Power Houses

Power Houses

Mini Teaser: Symbolism matters. The great powers know this, and their military architecture reflects it.

by Author(s): Kurt M. Campbell

In the years following the end of the Cold War, security issues and defense establishments were supposed to retreat into the background of world affairs, but in some respects military organizations have taken on great prominence, or at least their buildings have. Indeed, one can tell a lot about military attitudes in a particular country by looking at the state of its defense ministry buildings. In the past few years, several countries, including Japan, Germany, China and Russia, have either reclaimed historically significant former headquarters or built lavish, sometimes ostentatious, new defense ministries. Even the venerable Pentagon, the five-sided gray monolith on the wrong side of the Potomac, is getting a multibillion-dollar facelift and addition.

Why this building boom in the defense sector? Part of the rationale is purely practical. Modern military institutions require facilities equipped with coaxial cable, fiber optics and computer wire, all the necessary tools for effective command and control. Also, as military officials take on more important diplomatic missions (particularly in the United States, China and Germany), they need furnishings and surroundings that suitably impress and compare favorably with the traditional elegance of foreign ministry offices. Yet each of these military monuments represents something more, a kind of heritage in stone, carefully conceived and constructed with one eye on history and the other squarely on the future.

It is not surprising that architectural historians and military strategists see different things when they look at these constructions of steel and stone. "I have always believed that architecture is intensely political and can serve as a vehicle for propaganda, and military architecture is certainly no exception in this", argues Michael Hays, professor of history and architectural theory at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design.

The paradox here, however, is that overt symbolism of the state-sponsored variety reduces the depth and complexity of the architecture's meaning in favor of one overt message, and the history of architecture suggests that this kind of blatant symbolism often coincides with periods of political regression or hyper-nationalism.

Others see a mixture of anxiety and ambition behind these buildings. "These capital investments in new military headquarters reflect an underlying neuralgia and anxiety about the emerging security environment, an environment that is neither as sanguine nor as predictable as we had collectively hoped", reflects Richard Armitage, a Reagan-era Pentagon official and now deputy secretary of state in the Bush administration. "However, there is more to this than simple international angst. These buildings are concrete testaments to past and perhaps future military glory and they are physical manifestations of the continued relevance of militaries in the life of nations."

The most recent construction is the Japan Defense Agency headquarters in Ishigayia, a Tokyo suburb. (Japan's defense organization was downgraded to an "agency" from a "ministry" after World War II, as a purposeful bureaucratic reminder of the dangers of militarism.) Ultra-modern and bristling with antennas, it could easily be mistaken for the headquarters of one of Japan's commercial giants. However, the choice of location was anything but random. "Ishigayia has great significance in the martial history of Japan", according to Michael Green, an expert on the Japanese military at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Ishigayia is where the war crimes tribunal was held, the scene of the military's great shame. It is also the site of [noted Japanese author and nationalist] Yukio Mishima's 1970 call for a military coup and his subsequent ritual suicide after his appeal went unheeded." Indeed, there are frequent lines of Japanese visitors waiting patiently in front of the new building to visit the military-maintained shrine to Mishima inside. Still, Green sees Ishigayia as being "more about the future than the past. They had to bury a lot of rubble, literally, to create the foundation for that building."

Building on top of the past, it turns out, is a common practice. "There is a long tradition of architecture being called upon to construct a new reality, one that superimposes upon and supersedes utterly a previous meaning", explains Scott Cohen, associate professor of architecture at Harvard's School of Design.

Much of Asia interprets the new Japanese military digs as another step along the road toward rehabilitating the self-defense forces. One Chinese military official reported that he was "shocked by how unapologetic and proud the Japanese defense people were about this new building. I half expected that they would be somewhat sheepish about showing me around, but I was taken right in the front door--there was no sense of ambivalence."

But the construction has struck an ambivalent chord across the region and subtle questions have been asked about Japanese plans to play a larger security role in Asia. Several Asia hands speculated that the Chinese would have made a bigger stink about Ishigayia had they not opened their own new lavish Ministry of Defense virtually in the same month.

