December 1994, Metropolis

Politically Correct Architecture

Books on U.S. embassies, the U.N. and capital cities

Enclaves of America: The Rhetoric of American Political Architecture Abroad, 1900-1965 , by Ron Robin (Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1992).

A Workshop for Peace: Designing the United Nations Headquarters, by George A. Dudley (Architectural History Foundation/The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1994).

Architecture, Power and National Identity, by Lawrence J. Vale (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1992).

Before U.S. scientists developed the atomic bomb, Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed deployment of a subtler weapon against America’s rivals. The plan involved harnessing architectural symbolism in defense of Washington’s foreign policy: the construction of a modern version of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to house the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The project, which the President termed “essential for our government,” stemmed from an abiding faith that design could help shape societies and their politics. The United States believed that by transplanting an architectural symbol of American democratic ideals, it could strike a blow for its own creed in an alien capital. The outbreak of World War II and subsequent superpower tensions thwarted the proposed Jeffersonian re-creation in the Soviet Union. But in 1953, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles revived the scheme in different form and on a farm more ambitious scale. At his behest, the United States sought to produce a new generation of meaningful and architecturally significant embassies around the globe. This co-opting of architecture as a foreign policy tool is the subject of Ron Robin’s Enclaves of America. Of course, architecture has for centuries been exploited in the service of the state. But this has generally taken the form of monuments on home territory, notably in capital cities. By focusing on architectural representations of U.S. power abroad, Robin has produced an intriguing and highly original volume. The author, a professor of American history at Haifa University in Israel, bases the book on research in U.S. government archives and reports in the architectural and popular press. Combining architectural history with political science and cultural analysis, he places architecture as state propaganda within the context of America’s rise to global power from 1900 to 1965. Tracing the use of architecture in U.S. diplomatic missions, cemeteries, and battle monuments on foreign soil, Robin compellingly chronicles the official summoning of architectural splendor to win sympathies and induce awe among foreign beholders. The campaign began haphazardly early this century, when the U.S. was highly reluctant to play an international leadership role. Prior to World War I, American ambassadors did not even have permanent quarters abroad. Southern plantations became the model for some of their first embassies. These were thought to evoke an image of maturity for the still relatively young nation, until, Robin says, it was recognized that the plantation manor had a retrogressive quality and hinted at the economic backwardness of the South. Other embassies were styled after structures favored by local elites. At one point there was a plan to erect embassies in a uniform style – the White House – creating, in effect, an international chain of mini-White Houses. A few missions were actually modeled after the executive mansion, one in Iraq and another in China. But as American assertiveness grew after World War II, so did the urge to develop a more distinctive embodiment of American power, technology, and knowledge. Spurred by a desire to demonstrate cultural prowess as well, an imperial architecture became part of the Cold War battle for hearts and minds. Walter Gropius was enlisted to design a Parthenon-like embassy of reinforced concrete glass in Athens. Eero Saarinen reinterpreted Georgian design for his imposing mission on London’s Grosvenor Square. Other architects responsible for new embassies during the boom years of diplomatic construction included Richard Neutra in Karachi, Pakistan; Jose Luis Sert in Baghdad; Henry Weese in Accra, Ghana; and Edward Durrell Stone in New Delhi. Robin finds that many of these designs trivialized local motifs and, in their assertion of American superiority, clashed with the mood of self-determination in developing nations’ the architectural equivalent of the ugly American. The costly building program took place with little public scrutiny, since most funds came not from congressional appropriations but from debt repayment and barter with the countries where the embassies were sited. When this financial source was exhausted, and amid a violent anti-American backlash directed at the expressive missions themselves, the program to construct monumental embassies was halted in the mid-1960s. Architectural firepower for U.S. interests ultimately failed, Robin believes, because it produced inappropriate symbolism stemming from unclear and conflicting concepts of its mission. The failure was largely a result of the three groups involved — foreign policy experts, politicians and architects—to agree on clear-cut guidelines. The architects, in particular, were loathe to verbalize the political significance of their designs. Robin also argues convincingly that in a world of electronic media, with images of America disseminated instantaneously, architecture has lost much of its resonance as a projection of a coherent U.S. identity abroad. In the dawning days of the U.N., great optimism was again invested in the power of architecture. Amid hopes that the international body would usher in an era of global concord, the concrete form of the U.N. headquarters was seen as a matter of enormous significance. “Doodle Gives Glimpse of World Capital,” proclaimed a 1947 New York Times headline. The article was illustrated by the building’s tentative layout scrawled on an envelope by “an authoritative source.” In A Workshop for Peace, George A. Dudley explores how an international design board lead by New York architect Wallace Harrison devised the U.N.’s East River headquarters. As a young architect in Harrison’s office, Dudley was designated as his note taker at sessions of the 10-member team, which included Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, and Sven Markelius. Although the architects struggled to avoid any single national style, politics could not be ruled out. First the five permanent members of the Security Council made certain that they were all represented. Dudley recalls that Andrei Gromyko, then Soviet deputy foreign minister, dispatched engineer Nikolai Bassov to advocate Moscow’s preferences (interestingly, the Soviets were among those who pushed for putting the U.N. in the United States, concerned that a European site might extend American influence on their continent). Other less powerful nations sought to play their own hand. Greece insisted that “you can’t have an architectural office without a Greek representing the culture of the ages” and succeeded in having Jean Antoniades, a former city planner in Athens, appointed as a consultant to the team. Many of the architects involved first came into contact with