Architecture is political. While this irks some of us and energizes others, even consciously choosing not to think of buildings politically is taking a political stance. In this way, there is no escape from the politics of architecture and many governments and powerful figures throughout history have embraced the political nature of architecture and used it to further their motives. The construction of buildings is among the clearest and most obvious visual indicators of a society’s power and economic standing, so for a new government trying to project power and prosperity, for example, architecture can be the quickest and most incontrovertible way for the government to show its success. While many dictatorships rely on more intangible strategies as well, like propaganda and the creation of a cult of personality, examining a regime’s approach to architecture can be telling of its values.
A dictator’s relationship and approach to architecture as a strategic move (or lack thereof) is the first indication of the leadership’s beliefs and goals for a country. Does this government want to develop and build the country or tear it down to its roots? The style of the architecture created under a dictatorship is significant as well, as it is often used to convey a message in alignment with the government’s politics or to imply a sense of power and grandeur. Lastly, the types of buildings prioritized by a regime clearly illustrate its primary interests and goals—a government that focuses on building schools and hospitals sends a different message than one that primarily builds prisons and fortresses. Below is a list of historical dictatorships and their approaches to architecture while in power, from which we can draw connections and conclusions about the governments themselves and see how architecture fed into their overall ideologies.
The Architecture of Adolf Hitler's Germany (1933-1945)
Perhaps the most-studied and well-known example of dictatorial architecture was that of Adolf Hitler and his trusted architect, Albert Speer. Speer became Hitler’s chief architect in charge of bringing to life Hitler’s architectural dreams for a “new Germany.” Hitler’s regime had a strong interest in showcasing its power and prosperity to the public and the rest of the world.
Hitler’s goals to remake Germany in his ideal image therefore involved many new buildings and a distinct style of architecture that emanated power. Huge, over-scaled spaces deemphasized the individual in favor of the Party and the stark, dramatic forms were imposing and intimidating. Speer cited the Zeppelinfeld stadium as his most beautiful work and the only one that stood the test of time. Able to hold 340,000 people and equipped with 130 anti-aircraft searchlights for maximum drama at night, the gigantic building epitomizes the Nazi (and greater Fascist) architectural style: huge, repetitive, and dehumanizing.
The Architecture of Benito Mussolini's Italy (1922-1943)
Fascist architecture generally employs symmetry and simplicity and it became popular with the rise of Benito Mussolini. To take Italy from a democracy to a dictatorship, he utilized propaganda in the media as well as architecture to create an identity. Mussolini used this new style of architecture to unify the nation and attempt to mark a new cultural era. With some similarities to ancient Roman architecture, the buildings created under Mussolini were designed to convey a sense of awe and intimidation through their scale and mass, often built of long-lasting stone to imply a long-lasting regime.
Hearkening to imperial Rome was no accident; Mussolini wanted his buildings to impart a sense of historic pride and nationalism to the people of Italy. One of Mussolini’s most notable projects is the EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma) district in Rome where he had hoped to hold the 1942 world’s fair. Although the exhibition never took place due to World War II, many buildings were still constructed, including the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, a symbol of Italian fascist architecture.
The Architecture of Francisco Franco's Spain (1936-1975)
Francisco Franco may have aimed for a totalitarian fascist state modeled after Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, but while Spain fell slightly short of his goals, Franco did incorporate the practices of propaganda and symbolism utilized by the other two dictators, including using architecture as a tool. A major difference between Franco and the others was his regime’s use of Catholicism to increase its popularity in the greater Catholic world. Franco instituted Catholicism as the state religion of Spain, favoring conservative Roman Catholicism above all, and many of the buildings and monuments his government erected were religious in nature.
Large-scale religious monuments were meant to show both the strength and the benevolence of the Catholic church to appeal to the public yet also command obedience. The large scale and austerity of the monuments commands solemn respect not only to the religion, but to Franco’s regime as well. The style of the consciously-created monumental grandeur of buildings like the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) was modeled on international classicism along the lines of Albert Speer’s buildings and Mussolini’s EUR.
The Architecture of Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union (1924-1953)
Stalinist architecture went far beyond Russia to influence multiple other countries that either fell under the rule of the Soviet Union or benefited from their support throughout history, but Russia is where it began. Under Joseph Stalin, all cities were built according to a development plan and projects would be designed for an entire district at a time, quickly and definitively changing the look of a city. While the Soviet style that spread was mostly a stark, brutalist version of neo-Classicism, there was more variety within Russia. Stalin used buildings as a direct representation of class, with Stalin’s officials on the top tier and a type of building for every rank in his hierarchy, differentiated by features like penthouses, bay windows, or ornaments on the exterior.
“Stalin’s high rises” or the “Seven Sisters” are seven high-rise buildings in Moscow designed in a mixture of Russian Baroque and Gothic styles. More important than the specific architectural style, however, was the scale and overall mass of the buildings. The skyscrapers are large, monolithic, and intentionally impressive to show the strength of the communist regime and the modernity of the city of Moscow.
The Architecture of North Korea (1948-present)
When Kim Il-sung was left with a mostly flattened country to lead after the Korean War, he saw it as an ideal blank slate to both physically and ideologically build a new utopia with the help of the Soviets. North Korean architecture is driven entirely by propaganda; the buildings, from a distance, create an image of prosperity, modernity, and power. Up close, however, or with the eye of an outsider, one can see that the buildings are constructed as cheaply and quickly as possible. The goal is not quality, but the image of progress, and for the isolated people of North Korea, just an image is sufficient to convince.
North Korean architecture today is mostly a mixture of brutalist Soviet-style buildings, a derivative sort of “futuristic” style, and some uniquely North Korean buildings with large concrete Giwa-style roofs covered in pastel green tiles. All are meant to impress upon the people of North Korea the strength and power of their leadership and to instill a sense of national pride.
The Architecture of Mao Zedong's People's Republic of China (1949-1976)
Another regime with a strong Soviet influence was Mao’s China after the revolution. Chairman Mao’s new government relied on the Soviets’ advice and the form of Chinese cities was primarily driven by Stalinist urbanism. The Soviets could achieve in China what they could not in Russia: Mao’s willingness to tear down buildings and start anew meant their vision was much easier to accomplish than in more historically complex Russian cities. Mao gave the Soviets the power to remake urban society and the Soviets gave Mao’s government their ideologies and building styles.
One of the most notable architectural endeavors of Mao’s time was the “Ten Great Buildings” built to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. This undertaking is what gave Beijing buildings like the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum of China on either side of Tiananmen Square. The architectural style of these two buildings, in particular, is obviously Soviet in nature. Both feature strong geometrical forms and are imposing and grand in scale, dwarfing the individual human and showing the power of the regime and the country as a whole.
The Architecture of Fidel Castro's Cuba (1959-2006)
In another isolated country like North Korea, but without the support of a powerful ally like the Soviets, Fidel Castro’s Cuba appears to be stopped in time. Cuba has a rich history of architecture from its colonial past, as well as a neoclassical period and art nouveau influences, but the development of Cuba’s architecture seems to have largely stopped when Castro came to power in 1959. Unlike the previous dictators on this list who prioritized architecture as a tool and used buildings to realize their ideologies, Castro instead did not encourage the development of a new style and allowed the country’s edifices to decay.
This shows a different approach to dictatorship. Instead of impressing upon the world and the public the country’s greatness and power, Castro drew inwards and isolated the impoverished country, focusing instead on extreme nationalism and drawing towards communism. Yet Castro’s form of communism did not aim to impress upon the rest of the world its greatness and success; Castro’s priority was truly and only on Cuba itself.