The political uses of public buildings.

What we build.
Oct. 19 2005 6:45 AM

The Edifice Complex

What fancy corporate headquarters really mean.

Book cover

Deyan Sudjic's new book, The Edifice Complex, makes a spirited argument that architecture is not merely an art but a form of communication—or, more pointedly, a kind of propaganda. The beneficiaries of this propaganda are generally the rich and powerful, for, as Sudjic writes, "There is nobody else with the resources to build." This is hardly an original observation. After all, the function of temples, cathedrals, and palaces—which constituted the bulk of capital-A architecture until the 20th century—was always to impress the viewer with the importance of its builder. But it's useful to be reminded that this overriding architectural function continues to hold sway even in our enlightened "modern" age.

The Edifice Complex is, as Norman Foster notes in a jacket blurb, a gossipy book, which takes potshots at globetrotting architects—"the flying circus of the perpetually jet-lagged"—even as it documents the political uses to which their buildings are put. Sudjic's point, which he somewhat belabors, is that while architecture is an end in itself for architects, it's always a means to an end for the people who pay—the clients. Although architects, especially famous architects, like to think that their buildings belong to them—after all, we commonly refer to "Meier's Getty" and "Gehry's Disney Hall"—Sudjic knows better. "Their work depends on their engagement with the political context of the world," he writes. "And in that world the totalitarians and the egotists and the monomaniacs offer architects, whatever their personal political views, more opportunities for 'important' work than the liberal democracies."

Sic transit gloria: The re-branded “PanAm” building today
Click image to expand.
Sic transit gloria: The re-branded "Pan Am" building today
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The book is a catalog of well-known and obscure examples of how presidents and prime ministers, CEOs and despots, millionaires and mayors, have exploited architecture. Along the way Sudjic, a British architectural critic who writes for the Observer, takes on such examples of architectural self-promotion as American presidential libraries, Gianni Agnelli's art gallery (designed by Renzo Piano), and Rem Koolhaas' commission for Chinese state television. All underline the fact that, as the author observes, "Architecture defines a regime, but it is never the architect who frames the meaning of the definition."

Sudjic gets one thing wrong, however. He overlooks the fact that for the rich and powerful, grand architectural gestures often prove markedly ineffectual. One of the most munificent patrons of early modern architecture, for example, was the very young King Faysal II of Iraq, who in the mid 1950s hired no less than Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto, and Frank Lloyd Wright to beautify Baghdad; he was killed by revolutionaries in 1958, along with the royal family. Both the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein—he of a hundred "palaces"—were architecture buffs, for all the good it did them. They join a long list of patrons whose architectural ambitions came to naught. Notable among these is François Mitterrand, whose Grands Projets were intended, as Sudjic writes, "to make Paris the undisputed capital of a modern Europe." Twenty years later it's obvious that London, not Paris, is the prime European city. And that has nothing to do with Tony Blair's own Big Project, the ill-fated Millennium Dome.

The truth is that individuals and institutions usually turn to architecture at moments of decline. This curious fact was pointed out years ago by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in his 1968 best seller, Parkinson's Law. This book is full of pithy observations on the foibles of business administration, the best-known of which is: "Work expands to fill the time available for its completion." Less well-remembered is the author's observation on architecture. Parkinson considered buildings as an important barometer of corporate health, but as a negative barometer. "During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters," he wrote. "The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death."

Parkinson provided several historical examples. St. Peter's in Rome was built by popes who were enmeshed in worldly affairs and had lost much of their moral authority; Louis XIV built his palace at Versailles several decades after his great military triumphs and at a time when his power was in decline; exactly one year after the Viceroy of India moved into his new imperial capital of New Delhi, the Indian Congress demanded independence. One can add more. When CBS built "Black Rock," its imposing black granite headquarters in Manhattan, Edward R. Murrow was gone and infotainment was just around the corner. Pan American Airways built its huge headquarters on Park Avenue long after it pioneered transoceanic air travel, but not so long before it ceased operations.

So, contrary to Sudjic's claim, the rich and powerful don't shape the world. They build what are, very often, glorious tombstones. Neither Microsoft nor Google has erected a "world-class" headquarters on Madison Avenue yet; when they do, watch out.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.