Architecture and the Aesthetics of Totalitarianism

The arts, of all kinds, give us insights into how and what their creators think and feel–that is, to their worldview. In this story on some of the grandiose building projects of Venezuelan dictator wannabe Hugo Chavez, Charles Lane draws on some actual aesthetic scholarship to make some revealing points about “high modernism” and why that style has been so attractive to totalitarians:

Chávez acts on an ideology that anthropologist James C. Scott of Yale has called “high modernism.” In his brilliant 1998 book about the phenomenon, “Seeing Like a State,” Scott explored the peculiar mix of good intentions and megalomania that has driven one unchecked government after another to pursue the dream of a reconcentrated populace: “a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws.”

Central to high modernism is an aesthetic sense that prefers straight lines and right angles to the crooked pathways and sprawling gardens of spontaneous rural development. Nyerere, for example, was determined to give his East African country a landscape dotted with symmetrical “proper” villages, like those he had seen in England.

Architecturally and ecologically unsustainable, high modernist projects always collapse of their own weight sooner or later. As Scott writes, “the history of Third World development is littered with the debris of huge agricultural schemes and new cities . . . that have failed their residents.” Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union fit that assessment also, as visitors to Germany’s Eisenhuettenstadt, begun in the 1950s as Stalinstadt, can attest. Designated “the first socialist city on German soil” by East Germany’s Communists, it was plunked down next to an immense steel mill and commanded to thrive. Today, the depressed city is hemorrhaging residents.

Yet the high-modernist experiments continue — think of China’s Three Gorges Dam and the accompanying vast uprooting of villages. Fundamentally, they are not about economics. High modernism is the architecture of centralized political control. When people live scattered across the countryside or, in the case of Venezuela, clinging to the mountainsides around the capital, they’re relatively hard to govern in any fashion, let alone by authoritarian means. In government-built grids, Scott notes, they can be identified, counted, conscripted and monitored.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.pagantolutheran.blogspot.com Bruce

    Interesting. “High modernist” architecture is “ecologically unsustainable”? How will this reflect on Hugo among his Leftist admirers in the US?

    While not strictly architecture, the great symbol of totalitarian centralized control and its failings is the Highway To Nowhere running through central Havana. Fifteen miles of Soviet glitter, serving no one.

    Of course, we have our Cabrini-Greens. Would this be our version of “centralized political control”?

  • http://www.pagantolutheran.blogspot.com Bruce

    Interesting. “High modernist” architecture is “ecologically unsustainable”? How will this reflect on Hugo among his Leftist admirers in the US?

    While not strictly architecture, the great symbol of totalitarian centralized control and its failings is the Highway To Nowhere running through central Havana. Fifteen miles of Soviet glitter, serving no one.

    Of course, we have our Cabrini-Greens. Would this be our version of “centralized political control”?

  • fwsonnek

    wow.

    This is a very very complex subject. On the one hand, in romania, russia, and also herere in brasil under the fascist Getulio Vargas who ultimately sided with the US for political reasons during WWII, there are examples of square , monumental stalinist buildings that look like oversized tombstones actually to me. They are very structured.

    Structure and symetry are build into our beings it seems. so modernists like structure even as christians (with structure=symbolism eg 3 doors in front of a church = trinity…)

    Then there is Geary (sp?) with his seemingly freeform buildings (LA symphonic bldg) that are really just skins over the structure that Nature’s laws ever require.

    most modern and totalitarian lack a human warmth and scale. even evangelical churches seem to have this quality now that i think of it..(is there a connection here to what vieth and the article is about?). Huge cathedrals in europe retain a human feel somehow independent of huge scale….

    utility trumps beauty and poetry. Cathedrals are wildly without practical utility, built to be the earthly tabernacles of the body of christ.

    Maybe architecture is like poetry. driven by the world views of the author, yet sort of like a rorshach test in that its meaning depends partly on how the viewer sees it as well.

    Not sure I would push this stuff as far as the article´s author has. but still interesting.

  • fwsonnek

    wow.

    This is a very very complex subject. On the one hand, in romania, russia, and also herere in brasil under the fascist Getulio Vargas who ultimately sided with the US for political reasons during WWII, there are examples of square , monumental stalinist buildings that look like oversized tombstones actually to me. They are very structured.

    Structure and symetry are build into our beings it seems. so modernists like structure even as christians (with structure=symbolism eg 3 doors in front of a church = trinity…)

    Then there is Geary (sp?) with his seemingly freeform buildings (LA symphonic bldg) that are really just skins over the structure that Nature’s laws ever require.

    most modern and totalitarian lack a human warmth and scale. even evangelical churches seem to have this quality now that i think of it..(is there a connection here to what vieth and the article is about?). Huge cathedrals in europe retain a human feel somehow independent of huge scale….

    utility trumps beauty and poetry. Cathedrals are wildly without practical utility, built to be the earthly tabernacles of the body of christ.

    Maybe architecture is like poetry. driven by the world views of the author, yet sort of like a rorshach test in that its meaning depends partly on how the viewer sees it as well.

