Symbolic Architecture as a Method of Manipulation

Jason So and Sofia Zavala

Buildings are usually seen as tools for inhabiting, whether it is for permanent living or a temporary workspace. This allows for a safe and convenient location for people to gather, these buildings act as a place of safe haven. Since the beginning of time buildings were used for protection by being a structural symbol of security. Ranging from small primitive huts to protect from critters in the jungle to large medieval castles to prevent outside intruders from harming the villagers. Although these structures play an important role in the safety of the people, the opposite is very possible, to use its symbol of safety against the people. Because buildings not only represent safety, but also other attributes ranging from religion to business, taking this structure down can make an impact on society. When destroying this structure of safe haven, this will spark uncertainty in one’s safety within the public. The destruction of such a prominent symbol of protection can manipulate the fear within the public. This allows buildings to not only be tools of inhabiting, but also tools of control. The symbolic attributes of a building can provoke attacks against it as a method of manipulation. An earlier example of this would be the Gunpowder Treason Plot, in London, 1605. The plot was organized by a group of Catholics in England who planned to blow up a part of the Palace of Westminster to murder the king and his court and at the same time kidnap the king’s daughter. Their main objective was to re-introduce Catholicism in England, so they would manipulate the princess to introduce their beliefs to English society after the explosion at the palace. Another example of the usage of architecture as a manipulation method is the destruction of Catholic churches during the Philadelphia Nativist Riots, in 1844, Pennsylvania, USA. Due to these churches having such a strong symbolic attribute and presence in the region, the Nativists were able to use them as a strategy for expressing their anti-Catholic beliefs. A more recent example is the Los Angeles Times headquarters bombing in 1910, in California, USA. The bombing was caused by two brothers who belonged to the American Labor Movement and who determined the building to be the right symbolism of oppression that would need to be taken down in order to further emphasize the motives their movements had.


Los Angeles Times bombing

L.A. Times Headquarters, California, October 1st, 1910.

The Los Angeles Times bombing in 1910 was a purposeful detonation in order to send a message regarding the American Labor Movement.1 The Los Angeles Iron Workers strike began in June 1910. This was important for the people due to the open shop policies threatening the high wages and working conditions of San Francisco workers. “The strike resulted in an anti-picketing ordinance, and Otis used both the Merchants and Manufacturers Association and the LA Times to espouse his anti-union views” (McNamara). While this ‘war’ between workers and businessmen went on, the main fighters were visible.  The union formed by the workers represents the freedom and quality workplace for the people while the association and LA Times represent the oppressors towards the public’s desires. These groups start becoming more symbolic and known, becoming a higher value target as the ‘war’ wages on.

Fig. 1. How the building looked before the bombing.
Fig. 1: How the building looked before the bombing.

The oppressor’s method of attacking this symbol of freedom was to “arrest 472 strikers” (Irwin). While this did slow down the union’s intentions, this did not stop their push for their desires. They quickly grew when “13 new unions had formed, increasing union membership by almost 60 percent” (Irwin). This method of attack was not effective, so the union decided to attack not only the symbol of oppression, but also the physical structure of safety and security. The Los Angeles Times Building (Fig.1) seemed ideal for these purposes. The bombs were supposed to go off at 4 a.m., when the building would be unoccupied, but there was a fault in the explosives timing. In addition to this, the bombers overlooked the fact that there were gas main lines under the building, which expanded the damage and caused the side of the building to collapse. “The explosion destroyed the Times building…It detonated with such violence that for blocks around, people ran panic-stricken into the streets, believing that an intense earthquake had hit the city” (Irwin). (Fig.2)

The building after the explosion.
Fig.2: The building after the explosion.

The explosion caused 21 deaths and left more than a hundred people injured. Not only this attack effectively took down the building of oppression, but it also sent a message to the public about their determination to fight for the American Labor Movement. This struck panic into the people; it manipulated not only the oppressors and the public to be cautious with their actions, but also “became a cause célèbre for the American labor movement” which further incited the movement to keep moving forward (McNamara).
The destruction of a single building was able to change the tides of the movement, bringing celebration and hope to the unions while placing fear into the public and oppressors. The Los Angeles Times building’s symbolic attribute of oppression allowed the manipulation of society.
This “ bombing was equivalent to the 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center, It was called ‘the crime of the century’ ” (Irwin). This attack was hefty enough to leave a mark on America for years to come. The destruction of this symbolic building has left a mark on America and its people.


