Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Forbidden Cities

This is a spin on an old tale:

There is a certain trans-cultural element to architecture of a certain kind. There is certainly what appears to be a universal approach to an architecture to power. That architecture should serve as a lesson to those who tend to like to wield it. In a different age the architecture of power was expressed in the palace complex. For all their contextual quirks, the Forbidden City, the Topkapi Palace and Versailles all express the same complex set of symbols and gestures. And each reveals the same fatal weakness.

The expressed symbolism is well known—power, wealth, legitimate repository and incarnation of the nation. That symbolism also finds expression in the great ceremonies that marks the court life of each of these palace complexes. The focus is on entrance and presentation. The architecture emphasizes national myth and its plastic expression through the use and manipulation of space. The palace serves as a symbolic representation of nation. Its inhabitants become the symbolic form of the population, its genius and its boundaries. The buildings are meant to produce a rhythm of impression and press from an unformed outside to an increasingly defined and concrete manifestation of power. Not just power, but the proximity of power to the visitor ad the relationship of that visitor to that power. And then it ends. Behind the public rooms are the intimate spaces. There is an inversion here. These are smaller, more intimate spaces, but no less luxurious for the intimacy. They are more disordered, less linearly structured, but no less public. These are not spaces designed for living for oneself. Like the public spaces, these are spaces in which private lives are ordered and publicly unfolded through intimate, as opposed to public, ritual. And thus the connection between space and inhabitant—every aspect of life for the ruler becomes a public expression of will and power that leaves nothing hidden. All life is useful as expression of power.

Indeed, one gets the sense of the way space is manipulated to transform the bodies of its inhabitants of these palaces become as architectural as the buildings in which they live out their lives. There is hardly an act capable of observation—from birth, copulation, defecation, dining, to the usual great and small acts of state. All of them are observed, recorded and contained within more or less precise formulae that are meant to emphasize through people what the architecture of the palace itself already proclaims. Body and building together leverage the power of space and inhabitants. It amplifies the voice of inhabiting rulers, their courts, officials, and the hundred of servants who, in a sense, serve as a physical manifestation of the service of the population in general to the ruler just as the palace itself serves as a representation of the physical space of the nation ad its organization through the act of will of ruler. Palace and ruler are ego—yang—the positive manifestation of will over physical elements and people. But within the palace and beyond the spaces shared by ruler and subject are the female spaces—less organized more intimate, self referencing—ying space. These terms, of course are not deployed in absolute senses but rather as the reflection of the gendering of the spaces themselves in accordance with the gender structures of its builders. While there is some contextual variation between Topkapi (harem quarters) the Forbidden City (the palaces of monarch and concubines) and Versailles (the intimate entertainment rooms of the queen ad court) the gendered differences in the manifestation of space is similar. Inside—outside, grandeur—intimacy, pleasure—obligation, order—disorder, male—female; the force of the binaries are strongly expressed. But male or female, all space is carefully controlled, and in that control of space lies the control over inhabitants.

And there lies the perverse irony of grand spaces. What appears to maximize the expression of power outward form ruler to subjects, perversely enough, also works against that power. These palaces are indeed isolated, remote, inaccessible. Great heaps of land and buildings that are deliberately cut off from those subject to the power of the occupants. And the inhabitants from most to least powerful, is as isolated as the architecture within which their lives are played out. And that is the problem. This is a self-referencing space, and its inhabitants increasingly come to reflect that orientation of their environment. Cut off in their power, the inhabitants of these palaces inhabit a small world of their own making. They are dependent on others for information about the outside world they control. And they little idea of the conditions of the dependent populations—why should they cultivate any such idea when the idea of their position in relation to subject is as solid as the building that serves as its physical expression? Trundled about from one ceremony to another, they serve as cogs of a machine that produces the appearance of power while growing more and more remote from its sources. The most powerful eventually are reduced to a state of ultimate dependence—unable to function except in their roles in the production of power’s appearance. Indeed, in an advanced stage, even the most powerful are reduced to metaphor. They are as much captive as ruler.

It is then hardly surprising that the people wielding such vast official power from these places eventually became essentially irrelevant in the lives of those governed—almost mythic figures that could be discarded when inconvenient or when the subject population had moved on (without them). Or they become sources of arbitrary and non responsive power. Ruling within an architecture that magnifies the self-referencing experience of power makes its expression outside the palace walls disconnected. And the more disconnected the expression of rule, the greater the tendency to react badly in the population. That bad reaction, in turn, is viewed with alarm and suspicion and might reinforce the tendency of the palace to seek more intently for the protection of its walls and the views generated therein. The palace becomes a refuge as well as an outward expression of power. And thus is the dynamic of decay well mixed in the mortar of the palace buildings. What might have started out as the expression of power projected outward by a ruling structure that meant the palace to reflect the strength of that expression of political will becomes its opposite—a place to which power retreats for protection against the outside and is projected inward, until there is little left to rule but the precincts of the palace itself.

The architecture of the palace and the lessons it provides is not limited to those governments intent on building architectural monuments to its power and will in the form of monarchical edifices. There may be many new forms of palace compounds being built today. But the palace and the royal power it contains no longer serves as the base of political power. Today one must look to the great palace compounds of the administrative state to find the current versions of the palace compound. It tales little to convert a grouping of administrative offices into a palace compound—where state officials function within an architecture that serves to confine them as effectively as it projects official power over the population. And these great palaces of modern ruling classes can as easily fall victim to the self-reflective inward looking and defensive fetishes of the appearance of power in political contexts in which the opposite might eventually become true. Officials who would be tempted to reproduce these palace compounds—the Forbidden City, the Topkapi Palace or Versailles—would do well to reflect on the consequences.


Nicholas J. Rowland said...

Ever check out Susan Davis's book about the establishment of wide thoroughfares in the US giving way to new forms of social protest?

Larry Catá Backer said...

No but have seen her work on Philadelphia and Christmas revels.