Feature

The Architecture of Autocracy

The skylines of unfree societies used to bring to mind images of endless gray Soviet apartment blocks. But today, some of the world's most innovative and daring designs are breaking ground in the least free nations. Why are the world's best architects taking their most ambitious plans to modern-day autocrats? Two words: Blank slates.

Daniel Libeskind is one of the world's best-known architects, designer of Berlin's Jewish Museum, the Denver Art Museum's very forward-looking new addition, and the early master plan for the World Trade Center site. He works everywhere -- or almost everywhere. A few years ago, he told me he would never work in China. Libeskind, who was born in Poland in 1946, lived for a time under the feckless regime of communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka. It wasn't an experience that left him well disposed toward one-party states.

Libeskind's scruples on the client question weren't widely known until February, when he gave a talk in Belfast in which he criticized architects willing to offer their services to totalitarian regimes. "I think architects should take a more ethical stance," he said. "It bothers me when an architect has carte blanche with a site... We don't know if there was a public process -- who owns this place, this home, this land?"

Why did Libeskind speak up now? Because the topic is becoming unavoidable. For years, the biggest names in architecture have been flocking to countries where democratic procedures are a rare phenomenon. The world's largest and most daring construction sites these days are in places such as Russia, China, and the Persian Gulf states, where open decision-making, community input, and credible elections -- or elections of any kind -- tend to take a back seat to other matters, like a growing economy and the wealth of leaders.

Daniel Libeskind is one of the world’s best-known architects, designer of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, the Denver Art Museum’s very forward-looking new addition, and the early master plan for the World Trade Center site. He works everywhere — or almost everywhere. A few years ago, he told me he would never work in China. Libeskind, who was born in Poland in 1946, lived for a time under the feckless regime of communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka. It wasn’t an experience that left him well disposed toward one-party states.

Libeskind’s scruples on the client question weren’t widely known until February, when he gave a talk in Belfast in which he criticized architects willing to offer their services to totalitarian regimes. "I think architects should take a more ethical stance," he said. "It bothers me when an architect has carte blanche with a site… We don’t know if there was a public process — who owns this place, this home, this land?"

Why did Libeskind speak up now? Because the topic is becoming unavoidable. For years, the biggest names in architecture have been flocking to countries where democratic procedures are a rare phenomenon. The world’s largest and most daring construction sites these days are in places such as Russia, China, and the Persian Gulf states, where open decision-making, community input, and credible elections — or elections of any kind — tend to take a back seat to other matters, like a growing economy and the wealth of leaders.

China is the greatest magnet of all. An immense building boom and a ruling party hungry for prestige have combined to produce scores of prize commissions for famous foreign architects, including Rem Koolhaas’s new headquarters for Central Chinese Television (CCTV), Switzerland-based Herzog & de Meuron’s Olympic stadium, and Norman Foster’s huge new terminal at Beijing Capital International Airport, which is the largest building in the world — for now. It will eventually be overtaken by another Foster megastructure, this one in Moscow. Dubbed Crystal Island, a glass and steel "city within a city" due to be completed in 2014, it’s one of several projects the firm is working on in Russia.

In the Gulf region, where the working conditions of migrant laborers have been a chronic human rights issue, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been recycling oil revenues into vast construction projects, like the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed tower Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest building, as well as various Koolhaas projects and a cultural district in Abu Dhabi with museums by architect superstars Tadao Ando, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Jean Nouvel. Oil money has also lured the British-Iraqi Hadid to design a cultural center for Azerbaijan, a place that doesn’t exactly earn high marks from Freedom House or Human Rights Watch. For good measure, the center will be named for Heydar Aliyev, the former KGB officer who ran the oil-rich Central Asian republic with an iron fist before he died in 2003, when his son Ilham succeeded him in a poor imitation of a free election. Last year, a dutiful Hadid placed flowers on Aliyev’s grave.

NATION BUILDING

It’s no mystery why architects find themselves in an equivocal relationship with power. They can’t work without it. Every big building, whether it’s in Manhattan, Dubai, or Singapore, is a triumph of the will, usually the client’s — whether that client is a developer, a museum director, or an authoritarian government. What architects prefer are fearless clients, the kind who commit serious money and laugh in the face of local opposition. How tempting it is, then, to build in places where an emir or a Vladimir can call the shots with impunity — where cash is plentiful, ambitions boundless, and the local opposition more preoccupied with police surveillance or being thrown in jail.

