The political interpretation of the change in architecture

Zhaoqi Chen and Fanyi Pan

No building is totally neutral. Architecture is always endowed with cultural meanings and political meanings in multiple ways. Even a simple residential house can give people who live in it a feeling of having an identity. Dictators crave architecture in all ages. From ancient Egypt when pharaohs commissioned pyramid, to today when spending huge sums hiring famous western architects to design image projects have become a trend in Asia and the Middle-East, we can see that the importance of architecture to authorities has never changed. Architecture has become a tool which is used by authorities and dictator to promote their political forces, achieve certain political purposes and show off their strength. Political dominators use architecture as a tool by changing it in three ways- transformation, demolition and construction. Each of them has its specific purpose.

Yuanmingyuan Imeprial Garden, Beijing, 1722-1725, Yong Zheng and Lei Jin Yu

click to zoom in

Transformation of old architecture is sometimes used by monarchies to reinforce and propagandize their power. In 1709, the emperor of the Qing dynasty, Kang Xi, granted his son Yong Zheng the Yuanmingyuan Imperial Garden. In 1722, Kang Xi died and Yong Zheng became the new emperor. Yong Zheng felt grateful of the beautiful garden and started to transform it immediately after he succeeded to the throne. The original Yuanmingyuan was relatively a relax place that was made up of nine small islands. Kang Xi resided and worked in this garden during the summer time. Therefore, there were nine palaces on each island and these could only satisfied the basic residential and working needs of the emperor. During the transformation, Yongzheng kept the original garden and set it as the dwelling district of his family. This move is the inhabitation of old power. Yong Zheng respected the old power because he knew that his father had built up a high prestige among the minister and the people. He could follow his father’s path to establish his own empire. However, if he couldn’t carry forward this emperor garden, he might have been considered as a mediocre. In this way, it would be difficult for him to establish his own prestige. Therefore, Yong Zheng expanded the garden in all four directions from the original Yuanmingyuan. First of all, he constructed many new places on the extended north, east and west part. Then, he extend the central axis to the south direction where he constructed a new main gate and putted the cabinet office and other government buildings. All the working spaces were located just inside the main entrance. Yong Zheng established a new type of institution “the grand central”, where selected ministers received the emperor’s command directly, inside the cabinet. The establishment of the grand central was one of the most important measures that Yong Zheng implemented to reinforce his power during his region. Yong Zheng putted it near the entrance so that he could give orders to the country and get information as soon as possible. In this way, Yong Zheng used the architecture to reinforce his power by giving it a new function and a significant location. Moreover, this arrangement have further political meanings. In Yong Zheng’s transformation blueprint, the original garden which had nine islands actually symbolized the nine districts of china. Also, there was an artificial mountain on the north-west part of yuanmingyuan that stood for the most representative Chinese mountain – the Kunlun Mountain and a manmade lake which represent the east sea of china. The whole area of the garden where over 150 architectural complexes located was more than 21 million square feet. We can see that, the New Yuanmingyuan was actually the epitome of the empire. Yong Zheng putted his imperial court just near the entrance to symbolize the whole empire was well protected and preserved by Yong Zheng and his government. Therefore, Yong Zheng hired the best architect and used the best Materials to construct Yuanmingyuan which represented the Qing Empire to indicate how wealthy and prosperous it was. At last, he built a luxury, magnificent garden and it became the top imperial garden in world history. The finished architecture was the best propaganda for the emperor’s force and the image of the country. Only a powerful and wealthy nation can have such a spectacular imperial garden. As a new emperor, he aroused his people’s and even the world’s attention. Imitating Chinese imperial garden architecture then became a trend in Europe. Everyone in the world knew that there was great a royal garden that symbolized the nation in china called Yuanmingyuan and a prosperous empire call Qing. Therefore Yong Zheng successfully used the architecture to propagandize his country and his power.



Arc de Tromphe, Paris, 1836, Jean Chalgrin

Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile, Paris 636*600 Alvesgaspar
Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, Paris

The construction of new buildings can also help the authorities to achieve certain purposes. Dictators construct iconic buildings aim at propaganda politics and to praise their power. The construction of Arc de Triomphe is a good example. After the third anti-French alliance collapsed, the history of the Holy Roman Empire also came to an end. Napoleon became the dominant in Europe area. In order to commemorate this event as well as consolidate his position as a dominator in France, on February the first, 1805, Napoleon announced that he would build a great sculpture to welcome the army who was coming back from the battlefield to Paris. Although the construction has been suspended during the Bourbon Restoration and finally finished at 1836, the huge significance of this memorial building still created overwhelming effects to the world. The size of buildings often tells people the status the owner.

