As predicted, President Biden overturned former President Trump’s 10-week-old Executive Order “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture.” Trump’s decree was a headlong attack on Modernism waged by the National Civic Art Society (NCAS), classicist activists lobbying for an official blessing. Like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, there was an illusion of false enemies. But this was also an unintended wink to white supremacists and fascists, which had the impact of moving the battle beyond the design community. The general public followed the story with interest.
Biden’s repeal stopped the assault before it could do immediate environmental damage, but that’s not to say no harm was done. Buildings are psychological constructs, realized or not. Trump’s decree compelled many architects to take sides in heated us-vs.-them, Modernism-against-Classicism arguments, driving a wedge between colleagues and sowing public confusion. In the larger war against humanity’s climatic self-annihilation, this wasted precious creative energy.
It also raised questions about where one gets his or her information. Do you read the Washington Times or the Washington Post? Fancy Fox News, or do you double-click on MSNBC? We all pick our poison, but society does not sip slowly enough to read between the lines. Much of what we’re fed in print, on television, and online is tasty, but fatal when swallowed. This is the nature of propaganda.
There are two ways to get people to think and do things they would not be ordinarily inclined to: compel them or convince them. Subtle persuasion is better than coercion and lasts longer. Suasion includes rhetorical debates, long disquisitions, full-length films, short stories, novels, advertising, marketing, public relations, social media, targeted influence campaigns, psychological operations, strategic communications, and … architecture.
On February 27, 1933, a month after Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor, a fire raced through Germany’s Parliament building, the Reichstag. At the time, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (aka NSDAP, aka Nazis) was one of numerous minority factions in the Weimar Republic’s democratic government. There were also Communists, whom Hitler quickly blamed for the arson. Historians debate who started the fire, but the accusation stuck, and people became outraged. President von Hindenburg ordered the arrest of every Communist Party member in the country, including parliamentarians. Overnight, the NSDAP became the majority faction, giving Hitler his chance to consolidate power. Designed to house the Imperial Diet, the Reichstag’s burned-out Neo-Baroque shell smoldered as architectural propaganda, a physical manifestation of a democracy reduced to ashes.
Not only government buildings are at risk of becoming manipulative fodder. Two hijacked airliners crashed into New York City’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, killing 3,000 souls and effectively shutting down the U.S. for weeks. The terrorist attack on a capitalist symbol helped justify wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which continue to simmer almost two decades later. Similar to the Reichstag fire, 9/11 swayed the nation’s political sentiment. “People became more active in politics,” notes political science professor Dan Hopkins, “more supportive of anti-terror spending and more likely to register to vote as Republicans.”
“All art is propaganda,” wrote George Orwell in a definition that encompasses victimized buildings and architecture intentionally voicing narratives.
“All art is propaganda,” wrote George Orwell in a definition that encompasses victimized buildings and architecture intentionally voicing narratives. The Sphinx and the pyramids were outsized visual demands for respect and obedience to Pharaoh. The Parthenon was constructed for societal manipulation, as well as to honor a goddess (the temple’s ornamentation reminded Athenians that their beating back a Persian invasion was an act of divine intervention). Roman triumphal arches were self-aggrandizing demonstrations of rulers’ might and superiority. An architectural allusion is a mass media tool.
The dictionary defines propaganda as spreading information to promote a point of view. Today, the term connotes deception, indoctrination, and brainwashing. “Spin” and “alternative facts” also come to mind, but the word has not always been pejorative, especially when applied to buildings. The Roman Catholic Church promoted the Sarca Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Sacred Congregation for Propagating Faith) during the 17th century to spread Catholicism to the New World while countering rising Protestantism in the old. Art and architecture were primary distribution channels. Classicism was imported to America from Europe in the 18th century partially for propagandistic purposes. Thomas Jefferson rendered the American experiment in the democratic ur-text of ancient Greek and the Roman Republic to write a new nation’s foundational story. Napoleon, too, employed classical architecture to make a (different) political point. The French Second Empire style incorporated Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek, and Roman architectural elements to stoke imperial aspirations.
