On three sides of the palace lie desert. To the left, there is a river, flowing towards the capital, three miles north. The six hundred foot palace stands on a site of ten square miles. Its stepped pyramid rests on a plinth that raises it above the presidential gardens. A concrete path leads to the main steps, above which is the marble entrance.
Above this arch is a simple monument to the revolution: an enlarged Party insignia with an inscription dedicating the building to those who fell. The main arch is replicated in miniature on all sides, with several entrances separated by pillars arranged in rows of six. The palace is divided into three sections, the largest in the centre, with two adjacent, smaller structures. On its roof are hanging gardens, surrounded by a stone balcony, which overshadow the desert and the glistening river.
Just after the revolution, the nation’s greatest architects were invited to submit entries for a competition to design a governmental building. I was informed long before the deadline, though, that my entry would win – a reward for my role in the storming of the Royal Palace, on whose site my building now stands. I did not feature in the mural that adorned the ground floor ceiling, though: the government wanted a dynamic depiction of the revolutionary moment, showing the President triumphantly saluting the workers scaling the crumbling walls as the fires raged behind him.
My role was to co-ordinate the coup. Whilst my old friend led from the front, realising the ideas I’d helped him develop, I was in hiding, on his orders. He said I was too important, intellectually, to be risked: my knowledge of the grounds and their defences was crucial to the Royal Palace operation, during which I was to plan how to protect the capital’s strategic points against the inevitable counter-revolution, and consider how the city might be reordered.
After the insurgency was quelled, a whole new infrastructure was demanded. I was immediately named National Deputy for Architecture, answerable only to the President and the National Deputy for Culture. I designed the palace and the Institute for Information in the city centre, where the Party newspaper was printed.
I threw myself into the task of restructuring the nation, city by city, town by town, and village by village. I read the newspapers, but their headlines concealed our worsening international relations – I knew that certain foreign powers would oppose the revolution but I left the diplomatic minutiae to the President and his inner circle, convinced that my responsibility lay solely in redesigning our cities so that they were easier to defend.
The National Deputy for Culture visited me in my office, telling me that the President was abroad. He informed me that our economic programme had to change: private trading and farming were to be permitted ‘under extraordinary circumstances’ and tariffs on foreign imports were to be lowered, with the shortfall meaning that the architectural budget would be slashed, which I knew would render my designs unrealisable.
I called the President, asking him how he could sanction such compromise. It was simple, he said: did we want to stay in power or not? I hesitated. I said yes. The next day the Deputy for Culture returned. I was to be given an ‘advisory’ role to a new Deputy for Architecture, who would have to redesign the palace, as it was ‘too cold’ and ‘too stark’ to host foreign dignitaries meeting central government and inspecting its human rights record.
The pillars and arches around the building were replaced with solid brick walls, with the marble that constituted them sold to private construction firms. The hanging gardens, a symbol of ‘erroneous opulence’, were removed, the roof now bare concrete. A memorial to those killed in a war waged by the deposed King twenty years ago was constructed in the gardens. The insignia was removed, along with the dedication. The mural was destroyed and replaced with the kind of innocuous yet hideous design that would shame even the most reactionary royalist housewife.
There was no point in criticising. I kept my plans for the provincial cities, hoping that they could one day be implemented, but poured my energies into designing a monument to the workers for the empty plinth in the capital’s main square where a statue of the late-19th century King on horseback had once stood.
I submitted my plans to the new Deputy for Architecture. The rejection was far too swift. I called the President, telling him about his Deputy’s impatience for the long-term regenerative project, his complete lack of imagination and his childish inability to understand the connection between architectural and political ideas. He had no time for petty artistic squabbles, he said. The Deputy for Culture would have the final say.
I went to the palace to present my plans to the Deputy. He had cobbled together a ‘panel’, consisting of himself and two bureaucrats from the Institute, who had opposed virtually every design I offered during my headship. We argued for two hours. The bureaucrats bleated the word ‘unfeasible’ over and over again.
I asked the Deputy to discuss the plans with me alone – the functionaries had made their views clear. He led me to the roof and we stood on the balcony. We were the revolution’s greatest aesthetic theorists, I said. We owed it to ourselves not to let architectural matters be decided by such inferior minds.
The Deputy told me that the President was disappointed in my lack of focus on political matters since power was secured. I had ignored the issue of how to secure our position in the face of external opposition, he said, pursuing my ‘irresponsible’ obsession with aesthetics without regard for the actual challenges with which he and the rest of his closest aides were engaged.
The Deputy smiled as he detailed the plans that the new Deputy for Architecture had submitted for a new governmental building in the heart of the capital. The new design would, he said, be ‘approved by the people’ and would be much more popular than mine, which would be given order to the civil service: he had never liked my blueprint and only accepted it on the order of the President, who would never permit such an indulgent design now.
I glanced at the river. Refracted light scorched my retinas. I grabbed the philistine by the throat. His eyes threatened to burst out of their sockets. He was already blind, I thought. I pressed tighter. I had nothing else to hold. My grip denied him final words. I cast his lifeless body into the water, savouring his impact and his drift towards the city before walking down the stairs.
I passed through the main archway. The police circled me and drew their guns. I held up my hands: they had done their work.
The walls of the room are white, as is the floor, and made of stone. The windows are barred. The bed is narrow, with a hard wooden board supporting the thin mattress. The pillow is thick, with brown stains on either side. There is no blanket, just a filthy sheet with frayed ends of cotton on every side.
Preoccupied with the final talks, just before war was declared, the President was not present at my trial. I don’t know who ordered the construction of my cell, from which I can see the ruins of the palace. It was the first building that was bombed: the enemy laboured under the notion that the government was still based there, and the President certainly wasn’t going to disabuse them.
Some days ago – I’m not sure how many – a man in a featureless uniform knocked on my door and handed me a note and a foreign newspaper. The note was from the President. His suggestion that I stay away from the Royal Palace had been a test: if I had been truly serious about the revolution, I would have insisted on joining him at the barricades. The newspaper carried a photograph of the balcony as it cascaded into the river, the flames only partially quenched by the broken current.
© JG Buckell