When production designer Drew Boughton was tasked with creating a fascist vision of the Manhattan skyline circa 1962, he didn’t have to dream up any new buildings. He didn’t even have to look past downtown Vancouver, B.C.—where The Man in the High Castle is filmed for Amazon Studios—to find an example of the kind of visually oppressive architecture that the Third Reich might have built. That is, if Germany, as the alt-history of the show goes, had won World War II and colonized the East Coast of the United States.
Boughton says the show’s creators imagined that New York was not bombed significantly, and iconic structures like the Empire State building and Chrysler Building were left intact. Furthermore, they designed the show’s city under the premise that the Nazis had put most of their money into rebuilding Berlin after the war, which Hitler and his chief architect Albert Speer designed extensive plans for in the 1930s and ’40s. Instead of remaking all of New York City, "We went along with the theory that they would build one major monumental building that would lord over the other buildings in Manhattan." He and his team based the fictitious Nazi structure on Vancouver’s MacMillan Bloedel Building, a Brutalist concrete skyscraper designed by architect Arthur Erickson and built in 1965. With its imposing height, sharp angles, and lack of ornamentation, it had "the right feel for an authoritarian, utilitarian skyscraper that the Nazis would build as an administrative stamp on their new colony," Boughton says.
With its imposing aesthetic heft, the MacBlo Building, as it’s known in Vancouver, appears well-cast as a midcentury Nazi administrative building. But while Boughton connects the imagined 1960s style of the American Reich with historic WWII shelters and fortifications the Germans built out of concrete, Brutalism is most directly associated with socialism and utopianism. The actual visual style of fascism—as Hitler and Speer planned for Germania, and as Mussolini built in Italy—is already mirrored in the administrative architecture of the United States, including buildings that are home to some of the most powerful branches of the government. The U.S. uses the same design cues as fascist governments to convey power, except they’re employed in service of democratic ideals.
Digitally transported to midtown Manhattan and crowned with a towering swastika held in the grips of an eagle, the MacBlo Building sits on the exact site where, in the world of the show, the United Nations Headquarters would have never been built in the 1950s. (To create postwar Berlin, the show got permission from Speer’s estate to render the Nazi architect’s plans for what he called "Welthauptstadt Germania," or World Capital Germany.)
Just as The Man in the High Castle depicts American Nazis living bucolic lives in the suburbs, greeting their neighbors with friendly shouts of "Sieg Heil!", the building and its location are part of a rather simple—and deeply ominous—narrative project. "We had this vision for the show to look for all of the ways that we could do violence to the American Dream," Boughton says. When he and others involved in The Man in the High Castle started adapting Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name for television, imagining new ways to do such violence seemed really amusing, as he puts it. "But of course now, it's a horrible nightmare," Boughton says. If The Man in the High Castle’s overall message is "It can happen here," he and many others see the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States as a suggestion that it—fascism—already has.
When the first season of the show came out last year, "We were sort of trying to frighten people by normalizing, in our show, something that is incredibly not normal," Boughton says. "Now we're in a position where we have this guy normalizing advisors and people who are around him who have white supremacist views that absolutely line up with Nazism." The fiction, he says, has somehow become reality.
Donald Trump’s candidacy and transition have been in large part defined by racist, sexist, and xenophobic statements and policy proposals, including plans to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and build a Muslim registry. He has given his son-in-law a top White House position, obsessively antagonized the media, and built his movement under the nationalist slogan (lifted from Ronald Reagan) "Make America Great Again." Still, even his detractors argue over whether it’s accurate to call him a fascist, or a populist, or an authoritarian.
Regardless of where the consensus lands—and where his policies push it again once he takes office—there’s one thing that developer Trump undeniably has in common with the fascist leaders of the 20th century: architecture. Buildings, bridges, monuments, and other public spaces were used both as a tool of political power and a projection of greatness by the likes of Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini. Now, a man whose name is emblazoned across skyscrapers around the world, sometimes in 20-foot-high letters—a man who is promising a trillion-dollar investment in public infrastructure, and to build a wall along the entire length of the Mexican-American border—is about to assume the office of the President of the United States. What, if anything, does Trump’s built legacy say about his politics?
"Architects and other designers working in the built environment have special insight into both the mentality and the behavior of Donald Trump," critic and architect Michael Sorkin wrote just after the election in a scathing response to the American Institute of Architecture’s endorsement of the president-elect. Trump’s buildings "are troublesome to say the least," he writes, both in terms of their "physical and social construction." Trump has a well-documented (and litigated) history of housing discrimination and questionable financial dealings with tenants, architects, workers, and others involved with his development projects. Sorkin writes that Trump’s building career is of "a piece with his larger nativist, sexist, and racist political project."
