My new favourite conspiracy theory has much to say about modern architecture
I have a new favourite conspiracy theory — and it’s a corker.
It claims that many of our most beautiful buildings are the work of a lost civilisation called the Tartarian Empire. What makes it so special is that they’re not talking about really old stuff like the pyramids, but much more recent examples like the early skyscrapers of New York and the pavilions constructed for international expositions during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Writing for Bloomberg, Zack Mortice delves into the underlying motivations of the Tartarian theory. It boils down to the contrast between the brutal, faceless modernism of the 20th century and exuberantly ornamental monuments of the preceding era. How could these two kinds of architecture possibly be the work of the same civilisation?
Hence the invention of a lost — and better — civilisation, one that’s been deliberately erased from history by the masters of the modern world.
There are two things that ought to be said about this theory. The first is that it’s obviously untrue. The second is that themes of a golden age and a global conspiracy could easily appeal to political extremists — especially those on the far Right.
So is this the “QAnon of architecture”, as the headline to the Bloomberg piece puts it?
The author does state that there’s no direct relationship between the Tartarian theorists and the followers of Q. However he also argues that the sort of buildings praised by the former are associated with the history of western colonialism:
I think this rather misses the point. If any school of architecture is colonialist, it is modernism. This is the style (and technology) that has spammed buildings across the world on a scale that has literally buried non-western traditions, many of them thousands of years old. The triumph of western modernity is a cultural catastrophe on a global scale — an act of mass civilisational erasure.
Local skills, local materials, local aesthetics, local heritage, all have been bulldozed in the name of globalisation. When this happens to other aspects of culture — spoken language, for instance — western liberals protest, but in regard to architecture they have a blindspot. Just as they can’t see the aesthetic disaster of modernism in their own countries, they’re also insensitive to what the modernists have perpetrated elsewhere.
Conspiracy theories are ultimately an expression of collective psychological distress. And the whole world has every right to be distressed by what modernism has done to the built environment. The biggest thing that the ‘Tartarians’ get wrong is that it’s not just the legacy of one civilisation that’s been devastated, but all of them.