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post #1 of 9 (permalink) Old 10-14-2005, 09:26 PM Thread Starter
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Terminally bad architecture

The tyranny of design

Vast wealth and absolute power aren't the keys to a gracious home - as a book and a documentary about the palaces of dictators show. Andrew Mueller reports

Saturday October 8, 2005
The Guardian

On a shelf in my lounge is a shard of pottery. It's a squareish splinter of what was once a hefty vase, though one wouldn't need to be an expert to discern that the item of crockery in question was less than a museum piece.

The Ming-style arrangements of flowers and fish decorating the porcelain are ineptly painted, and sloppily coloured: the gold detailing has obviously been added with a marker pen. The vase from which this wretched lump came was clearly a grotesque, artless fraud, and this is entirely appropriate. Before the vase was dropped by a hasty looter, it belonged to Saddam Hussein. I gathered its fractured fragments from the marble floor of one of his Baghdad palaces in May 2003, took them back to London and gave them to friends as novelty paperweights.

An ancient rock'n'roll legend has it that some time in the 1960s, somebody - often named as Little Richard - who visited Ike Turner at the peak of his success was later asked what the interior of the Turner mansion was like. The reply was both exemplary snobbery and astute summation of what results when money and power go unbalanced by taste and restraint: "Man," goes the punchline, "I didn't realise you could spend a million dollars in Woolworth's."

Saddam's palaces were monstrosities. In February, I had lunch in one in Basra - one of its colossal halls has been converted into a canteen for the Iraqi police and British soldiers who now work there. Despite the fabulous superficial opulence of the place, the overwhelming impression was, ironically, one of cheapness: poor workmanship, nasty detailing, eyewateringly hideous design. The Welsh Guards company with whom I was embedded took particular delight in showing me the gold-plated bathroom fittings.

"It looks," said one of the soldiers, "like someone in Merthyr Tydfil won the lottery, doesn't it?"

The bewildering tastelessness of the utterly powerful is examined from two angles this month. Peter York's incongruously elegant coffee-table tome Dictators' Homes and the Sky documentary Terrible Tastes Of Great Dictators both seek to understand why, when some despot seizes the reins of power in iron fist, his first call is not to the local Conran shop, but to - for example - the nearest tradesman able to run him up a gold-plated, 11-foot-high, twotonne, eagle-shaped throne (such was the principal prop of the 1977 coronation of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, former self-declared Emperor of the Central African Republic).

York's book and Sky's documentary focus on more or less the same figures: Nicolae Ceausescu (unlamented Romanian dictator, executed by firing squad, December 1989); Saparmurat Niyazov Turkmenbashi (Turkmenistan's president, whose monuments to himself include a gold statue which revolves so the sun shines perpetually upon his beaming visage); Colonel Gadafy (long-serving Libyan tyrant, who travels with an entourage of virgin female bodyguards); Idi Amin (funny-if-you-didn't-live-there 1970s Ugandan despot, whose self-awarded honours included the Victoria Cross, and whose menu included bits of his enemies); Kim Jong-Il (North Korea's "Dear Leader", the characterisation of whom in Team America as Cartman from South Park felt weirdly plausible); Mobutu Sese Seko (late Zairean president, the paragon of the insane, corrupt dictator genre); Saddam Hussein (no introduction necessary).

Both also gravitate towards one crucial question. When money is no object, and power is unhindered by such pettifogging obstacles as planning regulations, why are the results so ghastly? Ceausescu commissioned Bucharest's People's Palace, a 1,000-room presidential residence occupying more ground than any other building on Earth but the Pentagon. It is monstrous in more than one sense of the word: homes, schools and hospitals were demolished to make room for it, Romania's anaemic economy was bled to build it, and the result, still visible as enduring evidence of what one man's lunacy can wreak, presented what York perfectly describes as "a staggeringly totalitarian frump of an exterior".

