Aerial view of Moscow (Photo credit: Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images)

Buildings for butchers

How should we judge the grandiose building projects of murderous dictators?

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The 2004 election which returned Putin as führer for a second term was laughably bent. The pre-Botox model won in excess of 70 per cent of the votes. In the North Caucasus republics he was so loved that the figures were between 91 per cent and 98 per cent. 

In Moscow he was less adored and soon after the elections he let loose his OMON apes on a rally of non-violent protestors wearing Putin masks. The apes warm up for such events by butting bricks, hurling themselves through plate glass and biting rottweilers. 

Fixed polls, unchecked paramilitary forces, imprisonment without trial, torture, and the omnipresence of doddery, medal-heavy nostalgics for the maggot-fingered, cockroach-moustached Stalin … it sounds rather like a police state. Which has not deterred the curdling cream of the world’s architects from soliciting commissions, as they will in any tyranny, no matter what the death toll. 

Adjaye, Milord Foster, Fuksas, Hadid, Holl, J Mayer H., Libeskind, MVRDV, OMA, RMJM have all sought to sprinkle their bling near the banks of the Moskva. 

The usual hackneyed claims of sustainabulous vertical farms and innovative forests in the sky precede the usual actuality of reckless cantilevers, fairground thrills, counter-intuitive balancing acts, twisted towers and the smug swank that my masterpiece is taller than yours. 

It was always thus. One lesson from Deyan Sudjic’s fine biography of Boris Iofan, Stalin’s Architect, is that practitioners of that trade need not only be biddable, deferential and fawning but must be prepared to be stabbed in the front in the moment of what they thought was their greatest triumph. 

Talent? It’s a negligible attribute compared with the ability to perceive which is the cadre in the ascendent and the willingness to abandon all principals. High minded recusancy will get you nowhere. Ingratiation is what it takes.

Whatever their variants, dictators’ architectural preferences have much in common with each other

Certain of Sudjic’s personae are among the basest monsters to have walked the earth. Stalin himself of course; his former comrades Genrikh Yagoda, Aleksei Rykov, Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev (Leninists executed after show trials); Lavrentiy Beria (executed on Khrushchev’s orders); Felix Dzerzhinsky (a mere heart attack). Lazar Kaganovich undeservedly survived till the age of 97, croaking only a few months before the collapse of communism. He had been the author of the Holodomor, the Ukraine famine. It is, always, Ukraine. 

Iofan ducked and dived among these people. His major work was the House on the Embankment, a city within a city for the nomenklatura, a place where gossip could prove fatal. Your best friend was likely as not your poisoner. Your neighbour, a smiling mass murderer, was keen to denounce you for the slightest divergence from that week’s orthodoxy. 

Iofan was frequently grassed up by his slimeball colleague Karo Alabayan yet, astonishingly, continued to work with him. By the time the House was finished in 1932 constructivism, the Soviet variant of modernism, was on the way out. 

Half a century later it was famously if improbably exhumed by Peter Saville’s sleeve for Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s Architecture and Morality, that group’s play on the late Monsignor David Watkin’s wilfully misunderstood Morality and Architecture. 

Tastes had changed. That is to say Stalin’s taste had changed. The dubious link between progressive politics and modernist architecture was severed. The geometric functionalism of the 1920s was discredited as cosmopolitan, a sly denigration which meant Jewish. 

Utopianism could be expressed by other means: Primary colours! Classical mouldings! Grandiosity! The echoes of our glorious past! Countless feuding committees eventually arrived at an architecture the people could understand and should be grateful for. Populism means nothing more than the powerful second-guessing the appetite of the masses, then imposing their own preferences. Populism is not necessarily popular. 

Whatever their variants, dictators’ architectural preferences have much in common with each other. Omnipotent sociopaths take delight in the outrageous fruit of their architectural edicts and infrastructural mega-boasts. It goes with the job. Most of all, they want everything XXL. Are gross edifices compensatory? Are dictators size queens? Quite probably. Does Germania tell us something about what tailors call the gentlemen quarters of Hitler and Speer? 

Let us pass. What it explicitly proposes is that Hitler with his petit-bourgeois fear of vulgarity would have been appalled by Stalin’s gothic/baroque/orientalish Seven Sisters in Moscow and the boulevards of the rebuilt Stalingrad. 

Here were the germs of post-modernism: pre-school circus buildings that screamed about how much fun they were and how very accessible. Stalin’s wacky mongrelism was no more or less wicked than Nazism’s pared down classicism which had its roots in Scandinavia and its avatars in England — try Rugby Town Hall. 

David Watkin’s important argument, overlooked by an appalled constituency which could see no further than an attack on his former teacher Nikolaus Pevsner, was that stones, steel and glass do not possess ethical properties. Buildings are aesthetically and functionally good or bad. Reason decrees that they are not tainted by the butchers who commission them. 

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