Design Review: Volume 3, Issue 3 (November- December 1950)
Architecture and Politics
Architecture and Politics
Art may be influenced, in various ways by the ‘political man’ —be he dictator, representative, official or taxpayervoter. He may disinterestedly patronize the arts; employ artists to exalt his party or state; regiment them to impose his own value-system upon the community; or encourage free reciprocation between artistic and other social activities.
The people who dominate politics are not of the same type in all ages or parts of the world. In their attitudes to art they have in common only the wish to dignify the ruling group and to induce respect for the machinery of government. Consider the Renaissance Prince, admired of Machiavelli, ruling by sword and poison, yet often a munificent and tolerant patron. And we have men like Bismarck or Frederick the Great, strong personal rulers, yet priding themselves in private life on their virtuosity with the fiddle, or fostering the genius of J. S. Bach. Perhaps pre-twentieth century politics favoured different kinds of personalities from those that flourished later. The cultivation of the ‘whole man’, and leisure for the purpose, were formerly valued even by the politically ambitious.
Industrial capitalist civilization has tended to produce political elites of Philistines. Not the orator, the bandit, or the military genius, but the organizer and the expert, the lawyer, accountant, manager, businessman, or union secretary, is the typical politician of today. (A Winston Churchill with his histories and water-colours is an exception proving the rule—an anachronism — one of the condattieri out of his time.) If you seek signs of Philistinism in modern politics, look about you at official architecture.
But there is still room today for the brand of politics to make a difference to the brand of architecture —as of other arts. How so, and what kind of a difference? Well, consider the history of the Russian Bolshevik state. In the beginning, what sweeping away of fusty tradition in art, education, culture and social relations! What experiment, what” eager drinking in of the new ideas fermenting in the West — in building, the exploitation of freedom in design made possible by the diversity of industrial age materials and techniques. The lessons of the Bauhaus at Dessau were not lost upon Soviet designers like the creator of the pre-1930 building illustrated in Fig. 1. The young socialist state monopolized artistic patronage, but it was a liberal patron, fostering the free development of talent by providing equal opportunity for all.
Was it merely an accident, was it really a ‘discovery of absolute values’, or was it simply a case of political cause and effect, when the rise to power of Stalin, the supreme organizer and manager, was followed by a blighting blend of traditionalism and Philistinism, of popularization and vulgarity in the arts of every kind? Certainly great changes took place from the early 'thirties on. Instead of being the free expression of minds liberated from capitalist commercialism, official architecture in the U.S.S.R. joined the other arts in becoming a mere vehicle for a new ideology, the myth of the ‘mass-state’. Functionalism, simplicity and experiment gave way to ‘socialist realism’. This meant winning the masses to acceptance of an increasingly repressive state bureaucratic apparatus, by pandering of the lowest common denominator of popular taste, and at the same time associating the current régime with prerevolutionary military and nationalist traditions. The combination of these sometimes incongruous elements was not, of course, to be subordinated to unity of design. The result ean be seen in Fig. 2 and 3. The freer styles which continued to be explored in the West were branded as ‘decadent bourgeois formalism’.
1. A Russian shop built in the mid-twenties. Its design is as fresh and undated as if it was built yesterday.
2. Entrance to a sports ground in pivincial Russia, 1939. Here Russian at Roman monumental styles are horrib mated to evoke in the ordinary mafeelings of imperial grandeur and loc pride. His wishes are the architect laws.
3. A Russian dam, about 1939. The ornament, 17th century Italian, swallows up the engineering structure underneath.
4. United States, TVA dam, 1936. Architect and engineer have combined to produce this unadorned, civilised structure.
Comparison of these examples with architecture under Mussolini's Fascist dictatorship would, I think, correctly suggest that Fascism was much weaker, more diffident, rather more compromising in its impact on the Italian community, than the totalitarianisms of the North. There were some attempts to recapture the grandiose atmosphere of classical Rome —but Italian architecture between the wars was not submerged by a thoroughgoing attempt at cultural regimentation. (Fig. 9.)
When we turn to the bourgeois democracies of the West we find, as by now we should expect, a much more complicated picture. In America, for example, private capital massively overshadows the state — as, symbolically, its skyscrapers dwarf all urban public buildings. And, in general, these embodiments of the power and wealth of capital reflect the stolid values of the organizer-Philistines. A pedestrian utilitarianism has permitted the evolution of a style appropriate to modern business needs and industrial materials. (Fig. 10.) But the free artistic imagination has usually been subordinated to a conventional kind of ostentation. Individualism has taken the form of a rank disregard for communal problems such as traffic congestion or the blighting of human lives in the dark street canyons, office ‘light’ wells, and residential slums of the unplanned city.
7. Olympic Stadium. 1936: To impress foreigners and provide work for the unemployed, this expresses brutality, not strength.
10. New York. The small building is the City Hall, dwarfed by skyscrapers, privately owned and built.
It remains to reconcile this statement with something I said about Philistinism and politicians.
In the first place, from the point of view of free artistic achievement and development, it is a strength of the liberal-democratic states that their governments (unlike the Nazi and Soviet governments) have not monopolized the employment of architects, nor have they uniformly used architects under their control for the deliberate inculcation of political myths. Democracy permits the circulation of different individuals through positions of political power, which in itself guarantees a variety of outlooks.
In the second place, the popular representative's instinct for the conventional and the traditional has to some extent been counterbalanced by the growing influence of the permanent bureaucracy. While the public service remains politically free, neutral, and accessible to all classes, and if it continues to offer opportunities for creative administration, then we may expect that at least some imaginative and cultured people will have influence on the aesthetic aspects of government policy. Adventures in architecture in the bourgeois state have been made possible by the willingness of politicians occasionally to listen to advisers of this kind, and by the advisers' intelligent appreciation of the ideals of enlightened public service and private architects. The same general attitude would still be possible, but of course would become much more necessary, in a socialist democracy.