10 Awe-Inspiring Examples of Dictator Architecture

people's-palace-bucharest-romania (Image: Mihai Petre, cc-sa-3.0)

If there’s one thing we don’t associate with dictators, it’s modesty. Under a totalitarian regime, the extent of the people’s suffering is often mirrored by the grandiose ambitions of the supreme ruler. Seldom is this clearer than in the architecture. For decades, tyrants have tried to outdo each other with building projects breath-taking in their scope. The result has been monuments, landmarks and even entire cities that are ostentatious, overwhelming, and often unnerving to behold. This article features 10 imposing examples.

Astana, Kazakhstan

dictator-architecture-astana-kazakhstan (Image: Ken and Nyetta, cc-4.0)

Seventeen years ago, the government of Kazakhstan made a strange decision. After nearly a century based in the city of Almaty, they upped-sticks and moved to Astana: a tiny village lost in the middle of a featureless 745 mile wilderness. But this was just the start of autocratic ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev’s grand plan to build a futuristic capital unlike any other.

Today, Astana is like something out of a 1970s sci-fi film. Retro-futuristic buildings spiral up into the heavens, punctuated by deranged landmarks like the ‘Tree of Life’ and Pink Floyd-inspired ‘Palace of Peace’. There’s even a shopping mall that doubles as the world’s largest tent, and the Presidential Palace manages to rip-off both the Whitehouse and one of Istanbul’s grand mosques.

The city’s futurism and its mish-mash of styles have been directly dictated by Nazarbayev himself. Yet even this awe-inspiring mirage of the Steppe can’t completely hide the excesses of the regime, which remains blighted by allegations of torture even as it tries to build a modern, democratic face.

The Pyramid of Tirana, Albania

pyramid-of-tirana-albania (Image: Diego Delso, cc-sa-3.0)

The Pyramid of Tirana may be the ugliest, least-loved example of dictator architecture on Earth. Built to honour the memory of Enver Hoxha – who memorably banned beards and turned Albania into a state more-isolated than North Korea – the concrete and glass monstrosity had only just been completed when Communism collapsed. As Albania emerged, blinking, from the gloom of the Cold War, it became apparent nobody had any idea what to do with it.

Today, the Pyramid is a mess. The glass has been smashed, the sides are stained with graffiti and it sits in the middle of a bleak wasteland patrolled by surly teenagers. But even at its opening ceremony, the building can’t have looked anything but offensively ugly. Squat and badly-proportioned, it shows Communist architecture at its very worst.

Yet it’s hard not to be impressed by the scale of it, or the scale of what it represents. When the Albanian government declared its intentions this year to pull the Pyramid down, they were met by protests from people who had suffered at the hands of Hoxha. Slate summed up their reasoning well: history, no matter how ugly, must always be remembered.

Baku, Azerbaijan

baku-flame-towers-Azerbaijan (Image: Urek Meniashvili, cc-sa-3.0)

A city absolutely rolling in oil wealth, Baku is also one of the architecturally strangest places on Earth. Soviet monstrosities like the TV Tower sit within spitting distance of remnants from the Russian Imperial days. But nothing compares to the pockets of post-modern insanity sprouting under autocratic president Illham Aliyev.

Most-prominent are the bizarrely-shaped Flame Towers that loom above the city, shining with a dull red light. But all across the city odd and ultra-modern designs are appearing ranging from the dazzling Crystal Hall to the wave-like Heydar Aliyev Center.

Although the current president doesn’t dictate building styles in the way Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev does, his government is still the driving force behind this explosion of architecture. As part of their ‘urban renewal’ program, authorities are forcibly evicting thousands of residents from their homes, and torturing those who refuse to leave.

The People’s Palace, Romania

people's-palace-bucharest-romania-2 (Image: Denis Dontenville, cc-nc-sa-2.0 DE)

It says something about a dictator when he has not one gigantic folly, but two accredited to him. Aside from a pointless, yet breath-taking, highway, Nicolae Ceausescu is also responsible for the People’s Palace in Bucharest.

Everything about the Palace is overwhelming. Built at a time when Romania was rationing electricity, it swallowed up more energy in three hours than the rest of the capital managed in 24. According to some sources, it ate through 30 percent of the national budget annually. Building it was an equally vast undertaking. One million Romanians were conscripted, levelling two mountains and 40,000 homes in the process. The result was a building so big it’d take you an hour just to walk around it.

Today, the entire Romanian government and all of its branches are still incapable of using even half the palace. As for Ceausescu, the project became a focal point of hatred against his regime. Before the Palace could be completed he was executed by firing squad.

Dushanbe, Tajikistan

presidential-palace-tajikistan (Image: VargaA, cc-sa-3.0)

A former Soviet state now under the grip of a paranoid dictator, Tajikistan boasts an almost-blinding array of architectural styles – no more so than in the capital Dushanbe. At one end of the scale is the staunchly Soviet circus ring, built in 1976. At the other is the newly-constructed National Library, an imposing edifice that could rival Ceausescu’s grandest dreams.

