April 27, 2021 Ι Bloomberg’s CityLab
In 1908, architect Ernest Flagg completed the Singer Building in Lower Manhattan, a Beaux-Arts showstopper made for the Singer sewing machine company. From a wide base, a slender 27-story tower rose, topped by a mansard roof and a delicate lantern spire.
Every inch dripped with sumptuous detail inside and out; vaulted roofs, marble columns with bronze trim, window mullions with spiral fluting. The lobby was said to have a “celestial radiance.” A book was written just about its construction. For a year, it was the tallest building in the world at 612 feet, and a celebrated landmark for decades after that.
But not for too much longer. Despite its great height, the pencil-thin tower lacked office space. In the 1960s the company sold its ornate headquarters; demolition proceeded in 1967. It’s the tallest building to ever be peacefully demolished.
By any account, it’s a fantastical tale: Once the tallest building in the world and a New York icon, knocked down in just a handful of decades.
For some, it’s too fantastical to believe … or perhaps not fantastical enough. A dedicated group of YouTubers and Reddit posters see the Singer Building and countless other discarded pre-modern beauties and extant Beaux-Arts landmarks as artifacts of a globe-spanning civilization called the Tartarian Empire, which was somehow erased from the history books. Adherents of this theory believe these buildings to be the keys to a hidden past, clandestinely obscured by malevolent actors.
Who? Why? To what possible end? As in many other, more high-profile conspiracy theories, this baroque fantasy doesn’t offer much in the way of practical considerations, logic or evidence. But it’s grounded in some real anxieties, pointing toward the changes wrought by the modern world in general and modern architecture specifically — and rejecting both.
Tartarian-themed content is produced for YouTube videos that get picked over on Reddit. The r/Tartarianarchitecture sub, which began in December 2018, has 3,300 members, though not everyone who posts and comments appears to be a true believer. A larger and more general sub that appeared around the same time, r/Tartaria, has 8,700 members. As conspiracy theories go, Tartaria remains obscure; Twitter user @cinemashoebox brought it to many people’s attention last year with this thread, and pseudoscience-debunking writer Brian Dunning recently devoted an episode of his podcast, Skeptoid, to the Tartaria theory, which appears to have first emerged in 2016 and 2017.
The Tartaria storyline is not directly related to the adrenochrome-harvesting Satanic-pedophile cabal that lies at the heart of QAnon, the unfounded conspiracy theory that crashed into the real world in 2020. But it shares some of what Peter Ditto, a social psychologist at the University of California-Irvine who specializes in conspiracy theories, calls QAnon’s “cafeteria quality:” There’s no overarching narrative or single authorial voice interpreting events. It’s just a gusher of outlandish speculation; adherents can pick and choose which elements they want to sign on to.
The overall premise is an alternative history. A vast, technologically advanced “Tartarian” empire, emanating from north-central Asia or thereabouts, either influenced or built vast cities and infrastructure all over the world. (Tartaria, or Tartary, though never a coherent empire, was indeed a general term for north-central Asia.) Either via a sudden cataclysm or a steady antagonistic decline — and perhaps as recently as 100 years ago — Tartaria fell. Its great buildings were buried, and its history was erased. After this “great reset,” the few surviving examples of Tartarian architecture were falsely recast as the work of contemporary builders who could never have executed buildings of such grace and beauty, and subjected them to clumsy alterations.
“I think that it was one worldwide civilization,” says Joachim Skaar, a 26-year-old Norwegian who runs The Tartarian Meltdown YouTube channel. “It was all based on unity, oneness, peace, love, and harmony, which we don’t see in today’s society.”
There’s an arch-traditionalism present in the theory, too. The pre-modern buildings that we venerate are sometimes said to be more than 1,000 years old. “The same people that built the Capitol in Washington built the pyramids in Egypt,” Skaar says.
Reached at his recording studio, Skaar, who works as a plumber, is not an architect or historian, but he has strong opinions on both disciplines. “We have two very different types of architecture,” he says. There’s modern architecture “with the name Brutalism,” which he describes as “square concrete boxes which are designed to be produced very fast, very cheap and very effective.”
And then there’s Tartarian architecture, a label that gets applied to anything that’s particularly ornate and pre-modern, encompassing many Western styles: Classical, Beaux-Arts, Second Empire. The term is also sometimes used for some non-Western structures, like the Taj Mahal. Structures that seem geographically or culturally dislocated, like the Beaux-Arts commercial buildings in Shanghai’s Bund district, are particularly attractive to this theory, as are those that are impressively massive, like the pyramids of Egypt or the Great Wall of China (built, the theory goes, by Tartarians to keep the Chinese out). Anywhere there’s a perceived gap between the refined craftwork of an old building and the “primitive” technology of the horse-and-buggy-era people building it, space for Tartarian speculation pops up.
American cities of the 19th century are often rich with Tartarian appropriation, especially the young settlements of the West, when grand public structures seemed to emerge from the wilderness, surrounded by wood hovels and muddy streets. State capitol buildings and city halls are frequently fingered as palaces of ancient Tartaria rather than Gilded Age municipal buildings. (These photos of the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines highlight the contrast Tartarian theorists point out.)
