Ben Macintyre on Burma’s bizarre but predictable architectural vision

In the foetid depths of the Burmese jungle, on the road to Mandalay, slave labourers toil to build a glinting new metropolis for their military overlords.

This is Naypyitaw, “Seat of Kings”, the new capital city decreed by Burma’s brutal junta, and the latest (and oddest) example of autocracy as architecture.

This week foreign journalists got their first glimpse of the new city, some 300 miles north of Rangoon, a strange, gleaming confection of official hotels, ministries and government housing. To the east stands the new fortress that is home to Burma’s supreme military commander, the reclusive General Than Shwe.

Naypyitaw is intended to project power and control, but the absurd new city in the malarial jungle speaks more of paranoia and megalomania. The new metropolis may even bring a little hope to the oppressed people of Burma, for in the long and tasteless history of totalitarian architecture the most extravagant building works are often the precursor to a regime’s collapse.

Tyrants have always built big and gaudy. The dictator awards himself a new city, a palace, a monument in stone, intended to intimidate and impress. He imagines, like Shelley’s Ozymandias, “King of Kings”, that his great statue will confer immortality, but it crumbles to dust, a warning of the transience of power: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” Just about every despot has had an “Edifice Complex”, as Deyan Sudjic, the architecture writer, entitled his recent book about the relationship between wealth, power and architecture.

Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini and Saddam all imagined vast cities constructed in their own honour. Stalin’s Palace of the Soviets was to be higher than the Empire State Building. Hitler’s Reich Chancellery was a deliberately theatrical statement, with towering brass doors 17ft high and the Fuhrer’s 4,000 sq ft “study”.

In 1984, written in 1948, George Orwell left a prescient description of the sort of totalitarian architecture that would soon dominate the Communist bloc, imposing and hideous: the Ministry of Truth, an “enormous, pyramidal structure of white concrete, soaring up terrace after terrace, three hundred metres into the air . .

.” Saddam put his heart into his architecture. Or rather his arms, which were cast in bronze (in Basingstoke), and then formed into a huge arch holding two scimitars aloft. Today, in Basra, British soldiers eat their lunch in the colossal hall of one of Saddam’s 32 palaces.

Saparmurat Niyazov, the grotesque dictator of Turkmenistan, dubbed himself the Great Turkmenbashi, “Father of all Turkmens”, renamed the month of January after himself (and April after his mum), and built a new capital from white Italian and Turkish marble on the edge of Kakarum desert. The dictator died last December. His huge gold statue still stands in the city square, automatically rotating its face to the sun; but probably not for much longer, for the sun has already set on the city Turkmenbashi built.

The moment of greatest architectural extravagance seems often to presage the waning of power. Sir Edwin Lutyens completed his redesign of New Delhi in 1931, a magnificent modern imperial capital intended to last for ever. The bells carved into the pillars of the Viceroy’s Palace were silent as an indication that they would never ring to signal the end of empire. The British left just 16 years later.

In the same way, it has been shown that large corporations often disintegrate most rapidly after building large and impressive new headquarters: a company that spends its cash and time on self-aggrandising buildings may already have lost the edge.

Up until the end, Hitler was still planning his Germania, Albert Speer’s Brobdingnagian vision of a new Rome for the 1,000-year Reich: avenues wide enough for 90 stormtroopers to goosestep abreast, a triumphal arch to dwarf that of Napoleon, a dome nine times larger than St Peter’s. One of the most telling scenes in Downfall, the remarkable film of Hitler’s last days, depicts the Fuhrer in his bunker, madly enthusing over a scale-model of Germania as the bombs fall.

Hitler once studied to be an architect. So did Mohammed Atta, the mastermind of the World Trade Centre attacks. The Great Turkmenbashi was a town planner before taking power. Three monsters of destruction, each fascinated by the symbolism of architectural power.

Men build great palaces to show they are strong, or defy the world, or prove their worth to themselves. Or to hide. Work continues today on Robert Mugabe’s $5 million retirement palace in an exclusive Harare suburb, a sort of African Chinese pagoda covered in expensive and ugly blue tiles.

Almost all significant architecture is about the projection of power: the pyramids, the Taj Mahal and Hamilton Palace, the unfinished £ 40 million mansion being constructed by the property tycoon Nicholas van Hoogstraten.

Unveiling plans for the Millennium Dome, his own Great Work, Tony Blair declared: “It will be the envy of the world.” A billion pounds later, it stands empty, a monument to Mr Blair, but not quite in the way he intended.

Above all, architecture is a political art. Few regimes can resist the temptation to flatter themselves in stone, brick or bronze. Yet the architecture of repression holds a particular place in cultural history, for it seldom endures: undermined by hubris, held together by the ego of one individual, the new cities and grand palaces of the dictator tend to decay swiftly, like the gilt peeling off Saddam’s bathroom taps.

Brasilia was built in 1965 to forge a new identity for Brazil, but Burma’s new capital is very different: a place for the junta to seal itself away from the people, a fortress inside a fortress. In the Burmese jungle a new city rises: Naypyitaw, Seat of Kings, refuge of the paranoid, mausoleum of military dictators.