The Edifice Complex

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 August, 2005, 12:00am

The Edifice Complex

by Deyan Sudjic

Penguin, $363

'Building is not just about the practical provision of shelter,' writes Deyan Sudjic. It can also be the expression of ego, an exercise in nation-building, a means to intimidate and an instrument of power, especially where despots are concerned. Examining the foundations of some of the world's most extravagant, but ultimately empty, contemporary edifices, he demonstrates with insight and humour the monumental motivations of leaders ranging from Adolf Hitler to Saddam Hussein and Tony Blair, and the architects who made their flatulent dreams come true.

Although the central argument may seem obvious - that the physical manifestation of the bigger-is-better objective can be disastrous - Sudjic excels in the way he demonstrates its universality: he offers numerous examples worldwide of building folly (London's Millennium Dome among them) and cements his argument with a steady, authoritative voice. He also examines what drives and who supports the so-called 'flying circus of the permanently jet lagged'. 'There can never have been a moment when quite so much high-visibility architecture has been designed by so few people,' he writes, naming the 30-odd celebrity architects shaping the modern world's skyline, including Norman Foster, Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind, who won the badly conceived contest to build on the site of New York's razed World Trade Centre towers only to lose control of significant parts of the project to others in the hallowed circle.

In China, which consumes half the world's annual production of concrete and a third of its steel output, Sudjic looks at the architectural legacy of Mao Zedong and intones that the soon-to-be superpower has 'enough Chinese developers with no preconceptions about how to build to ensure that there is nowhere else in the world where architectural theory can leap into practice with so little time lag'.

Rem Koolhaas' CCTV headquarters will be a landmark that represents the new China, Sudjic writes, with 'ambitions every bit as explicit as the Great Hall of the People to represent China's place in the world and its newfound might'. The Dutchman's winning design, however, was apparently the result of manufactured consensus and political lobbying in a competition organised by people who didn't know what they wanted even when they saw it.

Strong words from Sudjic, an architecture critic for Britain's Observer newspaper, who points to the irony of Koolhaas refusing to take part in the World Trade Centre contest supposedly because of its attempt to build a monument to self-pity on a Stalinist scale. This while tripping over himself to be at China's service. However, Sudjic writes, unlike past endeavours to use size to convey power (Tiananmen Square being an example), Koolhaas is reinforcing the message of muscle by giving Beijing a building that looks like nothing else in the world.

Sudjic is best when he limits the breadth of his focus and educates with interesting anecdotes. Among his best chapters is one describing Hitler's building obsession and conviction that 'a strong Germany must have great architecture'. Even if a tad overblown, the tale of Czech president Emil Hacha's capitulation in Hitler's imposing 4,000sqft office is sinister in its simple execution. Built by Albert Speer deliberately to overwhelm with its scale and inhumanity, the Chancellery apparently did the job of breaking down Hacha, whose agreeing to the annexation of his country and collapse mid-interview came after he was made to take the extra-long 'triumphal route' to Hitler's desk.

The Edifice Complex demands to be read slowly and carefully, which, unfortunately, also counts as a flaw. Several chapter-essays meander, taking tangential paths that show off Sudjic's knowledge and eagerness to tell all, while exposing poor compartment-alisation skills. Photographs of the monuments described would also have been useful, such is the pace at which readers are taken on a worldwide tour of sites.

The quibbles, however, are just that. More important are the buildings, extant and around the corner. Sudjic's reading of them can only reinforce our understanding of and steel us against malevolent constructions of power.