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Building for the bad

Alexander Hosch looks at the uneasy marriage between autocrats and star architects

The politically correct architect of today is confronted with the following kinds of questions. Can I glaze the towers of the new headquarters of the Russian energy leviathan Gazprom with a clean conscience? Should I abandon my construction sites in Thailand because of the military putsch? How about buildings for squeaky clean Western democracies erecting extra-territorial torture chambers in Cuba? There are, as we see, good reasons for architects to repress politics from time to time.

Meinhard von Gerkan's planned Lingang New City in China. Photo courtesy gmp, © Peter Wels

To treat building as a moral issue in these globalised times is no easy matter. Is it really so objectionable to build luxury hotels in Dubai, or a business HQ in St. Petersburg or an Olympic stadium in Beijing? Fifteen of the twenty world's largest architectural firms have projects in China. Almost all the stars are involved and many Germans are providing the plans for model cities. As in the United Arab Emirates, the insane tempo of the economy of world's fastest growing population is having nasty side effects, the migrant workers have no rights and are paid slave wages if at all. But China wants new cities. Abu Dhabi wants a Louvre by Jean Nouvel and a Guggenheim by Frank Gehry. The recent Munich Expo Real was awash with XXL plans for Dubai. There too the leading firms and Pritzker prizewinners are up to their necks.

It will always be possible to find an architect to do what you want. The question of realism versus opportunism goes to the core of the profession. A comprehensive guide to this can be found in Observer journalist Deyan Sudjic's book "The Edifice Complex. How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World" (Penguin 2005), which demonstrates how consistently taste has won over justice. In the history of construction, the masters of style were also set designers, charged with brand-marking power. From Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon to Nero, from the Popes and French kings to Hitler and Stalin, not only tyrants but all leaders exercised power over the master builders. The Chancellery in Berlin would have looked very different without Helmut Kohl. That goes for Peter Eisenman's Holocaust memorial as well. And the Très Grande Bibliothèque of Paris is the very image of Mitterrand.

Rem Koolhaas' design for the Shenzhen Stock Exchange Plaza. Courtesy Office for Metropolitan Architecture

Some architects would like to see a reversal of these power relations. In 1922, Le Corbusier drew up Le Plan Voisin: a cross of 18 skyscrapers designed to change the face of Paris. In 1935, he went looking for an "unknown authority" who would put a signature under his radical plan for the city of lights. First he became sympathetic to the cause of the far right, the Redressement Francais, then he warmed to Mussolini, the Soviets and the Vichy regime, one after the next. He would have been content with any ruler willing to implement his plan of a city machine for healthy, modern, constantly mobile people. But he didn't find one.

Mies van der Rohe was the director of the Bauhaus when the Nazis shut it down in 1933, but he remained indifferent to the Hitler regime. The most significant German architect of his time decorated his competition plans with swastikas and provided Speer with the German contribution to the World Exposition in Paris in 1937. Mies van der Rohe shared with Walter Gropius the assumption that the modern form could be applied to anything, totalitarian or not. Dismissing the nearly social democratic didactic which the Bauhaus founder had developed for the unique art school in the Weimar Republic, he was quite captivated by the idea of sprucing up the Reichskulturkammer for the dignitaries. This chumming around did little harm to the posthumous reputation of these three star architects of modernity. From the perspective of the posterity, their building style outshone all other considerations.

Anting New Town by Albert Speer & Partner. Courtesy AS&P

But shouldn't one proscribe building for dictators in democratic times? There is an axis of evil in architecture today: it passes through Belarus and Turkmenistan. Critics are flexible on this. While helpless glassy gates in China and Russia are being welcomed as "signs of things to come," the triumphant glass polygon of Alexander Lukashenko's new national library in Minsk is being referred to as the "star of death." It didn't help much that the pillar craze, no longer a universal wish of despots, was not honoured. Likewise, the recently deceased Turkmenistan head of state Niyasov, who for years has had magnificent buildings built by the French company Bouygues, could expect little mercy from the aesthetes.