The Tartarian milieu is an intensely visual medium, occupied with riffing on photos and maps, picking out apparent inconsistencies and making one-off conjectures instead of weaving together comprehensive timelines. The theory is notably light on reasoning as to why and how the greatest cover-up in history was undertaken, but it does offer a few options for how Tartaria was erased and the great reset propagated. Many say that an apocalyptic mud flood buried its great buildings; some suggest the use of high-tech weaponry to tactically remove Tartarian infrastructure. A consistent theme is that warfare is an often-used pretext to wipe away surviving traces of Tartarian civilization, with the two world wars of the 20th century finishing work that may have begun with Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.
Despite their interest in architecture, most Tartaria theorists do not appear to have backgrounds in the building trades: Many of the more easily refuted arguments spring from very basic misunderstandings of how the built environment works, as well as broader confusion about how buildings function in the economy and culture. An abundance of posters appear convinced that below-grade basement windows in older buildings, for example, are evidence that the building had been “mud flooded,” and the rest of the structure is actually buried deep underground. Sometimes this will get some skeptical pushback (“I think they didn’t have lights in the cellar so they build in windows for them?” was how one poster responded), but that’s more of an exception than the rule.
Similarly, their grasp of historic labor and material costs is shaky. Before the Industrial Revolution, labor was cheap, so paying artisans to sculpt elaborate masonry — even for relatively humble structures — wasn’t the great expense it seems today, when labor prices are higher and factory-made steel, concrete and glass is cheap; that’s why we see so much of these materials in buildings today, and so much less filigreed terra cotta. One of the most adamant denials in Tartarian circles is that public buildings like schools and post offices were ever built with monumental proportions and elegant aesthetics. They sneer at the wedding-cake-topper Second Empire buildings designed by Alfred Mullett after the Civil War, for example. “How many stamps did you sell to build yourself a post office like this?,” says popular Tartarian YouTuber JonLevi in one of his videos. “Absolutely ridiculous. The post office has always struggled.” (He has more than 100,000 subscribers.)
Some of this confusion is unfamiliarity: Mullett’s U.S. Customs House and Post Office in St. Louis, for example, was a huge federal project, built to process the mail of 10 states and four U.S. territories, not a neighborhood letter depot. But beyond that, there’s a broader refusal to believe that public architecture could ever have been built in an atmosphere of generosity and abundance. This is echoed by their astonishment at the double-height grand lobbies and arched doorways of old buildings, which they see as artifacts not meant for us. (Some theorists surmise that ancient Tartarians were giants.) The Tartarian community seems to have internalized the current era’s predilection for public sector austerity and the resulting aesthetics, which they abhor, more than they realize.
At its core, the theory reflects a fear of how quickly things change. As they look at today’s cityscapes, Tartaria believers see an eerie and alienating place, filled with abstract monoliths that emerged out of nowhere in a brief period of time. They’re skeptical of the rapid rise and development of the U.S., and even more suspicious of how quickly Modernism came to dominate the landscape. One favorite case study, useful for illustrating this aesthetic whiplash, is the grand domed Henry Ives Cobb Chicago Federal Building, built in 1905. Like the Singer Building, it was razed after just 60 years in favor of an icy black Mies van Der Rohe tower.
In one sense, the Tartaria theory is right: With modern architecture, a revolutionary new consensus on how the built environment should look and work did take hold in a very short period of time, conveniently overlapping with the world wars that these theorists see as the tail end of Tartaria’s influence. The world of 1960 indeed looked radically different from the world of 1920. Led by obscure and poorly understood forces (architects), architecture schools truly did throw out the history books to build a new world. But instead of making this excision the work of a colossal global mega-conspiracy worthy of a pulpy airport mystery novel, they wouldn’t shut up about it.
This disregard for architecture’s “true” history moves into a wider rejection of how disposably cheap and commodified the culture at large seems to be. As such, one canonical belief of Tartarian aficionados is that the elaborate temporary pavilions built for late 19th century and early 20th century World’s Fairs were in fact Tartarian capital cities. It strikes them as improbably wasteful that anyone would erect these magnificent complexes, full of fluted columns, domes and pediments, out of plaster of Paris, hemp fiber, and straw, as was done for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. In Tartarian lore, these sites were ancient monuments that were co-opted to teach a falsified history of the world and make a few bucks selling popcorn and Ferris Wheel rides. Then they were demolished, to erase the handiwork of the real builders.
In pointing out the eradication of an ancient culture by an expanding imperial power, Tartarian believers again stumble on something real, but they scramble the protagonists. In the European colonial era, Western nations fanned out over the globe, subjugating and destabilizing numerous non-white civilizations — and building many examples of what’s now considered Tartarian architecture as celebration of these victories. But when YouTuber JonLevi marvels at the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank and the rest of the 1920s banking infrastructure built along Shanghai’s Huangpu River, he doesn’t see the wealth-extracting handiwork of a rapacious 20th century empire: In the Tartaria-verse, these are the stately remnants of a far older and more benevolent one. The theory posits that only Tartarians, not British bankers or Belgian rubber barons, could move culture like architecture across geography.
