Essay

Populist Architecture Is a Problem That Will Outlive Populists

The leaders of Turkey, Hungary, and India will all eventually leave the scene. But their buildings will be left behind.

By , a professor of politics at Princeton University.
A young boy at dusk walks on top of a stack of construction materials outside the new Camlica mosque in Istanbul.
A young boy at dusk walks on top of a stack of construction materials outside the new Camlica mosque in Istanbul.
A young boy walks among construction materials outside the new Grand Camlica Mosque in Istanbul on July 1, 2016. Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

In the run-up to the momentous parliamentary and presidential elections on Turkey last weekend, one part of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s record has received special scrutiny: the building boom over which his Justice and Development Party (AKP) has presided for the past two decades. The earthquake on Feb. 6—in which 50,000 people perished—made many Turks painfully aware of the dark side of that boom: not just shoddy buildings, but also widespread corruption and the creation of construction industry oligarchs ready to cement the power of the ruler.

In the run-up to the momentous parliamentary and presidential elections on Turkey last weekend, one part of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s record has received special scrutiny: the building boom over which his Justice and Development Party (AKP) has presided for the past two decades. The earthquake on Feb. 6—in which 50,000 people perished—made many Turks painfully aware of the dark side of that boom: not just shoddy buildings, but also widespread corruption and the creation of construction industry oligarchs ready to cement the power of the ruler.

But Erdogan is not the only right-wing populist leader who has relied crucially on real estate developers and the building business: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are others. This international connection between populism and architecture is not a mere coincidence. These long-ruling figures have systematically sought to transform the built environment—especially city centers—in line with their understanding of who the “real people” are. If such populists lose power—a big if!—new governments will face many urgent tasks; but on their agenda must also be the question whether they should dismantle the symbolic urban landscapes that populist leaders have constructed.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, populists are not just characterized by criticism of elites or anger at the establishment. It is true that, when in opposition, they attack sitting governments and other parties. However, they also do something else: they claim that they, and only they, represent what they often refer to as the “real people.” This implies that all other contenders for power do not represent the people—because, so populists relentlessly insinuate, every other politician is fundamentally corrupt.

Less obviously, the claim to a monopoly of representing the people also implies that all those citizens who do not share—or simply will not fit—the symbolic construction of “the people” undertaken by populists do not belong to the people at all. Populists do not simply criticize the powerful (something that can be very healthy in a democracy, of course); rather, they always seek to exclude particular others. This happens obviously at the level of party politics; less obviously, but more dangerously still, it also happens at the level of the people themselves, where already vulnerable minorities are cast out from the “real people.” Erdogan is an obvious example: in 2014, at a party congress, he claimed about himself and his AKP: “We are the people;” then he turned to critics and asked: “Who are you?”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech at a podium in front of a crowd of supporters and press outside at dusk, in front of a plane decorated with the Turkish flag.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech at a podium in front of a crowd of supporters and press outside at dusk, in front of a plane decorated with the Turkish flag.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a press conference following the first landing of his plane at the new Istanbul Airport on June 21, 2018. Aris Messinis /AFP via Getty Images

It is not an accident that populists eventually seek to make the “correct” understanding of the real people permanent in the built environment. Building projects—including infrastructure such as Istanbul’s new airport—are visible to all; they also, as with China’s rapid creation of airports, seem to prove state capacity as such; and they make it easy to push taxpayer money (or, in the case of Hungary, EU subsidies) to cronies who can return the favor by buying up TV channels or newspapers critical of the populist ruler.

Yet more than financial power is in play: Many decades ago, the American political scientist Harold Lasswell, in an unjustly forgotten volume on architecture and power, distinguished “strategies of awe” from “strategies of admiration.” The former, mostly associated with totalitarian regimes in the 20th century, aimed at directly intimidating citizens; today’s authoritarians, much more focused on spinning success stories than on instilling fear, try to generate admiration, a sense of national achievement—and tourism. Adolf Hitler’s megalomaniac city of Germania (never built) and Stalin’s Palace of the Soviets, a skyscraper with a gigantic statue of Vladimir Lenin on top (also never built), were not exactly meant to attract foreign visitors to leave cash behind. Today’s spectacular buildings aim simultaneously at a “Bilbao effect” (named after the transformation of the Basque city into a major tourist hub through Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum) and a bunker effect (as in: ensconcing leaders in power).

