Monday, April 15, 2013

Hughes & Krier: The Architecture of Power

This WSJ review of a new book architect and urban planner Leon Krier brings a considerable question into relief: can an idea inhere in a work of architecture. This would be a heady, esoteric, and generally uncontroversial question. . . if Krier weren't discussing the Nazi architecture of Albert Speer.

The author of the review summarizes Krier's thought as follows:
Mr. Krier correctly objects that there is no clear congruence between architectural form and ideological meaning. Washington, D.C., he points out, has modern façades that would have been welcomed in Hitler's Berlin. Classicism, he thinks, has been unjustly tainted by association with fascism. At the other end of the spectrum, sleek modernist design was deployed under Mussolini and a forward-looking capital like Brasília, built to signify democratic openness, perfectly served Brazil's military regime.
Yet what does he mean precisely by "congruence" and "ideological meaning?" Yes, you might not be able to express certain ideas in architecture, but that does not mean one cannot express any. Similarly, although classicism and modernism have been put to varying purposes we can't assume there is no commonality.

And what is the commonality in question? Renowned art critic Robert Hughes put it well in his 1982 exploration, "The Shock of the New," that it is the architecture of power, devoid of particular ideology.

Is there no difference, then, between the Flavians' amphitheater and Mussolini's Palazzo della Civiltà?

Surely one could argue for the refinements of the former, but is the force of impact any different? Did a Roman citizen look up at the amphitheater humbled by imperium? Was he proud of the conquests which funded it? Did he simply feel he was getting his "money's worth" from the government? Was it fundamentally for him, even his, as a citizen, or was is foremost, or only, a symbol of power from above?

Yet if we lump modern democratic facades from DC to Brasilia to Lincoln Center into the "architecture of power," is there, as Hughes asks, one of free will?

What comes to my mind is not quite a perfect answer. Take the Greek amphitheater-style, which, in putting the dramatic action at the center of all attention, elevates the activity and agency of the players and thus the drama and thus individuals of the plot.

Likewise and putting aside the competing theories about the significance of its ratios, the Parthenon is a point of mediation for man as individual, man as citizen, and man as created.

These are not styles of force or power, however refined and channeled, but styles which embrace if not the free man, the whole man. 

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