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