Why is supposedly “advanced” architecture appreciated by so many of today’s dictatorial rulers, and what does this tell us about the politics of contemporary architecture? Can cutting-edge architecture still be considered “progressive” when it’s being commissioned by national leaders such as those of Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and Brazil, just to mention a few?

True, Brazil’s despicable leader was elected, but it’s also come out that his campaign benefited from the circulation of fake news on WhatsApp. In any case, a leader who lets the Amazon forest be burned by murderous colonizers is not exactly hiring BIG because of Bjarke Ingels’s theory of “Hedonistic Sustainability“, that’s for sure. BIG is being hired to produce tourist attractions, as can be gleaned from the official website posting the announcement, and while tourism is certainly “hedonistic”, it’s not an example of “sustainability”. And we know Bjarke is supposedly an “advanced” architect because he’s closely associated with the Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (the founding of which, curiously enough, was closely associated with the corrupt conservative party CiU)

What about the corollary? Is “conservative” architecture favoured by leftist political leaders? To answer that, we need look no further than Barcelona, whose mayor Ada Colau was formerly a housing rights activist. Today’s architectural projects in Barcelona are, to be sure, no longer designed as much by international stars but more by local architects. But is this work “old-fashioned”? To some degree, it is: it’s small scale as opposed to grandiose (not to say “BIG”), often involving “ordinary” building types with a long tradition, such as housing with institutional or commercial use at grade. Perhaps it’s not the most media-friendly copy, but leftist leaders are generally much more amenable to architecture and urbanism that lowers CO2 emissions and air pollution, that is affordable by a majority, and that serves to improve the quality of life of citizens more than tourists, and that’s anything but a politically “conservative” agenda.

So: either there are two completely different kinds of “progressive architecture”, or else one of them isn’t really progressive. Here’s where good ol’ fashioned idioms come in handy:

“Tell me who you go with, and I’ll tell you what you are.”