Erdogan has had new mosques built all over Turkey, including the enormous Grand Camlica Mosque in Istanbul, which can accommodate more than 60,000 worshippers and is visible from virtually anywhere in the city. A large mosque is also what those leaving the gigantic new airport will see first. And in 2020, the president turned the Hagia Sophia from being a museum into a mosque, releasing the building, as he put, from “chains of captivity.”

A mosque capable of holding 4,000 people has also been completed on Taksim Square, traditionally associated with Turkish secularism and Ataturk’s republicanism, symbolized by a monument at the very center of the square (now dwarfed by the mosque). The modern architecture pioneered after the Second World War, from the famous Hilton to the Ataturk Cultural Center, has been complemented with conspicuously neo-Ottoman buildings; sometimes, it’s torn down altogether. In what arguably remains one of the major symbolic defeats of Erdogan, the plan to destroy the Gezi Park next to Taksim in order to build a shopping mall and reconstructed Ottoman military barracks had to be halted after major protests. (To this day, people the regime dislikes are arbitrarily charged with having instigated the Gezi protests.)

A brown stone monument to Ataturk stands in front of the Taksim Square Mosque, which is covered in construction scaffolding, in Istanbul on a cloudy day.
A brown stone monument to Ataturk stands in front of the Taksim Square Mosque, which is covered in construction scaffolding, in Istanbul on a cloudy day.

A monument to Ataturk is seen in front of the mosque in Taksim Square during construction in Istanbul on Feb. 26, 2018. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Populism is not primarily about the symbolic conquest of urban space, but it is about developing strategies—often literally—to cement an image of the “real people.” Orban’s horrendously expensive reconstruction of the Castle District—making it the seat of government, rather than cultural institutions such as the National Gallery—evokes a late 19th-century bourgeois “Golden Age.” The new buildings, while claiming to be “faithful” to the Habsburg-era originals, are often being created from photographs and in effect feature ornamentation around a concrete structure, similar to Erdogan’s mosques: What claims to be truly traditional is often postmodern pastiche; and, while heavily surveilled and guarded by police, these spaces also offer plenty of opportunities for consumption by tourists.

Modernism, and in particular, the “International Style” are derided as both colonialist and objectionably cosmopolitan. Some populists—from the Netherland’s far-right political entrepreneur Thierry Baudet to former U.S. President Donald Trump—have also made a point of condemning it as simply “ugly.” In the light of what happened in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, it has largely been forgotten that Trump, in the dying days of his administration, had issued an executive order which would have required all new federal buildings to be constructed in classical style.

Like his counterpart Orban, Erdogan has invested enormous resources in building soccer stadiums (with the evident aim of making national soccer great again), modestly naming one after himself. Meanwhile, Modi had the world’s largest cricket stadium created in his native Gujarat; initially named after independence hero Sardar Patel, the name was recently changed to … Narendra Modi Stadium.

Vehicles pass below a billboard showing photos of former U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Vehicles pass below a billboard showing photos of former U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Vehicles pass below a billboard of former U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of the opening of the world’s largest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad, India on Feb. 18, 2020.Sam Panthaky/AFP via Getty Images

Less obviously, these spaces, like churches and mosques, allow crowds to experience themselves as being committed to a shared project—albeit if only celebrating the national soccer team. This lesson about the uses of spaces is not new: Jean-Jacques Rousseau already recommended festivities in which the people, not a king, are the main actors. After the French Revolution, crowds were indeed drafted to partake in large marches and festivals, sometimes holding up placards with sentences from Rousseau’s books. Symbols are one thing; they might be passively consumed. another thing is the creation of spaces in which people can solidify a particular identity by acting together. It is not an accident that, in 2020, Modi hosted Trump in his cricket stadium.

Today’s authoritarians have had an ambivalent relationship with personality cults. Modi has covered all of India with posters featuring himself; in the garden where Gandhi was assassinated, a plaque emphasizing Gandhi’s imperative to care for the poor features an image of Modi that is larger than Bapu’s. But such leaders are also aware that excessive personalization of politics might too easily remind both domestic and international audiences of 20th-century dictatorships. As Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman—who suggested the important contrast between ruling by fear and ruling by spin—have pointed out, populist leaders may well be better off with projecting an image of competent managers who just happen to be very good at implementing the will of the “real people” (which, according to the logic of populism, must be unerring). The monuments they erect do not translate into state terror, but they still send a signal about who belongs and who does not—and it helps figures such as Orban that the borders inside the EU remain open: The not-real-people can always leave.

