PENGUIN £25 (352pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game