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The Edifice Complex by Deyan Sudjic

Building blocks of power

This is a book about the very heart of architecture and yet it has no illustrations and a cover that suggests it is a trashy novel. I like it all the more for that but for those who may be offended by this, remove the dust jacket to reveal a more architectural white binding. It is a book against type – rather than seduce with set-piece photographs, it forces you to be analytical, to follow often complex and contradictory threads and to form your own view as to where the power in architecture really lies. It is a book about ideas, not buildings, and, as in architecture, this is the essence. A building without an idea is, after all, an empty vessel.

Through anecdote and historical research, Sudjic sets out why architecture is such a powerful force beyond the obvious characteristics of scale and necessity. "Architecture touches on a range of the most fundamental aspects of what it is to be human." It embodies cultural and social meaning, places us in a historical and cultural context, provokes emotions, changes the way we interact and shapes the way we live our lives. Sudjic goes on to examine the motivation of those who commission and design buildings through the psychology of the relationship between the two and describes how "architecture has been shaped by ego and fear of death as well as by political and religious impulses."

The Edifice Complex is essential reading for anyone who cares about the physical world around them, for architecture is the most overwhelming of cultural forms. It is by creating architecture that we can forget the precariousness of our position. "Most of the very earliest efforts of humans to make a lasting mark on their surroundings were essentially architectural ...demonstrating the connections between human intelligence and the world beyond its understanding. There could be no clearer sign of a human presence, and the exercise of the intellect, than to show the contrast between order and disorder." Architecture, then, becomes the way to construct reality as we wish to see it.

Organised as a series of stand-alone essays, the first few chapters focus on the extremes of dictators; Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao and Saddam who "all treated architecture as an indispensable instrument of political propaganda, one which they took an enthusiastic and obvious pleasure in using to maintain their grip on the apparatus of state power." Of course, this is a historical reality, but it is also a journalistic device for overstating the point in order to make it, but no less fascinating for that. What follows is a structural analysis of the places that were commissioned by these despots.

Tiananmen Square for example. "It was both the physical embodiment and a metaphorical representation of a new political order, a theatrical setting for the regime to celebrate its triumphs and to threaten its enemies with its parades of tanks and missiles." Mao didn't want a democratic space or a place that would welcome people and allow them to take possession of it; the square belongs unequivocally to the State. It is a space designed to make the individual feel small and insignificant, where the distances are so great that crossing the square on foot becomes an ordeal. Ironically, its subsequent subversion through the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, with news footage flashed up on screens across the globe, embodied an even more powerful symbolism of revolt in rather the same way as 9/11 was an attempt to destabilise iconic power through erasure.

The most evocative piece of writing covers the meandering career of Philip Johnson, an architect of many guises in pursuit of direct political power. I am right there beside Sudjic as he makes the elaborate journey to the special collections room in the Getty Library. He furiously sifts through Johnson's mail, reading the ghastly anecdotes of his association with the Nazis, with increasing incredulity and fascination – made all the more extraordinary when you learn it was Johnson himself who selected the items in the archive.

Aside from his flirtation with Nazism, Johnson explored "every form of architectural expression from the ziggurat to art deco." The absence of singularity and lack of any logical line to his enquiry lends Johnson's buildings a hollow resonance. However, "he understood the art of the sound bite. He was always careful to remain close to the levers of power through the exercise of patronage... and above all he was entirely at home with the culture of celebrity." Johnson's power was not creative, but it was palpable.

Architecture operates at both macro and micro levels but it is unashamedly the macro that Sudjic discusses here. The potential scale of architecture is very alluring to architects and clients as well as to nations. Individuals and nations still vie to see who can construct the tallest building, the biggest parliament, the longest bridge, a competitive arena that is now being entered by artists, providing, as it does, such fertile ground for the ego.

Using the place of governance as a model, Sudjic contrasts the nondescript Georgian town house from which British Prime Ministers ran a worldwide empire to small countries whose overblown government buildings reveal an insecurity rather than self-confidence. He discusses the difference between the French and the British. It is taken for granted in France that the architectural landscape is shaped by presidents and mayors and although Mitterand's predilection was for Cartesian geometry, there was an unmistakable quest for modernity. Compare that to the British aversion to spending on large-scale cultural projects (we learn that even the National Gallery's columns were salvaged from a demolition site) and where our most successful cultural building is the conversion of a power station, an edifice whose meaning has been obliterated. Mitterand had an aesthetic confidence whereas Blair has to be told what to like or be told to say what he likes.

There is very little to beat the rush you feel as an architect when you visit a building site and the vast skeleton of your dreams, constructed by a cast of thousands, emerges from the ground. I defy any architect to deny that sense of power, perhaps just an illusion, conferred by the sheer scale, the impact of the form against a skyline, its potential beauty and effect on the city. Yes, we all work as a team, with experts from a range of disciplines without whom none of this would be possible, but it is the architect who gives of their soul.

There is an element of truth in Sudjic's amusing observation that "you haven't succeeded if you haven't managed to persuade the client into building something they don't understand or want". This is an honest book. It fails to pander to the emerging vogue of false modesty among architects where a mannered ordinariness or self-determining architecture is constructed to imply a certain suppression of the ego. As an architect, I find the power of architecture extremely attractive.

Amanda Levete is a principal at Future Systems

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