The measurement of architecture and morality is more complicated in the seemingly softer, capitalistically oriented dictatorships. Those wanting to pass swift judgement on countries that are travelling a long path to democracy find themselves at a loss for arguments. German architecture associations encourage their members to export know-how to semi-authoritarian states with liberal economic policies. And indeed, the despots are as porous as membranes when it comes to capital flow and cosmopolitan style. But with laws and duties, the processes quickly become hermetic. Wolf Prix's bitterness over his failed China project (interview in German) tells us as much as the story of the un-built Zayed-Al-Nahyan mosque by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. In 2002, the dessert ruler of the same name contacted the two Swiss from his home in Abu Dhabi. They delivered preliminary studies, then didn't hear anything back. They're still running after their money. Something similar happened with four projects in China.

Anting New Town by Albert Speer & Partner. Courtesy AS&P

Taking the German China-architects at their word, some of them seem certainly to feel a sense of unease. Albert Speer Jr. said about his "merely appended" satellite city Anting, near Shanghai, that it helps to "organise and control the otherwise wild growth there." On the website of the Goethe Institute, Munich architect Thomas Jocher speculates about the city Synai, planned by him for the East Coast and still in the drawing board stages: "It will take at least ten years before any sign of urbanity appears." For his part, Meinhard von Gerkan of gmp, Germany's largest architectural firm with around 50 construction sites in China – among them an ideal city for a population of 800,000 – is thrilled at the profitability of the contracts and the quick emancipation from projects right after the planning phase. The Chinese prefer to supervise construction themselves. Yet for precisely this reason he also fears a "gigantic museum of structural damage."

Rem Koolhaas' design for the Shenzhen Stock Exchange Plaza. Courtesy Office for Metropolitan Architecture

Will the Germans stay if the Chinese want them to? Ole Scheeren, who oversees the new building for the state television network CCTV as partner of the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, believes: no! Unlike the majority of architects who plan from abroad, drop off their blueprints fatalistically and then take off, he himself travelled to Beijing to accompany the conception of the firm's largest building planned to date, he says. How can one give a state television broadcaster a smart architectural design? Scheeren puts his hope in the younger generation at CCTV: "They're keen to take on a different role." And as part of an anti-hierarchical programme made public worldwide (the design is now featured in a show at MoMA in New York), people will have free access right to the top of the building. "There are risks there," admits Scheeren. "We don't know what tomorrow will bring." Will this forced public presence work out? That will become clear when broadcasting starts up for the Olympics in 2008.

Herzog and de Meuron's planned Olympic Stadium in Beijing. Courtesy Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning

Architects Herzog and de Meuron have also favoured an open design for the Olympic Stadium. Thomas Polster, who has been representing the company in Beijing for the last three years, emphasises how important it is to keep a close eye on the construction progress. The architectural language of the steel girders - which are interwoven like a bird's nest - results in a diaphanous construction of fluttery elegance. Large stairways lead through the supporting framework, and can also be used for activities other than sports. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas once praised modern architecture for its integral approach – the "demands of a style suited not only to representative buildings, but also to day-to-day praxis." Seen this way, several architects of Chinese hypermodernity are following in the footsteps of the Enlightenment.

Meinhard von Gerkan's planned China National Museum, Beijing. Courtesy gmp

In China, Russia or Dubai, each project must be assessed on its own. Certainly, curiosity about Gerkan's plans (more) for the National Museum on Tienanmen Square is warranted. There the setting is dominated by large avenues suited to military marches, and intimidating neoclassical architecture whose niches give refuge to armed civil servants. The existing facade of columns is to remain intact. The new building, the world's biggest museum project, aims not to clash with the other buildings on the square, the Great Hall of the People and the Mao Mausoleum. Exactly that could be the problem.


The article originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on January 3, 2007.

Alexander Hosch writes on architecture for the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Translation: lp, nb, jab.

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