I’m sure you’ve seen it: fake columns, excessive usage of the yellow color (don’t fool us — it’s not gold), ornaments from the Renaissance or whatever epoch it was cool to put them everywhere. Let’s not forget the cheap bulky Chinese furniture that tries to replicate the ‘classic’ interior. You got the picture. Why is it so with dictators? Why do they have such an awful taste? Well, there’re reasons for that.
Before we jump to the reasons I’d like to define who the ‘dictator’ in this article is. I will use this word towards a person who is indeed a dictator but also is an authoritarian ruler or is simply a person that has features of dictatorship or is leaning towards authoritarianism.
This is done so because there aren’t many open dictatorships as it’s easier for the rulers to pursue a hybrid regime with a somewhat democratic façade than to become a real dictator and confront with the rest of the world.
For example, even though Belarus and Russia could be described by some as ‘dictatorships,’ the fact is that these countries are hybrid regimes and therefore they don’t fit the classic ‘dictator’ picture. But the architectural taste of the local elite perfectly fits our topic and that is why ‘dictator’ is an umbrella term in this article.
Dictators Have Limited Human Resources
Architecture is connected to human history and technology that is available on the market. In the beginning, we only had manual labor and very basic tools that were used to create all of the architectural masterpieces of the past. We also had very limited materials that could be used in construction. The building process was very slow and could take centuries where generations would work on a building.
Today we design and erect structures completely differently and it has affected the way our cities look. We have standards that should be met that weren’t present in the past. Like showers, toilets, sockets, heating pipes and so much more that just didn’t exist before.
You can replicate the architecture of the past but most of the times it’s unnecessary as modern architecture better fits our time. Also, the replica more likely will be poorly executed since we’re losing craftsmanship of these times. Especially when we’re pursuing a design that was popular hundreds of years ago.
The past didn’t have Photoshop but we do. We also don’t need so many sculptors and painters since we build differently now. And this is where the dictators are limited. They can have any money in the world but they just can’t have decent human capital since the society is developing and the market dictates what skills are required.
That is the reason why the architecture of the dictators degrades over time. What could’ve looked like something decent 50 or 100 years ago today looks way worse.
Unused skills are being forgotten and it becomes harder and harder to find architects, designers, and engineers that could design and build a genuine ‘classic’ house or palace. Modern universities teach less of that and with a dictator as client architects and designers are usually forced to replicate the past without a proper understanding of it with some poorly looking ‘adjustments’ to today’s needs.
They Also Have a Limited Access to Authentic Materials
Even if the dictator did find a perfect architect and a perfect engineer he still won’t build a decent looking home. The problem is with the materials. Not only there’re fewer professionals in this field today, but there’re fewer authentic materials that were used in the past.
The dictator has a trade-off: wait years for the authentic materials that are extremely expensive and should be handled with care or just use cheap modern materials that look ‘alike.’ No modern dictator will want to wait decades for his palace to be built.
That is another difference with the past when rulers were in power throughout their life and could plan long-term projects. Unless it’s a hereditary dictatorship like North Korea, dictators will want to build fast and enjoy their life and power now and not then.
Why Dictators Want Castles Anyway
People that have a dictator’s taste usually come from poor or very poor families. When there’re too many people in your family and everybody is living in tight conditions you develop a dream that ‘one day I’ll live in a big house.’ Even in a palace or a castle.
I understand that logic completely since I didn’t have much personal space in our tiny flat in Russia. But when I grew up and calculated all of the expenses associated with a large home like the heating bill, renovation or construction costs and basic maintenance like cleaning it found out that it’s just not worth it. Too much time and money will be wasted with a large apartment or a house.
With dictators, it’s a little different. Poor living conditions in the past and a poor education don’t allow the person to think in practical terms, especially when they have a monopoly on power in the country. Unlimited power and poor childhood combined create these hideous monsters that dictators call ‘home.’