    Not sure I would push this stuff as far as the article´s author has. but still interesting.

  • Julie Voss

    I think this is interesting. I remember seeing a great film about Leni Riefenstahl where she was presented with the idea that all of her work, including her photography books of muscular Nubians, evidenced a “fascist style.” No real definition of fascist style was forthcoming, but I sensed there was something to it.

  • Julie Voss

    I think this is interesting. I remember seeing a great film about Leni Riefenstahl where she was presented with the idea that all of her work, including her photography books of muscular Nubians, evidenced a “fascist style.” No real definition of fascist style was forthcoming, but I sensed there was something to it.

  • allen

    Look at the state capitols of the US. Most are pretty much the same; the domes, pediments, columns, etc. But look at the ones built in the ’30s in North Dakota, Nebraska, Louisiana, Oregon; the “office tower” type. From afar, they do resemble some sort of monument – whether to the triumph of the will or to keeping costs down, I cannot say.

    In the ’60s, New Mexico and Hawaii went with a more local, organic look. As for the design of the new capitol in Juneau, it seems to be making the statement, “Just try and find the front door!”

  • allen

    Look at the state capitols of the US. Most are pretty much the same; the domes, pediments, columns, etc. But look at the ones built in the ’30s in North Dakota, Nebraska, Louisiana, Oregon; the “office tower” type. From afar, they do resemble some sort of monument – whether to the triumph of the will or to keeping costs down, I cannot say.

    In the ’60s, New Mexico and Hawaii went with a more local, organic look. As for the design of the new capitol in Juneau, it seems to be making the statement, “Just try and find the front door!”

  • fwsonnek

    allen: interesting I need to google!

  • fwsonnek

    allen: interesting I need to google!

  • http://geochristian.wordpress.com Kevin N

    I live in a gray, concrete apartment block in the former socialist workers’ paradise of Romania. One of the main streets here in Bucharest was called the Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism. The street is lined with sterile, ugly buildings, and lacks the dynamic feel of neighborhoods that were not touched. My neighborhood is made of row after row of high-rise buildings made to warehouse workers, many of whom were employed in factories located right in residential areas.

    Everything the communists touched is ugly. My family was traveling on a Romanian train and I wandered down to the dining car. When I got back to our compartment, my wife asked me what it was like, and I answered, “communist.” One word adequately communicated to her what the room was like: utilitarian, poorly constructed, lifeless.

    Chavez will likely do no better, because it seems to be built into the socialist mentality.

    Grace and Peace

  • http://geochristian.wordpress.com Kevin N

    I live in a gray, concrete apartment block in the former socialist workers’ paradise of Romania. One of the main streets here in Bucharest was called the Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism. The street is lined with sterile, ugly buildings, and lacks the dynamic feel of neighborhoods that were not touched. My neighborhood is made of row after row of high-rise buildings made to warehouse workers, many of whom were employed in factories located right in residential areas.

    Everything the communists touched is ugly. My family was traveling on a Romanian train and I wandered down to the dining car. When I got back to our compartment, my wife asked me what it was like, and I answered, “communist.” One word adequately communicated to her what the room was like: utilitarian, poorly constructed, lifeless.

    Chavez will likely do no better, because it seems to be built into the socialist mentality.

    Grace and Peace

  • Pinon Coffee

    Hear, hear.

    I like New Mexican architecture in general. Someone mentioned the State house: it’s an interesting building, full of art (some excellent, some odd), worth looking at as a tourist. :-) At its best, the style is pretty and rooted and perfect for the land. Sometimes it’s ugly, but it has character. Even the airport has the distinction of being brown tones and turquoise instead of the omni-present gray.

  • Pinon Coffee

    Hear, hear.

    I like New Mexican architecture in general. Someone mentioned the State house: it’s an interesting building, full of art (some excellent, some odd), worth looking at as a tourist. :-) At its best, the style is pretty and rooted and perfect for the land. Sometimes it’s ugly, but it has character. Even the airport has the distinction of being brown tones and turquoise instead of the omni-present gray.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Are these simply versions of Bentham’s “Panoptikon”, then? Not that you can see at will into every room, but rather that the scale of development makes control straightforward?

    And yes, it goes into churches; I remember Bunnie Diehl saying something about a church near DC that was trying to look like an office park, and she noted that if going into the “cube farm” inspires anything besides vague dread, there is something seriously wrong with that person.

    Or something like that. And yet we see churches that, apart from the sign and maybe a cross, look indistinguishable from an office building. Yikes.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Are these simply versions of Bentham’s “Panoptikon”, then? Not that you can see at will into every room, but rather that the scale of development makes control straightforward?

    And yes, it goes into churches; I remember Bunnie Diehl saying something about a church near DC that was trying to look like an office park, and she noted that if going into the “cube farm” inspires anything besides vague dread, there is something seriously wrong with that person.

    Or something like that. And yet we see churches that, apart from the sign and maybe a cross, look indistinguishable from an office building. Yikes.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X