Kings, Despots, Dictators, Cities and the End of History
I sometimes travel furiously and write slowly.
I began this piece ten years ago in Krakow, the capital of a forgotten version of Poland. Since then, it has traveled with me to Venice, Vilnius, L’viv, Bratislava, Ljubljana, and Rome. Later, to Beijing, Bangkok, Mexico City, Dubai, Tokyo, Toledo (Spain), Istanbul, and Washington, DC. In each of these places, power has ebbed and flowed through city gates and beneath spires according to the writhing of borders.
In his 1989 essay Frances Fukayama proclaimed that the “end of history” was at hand. With the demise of the Soviet Union, he argued that free-market democracy would emerge atop the dustbin and mark “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy.” Monarchy, empire, dictatorship, feudalism, socialism, and all the other -isms would give way.
The triumph of democracy was always going to be an untidy process. But, for a while—11 years, to be precise—Fukuyama seemed to be onto something. In 1989, democracy’s two biggest modern rivals, fascism and communism, appeared to be surrendering. While established democracies still tinkered with the finer points of freedom (gay marriage? universal health care? invade Iraq?), the architecture of democracy was settling into place in so many places where it had been absent. The world was buoyant.
The trouble is, recent history suggests that Fukuyama’s theory faces peril, if not outright obliteration. What this world will look like—figuratively and literally—in a generation or two is anyone’s guess.
So much for the architecture of democracy. But the continuing process of democratization, and the process of its undoing, has deep implications for actual architecture.
“The victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real or material world,” wrote Fukuyama. He didn’t mean “material” literally. He meant, rather, that the concept of democracy had matured but that it had not been fully adopted by nations. Fukuyama does not discuss the effect of democracy on the built environment, but to the extent that it inhabits (and indeed creates) the public realm, the system that makes land-use decisions must naturally affect the decisions themselves.
In my travels to places that have fulfilled Fukuyama’s vision—often heroically—I cannot help but feel a certain lament. While I would never trade freedom for anything as petty as aesthetics (or for anything else, for that matter), I fear that the free world may never again see the type of greatness that those old kings and bishops wrought.
Cities and their component buildings come about in myriad ways. Traditional architectural styles responded to the natural environment, folk culture, and the historical moment of their inception or revision. Add to these factors the architects who, while themselves a product of their times, impose their own idiosyncratic stamps, otherwise known as style: columns and curlicues, bare pillars of steel, visual puns, ineffable abstraction, and inquiries into the nature of the interstitial. These are the relatively apolitical forces that shape cities. (Meanwhile, the destitute and the oppressed make do with whatever they can, design being the least of their concerns.)
They pale in comparison with political forces. Many of the ancient empires, kingdoms, and dictatorships have faded away, most certainly for the better. But they have left handsome evidence of their glory. Neutered castles, brokedown palaces, and tomblike cathedrals testify silently to former flames of power, now subsumed by modern states. Tourists flock to erstwhile capitals—Krakow, L’viv, Ljubljana, Tikal—that, though they have been subsumed by modern states, preserve environments built by kings. Some of those capitals—such as Riga, Vilnius, and others in the littoral of the Soviet empire—rose, faded, and have risen anew, with their churches, palaces, monuments, triumphal plazas, and administrative offices intact. They have been hurled forward in history and are set on a new, democratic course.
While history has yet to judge their artistic merit, the autocratic design tradition lives on in Dubai, Baku, and the metropolises of China. Those places are building moments that are superficially distinctive, mostly in the form of high-rises and other places so much larger than life that they seem more grotesque than inspiring. Notre Dame invokes awe at a human scale, as rich in detail as it is impressive in its engineering. The bright skyline of Doha, endless superblocks of Beijing, and odd follies of Baku, do no such thing. Even the most fanciful skyscrapers become baubles when lined up one after another like the mountain peaks at Disneyland.
Many ascendant autocracies are enlisting western architects to build their monuments, in part because they do not have domestic talent capable of slaking their thirst for superlatives. They end up with a sort of cosmopolitan capitalist authoritarianism, in which nations spare no expense to create placelessness. They thus defeat the purpose of national expression that the European kings knew so well. And yet, with those nations reaching skyward, many of their counterparts seem headed for aesthetic dead-ends.
