Architecture and Power

Part-1 Finding the Meaning

Today as we tackle a health emergency that is taking over the world, let’s not forget that many of the cities and its densities have been shaped thanks to epidemics. We are all now seeking a confined space more than ever. A space that although is conceived to provide for all our activities that occur in a day, yet can also generate psychological stress, which may lead to mental illness. In addition, the impact is also seen in the larger urban realm, which not only involves depression, anxiety, and other psychological diseases; it may also indirectly lead to other bad habits and diseases. For example, the efficiency of the elevator in a building space leads to a significant reduction in the daily movement of residents, which would later result in obesity. The same case in the larger urban realm comes in the form of an automotive city, which led to a suburban exodus (resulting in sprawl) and little to no-walkability (resulting in obesity again). Can we now say that architecture and urban planning, rather than taking inspiration from the way of life of the society or the community at large, has, in fact, influenced it? Given it has been possible because of technological innovations and advances but isn’t it an architect who gives it meaning?

British planner Maurice Broady, in 1966 coined the phrase architectural determinism. He believed that architectural based solutions would change behaviour in a predictable and positive way. But unfortunately, there weren’t enough examples that helped in proving this theory true. Many architects over centuries claimed that their designs would reshape society through the power of their art, which is a striking if unsubstantiated notion. For example, in the 1400s, Italian Renaissance-era architect Leon Battista Alberti claimed that balanced classical forms were so influential that they would compel aggressive invaders to put down their arms and become civilized (Not true). Almost five centuries later, the swiss-born French architect Le Corbusier claimed that the power of his designs for his Villa Savoye would heal the sick (it actually was the opposite). It was only in the 1970s when an entirely new township spread across 57 acres was demolished that a paradigm shift was observed. Postmodern theorists of that time took to critiquing architecture a little more harshly. The high-point of which was the demolition of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe urban housing complex in St Louis in America. George Hellmuth, Minoru Yamasaki and Joseph Leinweber designed the complex with the idea that “community gathering spaces and safe, enclosed play yards” would provide a happy and prosperous living environment which instead became a hotspot for crime and poverty. This project proved that the power of architecture was to be a double-edged sword and with architects raising their hands and for once admitting they got it wrong.

There are plenty of examples of when architecture doesn’t magically make the world a better place, but we must believe that it definitely passively influences the choices people make. In the second part of the essay, we are going to investigate how, through history, architecture as a manifestation of power is symbolic of building and showcasing power.

Former Ministry of Highway building in Georgia built in the 1970s during the Soviet Union era. 

Part-2 Manifestation of Power

When one talks about power, more than the moral compass, architects always envision something which has a physical manifestation. Dynasties all over the world have utilized architecture as a means of expression of the advances in technology, science and innovation of times.

John Ruskin, an English art and architecture critic, wrote large volumes of criticism during the Victorian period, published in 1849, his book-length essay The Seven Lamps of Architecture, is his most promising work. It details the seven ‘lamps’, or principles, of architectural design which are tied to seven moral attributes which are: beauty, truth, sacrifice, power, life, obedience, and memory. It is interesting to note that the book reinforces Gothic architecture and eschews the design principles developed during the Renaissance. Ruskin argued that the technical innovations of architecture since the Renaissance and notably, the Industrial Revolution had subdued its spiritual content and exhausted its vitality. Practically, he suggested an ‘honest’ architecture with no veneers, finishes, hidden support nor machined mouldings and that beauty, a derivative of raw crafted aesthetic, is best exemplified in the gothic style of architecture. Among the seven principles, “power” of architecture is the principle that talks about the impact on the observer such that it has a monumental appeal. 

The relationship between power and architecture, like that of art and politics in a more general sense, can be contracted in two principle ways as per Michael Minkenberg. He explores this topic in his book Power and Architecture: The Construction of Capitals and the Politics of Space. According to him, the traditional approach follows a functional logic, buildings, urban design and in particular official architecture for governmental use find a form which reflects both the underlying purposes and the ideology of the political regime. This approach has been identified in the monumentalism of totalitarian regimes of the interwar period (notably Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and the Stalin regime in the Soviet Union). The other approach reverses this relationship and argues that architecture, like art, contributes to the shaping of images that constitute the political world in which we live “works of art do not represent ‘reality’, ‘the real world’, or ‘everyday life’…. instead art creates realities and worlds. In this way, architecture can be seen not only as providing visual and spatial means of legitimation for a political regime or the elite, but also as a genuine act of constitutional political reality. This is because the meaning of a piece of art, especially an official building and its architecture, is multifaceted and reflects not only the intentions of the designer or the politician but is also constructed in the discourse on its meaning through the process of acculturation. In both perspectives, the notions of “power” and its particular relationship to architecture and design deserve a closer look. In this sense, public architecture, official buildings and public infrastructure will always be interpreted as ingredients of political legitimacy. Now we must ask ourselves: is the architecture important in politics as mentioned? And really why?

