What Dallas McMansions and a Russian palace alleged to be Vladimir Putin’s have in common
When I started teaching a class on architecture and film a few years ago, I couldn’t imagine how urgently the subject would become relevant. Then came the coronavirus plague, and suddenly every interaction in our lives seemed to be conveyed through screens, and the idea of work and the city in the Zoom era was something we all had to deal with.
And then it came last month when architectural documentary – usually the more esoteric stuff of public service broadcasting – sparked a national settlement with a ruthless authoritarian regime.
This film is Putin’s palace, an exhibit of the Versailles estate that Russian President Vladimir Putin supposedly built for himself on the Black Sea. Produced and narrated by Alexei Navalny, the now imprisoned activist and opposition leader, the film runs for almost two hours and has been viewed more than 106 million times on YouTube – almost certainly a record for any film about architecture.
His release, coupled with the imprisonment of Navalny, brought countless thousands of protesters onto the streets of Russia affected by the economic crisis, the pandemic and a general loss of confidence in Vladimir Putin’s kleptocratic leadership.
In the film, architecture is both the literal and symbolic epitome of Putin’s corruption and lust for power. As his country suffers, the Russian president is reportedly building a $ 1.3 billion apartment complex on a property that Navalny with wicked humor describes as 39 times the size of Monaco (and then rebuilding it because of the first attempt botched). “Vladimir Putin introduces himself to the Russian emperor and acts accordingly,” says Navalny, describing him as pathologically “obsessed with wealth and luxury”.
In response to the film, Putin denied the palace was his, and Russian petrochemical oligarch (and Putin’s ally) Arkady Rotenberg claimed to be the client of the project. But the film makes it hard to believe that it was created for and by anyone other than the Russian President.
Located outside the coastal town of Gelendzhik, it’s almost comically lavish, a virtual seaside Kremlin surrounded by vineyards and protected by multiple levels of security, including a no-fly zone over your head. According to the film, it has its own church, sculpture garden, rare tree-lined boulevard, arboretum (with 40 gardeners), amphitheater, and underground hockey rink (Navalny: “Who needs a palace in? What can’t you play hockey?” “), An amphitheater, a guest house that is accessible via a 250-meter-long bridge, a power station, dormitories for employees, an operations center, two helipads and its own gas station.
This image is from a video released by the Youtube channel Navalny Life on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, and shows a drone view of a property on the Russian Black Sea in Russia. Navalny’s team released a two-hour video investigation of the so-called “Putin’s Palace” – a property on Russia’s Black Sea that cost $ 1.3 billion and was allegedly funded by an elaborate corruption program involving Putin’s inner circle. (Not in the credits)
And then there is the palace itself, a colossus of almost 200,000 square meters. Its designer is Lanfranco Cirillo, an Italian architect who worked with Russian petrochemical executives in the 1990s and rose in the oligarchic food chain until reaching Putin himself. “We sold a way of life more than architecture,” he said in an interview with Radio Free Europe in 2015. “There’s a big difference between an expensive home and a stylish, elegant home.”
The model is, if there is one, the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, the imperial residential complex of the Russian tsars and now the Hermitage. Again – perhaps not by chance – largely designed by an imported Italian architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who was able to bring the cultured taste of the script of classical architecture to the Russian Empire.
It’s worth noting that the same impulse that comes from a combination of uncertainty and ambition is what makes European architects like Renzo Piano and Santiago Calatrava such a success in the US, and Dallas in particular. The polite Genoese accent of piano, for example, certainly sounds “nobler” than, for example, the Bronx-like diction of Peter Bohlin – one of the most respected architects in this country – whose office, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, is headquartered in unromantic Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg is now part of the renowned Hermitage.
(Photos by Tom Waseleski – Gazette)
But Cirillo is no Rastrelli, and so, while mimicking the scale and grandeur of the Hermitage, the palace lacks the essential dignity of the original, its sense of imperial grandeur. In fact, it’s a McMansion that has been scaled to a palatial level with the amenities you’d find in an upscale suburban development in North Dallas: indoor pool, home theater, gym, bar, loads of storage space.
The film also contains more ambitious elements like those found in a hotel in Las Vegas: a casino, a shisha bar (with a stripper rod), an “aqua disco”, a real theater with private boxes. The bedroom is the size of a large apartment and has its own living room “to rest before you rest,” jokes Navalny, who was sentenced to more than two years in prison last week for parole violations.
Besides the dry detailing and construction, the main difference between the palace and its historical models is conceptual. The great palaces were not just residences, they were public expressions of a comprehensive philosophical framework that reflected the monarch’s godlike presence throughout the physical and intellectual space of the empire.
The point of the endless enfilade (series of aligned rooms) in Versailles and its Cartesian formal gardens stretching into the distance was not just to be “noble” but to translate that philosophy into a three-dimensional universe. The palace does not seem to have such metaphysical claims. It is a bureaucrat’s vision of a palace, not a monarch’s. There is no principle of organization beyond an accumulation of luxury and the provision of material comfort. The allée of the trees is only an allée of the trees. It’s going nowhere and means nothing except that Putin supposedly has the power to conjure it up.
In America we have no imperial palaces; Power rests with the people, and it is represented by the architecture of our democratic institutions, the most important of which is the Capitol. And so we have an unexpected reversal: in Russia, architecture protesters turned against an autocrat and for democratic reform, and in America, an angry mob spurred on by a leader who hopes to speed up a democratic process, and exactly attacks the architecture that symbolizes this form of government.
That attack on American democracy has failed, and former President Donald Trump has now settled in his own seaside villa, Mar-a-Lago. A National Historic Landmark, it was designed in the 1920s for heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post with 58 bedrooms on 17 acres. This makes it one of the largest private houses in the country.
Trump is famous for his own gilded style, of course, but there is nothing mysterious about his oceanfront property. For the right price, access is yours. There is actually a waiting list for Mar-a-Lago. Boastful luxury is Trump’s brand, and his empire is built on his ability to market that sensibility in products that range from condos to steaks to education. And here there is a difference between Russian culture, in which even the very idea of achieving such material extravagance was historically unthinkable, and the clearly American worldview, which assumes it is a desirable and achievable goal.
What is shared between Putin and Trump is the operational belief that in Wall Street’s argot, “greed is good,” or at least good for them. It is this essential principle that characterizes their architecture. It’s stylistically agnostic in a sense – neoclassical, baroque, Moorish, modern – it doesn’t matter as long as it’s bombastic, an exercise in self-enlargement. Let’s call it authoritarian chic.
When I saw Navalny’s documentary, I was reminded of a work of Russian architecture that, in its humility, humor, and genuine interest in the history of this country, is the virtual opposite of the palace.
The Vodka Ceremonial Pavilion (2003) was designed by the Russian architect Alexander Brodsky in the Moscow suburb of Klyazma in Russia. It consists of reclaimed windows from a demolished factory. (Mark Lamster)
Located in a settlement on the outskirts of Moscow, it is a small whitewashed structure made entirely of reclaimed windows from a demolished 19th century factory. Inside it is luminous, with small openings that look out onto a birch forest. It was designed by architect Alexander Brodsky with a single purpose: a ceremonial pavilion for drinking vodka.
It’s nice to think that such a building exists in these times. Even if I want to visit it a little too often for my own good.