each other when they designed pavilions for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. All were Modernists who agreed that function should dictate form. This was somewhat problematic at the time, since relations among the fledgling organization’s component parts were still ill-defined. The architects, in tandem with diplomats, struggled to figure them out. In the end, the architects resisted overt symbolism apart from an abstracted dome, plopped atop the General Assembly to placate conservative members of the U.S. Congress for fear that they might block a domeless chamber. Le Corbusier described the team as “laying down the plans of world architecture, a world now international, for therein we shall respect the human, natural and cosmic laws.” Dudley quotes China’s Ssu-Ch’eng Liang as stating, “This group of buildings should be not only international in character, but un-national — expressing no country’s characteristic but expressive of the world as a whole.” Consideration was first given to concentrating the entire headquarters in a single building, but the board ultimately reached agreement on a separate high-rise slab for the Secretariat (curtain-wall technology was pioneered here) and an expressive shape to distinguish the General Assembly. Open esplanades complemented the whole, which was tied together in an elegant composition devised by Le Corbusier’s disciple Niemeyer. “The world hopes for a symbol of peace,” Harrison said in his final report to Secretary General Trygve Lie. “We have given them a workshop for peace.” Dudley details deliberations over the headquarters’ relation to the rest of New York City, the layout of its debating chambers, and whether the complex should cantilever over the East River. Le Corbusier and Harrison jousted throughout the proceedings. The latter used patience and diplomatic skills honed on earlier team-work designing Rockefeller Center. As a result, this panel of outsize egos moved ahead with surprising solidarity, vowing anonymity over the contribution of individual architects. But in later years, when Le Corbusier lay claim to primary authorship, Dudley writes, Harrison was greatly offended. With this book, Dudley seems intent on setting the record straight. The various schemes are illustrated with photographs and the shaded renderings of Hugh Ferris, who brought them to life as a team consultant. Unfortunately, Dudley makes no attempt to examine the wisdom of the architects’ choices in light of how the U.N. building has fared over the years. One person intimately familiar with the building, former U.S. representative to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick, has called the design largely functional but dull. “It has a universal style,” she has said, “but it has achieved that by adopting the personality of no country and no culture.” Regardless of these and other reservations about the U.N. voiced by critics such as Lewis Mumford, Dudley’s book evokes the excitement of the original challenge and how, for a time, it seized the imagination of the world’s leading architects. Whereas the United Nations eschewed direct symbolism, bold if not always effective symbolic architecture has been a key ingredient of national capital cities. The latter half of the twentieth century has witnessed a spate of new capitals built by freshly independent governments intent on legitimizing their rule and forging a sense of national identity. Like Ron Robin, Lawrence J. Vale employs an interdisciplinary approach in his analysis of capital complexes on six continents. After providing a historical overview of older evolved capital cities like London, Paris, and Vienna, and others that have been reorganized, such as Rome, Athens, and Moscow, he moves on to case studies of capitals and parliamentary complexes built from scratch. A professor of urban development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vale seeks to understand these state structures within the political and social context in which they were erected. Often, he notes, new capitals are built as part of an effort to shift the political balance of power. They are also built to project modernity, accessibility and openness. Yet Vale finds most modern capitals succumb to an ancient tendency to create privileged sanctuaries for those in charge. And political symbolism in architecture proves remarkably flexible, with designs developed under one regime later being championed by diverse constituencies. For example, Sir Edwin Lutyens’ plan for British colonial rule from New Delhi was handily adopted by an independent India as its own capital. The Brazilian capital has undergone even more mutations. The government that planned Brasilia in the 1950s was left-center liberal, the lead architect —Oscar Niemeyer — a communist, but the ensemble was eventually taken over by a right-wing dictatorship, which used the same symbology to completely different ends. Vale explores celebrated examples such as Le Corbusier’s design for the Indian regional parliament of Chandigarh and Louis Kahn’s imposing Acropolis for Dacca, Bangladesh. New capitals in countries like Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, and Kuwait involve a more conscious development of a specific national style, the key structures being infused with symbolic vernacular references. Ironically, foreign architects from developed countries were hired to forge these built images of national independence and particularity. Frequently the architectural symbolism and spatial plans match neither political nor social reality. Physical prominence accorded to elected parliaments does not necessarily mean a developed sense of democratic rule, prompting the author to ask whether architects might bear complicity for a “charade of representative democracy.” In other case, the attempted symbolism equals cliché. Vale has particularly harsh words for the Kuwaiti parliament, describing it as “architecture that advertises the past with the casual gloss of a tourism promotion brochure.” Also examined are the as yet unfinished new capitals of Abuja, Nigeria and Dodoma, Tanzania. Abuja, intended to supplant Lagos, is a grandiose venture involving radial axes to rival Washington, D.C. Dodoma, by contrast, was planned by President Julius Nyere to replace Dar es Salaam as an ideal socialist city, polycentric in concept rather than relying on the usual array of processional axes. “From Washington, D.C., to Abuja, the designed capital has been a diagram of political power, a physical expression of control and continuity,” Vale writes. “The architecture of capitals, like the planning of capitals, represents a continuation of political realities by other means.” A theme throughout the three volumes is the inherent difficulty — and often, impossibility — of architecture expressing a clear and long-lasting political message. The U.N. is a relatively successful case, but it represents a union more of the world’s architects than of its political leaders. Most architecture resists change, official structures particularly. They are designed to convey timeless stability, to make those in power feel they will be in charge forever. But things never work out that way. Architecture is “frozen music,” Goethe once observed: that makes it a dubious political tool in a world in which governments are often forced to change their tune.