set? They are represented with computer-generated images which emphasize shape, exclude weathering or time, reduce material to a generalized sheen and climate to ubiquitous blue sky and sunlight. It is of course easier to depict look than touch, sound, or smell, but it is also convenient. There are politics of the senses, as of architectural detail; air is political. Concentrating on look avoids worrying about either.

The word ‘vision’ is much used, as in ‘vision of the future’ or ‘visionary architecture’, phrases which hint at a quasi-divine authority, while confining architecture to the sense of sight. They usually describe an intended future reality whose rules are determined by developers and their architects, and requires as a precondition of its existence the removal of whatever might be awkward, complicated, or alive, already on the site. Instead the magical icon, conjured by the visionary architect, will through the sheer brilliance and surprise of its visible shape satisfy every possible desire for liveliness, imagination, creativity, identity, and difference. That the icon also functions as a marketing tool is all to the good: sales and art in one hit–it’s a win-win. Shape, in fact, cannot achieve all these things alone, which is really the point. The people who commission such buildings do not want real liveliness and difference. They get in the way. It is easier to buy the look.

Architecture requires and involves power. The question is how that power is realized–by whom, for whom, to whom.

In a few obvious cases, such as Nazi Germany, oppressive regimes create oppressive architecture. More often, things are more complicated. Tourists to Moscow love the city’s ballroom-like metro stations, not caring that they were built by slaves in appalling conditions to serve the image of a hideous regime. The Italian architect Giuseppe Terragni was an ardent fascist, who fought for the cause on the Russian front with damage to his health that would prove fatal, yet he designed buildings of delicacy and–not an obviously fascist quality–ambiguity. Another Italian architect of subtlety and civility, Luigi Moretti, designed as one of his early masterpieces Mussolini’s personal gym. Conversely, the enlightened social-democratic mayor Gijs van Hall of Amsterdam managed to commission the Bijlmermeer estate, which was seen as more oppressive than many things built by fascists.

There is no absolute correlation between the powers that shape a space and the relationships of power that that space shapes. There is no fixed form of power, no formula such as straight lines = tyranny, wiggles = freedom. Thanks to the instability of architecture, and the indirect nature of architectural truth, mean people can make generous places, and vice versa. Bullies like Chatô can commission places of freedom, like the Museum of Art in São Paulo.

Architecture sublimates. Mrs Stuyvesant Fish, one of Stanford White’s clients, asked him to make a ballroom in which a person who was not well bred would feel uncomfortable, and you can still sense both his clients’ snobbery and his mania in his buildings, but these are far from the only experiences they offer. They are more than a rapist’s parlours. Mies van der Rohe’s cruelties might be detected in the fierce rigour he applied to detail, but when converted into marble and steel they become something very different from plain nastiness. In truth, and importantly, we often like the presence of force in a building, as long as we feel it is not directed against us.

Time and chance can change or reverse the impact of a building. A Gothic cathedral would have seemed extremely menacing to anyone opposing the religion and politics that it represented–let’s say a heretic whose last view of the world was of a beautifully carved portal flickering through the heat of his pyre. Now it is an object of charm to tourists. An old factory, formed for cold exploitation, can be converted into delightful lofts for young creative types. These transformations are only partly to do with design.

Buildings and spaces can however have properties that are more or less empowering. Buildings that rely exclusively on visible form, or have a completeness of detail that permits no further change, or deny the sensual, or prescribe future uses too precisely, or proclaim a single form of propaganda or branding, or ignore their surroundings, or scale, are likely to oppress. Spaces that permit accident are open to whatever is around them, and understand their role as background or instruments, are more likely to create freedoms.

This does not mean buildings should be indifferent. Shabbiness and negligence make another kind of oppression, and depression. People who build, such as clients, architects, or contractors, cannot help wielding power. They change the world even if in a small way by putting something up. They inevitably make choices and distinctions, and if they want to build well, they should make these choices well. A building is a proposition that is highly likely to be contradicted, abused, or proved wrong–architecture is often the fall guy for future events–but it is as well that this proposition is made with intelligence, imagination and awareness.

Much of the play of power in architecture is about the ownership of dreams. Manhattan, though formed by brute business, found a shape that matched the city’s popular mythology of striving and display, and so came to belong to its citizens and visitors. The encrustations of its buildings allow places where the mind can take hold. It is helped by its public structure of gridded streets, parks, and museums, which frame and mediate the force of the skyscrapers. It offers places to dwell, at different scales, and many more experiences than just staring at towers.

¿Estás pensando en estudiar en el extranjero con un Erasmus? ¿Disfrutas con un estimulante debate sobre historia, economía, psicología o filosofía? En el Seminar Club nos reuniremos una vez al mes para ver algunos temas fascinantes como Cristóbal Colón, el feminismo, Sigmund Freud, los espías de la guerra fría y lo que los economistas pueden enseñarnos sobre el mundo. ¿A qué estás esperando?

Martin Oliva – Club Coordinator


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