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Unpacking Fascism’s biggity architecture

Manish Tewari is a lawyer and a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari
Published : Nov 11, 2019, 12:32 am IST
Updated : Nov 11, 2019, 12:32 am IST

The principal focus of Fascist architecture was public buildings and boulevards.

Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. (Photo: AFP)
 Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. (Photo: AFP)

Fascists have a morbid fascination with grandiose buildings. Fascist construction started manifesting as soon as Benito Mussolini seized power in Italy in the 1920s. In Germany, the process kicked off with Adolf Hitler's ascent to chancellorship in 1933. Both these regimes were tyrannical dictatorships and architecture was an instrument of political puffery, a demonstration of ugly state power and predicated principally upon the visual reinforcement of Fascist beliefs.

To parade the omniscience of the Fascist ideology the edifices built or proposed for construction were gargantuan with wide-open spaces surrounding them. The vacant space was designed to serve as an assembly point for massive congregations of people that became the props for menacing spectacles of mass intimidation and coercion. The torch rallies of the Nazi Era being an example.

The principal focus of Fascist architecture was public buildings and boulevards. Their blueprints had an ominous alikeness to ancient Rome. The objective being the invocation of grandeurs bygone coupled with an attempt to bring out a sense of raw nationalism.

Fascist architecture in Italy was developed by a handful of architects with Giuseppe Terragni being the most conspicuous. Other notable eminences were Marcello Piacentini, Giovanni Guerrini, Ernesto Bruno La Padula and Mario Romano. In Germany, the Fascist architectural endeavour was led by Albert Speer, Hitler's chosen architect who later served as the Nazi armaments minister during the Second World War. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison at the Nuremberg trials. He later wrote a book entitled Inside the Third Reich that became an international sensation.

The broad-spectrum stab of Albert Speer’s architectural delusions was to virtually level Berlin to the ground for constructing bottoms up — Welthauptstadt Germania, loosely translated to mean world capital Germania. Adolf Hitler in 1933 itself declared with all the pompousness at its command “The new German Reich is neither a boarder nor a lodger in the royal chambers of bygone days.” The centre of the Nazi-ruled world — Germania — was slated for completion by 1950. The task was supposed to be executed with ruthless efficiency by the pillage of the mines and minerals of occupied Europe for building materials and cleansing the Jewish quarter of Berlin to reposition those citizens of Berlin whose homes or buildings happened to stand in the way of the bulldozers.

Speer reminisced a decade before his death that with the wisdom of hindsight he now believed that the Fuhrer had commanded him to build “not a city, but a sarcophagus” — a stone coffin, typically adorned with a sculpture or inscription and associated with the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Rome and Greece. “Like the ancient pharaohs, he planned to use stone to ensure his own immortality,” concluded Speer.

Had Albert Speer’s grandiose vision not become a victim of a coitus interruptus because of Hitler’s war plans the capital of the Third Reich would have been transformed in a manner that would have made the city unrecognisable to its lifelong inhabitants. Broad swathes of the city would have simply been altered beyond recognition. Ancient structures like the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate which seem gigantic even to the contemporary eye would simply have been overshadowed by new erections of humungous dimensions.

Other totalitarian regimes are also not immune to this architectural megalomania. The People’s Republic of China nominated Albert Speer the Junior — the son of Hitler’s notorious comrade-in-arms and the creator of the 1936 Berlin Olympics extravaganza — to formulate the master plan for the Beijing Olympic games of 2008. With this act the Communist party apparatchiks once again sanctified the fundamental politicisation of aesthetics that has been a trademark of 20th century authoritarianism. Like other absolutes earlier the Chinese elite converted public spaces and sporting events into tangible evidence of their omnipotence and almost a divine right to rule.

The Junior Mr Speer who spent a lifetime trying to distance himself from his rather tainted legacy was tasked to formulate the master plan for the approach to the Olympic compound in Beijing. His plan focused upon the building of an commanding avenue to link the Forbidden City with the National Stadium in which the opening ceremony of the Games took place. It immediately evoked comparisons with his father’s designs for “Germania”. The Senior Speer had also similarly conceived a mighty central axis that was the centrepiece of his stillborn architectural fantasy for Germania.

The Chinese were not being ingenuous in selecting a designer whose noun was associated with very grey historical overtones. The organisers of the Beijing Olympics sought to execute a spectacle that was but a manifestation of their own alter ego. Their coming-out party. Their storming the global stage and Herr Speer drawing upon the luminescence to his father’s complete grasp of the architecture of power took a leaf right out of the Nazi architectural playbook to turn Chinese aspirations into brick-and-mortar reality.

That is what the grandiose project to remodel the central vista in New Delhi is really all about. Subterfuged in the pragmatic skullduggery this endeavour smacks of the NDA/BJP government’s ravenous thirst to emboss a new architectural order that bears their indelible stamp for posterity to remember. It is but the eighth Delhi they seek to create.

History is replete with instances that unimpeachably demonstrate that such projects swing between the sublime and the ridiculous. From the Nazi reengineering of Berlin to the Red Square in Moscow the underlying intent was always identical - stamping history with a unique imprint for posterity. What is proposed in Delhi appears is again out of the autocratic playbook. It is but an exercise in spawning narcissistic symbolism.

Rather than tampering with and subverting the heritage of Delhi, the BJP government’s energies would be much better-served had they stuck to their 2014 electoral promise of building a hundred new cities. In the past 65 months not a single one has come up. In fact after the conceptualisation and subsequent establishment of Chandigarh, Bhubaneswar and Gandhinagar, not a single green field city has been created anywhere in the country. Even Amravati, the capital of the new state of Andhra Pradesh, is but a ghost town but the rulers in Delhi care less. For them architecture is but another means of power projection.

Tags: adolf hitler, fascism