Education is important since dictators simply don’t see any difference between authentic materials that we’ve discussed above and modern cheap one. ‘If it looks like a column we’ll take it,’ — their way of thinking. Authenticity is not their goal. They want a palace-looking home now, not a renovation masterpiece.
Demonstration of Power Is Crucial
Dictators usually live in a different world and class system than the Western democracies. For them demonstration of power is extremely important. Mostly because the societies in which they live are still underdeveloped and have a need for demonstration of personal wealth as a symbol of class. Riding a bike for work as Dutch and Danish politicians do is simply a joke for these people.
This has roots in the fact that these countries don’t have well developed liberal democratic institutions and an independent juridical system. In developed countries, people follow the law. In developing countries, those who have more resources are the law. They show this by material wealth like clothes, cars, yachts, villas, and palaces.
Dictators can have a crazy self-esteem in the first place. Thinking of themselves as extremely special, unique, powerful and smart they can demand an ‘appropriate’ interior or a house. Of course, the only ‘appropriate’ design, in this case, is ‘the best’ design which simply leads to marble there, a column there and all of that painted in yello… sorry, I mean gold! Of course gold!
A good example is Donald Trump’s apartment that looks wrong on so many levels.
Brown Nosers Do Miracles
But what if dictators don’t have such self-esteem? Don’t worry, this is what friends are for. When a dictator gains power he is usually cut off from the real world by an army of deputies, assistants and brown nosers. This is where he starts thinking of himself in terms of ‘greatness’ and starts comparing himself to the ‘great leaders’ of the past that usually lived in a completely different society hundreds of years ago.
Well, you get where I’m going. After being brainwashed by the surroundings the dictator starts looking for a ‘suitable’ architectural style that fits his ‘greatness.’ Obviously only the Versailles but ‘ten times bigger’ can satisfy his ‘refined taste.’
The fact is that sooner or later dictators lose their sense of reality and this is where all these palaces, yachts, castles and so on come from. But all this is not enough and this is when deviations like a home tiger, a shark in the aquarium, personal zoo and so on start. Like Tony Montana in Scarface with his tiger or the former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych with his home zoo.
Corruption and Nepotism Make Things Worse
Alright, we have a tiny dictator. He has all the power he needs, his fellow colleagues ‘worship’ him and ‘the people’ simply adore him. Time for a palace: the Royal Highness wants a ‘bigger Versailles’ with a jacuzzi.
Shall we start with a tender so all of the architectural firms can take part and we’ll choose the best project? ‘LOLWHUT?! Dude! I have a friend that knows a great architect. He’ll be ten times cheaper and I know his family, they’re good people,’ — this is what you hear in return. The only guy is fit for the job is either somebody’s the son, friend or just gave the biggest bribe. And this is how things are done in developing countries.
All of the works are performed by some no-name company that nobody knows or by people that aren’t talented enough to be hired by private companies but they are friends or schoolmates with the right people.
Zurab Tsereteli is a perfect example — being an average sculptor he quickly degraded as a professional sculptor by creating gigantic tasteless sculptures in Moscow for the former Mayor of Moscow Yury Luzhkov. During the 2000s he was something like a ‘default’ sculptor for Moscow.
What’s worse, this way of work applies to everything: the architect, the interior designer, the engineer, the construction company, the supplier of the materials and so on. This giant mountain of incompetence and corruption, in the end, creates what we see and laugh at.
These are the major points that should be kept in mind when dealing with dictators and their taste:
- Architecture has changed. Same as our society. There’re few professionals whose work is expensive and time-consuming and even they cannot reinvent the past correctly using modern materials.
- Dictators usually have a poor childhood and don’t have the best education.
- The society they live in is developing and it is important to demonstrate power as they are the law.
- Either the dictator already has an inadequate view of himself or the surrounding does a good job at nurturing it.
- Corruption and nepotism make sure the ‘right’ people get the job and not the best.