Speaking of Vladimir Putin, the Scottish architecture firm RMJM won a competition last year to design the new Gazprom tower in St. Petersburg. For reminder’s sake, Gazprom is the immense natural gas company once headed by Russia’s new president, Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s handpicked successor. (Let the record show that one of the entrants in that design competition was one Daniel Libeskind.) The Okhta Center, as the tower is now called, has set off protests in Russia and abroad over its 1,300-foot height, in a city where the tallest building is a bell tower a third that size. The tower’s opponents are numerous and prominent, including the St. Petersburg Union of Architects, the director of the State Hermitage Museum, and UNESCO, which has threatened to revoke the city’s World Heritage status. But most observers are skeptical that the critics will count for much in the end. At the heart of the matter is whether Russia is the kind of place these days where a credible debate can take place over a building backed by the all-powerful company that the new president of Russia used to run. There is, you could say, a whiff of carte blanche in the air.

Make no mistake, even the oldest democracies are a work in progress, too. There will always be big projects in New York or London where public input is a sham and the powers that be do what power does. All the same, architects and developers in democratic countries contend with public hearings and environmental reviews, zoning boards and community groups, politicians and the media. Such interference is precisely what exasperates many of the biggest architects, who grumble that Western countries have lost the will to build great things. The new Terminal 5 of London’s Heathrow Airport, designed by the firm of architect Richard Rogers, was subjected to a public inquiry in Britain that lasted nearly four years. That’s about the same time it took for Foster’s new airport terminal in Beijing to go from conception to completion. There was a feng shui consultant who needed to be satisfied, but no messy court challenges.

Still, it’s surprising that the world’s autocrats have developed a taste for modern architecture. Their preferred style used to be what you might call pachyderm neoclassicism, which lent even the wobbliest dictatorship the weight of enduring empire. Adolf Hitler ordered Albert Speer to reimagine Berlin as a hyperinflated Rome. Joseph Stalin left behind office blocks as pompous and imperial as his moustache. The notable exception was Benito Mussolini, who understood what modern architecture could lend his regime — the authority of the future. And among the autocrats of our own time, it’s Mussolini’s outlook that has caught on.

Meanwhile, the architects rushing to their embrace have their own reasons. Precisely because their thinking is so new and avant-garde, some of them spent their early years wandering in the wilderness of "paper architecture," teaching, lecturing, and publishing influential books, but not getting much "real" work. The temptation to get what they can now, even if it’s with dubious clients, is understandable. But there is more to it. In a profession long given to grand ambitions for remaking the world, the most adventurous architects don’t merely want to work. They want to change the world. Architects like Hadid and Koolhaas are not just practitioners but polemicists, with an evangelical devotion to their own sophisticated thinking about buildings and cities. It’s an outlook that can make cooperation with unsavory regimes seem like the kind of thing that history will forgive, because governments come and go, but buildings endure as ideas forged in stone and steel. In the final analysis, you can work for the Sun King if you leave behind Versailles. Or better still, something less suburban.

RIGHT AND WRONG ANGLES

To that end, there is no architect more theoretically inclined than Koolhaas. He has become in recent years the enemy of conventional office towers, which is why his CCTV headquarters in Beijing performs a kind of structural backflip. Let’s be clear: It has every promise of being one of the most fascinating buildings in the world. Whether it will also begin to strike people as a sort of Chinese version of Hitler’s Reich Chancellery is another question. If there are protests in the Chinese countryside or more upheavals in Tibet, decisions about how to cover those events on Chinese television will be made in the Koolhaas building.

I once asked Koolhaas if he had any qualms about providing the headquarters for a government-controlled television news operation. He replied that China was evolving, and he hoped that its state-controlled media would eventually evolve "into something like the BBC." That may take some time. The BBC, whose newscasts are restricted in China, reported recently that when journalists at CCTV log on to their computers every day, one of the first things to appear on their screens "is a notice about what not to report."

The overarching defense for good architects working with bad leaders is that they bring enlightened ideas to places that need them. For instance, Norman Foster’s firm, which is known for environmentally sustainable design, was able to use green methods and materials at the Beijing airport, a useful model for a country better known for its headlong indifference to the environment. This defense is effectively the argument that Will Alsop, another prominent British architect, made recently to a Web site that was collecting responses to Libeskind’s talk in Belfast. "The thing about China is that it’s opening up," Alsop said. "It will change in the future and architects will be part of that opening up."

The people who offer that defense have a perfectly good point. But here’s the catch. That position takes as a given the optimistic Western assumption that authoritarian regimes will "evolve" into something more like democracies. But if anything, Russia under Putin began evolving in the opposite direction. That may change under Medvedev, or it may not. The Chinese authorities probably think they have arrived already at a new model for society, one that mixes a quasi-free market economy with limited freedoms. And it’s a model they are happy to propose to the rest of the developing world, impeccably dressed by all the best architects.

I should mention that in Alsop’s remarks about working with dubious regimes, he felt obliged to add this: "I would probably draw the line at Burma." Should we take that as a sign that second thoughts about questionable clientele are catching on? If there’s one thing an architect should know how to do, it’s draw a line. With a little prodding, perhaps more of them will give it a try.

Richard Lacayo is Time magazine's art and architecture critic.

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