Philadelphia Nativist Riots

Catholics churches, Philadelphia, 1844

The Philadelphia Nativist Riots were a series of riots in May 6 and 8 and July 6 and 7, 1844, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. These riots took place in order to emphasize the rise of anti-Catholic beliefs and movements by destroying Catholic churches. (Fig. 3-4)

Fig. 3: St. Augustine’s Catholic Church, destroyed by a mob in 1844.

These series of riots that occurred were also in order to act against the Pope due to fear of being taken over. “Nativists2 and evangelicals3 characterized Catholicism as an authoritative religion incompatible with republicanism. Viewed as submissive and unquestioning followers, those of Catholic faith were seen as lacking the individuality and freethinking required of democratic citizens. Moreover, the Catholic immigrant, whose allegiance was to a foreign ruler, was seen as disloyal to America” (Charlton). The Nativists viewed Catholicism as just another factor of authority trying to take over the American lifestyle without just reasoning, it was a threat to the people. This concept was seen to be cancerous and in turn it was the Nativists’ goal to wipe it out, but with ‘just’ reason. “The American Nativist Party allied itself with the American Protestant Association in propagating a conspiracy theory: the Pope was planning to take over America” (Fitzgerald). This initial rumor was enough to cause the people to riot against the Catholics. Such an idea sparked the Nativist’s anger to detach themselves from Catholic related associations. The most effective action would be to remove the Pope and his followers, but that being impossible leads to the next best option – to try to remove every essence of Catholic from their territory.

Fig. 4: The burning of the original St. Michael’s Catholic Church.

Not only the people felt threatened by the idea of being taken over, but also the physical presence of the churches emphasized the feeling of being taken. “Declaring that it was better to let all churches burn than shed one drop of blood, he counseled Catholics to take no action and offer no resistance” (Fitzgerald). These churches add a sense of security for its followers, along with a long history of culture and religion. Not only its a place of supposed safe haven, due to being a sacred place, but it is also a place of culture which influences the public.

The destruction of the churches and religious icons is to destroy its history and importance. This not only illustrates how far the Nativists were willing to go to oppress the Catholics, but also physically removes its essence from their home. Due to these churches having such a strong symbolic attribute, the Nativists were able to manipulate the push against Catholicism.


The Gunpowder Plot

Palace of Westminster, London, England, November 5th,1605, King William II

The Gunpowder Plot was a failed attempt to assassinate King James I of England and VI of Scotland. Set in London, United Kingdom, the House of Lords located in the Palace of

Fig.5: This cross section by the famous architect Sir John Soane shows the cellar of the House of Lords which Fawkes had tried to blow up in 1605.

Westminster was meant to blow up on November 5th, 1605. This plan was set up by a group of disaffected English Catholic, who had as a main purpose the restoration of Protestant4 England back to Catholicism, and with this put the long-coming persecution of their faith to an end in England. Many English Catholic citizens at the time were disappointed when they learned that their king James I expressed extreme hostility against Catholicism and imposed fines against its practice, forcing the citizens to live double lives and maintain a passive approach towards the country’s religious beliefs. This created a very tensioned atmosphere in England, and eventually led to the formation of a rebel group who would later plot the assassination of King James I. Knowing that the English Parliament was gathering in the House of Lords on November 5th, the plotter group decided to blow up the building in order to kill the members of the Parliament5. Meanwhile, some members would kidnap the king’s daughter, who would serve as their “puppet queen” for a later change in the country’s religious views and beliefs.