"To the degree that we know him via the glitziness of the lobby of his buildings, and not his good works among the poor," signifies his intent as a builder, Sorkin told me in an interview. But he added that as Trump becomes, among other things, builder-in-chief, questions of aesthetics could become a distraction. If, for example, Trump’s trillion dollars in infrastructure investment is spent on projects that benefit the fossil fuel industry, or help to perpetuate the dominance of the car in transportation, then the effects of the spending will, according to Sorkin, "exceed questions of the vulgarity of his style."
"It doesn’t matter really what the wall looks like—the fact of it is what is appalling."
That the common usage of "fascism" is squishy, at best, is nothing new. George Orwell wrote way back in 1944 that "fascism" was thrown around so much in the political press that it had become "almost entirely meaningless." The term shifted over the course of World War II, moving from a political affiliation that was willingly announced (and announced by many Americans) to an epithet. Cries of "fascism" became less about an ideology than a lazy way to encapsulate politics and political behavior considered abhorrent.
But as surely as Mussolini had a political platform that touched on everything from public infrastructure to economic policy, fascismo does have a specific definition, and an etymology that, like many things in government, dates back to ancient Rome. During the Roman Republic, chief magistrates who went out and about in Rome were accompanied by lictors armed with axes affixed to a bundle of sticks or rods. The weapon was called a fasces.
For much of the millennia since, fasces have persisted as a symbol of power, largely as a decorative element in architecture. In the U.S., the House of Representatives made the fasces the official emblem of the sergeant-at-arms back in 1789, in one of its earliest votes. A fasces with 13 rods—one for each original colony—instead of the traditional 12 can still be seen in the chamber today. Fasces are found throughout the Lincoln Memorial, and there’s a statue inside the Washington Monument that depicts the first President of the United States leaning against an oversized fasces.
Before fascism became shorthand for violent, right-wing nationalism, the political term was a more casual reference to the bundle itself; a fasci was a group of men, or a league, and the term was employed by organizations of all political stripes, including socialists and communists. But following the violence of World War II, it became hard not to see fascism in terms of the ax rather than the rods: The fasces represents not only the power of the state, but its ability to commit violence.
Fasces can still be found throughout modern Rome, which is in large part a fascist vision and invention. Shortly after he became prime minister, Mussolini began to rebuild the city, so that "the immortal spirit of Rome rises again in fascism," as he said in 1922. Whether efforts were focused on archaeological sites or building new bridges, buildings, and roads, the government was "always demonstrating the fascist ability to carry out projects that others had only talked about," Borden Painter writes in his book, Mussolini’s Rome: Rebuilding the Eternal City. Entire neighborhoods in the city center that were built on or around ancient ruins were cleared away—"liberated" was the preferred terminology. Boulevards were widened, and Rome was reoriented to put Piazza Venezia at its heart—right at the foot of the Altar of the Fatherland monument and its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and directly underneath Il Duce’s infamous balcony.
When crowds would gather in the piazza for Il Duce’s speeches, the balcony, flanked by two large fasces, was the natural focal point—but an extra bit of theater was used to emphasize the leader, according to John Beldon Scott, a professor and architecture historian at the University of Iowa, who has taught a course on the visual culture of 20th century totalitarianism since 2000. Before stepping out onto the balcony, "he would have the room where he was backlit, so that you would see this bright light coming out of the room, and then suddenly you see his profile against the brilliant light, and then he's standing at the balcony," Scott says.
It’s not unlike Trump’s grand entrance at the Republican National Convention this summer, which looked like something out of a professional wrestling broadcast. In Scott’s eyes, it was a moment "that was very, very close to the kind of theater that Mussolini would do."
Trump Tower—with its golden escalators that Trump descended before announcing his campaign, and its golden elevators that politicians and world leaders now ascend to meet with the president-elect in his penthouse apartment—is also of particular interest to Scott, who calls it a mythic location. "He's up and away from the rest of the mortals, like Hitler at his retreat at Berghof," set high up in the Alps. "He's up with the gods, and removed from us," with all of his gold fixtures.
Trump’s penthouse apartment is decorated in the Baroque style of Louis XIV, with nearly every surface either paved in marble or gilded in 24-karat gold. But the choice in décor, by Trump’s own account, is less about drawing on the political spirit of the Sun King than it is, as the New York Times reported recently, "a tribute to his own self-image." In the 1980s, Trump even considered building "a 60-story castle, Trump Castle, six cylinders of varying heights with gold-leafed, coned and crenelated tops to be built at 60th Street and Madison Avenue," according to a 1984 profile published in the New York Times Magazine.
