by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 5
May 2021
Idea
14:30

Long live the Tartarian Empire!

My new favourite conspiracy theory has much to say about modern architecture
by Peter Franklin
Was the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 from a fictional empire?

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?

At its core, the theory reflects a fear of how quickly things change. As they look at today’s cityscapes, Tartaria believers see an eerie and alienating place, filled with abstract monoliths that emerged out of nowhere in a brief period of time.
- Zack Mortice, Bloomberg

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:

Western nations fanned out over the globe, subjugating and destabilizing numerous non-white civilizations — and building many examples of what’s now considered Tartarian architecture as celebration of these victories…
- Zack Mortice, Bloomberg

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.   

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  • Interesting article, surprising just how sensitive, those colonial architects could be, we tend to think of cultural fusion as a contemporary idea. But this didn’t just occur in colonial architecture, but within European nation states, Hussmann’s Paris, got exported all over Europe, look at Budapest, Sofia. Art Nouveau had a different subtle take from Bueno Aires to Birmingham. Lutcyens British School in Rome, took the East transcept of St Paul’s and exported classicism back to Rome.
    Modernism, looks more like a true imposition, but that’s more to do with mega bucks and Meg egos.

  • Quite right, it’s modernism which is the culture-erasing plague. The best colonial architects – such as Lutyens and even Baker in New Delhi – interwove their designs with local designs, skills and traditions. I can’t think of any British (or for that matter Spanish, Portuguese, not sure about French) colonial architecture that was simply imposed, taking no account of local tradition. The same can’t be said for international modernism. Give me the spicy Anglo-Indian fusion of a balti any day over the bland internationalism of McDonalds.

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