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.