A crowd of people gather under a massive arch near a statue of Subhas Chandra Bose.
A crowd of people gather under a massive arch near a statue of Subhas Chandra Bose.

People gather near a statue of Subhas Chandra Bose after it was unveiled by Modi (not pictured) near India Gate during the inauguration ceremony of the newly renovated Central Vista in New Delhi on Sept. 8, 2022. Money Sharma/ AFP via Getty Images

The imperative of “Don’t make it too obvious!” also applies to the comprehensive refashioning of New Delhi’s Central Vista. Modi’s favorite architect, fellow Gujarati Bimal Patel, has redesigned the large spaces in front of the government buildings designed by Edwin Lutyens in the last decades of the British Raj. Rather than replacing these edifices—which often incorporated a diversity of what Lutyens saw as typical for different parts of India—new ones are being built next to them. In particular, a large triangular parliament building is being erected right opposite the old circular one while new offices are also being created along what often reminds visitors of Washington’s National Mall. Many of the changes are being justified in a decidedly technocratic language (better air conditioning, underpasses, improved lighting, clean and well-kept lawns, parking, more restrooms)—very much in line with one aspect of Modi’s self-presentation as a promoter of business and technology. Other elements are more charged: What used to be known as the Rajpath has been renamed the Kartavya Path, the road of duty. And in another fraught gesture, a gigantic statue of Subhas Chandra Bose was installed under a canopy next to India Gate, which commemorates those fallen in the world wars. Bose is considered a hero of resistance to the British; though his name is also tainted by his attempts to form alliances with Nazi Germany and Japan during the war. Most important, he stands for an Indian nationalism not associated with the Congress party, which achieved India’s independence and remains Modi’s main political adversary today.

The parliament is still under construction, as is a new edifice for the prime minister. It seems a fair guess, however, that none of them will make Modi’s commitment to Hindutva—the core of his right-wing populism which leaves all non-Hindus outside the understanding of the “real people”—too obvious. After all, this commitment is much more plausibly realized in the construction of Hindu temples (and the demolition of mosques) and the creation of spaces that makes citizens put their Hindu identity first (as opposed to an identity as a worker, for instance).

A view of India’s current Parliament House facing the new parliament building, which is currently under construction.
A view of India’s current Parliament House facing the new parliament building, which is currently under construction.

A view of India’s current Parliament House (left) and the new parliament building, which is still under construction, in New Delhi on Dec. 8, 2022. Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Even if the buildings are not direct monuments to ego, the methods for creating them are usually autocratic: Local governments are overridden and emergencies are declared for the completion of projects (as in Budapest); even when the rest of the country is paralyzed by a pandemic, construction is declared an “essential service” that must continue, as in New Delhi. At the best of times, architecture is not a particularly democratic enterprise. Populist right-wingers do not even try to justify what they do in terms of open design processes, but appeal to their conception of peoplehood instead.

Lasswell observed that “if actions speak louder than words, things often speak louder than either.” Long after right-wing populists are gone from power, many things will remain. Erdogan announced, when opening the new Taksim Mosque, “God willing, it will stay until the end of time.” Nonpopulist governments would clearly be making a mistake if they started to remove everything—no matter how fake, no matter how much invented tradition—in some kind of act of symbolic cleansing; if anything, this would reinforce that sense, consciously stoked by populist leaders, that every political battle is existential, and that every election might be a prelude to a civil war.

Yet complete passivity would also be wrong in the face of iconography or inscriptions that consciously falsify history or send messages of exclusion. Think of the memorial to Hungary’s occupation by Nazi Germany in 1944. It was created by Orban’s government in 2014, literally during one night, and has never been officially inaugurated; instead, it was met with protest by citizens who rightly see it as a crude attempt to deny any Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust. Such memorials can be undone, or at least contextualized in such a way that there is no message that amounts to a form of Holocaust denial by the state itself.

Populist elements in the urban landscape might be juxtaposed with counter-monuments and counter-architecture (back to re-imagined forms of modernism, perhaps?). Most importantly, though, countries recovering from populism might want to invest in something many populist leaders conspicuously neglect: affordable housing for the supposed “real people” who populists claim to uniquely represent.

Jan-Werner Müller is a professor of politics at Princeton University. His most recent book is Democracy Rules.

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