Documenting architecture is as intricate as the fineness of designing it. It is at this stage that the project is going beyond the notice of the architect and the client, it is undervalued by a third eye. The interpretation, understanding grade and method of conveying becomes a part of this. One such prolific documentarian that has caused a lot of stir in the years is Jonathan Meades, an English writer and film-maker who has dedicated a lot of documentaries into unravelling the architectural legacy of the European dictators.

His iconic style of presenting in front of the documented building

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He has always approached architecture by the road less taken. An enthusiast of the field, he often points out how in today’s day and age architecture is becoming a profession of isolation, soaking and rising within its inert circle. The documentation has become a deception of photography. The best angles, perspective and light manipulation. The earnestness of the lens, to tell the truth about the stature goes missing. We need to document keeping the context intact. The people, their behaviour and the natural elements. The appeal of the disorder cannot be replicated and this leads to a euphoric desire of perfectionism. He often points out that taking a stance that doesn’t please everyone is essential otherwise we get into the downhill of viewing everything in a single dimension.

His BBC four series which has the four instalments focusing on the parallel growth of architecture under the dictators dwells into the dark side of politics, national interests and how the then proclaimed architecture still holds its relevance today.

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Here, we talk to focus on “Ben Building: Mussolini, Monuments and Modernism” where he focuses on the Italian architecture under the notorious dictator Mussolini, how it dealt its cards of fascism.

Meades talks about how Mussolini was a ‘dictator who failed to dictate’. This has everything to do with architecture because the pretence of his legacy which he wanted to establish through magnificent monuments that depicted his philosophy as larger than life failed right after his death. As World War II came to an end these built forms transformed on their own.

Why is the philosophy of the leader or the need to understand fascism from their point of view that important?

 Because directly interconnected is fascism as ideal, thoughtless, both on the left and right-wing. The sacrifice of flesh and blood and the immortality it achieves by fulfilling these needs. This is seen on the elevated stairs of Fogliano Redipuglia, where the word ‘presente’ is repeated over and again, to maintain the dominance. The cemetery is led by the stoned stairs which have an optical illusion set by increasing the span gradually. The cross marks are also larger in scale and their placement makes a sense of  seeking something distant as opposed to saying that the loyal followers move way ahead of time and place.

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Distant seek of Fogliano Redipuglia | Jonathan Meades

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Mussolini’s palace of civilization or the Palazzo Della Civiltà Italiana was created has a diversion of the national interests as much of the fascist architecture core was. The sense of stability, dominance and absolute power strengthened people in their interests and nightmare to those on the opposite scale. This became known as House of the dead, cause the intent never got fulfilled. It later became a part of the exhibitory space, under a government where the same principles lead to serve the national interests more pragmatically. The irony it holds. 

Palazzo Della Civiltà Italiana

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Architecture goes beyond intent. It is capable of moulding itself to suit the generation it stands on. Otherwise, Italy would have never progressed over. The same goes for the Nazi-dominated Berlin, Germany. Should we see them as mere sculptures of some man’s dilemma or the cult it might have started along, as it became a place to visit the scared and vulnerable memories, or how people win over, by owning the intent of the space, urging for a transformation and disconnecting with the ideologies and seeing them as places of tourism, a past experience? 

This is what the lens captures. How architecture is something we end up seeing every day. A part of us and our region. Interpretation isn’t the sole reason for creating anything. The fact that it exists in its physicality is important. Such observations help us understand the need for the uniqueness of the architecture minds concerning the context. The global reach doesn’t necessarily mean we need to construct a said space the same way without understanding the historic baggage it comes with. The inhabitant’s matter. The critical eye is vital to stay relevant. The need becomes for architecture to not be ‘placeless’. 

All in the lens | Jonathan Meades


Harshitha K S is an avid reader, writer and student who believes that the simple habitual observations often spark exceptional ideas. She finds describing spaces through words to an unfamiliar to be engagingly vivid. With sustainability being the matchless shot forward, she hopes to make a worthwhile contribution.