The palace of Westminster during the 17th century was a complex of buildings that revolved around chapels, halls and rooms that included the Parliament meeting room as well as multiple royal law courts. The palace was easily accessible by Englishmen at the time, including merchants and citizens who lived and worked in shops within the palace complex. Cellars were very common at the time, being used as storage and often made out of brick. Conveniently, the building in which the plotters settled for planning had one that was directly underneath the first floor of the House of Lords. (Fig.5)

Fig.6: Cellar where they stored 36 gunpowder barrels.

This location resulted to be ideal for the purposes of the plotters, using it for storage for around 36 gunpowder barrels, which they would use to blow up everything and everyone above the cellar (Fig.6). Even though the plan sounded set up, an anonymous letter was later sent to Lord Monteagle, who was in charge of opening the Parliament meeting, so he was able to communicate early to others about the plot. This resulted in the arrest and prosecution of the plotters. The plotters’ main aim was the killing of King James, but they were all aware that many other notable targets would attend the Parliament meeting at the House of Lords, targets that included the king’s own relatives and members of the Privy Council6. Even though their plan ended up being a failure, this group of people carefully planned an assassination of a king using a prominent structure in the city as their medium.



Buildings not only act as a structure of protection, but can also be a sword against society. They are used as a weapon of manipulation by terrorists due to their symbolic qualities; this allows the oppressors to create fear through the destruction of the building. These actions help to send a message from terrorist to the public, the message varying based on the situation and method of destruction. The message can create a spark in movement such as the explosion of the Los Angeles Times Building, or to emphasize the public’s purpose through the burning of churches and chapels during the Anti-Catholic movement, or to change the lifestyle of a nation by the attempted assassination of King James I. These different methods of manipulation all fall through the same tactic of the destruction of a symbolic structure. Not just any building to prove a specific purpose, but a specific building to prove a specific purpose.



  1. Labor Movement is an organized attempt by workers to improve their status by united action (particularly via labor unions) or the leaders of this movement. (The Free Dictionary)
  2. Nativism is the political position of demanding a favored status for certain established inhabitants of a nation as compared to claims of newcomers or immigrants. (Wikipedia)
  3. Evangelism is the preaching of the Christian Gospel or the practice of relaying information about a particular set of beliefs to others with the object of conversion. (Wikipedia)
  4. Protestantism is the religion or religious system of any of the Churches of Western Christendom that are separated from the Roman Catholic Church and adhere substantially to principles established by Luther, Calvin, etc., in the Reformation. (The Free Dictionary)
  5. The Parliament is the national legislature of various countries, especially that of the United Kingdom, made up of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. (The Free Dictionary)
  6. The Privy Council was a body of advisers to the sovereign of the Kingdom of England. Its members were often senior members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, together with leading churchmen, judges, diplomats and military leaders. (Wikipedia)

Research Resources

Project 1: Fire Damages Nairobi Airport

Topic 1

Irwin, Lew. “Bombing of The Times in 1910 Set Labor Back a Generation.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 03 Oct. 2010. Web. 09 Oct. 2013.

“The Los Angeles Times Bombing.” McNamara. University of Cincinnati, n.d. Web. 09 Oct. 2013.

Fig.1. Los Angeles Times History Center. Image. 1887.

Fig.2. C.C. Pierce. Image. Oct. 1, 1910.

Topic 2

Charlton, Faith. “Anti-Catholicism in Jacksonian Philadelphia.” Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center. PAHRC, 26 Mar 2010. Web. 9 Oct 2013.

Fitzgerald, Margaret E. “The Philadelphia Nativist Riots.” The Philadelphia Nativist Riots. Web. 09 Oct. 2013.

Fig.3. “St. Augustine’s Catholic Church”. Image. 1844.

Fig.4. Perry, John B. “The burning of the original St. Michael’s Catholic Church”. Image. 1844.

Topic 3

Web. 9 Oct 2013.

Robinson, B.. N.p.. Web. 9 Oct 2013. 

Web. 9 Oct 2013.

Fig. 5. Soane, John. “Main Papers: John Soane’s Plan for Warming and Ventilating the House of Lords”. Image. June 30, 1794. Parliamentary Archives.

Fig. 6. Capon, William. “Powder Plot Cellar beneath the Palace of Westminster”. Image. 1799.


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