Under the guidance of authoritarian leader Emomalii Rahmon, Dushanbe has been witnessing a recent explosion of towering monuments. The new Post Office sits at the head of a square ripped straight from the Soviet futurism handbook; an enormous, pristine structure way too big for its intended use. Around the city, gigantic monuments loom above parks, boasting more white marble and gold than many palaces.

The overall effect is undoubtedly impressive, but hard to square with the crippling poverty most Tajiks are forced to live in.

Moscow’s Soviet Relics

Lomonosov-Moscow-State-University-MSU (Image: Alfred Schaerli, public domain)

Every city that was part of the USSR has its fair share of imposing Soviet buildings, and none are more imposing or magnificent than those in Moscow.

Although huge swathes of the Russian capital consist of old Imperial buildings or glittering modern skyscrapers, significant chunks of skyline are still dominated by Soviet relics. The most impressive of all might be the Lomonosov Moscow State University. Built using forced labor, it stands 36 stories high and is said to contain over 20 miles of corridors. Looking more like a plush hotel than a place of learning, it’s rivaled in scale only by the Foreign Ministry, a great big boxy monster that seems to shove other buildings away from it. In a city of impressive structures, these are simply the most impressive.

Minsk, Belarus

house-of-government-minsk (Image: LHOON, cc-sa-4.0)

Minsk has been described as a “classic” example of Stalinist architecture. During the horrors of World War Two, over 80 per cent of the city was flattened, leaving the boulevards and historic neighbourhoods to be rebuilt by Soviet architects. The result is a city utterly, overwhelmingly dedicated to the possibilities of concrete.

Nearly every single important building looks identical. Independence Avenue and Victory Square are sweeping vistas of imposing grey and white, and the City Council looks like it could easily house the Ministry of Truth. During winter, the whole city becomes almost impressively dour. For fans of Soviet gloom, Minsk is very likely the closest they’ll get to heaven.

But even amid the grey, there are some surprises. The National Library looks impossibly space age, while the bus station at least tries to be different. Taken altogether, the sheer force of Stalinist vision on display is hugely impressive.

Tashkent’s Hotel Uzbekistan

Hotel-Uzbekistan-Tashkent (Image: Giorgio Montersino, cc-sa-4.0)

In the centre of Uzbekistan’s capital sits a hotel of almost unimaginable scale. Built during the 1970s to house the USSR’s great and good, it rises out of a featureless stretch of parkland – a vast, ever-so-slightly concave rectangle that’s stunning in its size.

Seen from below, the Hotel Uzbekistan is every bit as grand as the People’s Palace; yet somehow more impressive thanks to its unity of style. There’s no trace of the architectural add-ons favoured by most Soviet-era designers: no vast hammer and sickle, no blocky exhortation to the workers – just metre upon metre of the same concrete pattern carrying on into infinity. It’s slightly concave shape helps to make it seem even bigger than it really is (and it’s big).

Although it’s easily the most-impressive, the Hotel isn’t the only incredible Soviet relic in Tashkent. Both the perplexingly ornate sci-fi subway and memorably bizarre State Museum of History are remarkable to behold, as is the saucer-shaped circus.

Pyongyang, North Korea

Ryugyong-Hotel-Pyongyang-North-Korea (Image: Joseph Ferris III, cc-4.0)

The capital of the state with the worst human rights record on Earth, Pyongyang is architecturally impressive in a terrifying way. Everything is built on a scale so grand it inspires vertigo. Worker’s apartment blocks spiral up to a dizzying 40 storeys, while the Mansudae housing project towers higher still. Crowing the lot is the formidable Ryugyong Hotel – a monster vanity project that was started in the 1980s, abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union and finally restarted in 2008.

Seen from above, Pyongyang looks painfully futuristic: a 1980s Soviet utopia. On the ground though, things tell a different story. The towering apartment blocks are grimy and long since fallen into disrepair. The mind-boggling International House of Cinema is nearly abandoned and even the pristine space-age Ryugyong Hotel is nothing but a facade – literally. Inside it is as empty and useless as it was in 2008. Seeing Pyongyang is like seeing the future after it’s already been and gone: a decaying utopian dream crumbling under the weight of its megalomaniac rulers.

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Ashgabat-Turkmenistan (Image: Jim Fitzgerald, public domain)

Ashgabat is a hallucination, a mind-blowing mirage rising out of a burning desert in the middle of nowhere. It’s the city Pyongyang wants to be: a vast and blistering monument to one man’s ego.

After the USSR folded in 1989, then-leader of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov went on a building spree almost unparalleled in modern history. From a modest large town, Ashgabat flew upwards as monuments, skyscrapers and deranged statues sprawled across the landscape. Yet they all conformed to the same pattern: white marble topped out with gold. The result was a city that looks like a cross between a museum piece and vision of the future; all sweeping marble boulevards and towering space needles. What Babylon might have looked like if it was built in 2099.

But while both Astana and Pyongyang are at least semi-functioning cities, Ashgabat is a stage-managed museum piece. Shelves in supermarkets are stacked precisely to the nearest millimeter and never contain a single gap. The white marble boulevards are scrubbed clean every morning by badly-paid washer women. Most locals are confined to run down slums hidden on the outskirts of the city. The whole place feels like a dream; one created to disguise a human rights nightmare.



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