Our Edifice Complex

Nov 24, 2014

Credit ivva / Flickr / Creative Commons

When it comes to our cities, we all have an edifice complex.

I first encountered this term, edifice complex, in a book of the same name by architectural theorist Deyan Sudjic. He uses it to demonstrate the ways that power-- especially dictatorial power-- uses architecture to express and advance its ideological agenda. It’s a great book, but here I want to soften the phrase just a bit: our relationship, or lack of one, to the buildings in our city is our edifice complex. Whether we listen or not, the buildings are talking to us, and we’re impacted by what they’re saying.

Take any kind of business or organization, and there’s a corresponding building that comes to mind. Banks, fast food restaurants and government buildings each have a particular architectural style that is generally exclusive to type. This can be derailed, of course: an unsettling photo essay a few years ago presented images of schools and prisons side-by-side, revealing uncomfortable similarities.

But the communication from the architecture around us is one-sided. We are talked at by buildings built long before many of us were born. Reading a skyline is eerily similar to stargazing: we are taking in the light of a message first broadcast long ago, whose author may be long gone.

Graffiti undermines this tyranny of the dead by talking back, often by reclaiming or co-opting the literal facades of power with a new message—sometimes vulgar, generally unwanted, but always new and always alive.