[THIS WEEK] James Pallister reads a series of illuminating essays on nationalism and architecture and reflects on the shared temperaments of architectural and nation-building visionaries
The nation state, as W C Sellar and R J Yeatman might have put it, was invented in the 19th century. It was a Good Thing, ushered into being by charismatic leaders Garibaldi (romantic) and Bismarck (romantiker), noted for their facial hair.
This madcap pair, as well as both single-handedly creating their nations, had a choice repertoire of bad behavior; the kind of quirks that would make big jessies out of even the most ascetic and obnoxious of practitioners.
When Bismarck’s assistant Baron von Holstein wrote about ‘a psychological necessity to make his power felt by tormenting, harrying and ill-treating people’ and a ‘constant orgy of scorn and abuse’, he wasn’t referring to student crits or famous architects with a proclivity for telling tearful students to ‘Fuck off’ , but the behavior woudn’t be too unfamiliar to many architecture students…
Garibaldi, like a starchitects’ accountant, was familiar with the financial power of a bit of masochistic romance. One can imagine his enticing proposition of offering ‘ neither pay, nor quarters, nor food; only hunger, thirst, forced marches, battles and death’ appealing to the romantic sensibilities of some of the more ascetic (and independently-wealthy) architects.
Raymond Quek’s new book, Nationalism and Architecture, edited with Darren Deane and Sarah Butler, traces the relationship between nation-building and architecture. Back in the pre-unification Germany of 1850, King Maximillian of Bavaria initiated a competition to invent a new architectural style to be used at an institution of higher learning.
Quek writes in his introduction that the demand for a new style to be invented ab initio alarmed the Germanic art intellectuals. It did, however, illustrate the paradoxical challenge of nationalistic architecture: overtly expressing something which is latently manifest.
The editors contend that, unlike regionalism, nationalism is under-represented in academic literature and that most is gained by looking at case studies from across the globe. Hence the essays include case studies on Lewis Mumford’s quest for a Jewish architecture, the impact of post-war church architecture on Irish immigrant identity, Louis Kahn’s American institutions and Alvar Aalto’s Finland.
Murray Edelman characterises architectural nationalism as the ‘relocation from the here and now to the remote past or anticipated future’. Different attitudes to national architecture can be expressed in buildings of the same era, and Quek gives the example of the Palace of Westminster and Buckingham Palace, both built in the 19th century.
Westminster, in high Gothic Revival, associated the ‘ascendant middle classes [and] their modern, democratic society’ with a medievalist past, while the stolid Neoclassicism of Buckingham Palace and its tripartite symmetry articulated British unity under monarchy, and its association with European royalty and classical architecture.
With the Scottish referendum looming and our relationship with Europe under closer examination, we may soon see yet more debates on nationalism and architecture.
Read: Nationalism and Architecture, edited by Raymond Quek, Darren Deane and Sarah Butler, Ashgate Studies in Architecture, 346pp, hardback, $99.95
- Bismarck: A Life by Jonathan Steinberg
- 1066 and all that by WC Sellars and R J Yeatman