“You see these capital domes all over the world, which, to me, proves that the same people built everywhere,” says Skaar.
Bastion star forts are another building type that Tartarians are obsessed with: They often point out that these cannon-resistant military fortifications, popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, are found all over Western Europe, like Portugal and the Netherlands, but also quite mysteriously, far away in Asia, in Sri Lanka. But since Sri Lanka was a Portuguese and Dutch colony, it’s not really very mysterious. Military historian Jeremy Black, author of two books on the history of fortifications, says that the geographic reoccurrence of the style reflects how effective Europeans were in spreading this technology across the globe.
This ahistoricism can make the Tartarian architecture community occasionally receptive to reactionaries, racists and anti-Semites. A survey of videos and discussions will turn up all manner of other conspiratorial threads. Along with flat-Earth advocacy, anti-vaccination sentiments and 5G scaremongering, there’s talk of anti-Semitic banking cartel conspiracies and Holocaust denial. Some Tartarian histories recast populations of Central Asia, like Genghis Kahn’s Mongol Empire, as red-haired, blue-eyed, white people — “Silk Road Aryans.”
The persistence of anti-Jewish tropes within current conspiracy theories is likely the result of cultural inertia, says UC-Irvine scholar Ditto. As successive generations of the conspiracy-minded seek evidence to back up their diverging worldview, they find it in texts that may go back centuries, which are riddled with anti-Semitism.
But the face of the villains in the Tartarian narrative is not clearly defined. Skaar blames quasi-mystical “parasites” who thrive off pain and strife, and laments that contemporary life has become a place where “everything is based on tyranny, greed, and slavery.” The Tartaria commentariat is laced with economic discontent; they often decry the evaluation and disregard of buildings purely as salable commodities, untethered from broader notions of cultural legacy and achievement. There’s a reoccurring and implicit understanding that buildings, like the Singer Building, get torn down when they stop making money — the only thing that really matters — and that the world is a vast field of predation, where the rich and powerful consume the poor and weak.
In fact, the governing ideology of the modern architecture that Tartarians despise was a critique of this system. Modernism argued for an egalitarian architecture that would help break the shackles of the past, rejecting backbreaking representational craftsmanship to honor omnipotent kings and divine beings in favor of simple, universal forms that would leverage restraint and efficacy into a broad uplift for the masses. Minus the weirdest stuff — the global mud flood, the ancient energy weapons, the vanished race of giants — the Tartaria theory is just an extreme form of aesthetic moralism, the idea that traditional architecture styles are inherently good and modern architecture is the product of a degenerate culture.
The tastes of the community generally align with traditional architectural revival proponents (some of whom also embrace reactionary and white nationalist politics). This sort of aesthetic nativism flourished during the Trump era, and it appears to have fresh converts in Congress: Recently, representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar formed a new caucus dedicated to “uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions” and infrastructure that “befits the progeny of European architecture.” The language is different, but the sentiment wouldn’t appear out of place in r/Tartaria.
Though the Tartarian Empire seemed to wink into existence in the past few years, the themes its believers explore are familiar ones. Conspiracy theories are a way to channel restive populism in the face of rapid social and demographic change, Ditto says, and there’s plenty of that going around. They are also a way to gather up amorphous fears and put them in a specific place, to make them more manageable. Ditto calls this “over-intentionalization.”
“If your fate is controlled by impersonal, systemic forces, it doesn’t offer you much control over your own destiny,” he says. “But if you can localize it to a small group of people whose motives you understand — they are out to get you — then it at least offers some hope that you can overcome their malevolent intentions.”
Belief in conspiracy theories can also be driven by loneliness, isolation and economic hardship, which made a pandemic a fertile Petri dish, and helped QAnon’s believers storm the Capitol by force and through the ballot box. The social atomization forced on us by Covid-19 is a hyperbolic retelling of the Tower of Babel (which has a special place in Tartarian lore) and its attendant anxiety at fracturing and divided cultures. The great reset that erased that tower — and the fabulous, fictional empire that built it — continues to reverberate, splintering us into ever-stranger factions.
And Ditto says it does seem like reality is getting harder to decipher. The internet has made it easier to disseminate misinformation while eroding faith in the media hierarchies that once filtered it out. Polarization and a lack of trust in government and institutions creates a feedback loop, where leaders can’t solve problems because their political bases are too narrow, and the resulting failures engender more distrust. It’s not a new cycle — despite a spike in media attention, there’s not much evidence that conspiratorial thinking is more common now than in years past — but technology can make these currents of collective delusion more powerful, and harder to ignore.
The basic human desires for community, stories (the more outrageous the better) and the need to feel like a protagonist in a wider struggle are what pulls us from moments of real social, economic and cultural dislocation into fabricated histories. Buildings and cities are made to grow old, to outlast people, and to be a testament to these cultural histories. They’re a yardstick for a culture’s ability to endure. When they’re not given the chance to do this, the contradiction can break something loose, and send people scavenging for cultural memory that feels ancient enough to anchor them in an uncertain now.