Power structures

The Edifice Complex: how the rich and powerful shape the world

Deyan Sudjic <em>Allen Lane, the Pe

The message running through Deyan Sudjic's architectural odyssey is that it is the "genetically predetermined destiny of the architect to do anything he can to try and build". Sudjic sets out to explain why architects have always colluded with the rich and powerful to create monuments of both supreme artistry and ineffable banality.

The reader is introduced to an asylum of power-mad politicians and Croesus-rich patrons, and to the architects who have served them. Here is Saddam, to whom Sudjic rather fondly refers as Hussein (as if Hitler should be Adolf and Stalin Joe); here is Stalin himself, along with Mao Zedong, Nicolae Ceausescu, Mussolini, Nicholas von Hoogstraten, Francois Mitterrand and Tony (Blair). And then there are the architects, many of whom, Sudjic implies, would sell not just their granny, but their DNA, to win the favour of those who wish to build triumphalist arches, Brobdingnagian palaces and puffy domes.

Things get off to a rifle-cracking start with the story of Emil Hacha's humiliating interview with Adolf Hitler in the Reich Chancellery in March 1939. The heavy-hearted Czech president was led along the corridors of Albert Speer's stage-set building to meet the Fuhrer in his titanic 4,000-square-foot office. Together, dictator and architecture browbeat the old man until something had to give: Hacha suffered a heart attack and, in his infirmity, signed away his country to the Nazis.

Was Hacha really crushed by the power of Speer's architecture? Probably not, yet it is haunting to think that he might have been. Sudjic writes at his best in this opening chapter, using his thorough understanding of buildings to evoke the cold spirit of Speer's brilliantly theatrical yet ultimately soulless machine for dominating the world.

His client, Hitler, was in love with architecture both for political ends and for its own sake. After the fall of Paris, the Nazi leader made his one and only trip there not with political sidekicks but with his architects, Speer and Hermann Giesler, together with the monumental sculptor Arno Breker. Sudjic imagines a contemporary militaristic politician following in Hitler's bootsteps: "It's as if George W Bush had decided to tour Baghdad with Jeff Koons, Philip Johnson and Frank Gehry."

Architecture, however, is a political art, and as Sudjic asserts, "democratic regimes are just as likely to employ architecture as an instrument of statecraft as totalitarians". It was to be in democratic Britain, more than 50 years after the fall of Berlin, that Blair pressed for the gigantic, ill-fated Dome at Greenwich, a temple crudely reminiscent of Speer's plans for a 1,050ft-high domed hall in postwar Berlin. Sounding a little like Lear raving on the heath, Blair boasted: "We will say to ourselves . . . 'This is our Dome, Britain's Dome.' And believe me, it will be the envy of the world." Sudjic's judgement? "The greatest empty gesture of British cultural life." That, and an imprudent waste of £1bn.

Gathering pace, Sudjic races around the world, taking in the architecture of dictators, democrats and demagogues, spinning one moment through the monuments of New York and Canberra, then Slovenia and Japan, among many more. All this is a little hectic: it might have been better if Sudjic had chosen fewer examples and had told their tales as well as he does that of Speer's Reich Chancellery.

Here he is, though, on the new Scottish Parliament building, much criticised for its spiralling costs:

If Holyrood means anything at all, it is how it will feel in 25 years, or in a century, that counts. The parliament will have proved itself architecturally if it can do something to persuade the fractious, the tired and emotional, the exhibitionists, chancers, zealots and anoraks who make up the mainstream of political life . . . to think a little more about the country that they represent and the essentials of civilised life and to behave in a slightly more measured way.

In the end, and despite everything, architecture matters - as does writing about it in an informed, lively and intelligent way.

Jonathan Glancey is architecture critic of the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 20 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Latin America rises up

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide