Urban fabric and political ideals – Sukhbaatar Square (II) (1990-2000 and beyond) – Democratic transition and the comeback of Chinggis Khan

Following the Democratic Revolution in 1990 and the break of the Soviet-Mongolian connection, the concept of cultural nationalism began to rise in the country. Two key pre-socialist heritage – Buddhism and Chinggis Khan were brought back to re-establish the religious and socio-political national identity. In particular, Chinggis Khan was regarded as a symbol of democracy in traditional nomadic culture, where people enjoyed the “freedom of movement, absence of state control and individualism”. [1] Hence, he was repeatedly used as a figure to advocate these national ideals in the democratic transition.

The urban landscape was the key permanent medium used to convey the democratic and truly Mongolian national narrative. Significant changes were made in the urban fabric to establish the new iconography. Statues of communist heroes were replaced by local historical figures. Streets named after communist leaders and ideologies were renamed. For instance, the Victory Square was renamed as Independence Square, and Marx Street as Jamyan Gun Street and Genden Street, after Mongolian officials. [2]

Going back to Aldo Rossi’s theory of urban artefacts, the alterations in the socio-political centre of Ulaanbaatar, Sukhbaatar Square were taken to understand the influence of the political change on the city. Major renovations were carried out on the Government Building from 2005-2007. Green glass domes resembling the ger geometry were crowned to the north side of the building. [3] Large glass surfaces were inserted behind the colonnade as symbols of modernisation. (Fig.1) Originally known as the “grey palace” due to its colour(Fig.2), the building was painted white in 2007.

Fig.1 The Government Palace at the Chinggis Khan Square, 2014.
Fig.1 The Government Palace at the Chinggis Khan Square, 2014.
Fig.2 The Government Palace before renovations, 1995.
Fig.2 The Government Palace before renovations, 1995.

The key symbol of the communist power, the Sukhbaatar mausoleum was demolished in 2005. As a replacement, a massive Chinggis Khan statue was inserted to the centre of the Government Building frontage (Fig.3). Statues of his son and successor, Ogedei Khan and the founder of Yuan Dynasty, Kubilai Khan were erected on the Southwest and Southeast corners of the building.[4] The Sukhbaatar Square was renamed the Chinggis Khan Square in 2013.

Fig. 3 Chinggis Khan Statue, Mongolian Soldiers Day, 2016.
Fig. 3 Chinggis Khan Statue, Mongolian Soldiers Day, 2016.

These modifications of the urban landscape were once again, utilisation of the physical forms to promote the political regime. The concept resembled the drastic changes in the urban fabric imposed by the communists in the 1940s-50s, yet implemented in a smaller scale and more sensitive approach.  The communist urban fabric was maintained to a recognizable extent. Selective alterations were made to mark the paradigm shift. The Government Building was renovated to highlight the shift in political power and the new national ideals. The removal of communist artefacts and the insertion of new democratic monuments reinforced the indigenous national narrative.


[1] Rossabi, Morris. Modern Mongolia. From khans to commissars to capitalism. Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2005.

[2]  Diener, Alexander C., Hagen, Joshua. “City of felt and concrete: Negotiating cultural hybridity in Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar” Nationalities Papers, Vol.41(4), 2013, 622-650.

[3] Balazs Szalontai. “From the Demolition of Monasteries to the Installation of Neon Lights: The Politics of Urban Construction in the Mongolian People’s Republic,” in Sites of modernity: Asian cities in the transitory moments of trade, colonialism, and nationalism, ed. Wasana Wongsurawat. Berlin : Springer-Verlag, 2016, 161-179.

[4] Diener, Alexander C., Hagen, Joshua. “City of felt and concrete”, 634 – 635.

Image reference

Martin Vorel. “Mongolian Government palace in Ulaanbaatar”. http://libreshot.com/mongolian-government-palace-ulaanbaatar/

O.Corff.  “Ulsyn Ix Xural “. http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/corff/im/Picture/Impressions.html/

Mongolia news. “Marching bands lead the parade to Sukhbaatar’s statue” http://www.news.mn/r/278243/

2 Comments on “Urban fabric and political ideals – Sukhbaatar Square (II) (1990-2000 and beyond) – Democratic transition and the comeback of Chinggis Khan

  1. The case of Ulaanbaatar is quite similar to Shanghai in 1920s and 1930s as both city was trying to erect the nationalist or cultural identity in a modernised urban context. Similar measures was made especially in the architectural scale. Symbols and motifs were integrated into the building designed and constructed more in a modern way. The difference is that Tarantula was trying to make changes on the original city but in Shanghai a new civic centre started from scratch. However as you writes “The communist urban fabric was maintained to a recognisable extent”, I wonder is there long term or spontaneous modification made by either the government or the public in an more urban scale instead of renovating certain buildings? If the urban fabric was not changed for a more “Mongolia city”, what do you think are the political or economic reasons behind?

  2. Agreed with the previous comment. I found the case of Ulaanbaatar shares quite a lot of common points with Ankara in terms of Political background and how the government were trying to establish new identity through architectural moves. The difference is that after the War of Independence, Turkey was independent from the Ottoman Empire, Ankara was selected to build a new capital replacing Istanbul, the former capital, pushing the modernization and westernization of the city. I would like to know were there any master plans proposed to ‘modernize’ Ulaanbaatar at that time? Or the Government just selectively replace buildings as separate architectural projects? Did the Government release any visions towards Ulaanbaatar development or how he defined/perceived ‘modernization’?

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