Mar
20
2013

Executive privileges – palaces of power

Where do the world’s most powerful people live? In most countries, the head of state or leading politicians are given grace and favour residences that have become emblematic of their government. From the White House to Number 10 Downing Street, the Kremlin to Zhongnanhai, executive mansions are fascinating insights into the history and self-image of nations. Here are a few of my favourites. 

There are a huge number of perks that come with being President of the United States of America but perhaps the most prestigious is having 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20500 as your home address. The White House, as the executive mansion of the United States is more usually known, is one of the world’s most iconic presidential pads.

South Portico of the White House at Christmas By Susan Sterner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the world of executive mansions, the White House’s famous façade is only rivaled by Number 10 Downing Street’s shiny black door. Both Number 10 and the White House are so famous that they’ve become metonyms, their names frequently employed as journalistic shorthand to refer to the executive branches of the UK and the USA respectively.

Even in the digital age, the President of the USA and the UK’s Prime Minister use the names of their more famous residences to stake their claims in cyberspace: www.whitehouse.gov and www.number10.gov.uk respectively. These are two of the world’s best-known executive residences, but they are not necessarily my favourites. After reading an article about the Blue House Raid on South Korea’s presidential compound, I started thinking about some of the others.

Number 10 Downing Street and its iconic door By Prime Minister's Office (http://www.number10.gov.uk/tour/) [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

For sheer élan and je ne sais quoi, it is hard to beat the Élysée Palace. The President of the French Republic gets to live in the quasi-regal surroundings of a building that once housed Louis XV’s favourite mistress. Whilst François Hollande is not as racy an occupant as the Marquise de Pompadour, he gets to live in similar style. As a sign of opulence, the name of the President’s office is indicative; the French equivalent of the Oval Office is the salon doré – the golden room.

The two main rivals to the White House for sheer impressive scale, architectural detail, fame and historic resonance are the Moscow Kremlin and the Zhongnanhai in the People’s Republic of China. The Kremlin is a uniquely Russian confection of onion domes and castle walls. This arresting religio-military complex suited the semi-divine image of the Tsars of Russia – combining feudal force with a profound Orthodox zeal.

Birds eye view of the Moscow Kremlin by Kremlin.ru [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Zhongnanhai is as uniquely Chinese as the Kremlin is Russian. It has been described as the walled heart of China’s Kremlin and it lies at the heart of Beijing’s government complex adjacent to the Forbidden City. It is hard to imagine western governments following the Chinese example and adorning the walls of their executive mansions with political slogans: Zhongnanhai’s perimeter is used to proclaim “long live the great Communist Party of China” and “long live the invincible Mao Zedong Thought.”

Communism has turned many traditional aspects of China on their head, and so it is with Beijing’s executive buildings. The Forbidden City was, as the name suggests, strictly out of bounds to the Chinese people throughout Imperial history. Now, they can wander round as tourists in what is preserved as a museum piece. It is now Zhongnanhai that is impenetrable to the average citizen, especially after security was massively increased in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

Zhongnanhai - Hall of Purple Light (Ziguang Ge) today, used for state receptions.

Some quirkier examples of executive quarters are found in the new world.  Hawaii’s ʻIolani Palace dates from the time of Hawaii’s indigenous monarchy. Now an integral part of the United States, Hawaii’s historic palaces are either used as museums or are put at the service of the state government. In this case, ‘Iolana makes for a rather fine governor’s mansion!

In Argentina, the Casa Rosada, or Pink House, is as emblematic of the presidency as its paler US equivalent. It has also had a starring role in the musical and film biopic of Eva ‘Evita’ Peron, the ‘Spiritual Leader of the Nation’. It is from the balcony of the Casa Rosada that Evita sings her passionate appeal to the descamisados in the iconic signature song ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’.

Not all executive residences are steeped in tradition and decorated in marble and gold. Modern capitals or modern states have demanded modern solutions for housing their leaders. Brasilia, the futurist planned capital of Brazil, has a suitably modernist residence in the form of the Palácio da Alvorada. Alvorada is one of the most arresting architectural legacies of the late Oscar Niemeyer and was one of the first buildings to be finished in new city.

Palácio do Planalto [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

The problem for a united Germany was to avoid any historic residences that could have negative historic resonances. The solution was the startling Bundeskanzleramt. Solid, functional and square, the Bundeskanzleramt seems especially suited its present incumbent.

Finally, for pure batshit, oil fuelled excess it is hard to beat the Akorda, the presidential palace of Kazakhstan. It sits in Astana, a capital so insanely modern that even a startling building like the Akorda struggles for attention. How do you compete against the neon lit Pyramid of Peace and an observation tower, Bayterek, that was designed to represent a poplar tree holding a golden egg? Still, Akorda has a good go by incorporating a modernist take on the White House’s Palladian style and then inflating it to cover a floor area seven times greater than the American original.

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