Joana Ribeiro

Architecture shapes the city. Its scale and materiality is manipulated to convey the ideologies of powerful institutions be they political, cultural or religious, becoming a complex medium for action and interaction, where the building represents a symbol of identity and territoriality of its users and makers. Vast temples dwarf human measure in the name of devotion to the Gods. 20th century authoritarian governments aggrandize themselves through monumental, rationalist expression. As todays dominant institutions become increasingly disengaged from those they claim to represent, how can architecture support more widespread agency?

Architecture has the power to shape the city, materialising society’s ideologies and doctrines. Vitruvius, an Ancient Roman architect, contemplated the role of the architect in human society, and after attributing the discovery of fire to the origin of society and language, he accredited the invention of architecture the status of generator of civilisation. He believed architecture preceded all other arts and fields of knowledge;1 and by implication, the architect became a crucial contributor to the shaping of civilisation.

The architectural historian Quatremère de Quincy2 saw architecture as a form of expression, parallel to language and similar in nature. Like language, architecture is not only a means to shape society but also a cause of its formation. Like language, it evolves, and with that evolution comes to serve a progressive social purpose. Hence architecture and architects can be the instrument of social improvement. Moreover, both the practice of verbal communication in language and the use of visual communication through architecture comprise the instrument for Man to communicate, represent and express ambition.3 A complex medium for action and interaction, where the building represents a manifestation of identity and territoriality of its users and makers, contributing to the maintenance of that association.

Institutions transform space into territory as a means toward influence and dominance. Through their architecture, these artifacts materialise ideologies and create a physical context for social action. They generate experience and meaning, stimulate memory and desire, and offer a nexus for social possibility; as Maurice Merleau Ponty4 proposed regarding human experience and its meaning: “just as places are sensed, senses are placed”. In Ancient times, Man searched for spiritual direction in the devotion to Gods. This relation between the terrestrial and celestial scales explained the physical and the conceptual, where mathematics and science were crucial in theorising divine perfection. Vitruvius believed the city to be a cosmogram and man to be part of the symmetry of the cosmos, proposing the cosmos as macro-man and the man as a microcosm. Furthermore, architecture in the form of sacred space honouring the spirit of the Gods, embodied a grand and heavenly scale, superior to human measure, dismissing the boundary between matter and mind, flesh and spirit. Thus, transcendental architecture as symbol of the immanence of the Gods, was central in the conception of monumental architecture, as a display of power that intended to glorify established institutions.

During the 18th century, Paris was the cultural centre of the world as well as a nexus for great transformation. Prior to Haussmann’s renovation of the city, it was the breeding ground for troubled classes as poor crops and costly wars led to financial crisis. Enlightenment ideals, particularly notions of popular sovereignty and inalienable rights, influenced the rise of discontentment and ultimately caused the revolution. French architect Etiénne-Louis Boullée translated enlightenment ideals of the time by contriving architectural schemes driven by his search for pure forms from nature, and cast his gaze backwards through history to the monumental forms of cultures that predated the Ancient Greeks.

Transcending mere adulation of historical precedents, Boullée remixed classic elements at a scale and level of drama previously unachieved, searching for immutable and totalising architecture. For him, the purpose of design was to envision, to inspire, to manifest a conceptual idea through spatial forms.

His architecture, in particular the Cenotaph for Newton was one of numerous provocative designs he created at the end of the 18th century, which he included in his treatise “Architecture, essai sur l’art.” The Cenotaph was a poetic tribute to scientist Sir Isaac Newton who after his death had become a respected symbol of Enlightenment ideals. For Boullée, the sphere which was taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza, represented perfection and equality, creating soft shades of light across its curved surface and having an “immeasurable hold over our senses”5, evidencing the quest for an architecture of character and effect in the visitor’s senses, ensuing a feeling of admiration and respect.

At this time architecture re-proposed its necessity to be sign and event in order to establish and shape a new era. But it was not until the 20th century, with the rise of totalitarian regimes, that a renewed concern with the symbolic implications of architectural design emerged. In the context of a politically effervescent Fascist Europe, these regimes were not only pervasive but also invasive in every realm of society, namely where architecture was used to communicate ideologies for a political mission, and create strong social impact triggering responses of pride or fear - an ethos -, thus emphasising an architecture with character and generator of effect.

In Italy, the relation between aesthetic hues and political content was in the center of the debate. It was clear that the intention of Italian architects was to create a style that could be the synthesis of the nationalist values of the Italian Classicism and the structural logic of the industrial period. Furthermore, Fascism intended to create a “mass preference”, state architecture, in accordance with the spirit of the time. The monumentality was more than a matter of scale; it was represented by an aesthetic of power valorisation as element of modernisation, advance and search for inserting the country in a process of international development towards the future. It is no coincidence that one of the most enduring ancient stories about human hubris in the face of power is about building. In constructing the Tower of Babel6, humanity united in language and purpose, planned to build their own addition to creation: a tower to Heaven; but were stopped by God for attempting to reach his unattainable supremacy.8 While this story is meant to instruct about the dangers of human arrogance in the face of God’s power, it also illustrates the ancient association of architecture’s influence in political, cultural, and economic matters.

Similarly to this parable, Swiss architect Le Corbusier addressed the real dangers of Man’s innate ambition of power through controlling space in the context of the aftermath of World War II. In the face of such spatial devastation and displacement, he states: “taking possession of space is the first gesture of living things, of men and animals, plants and clouds, a fundamental manifestation of equilibrium and duration. The occupation of space is the first proof of existence.”9 Suggesting that “space control” is intrinsically natural to Man’s dogmatic symbol of power. In other words, from the scale of the body to the scale of buildings and cities, and through the scale of landscape, supremacy exercises explicit and implicit control over the shaping and occupation of space.

Urban space is the symbolic arena where identity and the process of boundary making are inscribed. Architecture’s primary role relative to power has always been to give physical built form to political, cultural or religious ideas. To make visible invisible values, ideologies and perspectives, by conveying and enacting authority that can be emancipative, repressive, or both. Somewhat beleaguered and subservient today, how can architecture emend the economic and societal ties that bind the people to those in power? How can the architect begin to apply his/her skills to re-distribute both space and power?


1.    The New City, Ludwig Hilberseimer
2.    Collage, Colleen Burner
3.    Women’s Rights March, Washington, USA, Mark Wilson
4.    Cenotaph for Newton, Etienne-Louis Boullée
5.    Palazzo della Civilta Italiana, EUR, Rome, Italy


1.    Donald Preziosi, “Architecture, language, and meaning”, (Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1979).
2.    French architectural historian, Freemason, and an effective arts ad-ministrator and influential writer on art during the French Revolution.
3.    Fil Hearn, “Ideas that shaped buildings”, (Cambridge, Massachus-sets: 2003).
4.    French phenomenological philosopher from the XX century. The constitution of meaning in human experience was his main interest and he wrote on perception, art, and politics.
5.    Jean-Marie Perouse de Montclos, “Etienne-Louis Boullee, 1728-1799 : theoretician of revolutionary architecture”, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974). 6.    An etiological myth that is recorded in the Jewish Tanakh’s first book: Genesis.
7.    Fritjof Capra, “The Tao of physics : an exploration of the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism”, (London: Fontana, 1983).
8.    Lisa Fidley, “Building Change: Architecture, Politics and Cultural Agency”, (London: Routledge, 2005).
9.    Fil Hearn, “Ideas that shaped buildings”, (Cambridge, Massachus-sets: 2003).