First, Burma. Poor Burma:
In the foetid depths of the Burmese jungle, on the road to Mandalay, slave labourers toil to build a glinting new metropolis for their military overlords. This is Naypyitaw, “Seat of Kings”, the new capital city decreed by Burma’s brutal junta, and the latest (and oddest) example of autocracy as architecture.
This week foreign journalists got their first glimpse of the new city, some 300 miles north of Rangoon, a strange, gleaming confection of official hotels, ministries and government housing. To the east stands the new fortress that is home to Burma’s supreme military commander, the reclusive General Than Shwe.
Naypyitaw is intended to project power and control, but the absurd new city in the malarial jungle speaks more of paranoia and megalomania. The new metropolis may even bring a little hope to the oppressed people of Burma, for in the long and tasteless history of totalitarian architecture the most extravagant building works are often the precursor to a regime’s collapse.
So (skipping the bits about Saddam’s statues and palaces, Saparmurat Niyazov’s Turkish capital, Sir Edwin Lutyen’s redesign of New Delhi, various corporate headquarters, Hitler’s Germania, and the Millennium Dome):
Hitler once studied to be an architect. So did Mohammed Atta, the mastermind of the World Trade Centre attacks. The Great Turkmenbashi was a town planner before taking power. Three monsters of destruction, each fascinated by the symbolism of architectural power.
(And Ahmadinejad was a city planner!)
Men build great palaces to show they are strong, or defy the world, or prove their worth to themselves. Or to hide. Work continues today on Robert Mugabe’s $5 million retirement palace in an exclusive Harare suburb, a sort of African-Chinese pagoda covered in expensive and ugly blue tiles. …
Above all, architecture is a political art. Few regimes can resist the temptation to flatter themselves in stone, brick or bronze. Yet the architecture of repression holds a particular place in cultural history, for it seldom endures: undermined by hubris, held together by the ego of one individual, the new cities and grand palaces of the dictator tend to decay swiftly, like the gilt peeling off Saddam’s bathroom taps.
Brasilia was built in 1965 to forge a new identity for Brazil, but Burma’s new capital is very different: a place for the junta to seal itself away from the people, a fortress inside a fortress. In the Burmese jungle a new city rises: Naypyitaw, Seat of Kings, refuge of the paranoid, mausoleum of military dictators.