During the past week, George Orwell’s renowned dystopian novel 1984 has returned to No. 1 on bestseller’s lists around the world. It is an extraordinary feat for a book penned 69 years ago, but not necessarily a surprising one given the number of political tsunamis that have swept the globe in recent months.
In Orwell’s fictional future world, the Superstate of Oceania is controlled by an autocratic government that is permanently engaged in conflict with neighboring territories. With the omnipresent “Big Brother” monitoring the lives of every citizen, this authoritarian regime sustains its perpetual power by gas-lighting the public with “doublespeak” — a deliberate conflation of truth and lies designed to force a confused populous into submission.
At a time when a similarly perplexing use of political language is prevailing (see “alternative facts”) and political tension is at its highest in years, people are turning to the novel to analyze Orwell’s masterful use of metaphor to represent the threat of governmental oppression — and the built environment of 1984 is a key weapon in the author’s symbolic arsenal.
A scene from the 1956 film adaptation of “1984”; via Cosmic Catacombs
In recognition of this fact, interdisciplinary design studio WAI Architecture Think Tank undertook a conceptual project that speculates about the origins of Oceania’s urban landscape, reflecting on the ability for architecture to act as a symbol of extreme socioeconomic and political scenarios.
In WAI’s fictional prelude to the events of 1984 — something they describe as “a mixture between architectural fairy tale and social nightmare” — the studio envisions a widely publicized competition to design four huge towers to house the government’s nefarious activities. “A group of famous architects — the best in the world — was invited to submit a project,” their account reads. “Without hesitation … each one of the designers proposed a series of buildings. Although varying in form, the proposals recurred to a similar strategy: They were all architectural icons.”
Oceania; via WAI Architecture Think Tank
The winning project, depicted in a series of evocative watercolors, sees a set of gargantuan pyramidal structures rising over the rest of the city, containing the four governmental ministries — love, peace, truth and plenty. Their scale is inhuman, their shape akin to the obelisks and temples of ancient empires that exercised complete power over the masses. “These concrete monoliths, three with façades perforated by square windows, the other one solid like a hermetic bastion, soar until reaching 600 meters [2,000 feet] of height,” reads WAI’s description.
Each tower is designed to act not only as a functional building to house the sinister mechanisms of government, but also stands as a monument to the power of the government over its people — and a metaphor for the power of mental conditioning through architecture. This symbolism is reinforced by the slogan etched in huge letters on the solid side of each tower, which reads: “WAR IS PEACE; FREEDOM IS SLAVERY; IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”
This combination of monumental scale and linguistic contradiction is designed to sow the seeds of “resistance fatigue” among the populous, quelling the energy of potential rebels with both physical and psychological assertion. “The towers deliver an explicit message of datum and order,” says WAI. “Visible from any point in the city, the towers exploit the potential of architecture as iconography. They are archetypes of power.”
The Ministry of Truth; via WAI Architecture Think Tank
WAI concludes its article with a warning to architects to consider the ethical implications of their work, from the moment it is commissioned to the completion of their project on-site. “Unless we are ready to challenge the way we teach, think and practice architecture, and consciously discover what makes us be tempted by whatever awfully detrimental project is being schemed by technocrats, CEOs and politicians,” the firm argues, “we may not only continue being faithful contributors to some of the most dangerous regimes in the world, but we may even become the master architects of Project 1984.”
WAI’s project reminds us to be more critical than ever before about how our profession impacts on the social and political landscape. The studio advocates for architectural kynicism, that which confronts falsehoods of ideology with work that “resists, provokes and subverts.” Indeed, in turbulent times like these, this call to action has never felt more pertinent.