Early 20th century Russian Constructivist buildings proselytized Marxism-Leninism, but the Allies made little use of architectural propaganda during World Wars I and II, relying instead on print, film, and radio to rally citizens and demoralize enemies. However, across the Atlantic, Hitler and Mussolini doubled down on the built environment as a psychological weapon. Italian authoritarianism bounced between tendentious Classism and modernistic Rationalism. In Germany, the Führer saw upscaled Grecian Moderne as a means of glorifying Aryan fascism. Hitler wanted to turn sedate Berlin into “Germania,” the Third Reich’s world capital, a city to be built with “words in stone” (Das Wort aus Stein).
World War II ended with Berlin in ruins and propaganda a dirty word, but ideologically themed buildings designed as behavioral interventions continued. North Korea’s Kijŏngdong, or “peace village,” is visible to South Korean soldiers from the Demilitarized Zone. The idyllic-looking town purportedly exemplifies the Hermit Kingdom’s success and prosperity, although it’s a Potemkin stage set of empty structures. A more successful case is Norman Foster’s 1999 Reichstag restoration, completed after the Federal Republic of (West) Germany’s 1990 unification with the (East) German Democratic Republic. The original dome, destroyed in the 1933 fire, was replicated in glass, allowing visitors unobstructed views of parliamentary debates. The bubble is a calculated push for legislative sunshine, a figurative manifestation of transparency and open governance. In between Kijŏngdong and Berlin are World’s Fairs with pavilions burnishing national images, Gothic campus additions shaping college life, and office buildings turned branding statements. All of these are coded messages intended to mold opinions. Their manufactured truths are seldom questioned.
Positive architectural propaganda, in my mind, are structures accurately referencing identifiable sources…Negative propaganda are fabrications emanating from concealed or false sources. These are inventions and often go undetected.
Communication scholars Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell describe propaganda as any “deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.” In their book Propaganda & Persuasion, they write about three forms: white, gray, and black. I prefer different labels when applied to buildings. Positive architectural propaganda, in my mind, are structures accurately referencing identifiable sources. Here, truth has nothing to hide; building users are free to agree or disagree with the architect’s intent, but no one is fooling anyone. Negative propaganda are fabrications emanating from concealed or false sources. These are inventions and often go undetected. Specious propaganda lies somewhere in between; what a building expresses may be honest, but its source is mis- or unidentified, or vice-versa.
North Korea built Kijŏngdong as a lie, perchance to induce South Korean soldiers to defect. Thus the vacant village is negative architectural propaganda. The Reichstag’s glass dome unabashedly takes its shape from its predecessor. It’s meant to inspire confidence in a democratic institution, which Germany’s parliament once again is. The renewed Reichstag is, therefore, positive architectural propaganda. Collegiate Gothic university expansions and theme park buildings are specious, in my view, but you may disagree. None of this is black or white.
And that raises more questions: What should be made of European architecture exported to far-flung colonies at the expense of indigenous building types? Is this positive or negative propaganda, or simply imperial globalism? What about corporate architecture mimicking a company’s product, such as the Chrysler Building’s “radiator” top? Is that a light-hearted half-truth—or something more ominous? Consider an embassy designed in pointed opposition to the host country’s vernacular and highlighting the two nations’ political differences: Good thing, bad thing, none, all of the above?