The interiors of autocrats' abodes are rarely less appalling. In Sky's Terrible Tastes Of Great Dictators, comparison is drawn with the bling flaunted by successful musicians. It would, indeed, be possible to edit the footage of Saddam's palaces into a hip-hop-related edition of Cribs (the reasoning behind the ostentation is similar in both cases: a desire to declare status, and impress the credulous). As York demonstrates, even an outwardly dowdy ruler like Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, who demurred from such common dictator behaviour as building statues of himself, holding parades in his own honour or emblazoning his face on his country's worthless banknotes, was apt to crimes against interior design which should surely attract the attention of some sort of court.

York, who might make a suitable chief justice of such a tribunal, reckons that the relatively humble backgrounds of most dictators are significant. Elvis escaped from a two-room shack in Tupelo to Graceland. Hitler, the embittered veteran and hapless artist, dreamed of having the entirety of Berlin rebuilt to his own specifications (the fact that the demolition aspect of his plans was well under way when he left office was doubtless little consolation).

"These places," says York, "are hideous to educated, middle-class, western eyes. But these men aren't concerned with taste. It's about having what they wanted when they were 17 and living in a hovel, or expressing what-a-lot-I-got, or trying to generate pride in a nation. These are all crude, graphic stories, and they need to be drawn in a cartoon way."

The instinctive reaction of York's educated, middle-class, western observer to the temples of kitsch in his book will be to laugh, and properly so. The physical manifestations of tyranny are invariably hilarious, the more so for their humourlessness. In late 2000, I spent a day driving around Baghdad with a photographer, collecting pictures of portraits, statues and other representations of Saddam. We spent much of the jaunt in hysterics - especially at an enormous, uproariously camp painting of the great twit in a beige slacks-and-waistcoat ensemble, a bouquet of lilies in one arm, and a white Panama titfer tipped rakishly over one eye.

You do end up wondering. Why did Zaireans not dissolve, en masse, into gales of giggling every time Mobutu appeared with that idiotic leopardskin hat on? Why, when the stunted, stupid Ceausescu appeared before his people, was he able - for decades - to gaze upon intricately co-ordinated mosaic displays extolling his benevolence, instead of a chopping sea of "wanker" gestures? How did the Germans of the 1930s look at Hitler and fail to think, "Dude, you've got, like, a skull on your cap. What are you, 14? And what's with the 'tache? You know Chaplin is trying to be funny, right?"

"Again," says York, "we look at these things with a 21st-century ironic eye. Post-modern ironic eyes didn't exist in these societies. In their position, you would have to do all that. No other symbolism would be understood. In countries which often don't have a free press, or much of an educated middle class, it has to be cartoonish."

Maybe it is just a question of time, and shifting fashion. Perhaps the pyramids, those vast postcards to posterity sent by the Pharoahs, were regarded by the Guardian-reading types of ancient Egypt as the gauche posturings of crass parvenus. Perhaps, a few millennia hence, tourists will be silenced in awe at the majestic architecture of Mobutu, Turkmenbashi, Bokassa, Gadafy and Amin. It seems more likely, thought, that the sensationally dreadful homes lovingly chronicled in York's splendid book, and on Sky's documentary, will serve only as reminders that Lord Acton's famous dictum regarding power and corruption was only partly right. What these palaces demonstrate is that power is ridiculous. And that absolute power is absolutely ridiculous.

· Terrible Taste Of Great Dictators, Mon, 9pm, Sky One. Dictators' Homes by Peter York is published on Oct 17 (Atlantic, £14.99)
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post #2 of 9 (permalink) Old 10-14-2005, 09:41 PM
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RE: Terminally bad architecture

the master-craftsman, simon, that i learned natural stones from, in Germany, when he was an apprentice, the gassele (normal full worker, not master), went to irak, for 11 months at a time, 3 times, on contract, doing staircases, baths, and floors, in the palaces under construction...

he was payed cash DM 200,000 each time he went....living was in a luxourious separate westerner compound, where there was drinks and women and pool/darts.....the story is, it was like being on vacation, compared to working in Germany, and of course, DM 200,000 (West-Deutsche Mark), was like having 200 grand, in america, as everything was very cheap there...(in Germany)...the actual conversion would be more like 70 grand, US, at the time, caus of the hard exchange rate, back then...

just wanted to throw that in, since its relating to the palaces..........(the German team must not have been working in those......we do excellent work, that lasts forever....and looks excellent too.......[:D])
post #3 of 9 (permalink) Old 10-15-2005, 09:55 AM
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RE: Terminally bad architecture

Look forward to having the program exported to Stateside and the book to be published likewise.