Therein lies the paradox for the public arts. Kings, priests, generals, and parties will no longer plan by fiat. The public realm will become truly public and not the plaything of leaders. In the United States, the autocrat Robert Moses was probably the last of his kind. Every aesthetic regulation, zoning law, and planning rule, no matter how obscure, must abide by the public chorus. Its assent is typically voiced by representative entities such as design review boards, planning commissions, and city councils—all of whom must, despite their inevitable preferences, biases, and dalliances, answer to the citizenry in one way or another.
At least, that’s the way it was supposed to work.
Democracy may promise equality, fairness, and freedom, but in the enterprise of city-building it holds none of the intrigue that monarchs, demagogues, or even ideologies do. The concert halls, museums, courthouses, stadiums, and skylines often say precious little about Dallas, Phoenix, Charlotte, Miami, or Seattle, no matter how handsome they are or how much architects’ presentations might protest. They could all be flung around, as if airlifted by a giant trebuchet, with similar results wherever they landed, whether on coast, prairie, or piedmont.
While a great many planners, architects, and public officials heed higher callings, cities as a whole seek little more than to be place for “live, work, play,” to quote a ubiquitous but deathly uninspiring slogan.
And, of course, so much of our public structures bear the names of private individuals or corporations, be they donors or owners. They exalt the individual and his or her wealth, but they reflect little of the society into which they are placed. The result is not necessarily ugliness or irrelevance. Yet the liberal democratic city is just that: a city where most people do what they want and give too little heed to the greater enterprise to which cities, states, and nations are dedicated. While a great many planners, architects, and public officials heed higher callings, cities as a whole seek little more than to be places for “live, work, play,” to quote a ubiquitous but deathly uninspiring slogan.
The monumental architecture of the past endures and delights today because it was rooted in vernacular traditions: local styles and local building techniques that distinguished one people and one kingdom from another. But bright promise of 20th century modernism silenced much of the vernacular tradition in architecture, around the same time the United States and Soviet Union were developing a new sort of building: the missile silo.
That which has emerged since reflects the shallow values of commerce far more so than the indigenous traditions of the past. In the coming decades, ethnic diversity, greater urban density, and the forces of environmental catastrophe will tug at American style. (Some day historians may unearth houses built for families with two dads and factories for businesses that favor clean air over commercial gain.)
Absent design, we get structures that are so banal that they elude public scrutiny: gas stations, big boxes, and tract houses and office parks and all the other expediencies that arise by combination of economics and law. Think of it: what’s more democratic than a parking structure? Even as genius guides high architecture, its pleasantries are largely academic; expediency rules all else. As the sands overtop Ozymandias, the strip malls rise.
Two of the most interesting things in American cities are the bollards and cameras that supposedly protect us from terrorism. These tools—not spires nor battlements—are the trappings of today’s empire.
The similarity between hegemony and homogeneity is not merely phonic. America’s sameness is a direct result of the permanence of democracy and of its lack of imagination, its tendency to rush to expedient mediocrity and sameness rather than truly strive, question, or rebel.
So, as what passes for democracy spreads across the globe, meaningless buildings will accompany it. Democracy is a fine way to secure peace, but with peace comes static borders and entrenched capitals. Cities become mere staging areas for commerce where profits flow invisibly into banks and where buildings serve largely as human storage. There are no soaring spires to inspire awe or menacing walls to climb atop and then tear down.
None of this, of course, means that we should ever want to return to anything other than democracy. But it does mean that those of us who care about the public realm must fight for it. Benefactors and enlightened despots will not arise to create the spaces that we may want. Planners and architects have to rally our fellow citizens to our cause and provide a vision that everyone and anyone in a free society should want to embrace.
I suppose, then, that the future of architecture is no less certain than the future of the world itself. The trouble with taking ten years to write an essay about history is that history keeps happening. As the introduction implies, I wrote this before the fall of Aleppo and before the nuclearization of North Korea. I wrote it when a Donald Trump presidency was somewhere between implausible and a practical joke. We can only hope that he does not inflict his aesthetic on the American landscape.
I first wrote it when I still had hope that the world could recover from September 11—that event being one of the most cataclysmic political and architectural events in modern history—and rediscover the path that Fukuyama blazed for us, strip malls and all. In short, I wrote it when I was certain that, despite the world’s stumbles, Fukuyama would still turn out to be right and that aesthetic banality would be the worst of our fears. Now, under the shadow of Trump Tower, I am not so sure.
Featured image: main square in Cracow, Poland, via Wikipedia.