Acerbic examination of the relationships between despots, presidents and the super-rich, and the architects who vie for their commissions.
Observer architecture critic Sudjic (John Pawson Works, 2000, etc.) is fascinated by the baroque dance through which prominent architects and their masters enable each other’s dreams of immortality, whether embodied by Albert Speer’s promises to Hitler regarding Berlin’s “ruin value,” or Donald Trump’s application of vulgar business bluster to skyscraper marketing. He opens by recalling Saddam Hussein’s building mania, the latest attempt by a dictator to secure a permanence that rarely endures: “Architecture is used by political leaders to seduce, to impress, and to intimidate.” Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany provide a historical template in understanding the results of such Faustian bargains. Sudjic unfavorably compares Speer’s notorious postwar dissembling to the moral decisiveness shown by his Italian counterpart Giuseppe Pagano, who grew disillusioned with Mussolini and joined the partisans. A grim comedy emerged among architects serving Stalin: No one ever dared to second-guess him, so projects went ahead with drafting errors intact. Like Soviet Russia, Communist China also relied upon grotesquely outsized public works, which allowed the state to simultaneously dictate terms to renowned architects, and destroy inconvenient traces of prior regimes. In the United States, raw political power is translated into ego and wealth: Sudjic sees this epitomized in the shabby fund-raising and sterile monolithic designs of recent presidential libraries, noting “the more lackluster the president, the larger the library.” Today, “ambitious cities” pursue ill-conceived projects in hopes of scoring a civic success like Bilbao’s Guggenheim or the Sydney Opera House. Yet Sudjic asserts that the Frank Gehry era of instant iconic structures is coming to an end, as evidenced by the acclaimed Dia museum, located in a building that was once a box factory.
Intellectually robust look at the delicate relationship between profound design and filthy lucre.