Quite simply put, it is the need to compensate for many a despot's own perceived shortcomings fueled further by insecurities (the more power, the more insecure). Examples of smaller scale exist everywhere in one's daily lives (McMansions, SUV's, etc.), but done under 'auspices' of absolute power, the folly becomes absolutely ridiculous.



Protect your environment, say "NO" to bad architecture.

Crap, I hate it when the linked image doesn't show up.
here it is (quick quiz - who is the author of the image below?):



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post #4 of 9 (permalink) Old 10-15-2005, 10:20 AM
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RE: Terminally bad architecture

I humbly submit the Harold Washington Library, a study in Rococco-gone-loco.


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post #5 of 9 (permalink) Old 10-15-2005, 11:55 AM
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RE: Terminally bad architecture

Quote:
ThrillKill - 10/15/2005 12:20 PM

I humbly submit the Harold Washington Library, a study in Rococco-gone-loco.
Lol, large image does emphasize your point. The so-called Post-Modern architecture is an architectural equivalent of big-hair, raspberry/mango coulis and towering sculptural desserts of the 80's.

Harold Washington Library I find it actually interesting compared to the following two examples of PoMo 'follies'. By the way, I really loved Harry Weese's Metropolitan Correctional Center (the one with sand colored concrete facade with thin slit windows shown right in front of Sears Tower in the pic), along with John Hancock Tower and Inland Steel Bldg (a tiny 'gem' at the northeast corner of Monroe and Dearborn) aside from the obvious FLW works.

Take heart, Chicago, it could have been worse.

Portland, OR


London, England

hard to believe schemes to overthrow banana republic dictators are concocted in such a joke of a building...

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post #6 of 9 (permalink) Old 10-16-2005, 06:10 PM
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RE: Terminally bad architecture

I forgot. A few miles down south from Harold Washington Library is this monstrosity.


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post #7 of 9 (permalink) Old 10-17-2005, 12:50 PM
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RE: Terminally bad architecture

I agree with the author's most basic premise; that humble beginnings and the need for ostentation to prove to the world you have made it have given this world some utterly forgettable relics. This ego centric trip can really lead to atrocious designs when people think they know better than anyone that came before them. Funny how we think so deeply ( and one sided) in classic euro centric and greek ways, myself included. I believe in staying with one distinct type of style rather than mixing two or even three together. I still have not done a spanish colonial which I hope to someday do. I have done the traditional (and tired now) mediterranean, and the old english (french normandy). The park cities and preston hollow areas literally drip with wanna- be french chateaus (now tired as well). Although Dilbecks are always cute and cuddly, just as A.H. Towns' homes are always inviting and comfortable without being grand.
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post #8 of 9 (permalink) Old 10-17-2005, 12:54 PM
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RE: Terminally bad architecture

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Shane - 10/17/2005 2:50 PM

Oh I could go on about this for decades. But for this little ditty I will just say that the author of the article hit the most basic nail on the head regarding lack of exprience due to humble backgrounds. Funny how we think so deeply in classic euro centric and greek ways, myself included. I believe in staying with one distinct type of style rather than mixing two or even three together. I still have not done a spanish colonial. I have done the traditional (and tired now) mediterranean, and the old english (french normandy). The park cities and preston hollow areas literally drip with wanna- be french chateaus (now tired as well). Although Dilbecks are always cute and cuddly.
That was written using chomskybot, right?

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post #9 of 9 (permalink) Old 10-17-2005, 12:59 PM
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RE: Terminally bad architecture

I visited Cervante's home and decided that would be my dream house. An open roofless courtyard with a well in the center surrounded by balconies with adjacent rooms. So simple and sparce, like me.

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