Architecture, Power, Gossip: Building Blocks of a Good Read

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And yet, what with anti-smoking laws, Bill and Monica’s kinky caper and a universal disinclination to call a spade a spade, the phallic interpretation is still going strong. We’re deeper than ever in Freud’s debt. In fact, this may be the perfect moment for a book called The Edifice Complex, Deyan Sudjic’s entertaining guide to architectural machismo from the 1930’s to the present.

Mr. Sudjic, a British critic with an urbane, appealingly skeptical voice, looks at buildings and sees power at work—a stiff cocktail of ego, political will and money. His book lives at the intersection of these two notions: “Building is the means by which the egotism of the individual is expressed in its most naked form”; and “Architecture is … shaped by the powerful, and not the many.” Sketches of architects and their patrons alternate with critical appraisals of building projects that have made a mark on the cultural landscape. The worldwide range of the book—from Ankara to Austin, Tex., from Albert Speer to Alvar Aalto—is exhilarating.

He begins with Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini—not a jolly crew, but indispensable if your subject is power projected through architecture. To show us the impact of Albert Speer’s Reich Chancellery (“If ever architecture had been intended for use as a weapon of war, it was here”), Mr. Sudjic follows in the heavy footsteps of Emil Hácha, the president of Czechoslovakia who went to Berlin on March 15, 1939, to negotiate with Hitler—and came away without a country. Hácha was browbeaten into surrender, Mr. Sudjic argues, by the grandeur of the “triumphal route” through the Chancellery to the Führer’s desk: “Speer’s architecture had apparently done all that Hitler had expected of it … helping Germany overrun an entire country unopposed.” Okay, so the Luftwaffe may also have weighed on Hácha’s mind, but Mr. Sudjic’s point stands.

After Hitler and Speer, we dally with Stalin and Boris Iofan, Mussolini and Marcello Piacentini. And then—just when the reader is thoroughly immersed in the interplay between dictators and their pliant architects—up pops a familiar American face: “Philip Johnson’s career provides another extraordinary example … of the relationship between architecture and power.” Nice segue! Even if you’re familiar with the sad story of Johnson’s fascist leanings, it comes as something of a shock to see him linked with the 20th century’s most infamous architectural collaborations.

Mr. Sudjic tells the story of Robert Hughes interviewing Speer and asking him to suggest “a contemporary architect to serve a hypothetical new Führer”: Without hesitation, Speer nominated Philip Johnson—and then pulled out a gold fountain pen and asked Hughes to deliver to Johnson an inscribed copy of one of Speer’s books.

“Hughes says he subsequently met Johnson for lunch at the Four Seasons in New York to hand over the gift.

“‘You haven’t shown this to anyone?’ Johnson asked.

“No, Hughes lied, he hadn’t.

“‘Thank heavens for small mercies,’ Johnson muttered.”

This wonderful anecdote signals an important change in Mr. Sudjic’s book: out with the heavy-duty history, in with the frothy, wicked gossip. Other dictators cast their shadow over The Edifice Complex (Mao Zedong, Saddam Hussein), along with a host of less tyrannical patrons (François Mitterrand, the Reverend Robert Schuller, Thomas Krens), but Mr. Sudjic is clearly most interested in Philip Johnson’s heirs, the posse of star architects—“a flying circus of the perpetually jet-lagged”—whose names come up whenever a competition is announced for a new prestige project. (The posse is all-male, by the way, though Zaha Hadid is occasionally mentioned—favorably, but in passing.)

Bizarrely, there are no photographs in The Edifice Complex, no illustration of any kind. And yet Mr. Sudjic does provide sharp prose snapshots of his “flying circus.” He roots around in the seat pockets of Sir Norman Foster’s chauffeur-driven Range Rover and finds “pristine sketchbooks and freshly sharpened pencils.” Point by point, he compares Rem Koolhaas’ career with Le Corbusier’s: Mr. Koolhaas “shows some sympathy for Le Corbusier’s self-flagellating paranoid belief that the world is against him, even as it presses new commissions on him.” He gives the suddenly ubiquitous Santiago Calatrava, who designed the World Trade Center transit hub at Ground Zero, a two-page drubbing, calling Mr. Calatrava’s work the “kitsch dark side to [Frank] Gehry’s free invention” and accusing the architect of churning out designs that are “prefabricated Gaudi, squeezed by the yard, like toothpaste from a tube.”)

If you’re eager to rub elbows with the A-list architects, to experience up close Mr. Gehry’s “rumpled affability” or to make sense of Daniel Libeskind’s schizophrenic personality (he’s at once “the intellectually credible populist and the supersalesman”), Mr. Sudjic’s book is just the ticket.

But if you’re looking for a closely reasoned argument about whether architecture can (or cannot) embody a political agenda, or a probing exploration of the psychological motivations of an individual in the grip of the “pharaonic” impulse, you’ll find that Mr. Sudjic is too scattered to deliver the goods. His answer to the question of why a particular politician or tycoon feels compelled to build is almost always a one-size-fits-all reiteration of his main thesis (“The language of architecture is used to project power”). And when he tweaks his thesis, the results too often seem facile or simply unconvincing. For example, he declares that Governor Nelson Rockefeller began the Albany South Mall (now known as the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza) in an attempt to establish himself as a national figure, but that in the end the project “turned into what looked like bereavement therapy for his lost presidential ambitions.” Perhaps. But if you’re going to put Nelson Rockefeller on the couch to determine the root cause of his “obsession” with “shaping marble and concrete to his will,” shouldn’t you spend at least some time thinking about Nelson’s father and grandfather and the things that they built?

A state governor who can treat himself to an astonishing construction spree is an exceptional case: In our time, in a democratic nation, it’s hard for an individual’s ego or particular political program to find pure expression in architectural forms. A book with a more solid intellectual foundation than The Edifice Complex, a book less eager to please, would have looked at all the ways in which the rich and powerful are mostly frustrated in their attempts to shape our world—so many projects go unrealized, and those that do get built almost never escape the disfiguration of compromise and accommodation.

It seems unfair to complain when Mr. Sudjic has written such an elegant, amusing, informative book, but I feel I have to return to an earlier quibble: Why no photographs? No matter how talented the author, no matter how vivid his prose, a gallery of well-chosen images is bound to improve any treatise on architecture.

And it’s not just the buildings I’d like to see. In a late chapter, Mr. Sudjic describes a photograph of Minoru Yamasaki standing in front of the World Trade Center, holding a model of the Twin Towers (which he designed). According to Mr. Sudjic, the photo shows a “touchingly sad-looking figure” with “downcast, anxious eyes”; he “appears to take no pride in the immensity of the mark that he made on the swaggering skyline of the richest city in the world.” It’s a compelling description—and it makes me all the more eager to look at the picture.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.

Architecture, Power, Gossip: Building Blocks of a Good Read