If you came across a video featuring Frank Gehry‘s frenetic Disney Concert Hall, Renzo Piano’s towering New York Times building, John Portman‘s postmodern Westin Bonaventure Hotel, the Art Deco Los Angeles Times building, and Anish Kapoor‘s reflective Bean sculpture, you’d probably assume you were watching a survey of some of the past century’s most memorable modern architectural landmarks.
Unfortunately, all of these buildings are featured in a video far more sinister, as first noted by Citylab‘s Kriston Capps and discussed by design critics across the internet: the National Rifle Association’s latest propaganda ad. Images of these works, along with street scenes in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles–stereotypical bastions of liberal elites–cycle through the video as NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch snarls: “And then they use their ex-president to endorse the resistance. All to make them march, make them protest, make them scream ‘racism, and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia.'” It is an “open call to violence to protect white supremacy,” as Deray Mckesson put it; some NRA members have condemned the ad according to The Washington Post.
But what’s less clear is why these modern buildings are featured. Architecture has a long history of functioning as a symbol of power–but how, historically, did modernism became a political target? It’s complicated.
Already knowing that the NRA is a crypto-fascist arm of white supremacy, only thing that confuses me is their issue w/modern architecture. pic.twitter.com/jNIPdf0wa8
— Soulless Golem (@ZacharyLipez) June 29, 2017
apparently the nra think's gehry's la phil is a threat to freedom. maybe they should play the 1812 overture–it has canons. https://t.co/k6WF87WMn3
— mark lamster (@marklamster) June 29, 2017
— Kriston Capps (@kristoncapps) June 29, 2017
Unsurprisingly, authoritarian regimes have typically looked to emulate the architecture of monarchs. Commissioned by men who held absolute power, these buildings and their lavish ornamentation were symbols of their wealth and strength of their empires. Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler all used overt classical references in the buildings they commissioned.
In the 1930s, Nazis–who favored buildings in the style of Rome–forcibly shuttered the Bauhaus, Germany’s famed school of design and art in Dessau, and refused to allow operations to resume unless they changed their curriculum to reflect the state’s beliefs. Modernism–which is entrenched in the Bauhaus way of thinking–is the opposite of authoritarianism in that it emphasizes social progress through design. It welcomed women (though the sexes weren’t completely equal); believed in the transformative power of technology; argued that good design married art and craft and could lead to more efficient and better lives; and put forth a democratic ideal that everyone deserves good design. Those tenets were the ideological opposite of regimes that sought to use design to instill fear instead of equity.
While Frank Gehry’s $295 million concert hall might not be perceived as a symbol of equity, its style is from a lineage based on that notion and was built with the intent to contribute beautiful design to the city. (Even if its glare ended up causing a nuisance.) Cloud Gate–the real name of Kapoor’s bean–is installed in a public park, accessible to anyone who ventures into downtown Chicago. The New York Times Building, with its glass lobby and facade, embodies the transparency that the company values in its reporting–the opposite of opaque State-authored lies.
The NRA is clear with its intentions for invoking them in its video: cities, and the modern buildings populating them, are the enemy.
What’s troubling about the ad, beyond its violent message, is how it turns public spaces and publicly accessible buildings into targets. At the end, Loesch addresses her audience–presumably, NRA members who are likely agitated after watching her incendiary tirade–saying, “The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country of freedom is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.”
In the NRA’s video, “this” isn’t just a thinly-veiled stand-in for liberalism. “This” is a series of physical spaces where the “clenched fist of truth” can be directed. We should all be worried.