Pagodas in the Sky, 1 : Palatial Archicraft as National Silhouette

This piece will introduce a new supertopic and category (as channel). It is about architecture as a field for working out or demonstrating in stasis the proposed validity of human-manufactured political narratives: a device for adding a dimension of size and space and of permanency to a recently ensconced political enterprise, an achievement of dominance and exacted respect.

Because I am working analytically rather than descriptively, and across borders and contemporality, I think it will be useful at the start to build a case for a universal post-colonial problematic, whose trail (from first cognizance to eventual compromise) seems to run almost as a continuing story from the populist anarchism of the narodniki (1860s) anti-Czarists then the strictly ordered Communism version of Marxism in Russian Marxism Then next, moving Eastward, in the retrogression of from-above monarchical “enlightenment” in Japan ; and finally in China’s much belated and politically unfertile “New Culture” movement of the years 1919 onward. Generally speaking, the cross-border migration of these dynamically utopian ideologies taken as a world-reordering whole was not a simple time-sequential affair but a meander filled with reversals and derailments as practical consequences impinged. In Lenin’s phrase, “one step forward, two steps back” was the way visions traveled.

But the movement is more unidirectional in the fields of architecture, monumental sculpture, and finally urban planning, as proposed in axial cities: first St. Petersburg; then Tokyo’s colonial second-circle or subaltern capitals (of Manchukuo and Taiwan); and finally but with considerable fumbling in China’s post-1949 capital, Beijing. (Though more smoothly in Shanghai – whose ascent as a model coastal entrepot never trusted by Beijing begins even earier, in the 1930s). ( viz. the Yangpu model “newtown” project of

But, as regards the last of these cases, there is a clearly identifiable fast-forward flow (or rather two) pf of influences in concrete and steel that links both the KMT empire’s Nanjing and Mao’s pre-GPCR to imported design: not just links but reproduces almost stone for stone, brick by brick, what had been observed first and most decisively in Manchuria’s “New Capital”.

Matters of recapitulation aside, there remain a philosophical conundrum that need to be addressed because it calls attention to an underlying dynamic, or triggering issue: viz. why is it that self-consciously post-traditional, abstractly conceived, idea-vaunting political systems seem to feel obliged to build shrines to alien, outdated, shopworn N European classicisms of one form or another? Even as these acts of conformity and community make those who set them in place always and forever nervous. They cannot but ask: do we not have an equally deep architectural past? – or a globally admired signature of revolutionary pastness that borrows from our own history?; and why do others not salute it by building likenesses in their domains? Why must the process of “capitolizing” be a one way street?

The problem is less problematic where one or another ancestral tie is understood to bond “the new order of things” to an older utopia. The copying or refurbishing of antiquity in that case declares the builder a renewer or rationalizer of universal impulses once shared but since lost at the hands of reaction. One need only eyeball through the designs (realized or otherwise) of the world’s great assembly halls of 18th and 19th century vintage to note the case made for Neo-classical Palladian design as a cynosure of Constitutional advance. Or even (perhaps most aggressively of all) of post-liberal Fascisms defying the very idea of representative consensus? (Speer’s Gwermania, or Mussolini’s ???).

But, as we see alike in Meiji Japan and Petrine Russia, where such idealized overlaps are problems needing careful negotiation, and cannot be taken for granted as mission, the remasking of power in neo-classical guise is ever precarious.

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Rail Stations and Hotels de Ville: the citadels of Colonial Baroque –
and how they went out of style (in Japan/Manchuria first then And then in Mao’s China

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