The more powerful the owner is, the more magnificent the building is. The Arc de Triomphe, stood 162ft tall, 150ft wide, and 72ft deep, was the biggest triumphal arc in the world in existence until the appearance of the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang. The design idea came from an old triumphal arch situated in Rome called the Arch of Constantine established. The Arch of Constatine was constructed to commemorate the Constantine I’s victory over Maxentius at the Battle of Mivian Bridge. Napoleon was not only to imitate the Constantine I but also to surpass every powerful figure in history. Similar to the Arch of Constantin, the friezes, figures and bas-reliefs on the Arc de Triomphe recorded the French people fighting against invaders. The rectangular framed bass reliefs with ornate borders illustrated the scenes of battle. On the front left side of Arch de Triomphe, a relief sculpture of Napoleon with people surrounded stands on the pillars showed his great contribution for the country. The names of the people who involved in the war were carved on the surface inner arch after Napoleon. The tops of the arch bears there were the names of Napoleon’s battles. People can never forget the monumental value of Napoleon because of such magnificent architecture. The Arch de Tripmphe was located in the Place de I’Etoile known as Place Charles de Gaulle now. The Place Charles de Gaulle would not be so famous without the Arc de Tripmphe, and the solemn environment created by landscape of the building reinforced the historical status of Napoleon. The Arch of Triomphe leaves people who visit the arch with a deep impression. Only the country with wealth and strength can build such architecture. In this way, Napoleon virtually consolidated his political position.

Demolition is always used by the authorities as a weapon to strike or remove the political forces of enemy. In wars between nations, destroying architecture equals destroying memories of a nation. On November 9, 1938 night, Nazi Germany and part of Austria committed an attack on Jews in Germany. Ninety-one Jews were dead during the attack and 30,000 were arrested. However, the targets of this destruction were not only the Jewish but the Jewish architecture. During the strike, over 7,000 Jewish shops, 1,500 Jewish churches and 29 Jewish malls were destroyed. This is the famous event call Kristallnacht.

Zerrennerstrasse synagogue after Kristallnacht 324*450 StadtArchiv Pforzheim
Zerrennerstrasse synagogue after Kristallnacht
StadtArchiv Pforzheim

The Jews architecture, often named Synagogue architecture, has its unique aspect giving Jewish people a feeling of attachment and a sense of belonging. There are no set architecture shapes of interior designs, and the styles varied according to the time of building and the location of building, but through constructing magnificent synagogues, many Jewish communities wished to show their status as citizens as well as their unity. Many synagogues were burned throughout Kristallnacht witnessed by the public and the Zerrennerstrasse synagogue was one of them. The interior of the Zerrennerstrasse synagogue was totally destroyed after the event, the pinnacle on the top was broke off and fragment of painted glasses scattered all over the ground after that night. The Nazis was trying to destroy the Psychological defense of Jews by diminishing the synagogues because when people lose the place that they are familiar with, it means they have lost the environment where memories are loaded. [2]Through the action, the Nazis transformed Jewish Germany into a nation without architecture which performed as carrier of their culture. This threatened people to lose their collective identity, which is the goal of Nazi Germany. Milan Kundera once said, “Nations are destroyed by first robbing them of their memory.”  We can see the purpose of Nazi in this event- to destroy the memories of Jewish people. The buildings which proved their existent history and carried their memories were all destroyed. The Nazi’s aimed at clearing the history of Jews, removing the evidence of their existence and Jews’ motivation to come back to Germany. Kritallnacht is the mark of the begging of holocaust of Jews. Nazi successfully gave the Jew a heavy strike.


 Overall, architecture is a tool of authorities. Architecure itself doesn’t have any political powers. No matter Yuanmingyuan, triumphal arch or the Jewish architectures in Germany, the things that are politicalized are the ways that they were transformed, constructed and demolished. Yong Zheng transformed Yuanmingyuan into a magnificent imperial garden to propagandize Qing’s wealth and power and showed off his strength. Napoleon constructed Arc de Tromphe to memorize his contribution and consolidate his political power. Nazi demolished thousands of Jew’s architecture in order to remove their nation. The former two political dominators successfully achieved their goal. Although Nazi didn’t complete his political ambitions at last, the Kristallnacht did give the Jew’s a heavy blow. All the stories above tell us, architecture is a powerful political tool. Through the ways of transformation, construction and demolition, authorities can reach their political purpose.





 Alteration of Yuanmingyuan (1725, China)

Triumphal arch (1836, Paris)

Crystal Night (1938, Germany)




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Hotel Napoleon Paris 594*323

Hotel Napoleon Paris








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[2]Xiao, Yi. “摧毁建筑的政治解读 ——读《记忆的毁灭:战争中的建筑》” (accessed October 18, 2013).




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