This article argues that there is a distinctive populist approach to the built environment. Populists claim that they alone represent what they often call “the real people.” Hence, there is a need for them to specify who “the real people” are. If they have sufficient power (and time) while in government, they will reshape the built environment – architecture, no less than urban and rural environments more broadly — in line with their understanding of “the real people.” In particular, they will create spaces (some obviously political, some not so obvious, such as football stadiums) that can serve as sites for the collective affirmation of a particular understanding of peoplehood. The article also asks how post-populist governments should relate to a built environment reshaped by populists.
By Jan-Werner Müller*
In the run-up to the momentous parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey in spring 2023, one part of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s record received special scrutiny: the building boom over which his AK Party had presided for the past two decades. The earthquake on February 6 – in which more than 50,000 people perished – made many Turks painfully aware of the dark side of that boom: not just shoddy buildings, but also wide-spread corruption and the creation of construction industry oligarchs ready to cement the power of the ruler (Bechev 2022).
However, Erdoğan is not the only right-wing populist leader who has relied crucially on the building business: Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi are others. One little-noticed side-effect is that such long-ruling figures have systematically transformed the built environment – especially city centers, but also small towns and villages – in line with their understanding of who the “real people” are. If such populists lose power – a big if! – new governments will face many urgent tasks. But on their agenda must also be the question whether they should dismantle the symbolic landscapes populist leaders have constructed.
This article investigates what I shall describe as an elective affinity between populism and a particular approach to the built environment (I take the latter to include architecture and urban as well as rural planning). My approach differs from previous attempts to think about architecture in conjunction with populism; such accounts rely on an understanding of populism as “giving people what they want,” or as egalitarian housing policies, or as somehow relating to popular culture (Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s attempts to “learn from Las Vegas,” and postmodern architecture more broadly, have often been described as “populist”) (Venturi, Brown and Izenour 1972; Lefaivre and Tzonis, 2006; Frausto and Szacka, 2021).
Instead, I shall first offer an approach to populism that identifies the phenomenon with a particular claim by leaders and parties uniquely to represent what populists often call “the real people” or also “the silent majority” (Müller 2017). Clearly, every populist has to say something about “the people” – the people needs to be demarcated somehow (which also shows why those who call a particular policy “populist” – for instance economists criticizing an economic approach for supposedly being inflationary or protectionist – are really making a value judgment; they are not describing anything specifically related to a claim about the people). In a second step, I shall argue that populists with sufficient power (and time) in government will try to reshape the built environment in line with their conception of “the real people.” Put differently, they will seek to establish cultural hegemony (an effort not unique to them, of course) in a distinctly anti-pluralist manner. Needless to say, building is not the only way of doing so; there are also films, soap operas, museums, textbooks in schools, etc.
I shall suggest further, drawing on a number of contemporary examples, that spaces created by populists often serve as sites for affirming a particular understanding of peoplehood. While populism, as I conceptualize it, has an inbuilt authoritarian tendency qua being anti-pluralist, the approach to generate consent through culture by populists in the twenty-first century is notably “softer” than what we know from the experience of twentieth-century dictatorships. Hence this article also confirms recent theories in comparative politics about the peculiarities of today’s authoritarianism. These theories highlight systematic differences between twentieth-century “fear dictatorships” and twenty-first century “spin dictatorships,” with the latter being demonstrably less violent and primarily focused on manipulating public opinion (Guriev and Treisman, 2022): particular artists and architects (and styles and symbols) might be shunned; monuments and buildings might be dismantled — but nobody is sent to prisons or camps. Finally, I want to suggest some ways in which governments that come to power after populist regimes have transformed the built environment might address the question how to relate to that particular populist legacy. Here I shall claim that much depends on the specifics of transitions back to democracy (which is not to suggest that all democracies before populists came to power were perfect!). But it can be said that, in general, post-populist governments should resist the temptation of iconoclasm, which is to say: simply erasing edifices built by populists. There are some important exceptions to this suggestion, though.