With his penchant for buildings that are in some measurable way "the best"—biggest, most expensive, tallest—Trump has unquestionable architectural bravado. But as Doreen St. Félix wrote for MTV News about Trump’s love of Puccini, whose arias were used to political ends by Mussolini’s party, this "likely has less to do with political messaging than with the refinement it symbolizes."
When it comes to the design of Trump’s buildings themselves, Blair Kamin, the Pulitzer-winning architecture critic at the Chicago Tribune, says he doesn’t see even latent fascism. Not every skyscraper, he reminded me, is a phallic symbol. He considers Trump’s buildings "emblems of an entrepreneur with bad taste run amok." They don’t convey Trump’s desire to restrict and control the media, Kamin says, or to lie to the public.
"There's a kind of shallowness to the architecture—it doesn't have deep aesthetic or even political resonance," Kamin says. The handrails in the gilded public atrium of Trump Tower may have been painted in Cadillac gold—but not as a nod to the lost excellence of a city, industry, and country that Trump now promises to make great again.
"Mussolini's roads or some of his buildings, or Speer's buildings for Hitler, did have a kind of weightiness to them, a seriousness to them. They had a gravitas that was terrifying in a way," he says. "Trump's worst stuff verges on comic—it's comically bad, just like he is."
The president-elect will continue to spend time in Trump Tower during the next four years, but he will also soon have a new and very different political backdrop than the atrium Ada Louise Huxtable once called "that pink marble maelstrom." (Curbed’s Alexandra Lange has written that Trump Tower is actually "quite a good building," beyond the atrium, and suggests looking at it rendered in black and white.) If the aesthetic of Trump’s buildings is most often concerned with glitz, D.C.’s architectural landscape, including the Romanesque former post office his new hotel occupies, was designed to convey power.
"Once you're in Washington, D.C, you're in the ancient Roman Empire already—there's all this imperial imagery," Scott says, from the fasces that appear across the city to the portico of the White House itself. "You won't have to change much," he adds, to leverage D.C. into a symbol of an authoritarian state. As The Man in the High Castle’s Drew Boughton puts it, "the same principles of making the human small against the power of the state through architecture is absolutely at work in Washington, D.C."—just as they were in Hitler and Speer’s plans for Berlin.
Thomas Jefferson looked to Roman architecture as a democratic ideal when he was helping to plan D.C., but many 1920 and ’30s buildings were directly influenced by fascist architecture—namely those located on the Federal Triangle, including the Supreme Court. Cass Gilbert, who designed the building, believed Mussolini was a great man, and met with him on a number of occasions, including when Gilbert traveled to Italy to source Siena marble for the Supreme Court building. In a letter to Mussolini describing his plans for the court, Gilbert wrote, "I have felt that I could find no more fitting architectural style in which to express this dignity and importance than the beautiful classic architecture of Italy." The stone, which is shot through with soft, gold-toned whorls, was fashioned into the 24 columns that flank the chamber where the justices sit at the high-court bench.
With this week’s inauguration, Trump will have his first opportunity to orchestrate a grand event against the stage of the National Mall and the U.S. Capitol. Scott will have his eye on the spot where Trump stands out in the January cold as he is sworn into office. "It will be interesting to see if there are any extraordinary changes to the inauguration platform," he says. "It's usually sufficiently fascistic as it is, but if it looks aggrandized, or we start to see more columns, that will be an interesting aspect to it."
Last week, in his first press conference as president-elect, Trump promised that his inauguration would be a "very, very elegant" and "very, very special" day, with "massive crowds." According to Politico, the event planners are promising "soft sensuality," rather than a "circus-like celebration" with celebrities. And without the kind of pop-star power that President Obama turned to for entertainment in 2008, Trump may have to rely on a more imperialistic display at the inauguration by default. There are plans for a parade featuring 8,000 marchers from a host of police, veteran, and military organizations, not to mention the Boy Scouts. As Trump said at the press conference, "We have all of the bands, or most of the bands, from the different segments of the military."
But if his past rallies are anything to judge by, the event will be squarely focused on Trump. "They aren't kind of carefully choreographed in that same Nazi way," Kamin says, in which masses of men stopped being individuals and became a symbol of the state. Trump’s events "don't emphasize the massive, cheering, mechanical crowd" in the same manner.
After the inauguration, Trump will finally take the art of the deal to the Oval Office. After a career built in part on buying famous properties—The Plaza, Mar-a-Lago—"he’s acquiring the White House," Michael Sorkin says. "Can’t do better than the White House as a piece of property, as a piece of real estate." There’s no finer status symbol.