Edifice Complex

Orly Mercado

Posted on July 8, 2007

Building monuments of folly

The result of an on-line poll for the new “seven wonders of the world” has been announced. The list is different from what I used to memorize in school as a kid. But whether it’s the old list that included architectural wonders no longer in existence, or the new popular ones, one thing is for sure: some were built by rich and powerful men suffering from an “edifice complex.”

The desire to leave a legacy that would endure beyond our mortal existence is as old as civilization itself. It is also not confined to kings, pharaohs or warlords. Even poor or developing countries have leaders at the national or local level, eager to fulfill some architectural dream, which could be a taxpayer’s nightmare.

With its booming economy, China has provided a few recent examples. There is a municipal building that is almost a replica of Washington’s Capitol in a rustic rural setting. China seems determined to build what would be the world’s tallest skyscraper…for now.

Unfortunately, even economies that may not be doing as well as China have the same predilection to producing white elephants, albeit in a smaller scale. In the Philippines, almost every town has to build an elaborate welcome arch. Waiting sheds are nothing but permanent billboards for political propaganda. They have little to do with providing comfort for those waiting for public transport.

As a freshman senator, I once vigorously interpolated a colleague on the Senate floor, on a proposed budget for the construction of a proposed hospital. I was concerned it could end up like others without equipment or doctors. An elderly colleague sat beside me during a break in the debate. In so many words, he advised me to go slow on fellow lawmakers “when they are building their own monuments.” They would do the same when my turn came, he reminded me. At that moment I knew for certain what I would not build as a public official.

The amounts involved to perpetuate a politician’s memory, may appear small compared to the entire infrastructure budget for the country. But added up, they are staggering amounts that contribute almost nothing to economic growth. These puny attempts at “leaving a legacy” may not by any stretch of imagination collectively end up as one of “the seven wonders of the world,” but may just as well be monuments to a politician’s folly.

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