This week The Guardian architecture and design critic Oliver Wainwright files a lengthy piece on the New Shaab Palace, the presidential palace in Damascus, Syria. "You can learn a lot about a dictator from their domestic decor," Wainwright begins, continuing on to investigate what makes "the monster of the moment," Syran president Bashar al-Assad, "feel at home." Though al-Assad isn't living in the blocky, imposing hilltop fortress these days, Wainwright offers a thorough breakdown of what he calls an "empty, echoing monument":
· The palace, commissioned by Bashar's father Hafez Al-Assad, was designed in 1975 by Kenz? Tange, the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect. Notable work included the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the New Tokyo City Hall; per his 2005 New York Times obit, "his Olympic arenas, whose swooping suspended roofs are often described as among the most beautiful structures of the 20th century, also evoke the simplicity of archaic temple forms."
· Though the elder Al-Assad was a "man of simple tastes," the building, made largely of Carrara marble punctuated with skinny, tinted windows, looms over the city characterized by far more modest concrete housing. Total space: 5.5M—yes, million—square feet.
· The complex series of driveways is "designed to make visitors feel as small as possible," according to Wainwright. A Google Maps aerial illustrates the point:
· In order to access the house, once must get past "a series of landscaped terraces, "an agoraphobia-inducing forecourt, where a single star-shaped fountain lies marooned in an expanse of stone paving," steps leading "to a monumental gateway, a blank white portal decorated with a vault of abstracted Islamic muqarnas motifs, the one concession to decoration in this otherwise faceless facade."
· Inside, ceilings reach 20 meters (65 feet) high.
· Floors bear various interpretations of the Islamic star.
· PBS' Stephen Talbot once described the vibe as such:
"Arriving at the immense presidential palace on a hill overlooking Damascus was like entering the Emerald City of Oz, as remodeled by the North Koreans. There were soaring fountains and cavernous marble rooms. It was a cold and intimidating fortress, empty except for scurrying aides." · "One room was fitted with 125,000 marble tiles, at $85 a tile—equating to $10.6M for a single room. Rumours [sic] from the same time suggest the entire complex could have cost up to $1B, all funded by Saudi oil money." (Gizmodo translates these figures into today's dollars: $150 apiece for the tile.)
· A 25-foot-long staircase that is said to have irritated the elder al-Assad, who never understood how anyone could be expected to walk up it.
· Assad's palace: an empty, echoing monument to dictator decor [The Guardian via Gizmodo]