The Value of Architecture in Civic Greatness (part 2)

In part one I argued in support of a more decorous and inspiring civic architecture, or at the very least to maintain those qualities in existing public structures.

As I was finishing the post I realized I hadn’t discussed an important point: the unique problems of civic architecture. I cited several buildings that I admire, Grand Central Station being among my all time favorites. Its enormous space is truly awe-inspiring and its fixtures are well maintained examples of a craftsmanship and attention to decorative detail that we don’t often see these days. I consider this to be a fine example of a truly inspiring civic architecture.

The problem is that Grand Central utilizes the same gestures as so many palaces, cathedrals, and fortresses. As these architectural motifs were developed in the service of sovereign powers as a means of subjugating a population rather than ennobling or empowering them, they’re not particularly well suited to the allegedly democratic ambitions of our civil society.

Historically, cathedrals have been built to inspire admiration and fear in a congregation by embodying the sublime. From Notre Dame to today’s mega-churches, a major theme in the architecture of worship is to dwarf the individual, subsuming and connecting him to the spiritual body of community and faith. Anyone who’s seen the Cologne Cathedral would be hard pressed to argue that that isn’t true at least some of the time.

The palace is also constructed to capitalize on the drama of scale. As the architectural expression of the sovereign’s power its important that subjects recognize in it the physical manifestation of the wealth, glory, and divine right to rule.

Similarly, one of the fortress’s chief functions is to intimidate any would be attackers. After all, the safest castle is one that doesn’t get attacked in the first place.

All of these architectures have one thing in common: the intent to subjugate and bring the will of the population or individual into docility.

These architectural symbols of power have been hybridized and articulated in contemporary architecture as well. A skyscraper is the palace of corporate power, built to inspire awe in its employees [subjects] and demonstrate might in the marketplace, private gated communities are fortresses, designed to intimidate would be invaders, and so on.

Now, I’m not changing my mind about the whole “civic architecture should inspire pride” issue, but none of this subjugation/intimidation stuff sounds like its in keeping with the principles of civic responsibility and participation. A well-considered civic architecture should reflect the values of the civil society it is constructed for. For us, that might mean that it needs to be democratic and scaled for human purposes, not the purposes of would-be gods and sovereigns. Our current architecture knocks the king off the throne and God out of heaven but replaces them with the State.

Some groundbreaking early 20th century architects sought to break with Neo-Classical motifs but utilized the same gestures of scale, mass, and volume to dwarf people. The ultimate end of a particular strain of subjugating architecture came when Futurist Antonio Sant’Elia imagined buildings so outside the scale of human use that they were unbuildable.

This is a logical end of one architectural vernacular of power (Futurist Fascism), but one that seems patently inappropriate for the democratic ambitions of the United States. In fact, public buildings in the last hundred years have been so quick to eschew humanness for dramatic effect that we can hardly imagine what a human shaped building would be like anymore.

My proposal is that a sensitive, inclusive, and participatory architecture should be developed for civic buildings. I could expand on any of these ideas but my thinking while typing would quickly turn itself into a book so here’s a basic list:

  • Civic architecture should be scaled appropriately for human use.
  • It should make citizens feel empowered, not small.
  • It should be ecologically responsible.
  • It should be local.
  • It should be sensitive to its context without pandering or mimicking pre-existing structures.
  • It should be historically relevant but also distinctly contemporary.
  • It should be designed chiefly to include and inspire all citizens, not to coerce, or intimidate, but to be open to participation and dialogue among citizens.
  • It should overtly reference the hand of the people who built it, ideally the work of craftsmen and laborers and not just the mechanized processes that render materials.
  • It should be inspiring yet modest.
  • It shouldn’t be cheap or common. Conversely it shouldn’t be ostentatiously luxurious.

I’m trying to think of buildings that embody these attribute, but I can’t. This fact alone sends up a red flag. Is this sort of building rare because its wrong-headed and impractical or because it disrupts that power of the bodies that enforce social regulation through architecture? What I’m looking for is obviously something that is at odds with Modernism, but also seemingly at odds with everything that’s come after.

I’m going to try to find some examples and come back to this. If anyone else comes up with any, please post them.