Magazine article The Spectator

The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful Change the World

Magazine article The Spectator

The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful Change the World

Article excerpt

Morality of bricks and mortar THE EDIFICE COMPLEX: HOW THE RICH AND POWERFUL CHANGE THE WORLD by Deyan Sudjic Penguin/Allen Lane, £25, pp. 345, ISBN 0713997621 * £23 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

Buildings are so much part of the literal as well as figurative fabric of our existence that it is easy never to think about them at all. Even for those who do think about them, it is more likely that they can date a building by the shape of its windows than, say, who commissioned it, or why.

Deyan Sudjic, in this wide-ranging if somewhat diffuse book, performs a service by reminding us that buildings have not only physical dimensions, but also political ones: why they exist is as important as how they exist. Sudjic wants to explore why men and societies build the way they do, what the resulting buildings mean, and to what uses the buildings are put. That he fails to achieve this overwhelming brief is not to his detriment.

He focuses largely on buildings commissioned by totalitarian rulers, or by their less objectionable cousins, politicians of varying stripe. The opening chapter, describing how the Czech president was so overcome by the brooding mass of Hitler's Chancellery that he signed away his country, is a model of imaginative recreation. However, it also begs two questions that Sudjic spends the rest of the book wrestling with: is the fact that a building is commissioned by an evil man a reflection on the architect? And, by extension, is there such a thing as a fascist, or democratic, or totalitarian building?

Sudjic has trouble with the latter question: he veers between implying we can have, say, 'a genuinely democratic building' and warning of 'the implausibility of defining the nature of a Nazi or a socialist architecture'. The first question should be simpler: after all, lawyers represent evil-doers without themselves being tarnished. But, as Sudjic shrewdly notes, architects have spent so long persuading us of the 'eternal truths' embodied in their work that they should not be surprised when we judge them on the values incorporated by their clients.

It is the clients who form the core of the book - or, at least, they are meant to. Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and their building plans are dealt with in three long sections. …

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