The answer to this question is rooted in the old architecture that shaped the great civilizations, their main task being a show of power and majesty of their respective reign and its footprint can be found in the symbols of early human civilization several thousand years ago. According to the definition of power provided by sociologists, the most powerful civilizations in history are the ancient civilizations of Persia, Greece, Rome, China and Egypt. One of the important characteristics of civilizations is the art of architecture, and so it is certain to find the elements of power in these civilizations. These were the civilizations which truly honed the skill of architecture that today are remembered as elements of power. The extravagant terraced city of Persepolis designed during the Persian civilization, to the Egyptians who showcased their belief in life after death by constructing mammoth of a structure in the form of a Pyramid, to the brilliance of sighting the Acropolis near sacred springs to acknowledge the Greeks religious beliefs, which the Romans later mastered by introducing the engineering marvel dome for the Pantheon, to when the Chinese showcased their military intelligence by constructing the great wall. Certainly, given such an exorbitant history, architecture has proved if nothing to be one of the tools used to demonstrate the military and political power of all these powerful civilizations. Even when we reflect in dynastical history of India, from the edicts of Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire with inscriptions of the Dharma to the Qur’ anic inscriptions on each of the flanges of the Qutub Minar from the Mughal dynasty, why is it that coins were not enough to spread the ideology of the dynasty? Why is it that till today we see a lot of architecture forms on our currencies and stamps, all across the world? Even today, when one travels, we want to capture a certain architectural monument in our cameras. Next to a Big Ben or a Colosseum or the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Doesn’t this mean that Architecture is, in fact, an entity that we are surrounded by, and if it empowers us by its sheer presence, we too should empower it for the betterment of the society, community and the nation?

Many people have argued that the redevelopment of the Central Vista in New Delhi is influenced by a particular set of political ideology. HCP Design 

Part-3 Message for Timelessness

In part-1 of the essay, we were trying to find the meaning of architecture as a built entity and how it influences the minds of people. We realized that not all architecture would have a positive impact, as people have their own interpretation and understanding of a space, at their own will and time. In part-2, we tried to relate the architectural form to it being a manifestation of power. We understood that ever since man has taken the route of civilization, architecture has acted as a canvas that helps convey the dynastical identity, as a reminder of the strong history of its place and time. So far, we have established that architecture and its manifestation in the form of power, recognizes its importance of building a strong identity. Which further implies its capability in building a strong nation. There are various roles that architecture can play when building a nation, but they may all vary as per the necessity and requirement of society. A society shaped by political and cultural contexts. What is rather significant to question is the approach that must be adopted, to employ architecture as a tool to build a nation. An approach which can yield a more significant return by creating more socially just, economically healthy, environmentally sustainable and resilient urban communities.

In a movie called Inception directed by Christopher Nolan, the role of an architect has been beautifully projected in the complex and deeply layered storyline. In the movie, the success of the architect lies in designing dreams, but not in grandiose, crazy designs, rather in the ability to connect with the dreamer, allowing his subconscious to comfortably take to the design and let his mind fill it with his ideas. If our nation is the story or the dream, and its people are the dreamers, then we as architects should comfortably develop a framework which is compelling and exciting for its dreamers but yet not too unrealistic or negative. Let the architecture responsible for building the nation be a crossbreed of poetry and possibilities.

Hard to be superlative towards the profession, but let’s also draw attention to the lack of importance given to architects as professionals. Why that is, when it is utilized as such a powerful tool of expression, do architects still have to strive for years to make a mark. Is it because the art of architecture is a time-consuming process, unlike a scientific experiment with immediate solutions. Or is it because we genuinely are not given our due. In the times to come, I hope and envision that as shapers of society and as builders of the nation always testing the possibilities and toying with that delicate line of how a building affects a person. One doesn’t want to go too far, yet one needs to address the issue to make a building, just like a dream in Inception, gripping and dynamic.

Amrita Slatch is an Assistant Professor at School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. 

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