Autocratic architecture

Aug 30, 2006 at 12:00 am
Flip through even just a few channels on cable television and you’ll soon come upon home decorating experts dispensing advice, archly sizing up people’s style and offering tart summaries of their subject’s misdeeds. These scenes, where cowed homemakers are mercilessly mocked, have become common enough to become cliché.

But what if those aesthetic buttinskis were to, say, wander into Hitler’s office, or Saddam Hussein’s palace, and start offering their criticisms? What if the fashionistas descended upon despots, people who’ve been surrounded way too long by yes-men? Would they still dis’ and Z-snap when people have been whisked off to the gulag for less? Who’s going to tell Kim Jong Il what they really think about his hair and platform shoes?

The new book by Brit writer and style guru Peter York, Dictator Style: Lifestyle of the World’s Most Colorful Despots, offers an answer of sorts, a coffee-table tour of the homes of dictators and tyrants that’s a sort of "queer eye for the state guy." Part autocrat biography, part interior decorating critique, the book is a treatise on the high crimes against good taste by "great men." Their homes are grand, ostentatious, commanding — and often hideously ugly.

Architecture critic Lewis Mumford once summed up the architectural needs of men who believed themselves to be heroes of the state, "men whose daily actions are governed with the fine resolution of a Roman general or dictator." Of them, he wrote, "Unconsciously, such men want a stage to set off and magnify their actions. King Alfred can perhaps remain a king, though he stays in a cottage and minds the cakes on the griddle; but most of us need a little scenery and ritual to confirm these high convictions." That need for surroundings that conform to an outsize ego was what Mumford had in mind. "The hero who has drawn his sword or addressed an assembly wants elbow room for gestures. His parlor must be big enough for a public meeting, his dining room for a banquet."

Such outsized aspects are front and center in these pages. The offices, the homes and the pleasure palaces are as dramatic as film sets, often cribbing stylistic passages from Hollywood’s "white telephone" movies, though without the competence of a Cedric Gibbons or an Edith Head. By the late 1930s, such spaces had become authoritarian tropes of their own, neatly lampooned with the oversized sets Chaplin employed in The Great Dictator: large offices, massive desks, symbols of sober stability and delirious power.

Though the classic fascist leaders seem quaint compared to the horrendous pads of later strongmen, York takes special exception to Hitler’s Berghof, the quaint, kitsch-choked mountain chalet that Hitler claimed to have designed himself. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin gets off a bit easier. York’s commentary focuses on how image-makers carefully finessed his "common touch." A photo of Uncle Joe reclining on a wicker day-bed and reading a manuscript shows him as an everyman, his pose as relaxed as a J. Crew model.

This seems pleasantly austere next to the over-the-top environment of Yugoslavian strongman Josip Broz Tito, whose room is overstuffed with so many taxidermied animals, one has to double-take the German shepherd panting nearby to guess if it’s alive or not. One unintentionally hilarious photo of Tito shows the autocrat posing for a bust, as though being constantly painted and sculpted were the most normal thing in the world.

It’s these kinds of images that make this romp through rulers’ roosts very funny. Most of these abodes look less like the lair of a Bond villain than you’d think. In fact, many of the pads bear a resemblance to sets from Scarface: gaudy, gangsterish interiors rich with nauseating decoration and garish colors. Of Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad palace, York asks, "Was it designed by one of those American corporate practices that do office blocks and Las Vegas fantasies and can turn their hand to anything?" Hussein’s palaces furnish one of the more fantastic spectacles, a badly painted image of a sword-wielding surfer dude fighting a serpent, while a nude blonde and blue demon look on, "art" that would look more at home airbrushed on the side of a ’70s conversion van. York calls this foray into soft-porn "deeply sadistic and utterly absurd."

And the humorous incongruities abound, with the scenery embracing everything from priceless antiquities to Motel Six-quality furniture to disco flash. Imelda Marcos’ Manila apartment has "an obviously cod Michelangelo painting … flanked by a real Gauguin and Pissaro," and "a jug of plastic roses [sits] on a real French eighteenth-century commode." And bad taste becomes high comedy in the lavish 1977 coronation of the Central African Republic’s Jean-Bédel Bokassa, which cost $22 million (as York notes, "a quarter of his country’s total budget for that year") and had him seated on a gold-plated bronze throne shaped like an eagle, holding a scepter, wearing "a 29-foot-long mantle of crimson velvet bordered with ermine" — despite the fact that it was held in a basketball stadium built in "the grim Eastern style."

All in all, it’s an interesting look at how upstart leaders envision themselves as great men through art. In a life of excess, moments of good taste are dashed by bad judgment. York says of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, "Their possessions were huge, unfocused and vulgar; a jumbled mass of valuables hovered up from all around the world. Even their investments seemed tacky."

Sic semper tyrannis, indeed. Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to