The Ishigayia building also seems to have touched a powerful chord in modern Japanese society. The old headquarters in fashionable Rompungi (nicknamed Rompungi prison by the unfortunate military personnel who were stuck with exhausting tours of duty inside the dilapidated compound--a common military drinking song had the refrain "Monday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Friday"), drew scarcely a glance from Japanese citizens. Ishigayia, in contrast, is attracting large crowds of Japanese visitors, including significant numbers of retired military.

The German Ministry of Defense is in the process of relocating back to Berlin and the so-called Bendlerblock, an imposing stone structure dating back to the Wilhelmine era with towering German Gothic columns. The building's history mirrors the modern military history of the German state. As the navy headquarters at the turn of the century, it was where Admiral von Terpitz launched the program to build the Kaiser's dreadnoughts. Count Klaus von Stauffenberg plotted the assassination of Hitler here during the dark days of World War II, and it was in the Bendlerblock's courtyard that the co-conspirators were executed.

"Officials in the German Ministry of Defense are reacting to the move back to the Bendlerblock in immensely emotional and complex ways", according to Walter Slocombe, undersecretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration. "It is a reminder of a painful past but also a proud military tradition of brilliant innovation. The building is going through massive reconstruction now but, once complete, it will be a dominant presence in the new Berlin."

The new military presence in Berlin has not stoked a European neuralgia comparable to that which has accompanied the Japanese construction. Perhaps Germany has dealt more convincingly with its history than Japan, and, certainly, the institutionalization of security links in Europe is far more advanced than it is in Asia. Germany also has a much closer relationship with Russia than Japan does with China. Whatever the cause, the re-opening of the Bendlerblock to a new generation of German soldiers has not been met with levels of Russian or European angst that might have been expected even a few years ago.

In important respects, these buildings represent current national sentiments in both Germany and Japan to remove any remaining stigma associated with their respective militaries. By coincidence, last year the German army and the Japan self-defense forces fired shots in anger--in Kosovo and against encroaching North Korean fishing vessels, respectively--within days of each other, after over a half century of complete battlefield inaction.

China's new Ministry of Defense is located just off Tiananmen Square on a large tract of prime Beijing real estate. Its yawning foyer is reached after a steep ascent of innumerable steps, passing stony faced red guards manning the entrance. The Ministry was completed and opened its doors to visitors last year, and former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott was the first foreign dignitary to be received there. A senior government official with him on the trip summed up the experience like this:

After seeing the intricate oriental screens inside the Olympus-sized rooms I kept thinking of how L'Enfant was supposed to have designed Washington, dc to subtly impress visiting dignitaries. Well there is nothing subtle about this building. It was clearly designed to awe. The PLA may not yet have a modern military but you would never know it from the building. Their architects clearly were looking to impress--even intimidate--visiting barbarians to the Middle Kingdom.

The lack of upkeep and the deterioration of a relatively new national military facility--such as the recent plight of the Russian Ministry--also carries with it significant symbolism. The Russian military headquarters is a few years older than those of Japan and China, sitting just off the old Arbat section of Moscow. There are eight sides to the Pentagon's five. Its gleaming marble edifice can be glimpsed at a distance while strolling along the lamp-lit lane created by then Mayor Boris Yeltsin when perestroika was in vogue. The Russian tricolor flies proudly overhead and the occasional officer can be spotted wearing a traditional imperial military emblem replete with the two-headed eagle of the czars.

Up close, however, the building is showing signs of acute deferred maintenance. Inside, the ceiling-to-floor murals celebrate Stalingrad and other acts of World War II heroism, but much of the decor tends to bring to mind more the humiliation of Afghanistan and the current horrors in Chechnya. On a rainy day, there are buckets in some of the halls to collect drops from leaky ceilings, and the marble floors are already cracked and discolored. After several years of intense construction, the Ministry was completed during the waning days of the Soviet era, and the building was in some ways a tribute to the military's enduring influence along the Kremlin's corridors of power. Today, though, it is the scene of brutal infighting and plummeting morale, and the deterioration of the physical plant mirrors the overall crisis in spirit among the uniformed ranks in what was once a serious and respected fighting force.

Essay Types: Essay