Modernism assumed changed living environments would change building users’ lifestyle values. When that didn’t happen, the modernists gave up trying. Subsequent design theories rarely explored buildings as tools to activate new thinking and modified behaviors. Conventional wisdom treats architecture as a background for social behavior—or, at best, a facilitator. Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language reflects human behavioral patterns, but it does not necessarily modify them. I find little to no conceptual development of architecture as a change agent in Parametricism, Deconstructionism, Neo-PoMo, Blobism, or any other prevailing philosophy. Today’s neoclassicists contend Greco-Roman styles have innate calming powers. Frankly, if human susceptibility to suggestion were hard-wired to traditional forms and natural-appearing ornament, one would think Biomorphism and biophilic design would make excellent behavioral interventions. There are scientific reports of biophilia reducing stress, enhancing productivity, and improving health, but those don’t represent systemic changes to people’s belief systems.
Some architectural theories explain the world as it is; others express the ways things ought to be. The latter are opportunities for architectural propagandists to make positive use of their persuasive powers. There are successful precedents. Symbolically ornate Baroque churches of the Counter-Reformation were counter-propagandistic responses to the Protestant Reformation’s removal of religious paintings and statues. The effort revitalized the Catholic Church, which had been losing ground in Europe. Millions of followers were added throughout the New World and Far East. Italian Radical architects of the 1970s (Superstudio, Archizoom, et al.) used buildings to advocate against capitalism’s influence on modern design. Few of their proposals were realized, but their propagandistic drawings, collages, and films influenced many of today’s practicing architects.
Successful architecture marries ideas to ideals, even though “Truth, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.”
Successful architecture marries ideas to ideals, even though “Truth, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.” The quote is from novelist Michelle Sagara, a creator of fantastic worlds not unlike the ones some architects build (or the universe Don Quixote lived in). Immersive environments are lightning rods for emotions, particularly adoration and abuse. Purposely meaningful architecture—civic buildings, monuments, memorials—draw our attention. But some structures have imaginary meanings thrust upon them. Windmills, for example.
A wobble in the circumpolar vortex during the week of February 15, 2021, blew arctic air over most of the U.S. As winter storm Uri descended on Texas, temperatures dropped into the teens, and then into single digits. When the state’s mostly natural gas and coal-powered electrical grid collapsed, 4.5 million homes froze in the dark. “Extreme cold killed Texans in their bedrooms, vehicles, and backyards,” wrote the New York Times, prompting the question: Why couldn’t the world’s energy capital keep its lights and heat on while the rest of the country remained safe and warm?
Texas’ Republican Governor Greg Abbott answered on Fox News: “Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis.” Tucker Carlson, also on Fox News, leaned in the same direction: “So, unbeknownst to most people, the Green New Deal came to Texas, the power grid in the state became totally reliant on windmills. … Green energy means a less-reliable power grid.”
Tilting against wind turbines is negative propaganda. As the Washington Post noted, “the loss of power to the grid caused by shutdowns of thermal power plants, primarily those relying on natural gas, dwarfed the dent caused by frozen wind turbines, by a factor of five or six.
Still, the GOP assault on sustainable design may stick. “Nothing is easier than leading the people on a leash,” Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels was fond of saying.
Renewable-energy-as-people’s-enemy is getting significant airplay in conservative circles, perhaps confirming Vladimir Lenin’s observation that “a lie told often enough becomes the truth.” Jowett and O’Donnell similarly observe, “Even when it is obvious that a message is propaganda, people will respond favorably to it.” That leaves open the question of how best to neutralize negative propaganda, architectural and otherwise. The answer is visibly calling attention to how the manipulation of cognition and emotion works. Break the bubble.
Architecture is an unavoidable canvas upon which to paint honest pictures. In caring hands, positive propaganda could debunk myths and depoliticize the Green Energy vs. Fossil Fuel wrangle. Imagine what a poetic landscape architect could do with a wind farm. Disinformation campaigns could be demystified through built works but also as architectural expressions in models, drawings, collages, posters, and film. “Propaganda is not necessarily an evil thing,” Jowett and O’Donnell remind us, and Don Quixote would agree. “The truth may be stretched thin,” he says of his fights with imaginary enemies, “but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.”
Featured image: Don Quixote Tilting at Windmills. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.