After Donald Trump’s first meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, he said they “fell in love”. Now they appear to be preparing for a second summit, and no-one should be surprised. It turns out that for all the geo-strategic awkwardness of their relationship they have something concrete in common. They share – with each other and with megalomaniacs down the ages – a taste for the crass and the outrageous in what they build.
Deyan Sudjic, author, critic and the director of the Design Museum in London, has given a name to an impulse that seems to afflict the powerful in all their guises, from billionaires and dictators to Tony Blair. He calls it “the edifice complex”, and has used the phrase as the title of a book. “Building is the means by which the egotism of the individual is expressed in its most naked form,” he writes. The complex, he argues, boils down to this: the size of a building roughly corresponds to the size of the ego of the person who commissioned it.
Reshaping a city is a dictator’s prerogative. “Seeing their world view confirmed by reducing an entire city to the scale of a doll’s house in an architectural model certainly has an inherent appeal for those who regard the individual as being of no account,” Sudjic writes. Kim has been doing just that along Pyongyang’s Mirae Scientist Street (aka “Pyonghattan”), where a whole boulevard of cartoonish skyscrapers symbolises his vision of a new Korea and its emergent capitalist class.
Even before Trump met Kim for the first time, he had been clocked as a devotee of “dictator chic”. The coinage comes from Peter York, style analyst of Sloane Rangers and Saddam Hussein. He, too, has written extensively on the design principles of authoritarian interiors, outlining ten of them. Rule one says: the bigger the better. Two: reproductions of historic styles are favoured especially if, three, it’s French. Using gold, marble and glass are rules four five and six. Rule seven is that you need art, preferably big oil paintings. Number eight calls for paintings of yourself, and rules nine and ten concern the need for expensive drapes, furnishings and tchotchkes. York found evidence to support his theory in mansions built by Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine as well as Hussein. He wrote in 2017 that dictator chic was Trump’s architectural idiom too, and it’s hard to disagree.
Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, New York, a gleaming Coke-black apartment block of 58 floors (although Trump claims there are 68), with salami-coloured Italian marble throughout and reflective gold escalators rising from a cavernous atrium. The look is Arabian potentate but the building is all-American. “We all know what America is,” Sudjic writes. “It’s skyscrapers and Coke.”
Dictator chic is usually associated with bespoke monstrosities (think Speer’s designs for the thousand-year Reich and Ceausescu’s “People’s Palace”). But it can be mass-produced as well, as in an unforgettable development in Bolu, Turkey, just off the main road through the mountains from Ankara to Istanbul. The developers are struggling to fund all 732 of these mini chateaux, mainly built for Arab buyers from the Gulf, but their exteriors alone fulfil at least four of York’s criteria. They’re big, derivative, old-fashioned, and French.
They’re also in good company. Across the Atlantic the equivalent mash-up of extravagance and cultural (never mind epochal) appropriation is to be found in the exurbs encircling every affluent conurbation in North America, in the McMansion.
Kate Wagner, creator and curator of the blog McMansion Hell, gives a great run-down of what makes a McMansion so horrifying. They lack proportion, they don’t have any sense of visual balance and they are inclined to use as many different architectural styles as it’s possible to squeeze into one building.
The most outrageous of all McMansions is probably Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida resort. When he bought it in 1985 it was already an egregious example of architectural cross-contamination – an inharmonious meeting of the Alhambra, Versailles and a Marrakech riad. To this Trump added a 20,000 square foot, $9 million ballroom in pure dictator chic; a lavishly gilded Louis XIV pastiche with a floor so shiny you can see your face in it.
The Mayans built temples, the Egyptians built the pyramids and Kim is building a ziggurat-style hotel. This resort is part of the Wonson-Kalma tourist zone of beaches, hotels, fairgrounds and a marina on a stretch of coast that impressed Trump for its location between the established market of South Korea and the emerging one in China. Officially it’s supposed to help attract two million tourists a year to North Korea by 2020. But even if no one comes it will have served a purpose. “Architecture is about power,” Sudjic writes. “The powerful build because that is what the powerful do.”