On the style of government architecture

Thorbjørn Mann, February 2020

The current administration of the U.S.  Federal Government has proposed that buildings for federal government use should be designed in the ‘classical’ style of ancient Greek and Roman architecture; this has led to some passionate objections, e.g. from the American Institute of Architects.

Both the desire to get some general rules for designing government (at least ‘federal’) architecture and to the particular choice of style, as well as the reaction to that government move, are understandable, though the rationale for both deserve some discussion.

In traditional societies, it was almost a matter of course that buildings were designed in a way that made them recognizable as to their role or function or purpose: A house (for living in) was a house, distinct from the barn or the stable or the storehouse, a church, a temple or synagogue or mosque were recognizable as what they were even to children, a store was a store, and a government building was a government building — a city hall, a ruler’s palace. Even in societies changed by the industrial revolution, a factory or a railway station were recognizable to the citizens as what they were and what they were for.

For government buildings, the design or style carried additional expectations: what kind of government, what kind of societal order did they represent? At one time, a ruler would live in a fortress — ostensibly for protection from exterior enemies, but as a convenient side-effect also protection from the ruler’s own subjects who didn’t like the taxes and what he used them for, or other edicts. More ‘democratic’ or ‘republican’ governance systems favored more ‘civil’ connotations, say, like a ‘marketplace of ideas’ for how to run their lives; the issue of designing suitable places that told the governance folks that they were ‘servants of the people’ but also told visitors how great their cities or nations were, became a delicate challenge. This also affected the design of residences of oligarchs who ‘ran’ government from their own palaces, but wished to insist on the right to do so by their wealth and erudition and good taste. (1) Their administrations — bureaucracies — could no longer use the fortress symbols to keep the citizenry in line, but architects helped the rulers to find other means to do that; the sheer size and complexity of rule-based designs of administrative institutions were intimidating, sorry ‘inspiring’ enough?

That clarity and comprehensibility of buildings has been lost in recent architecture: We see many kinds of clients, governmental and commercial and in-between institutions trying to impress the public and each other by means of size and novelty supplied by architectural creativity with their buildings. This is leading to a ‘diversity’ of the public visual environment that many find refreshing and interesting but others are beginning to resent as disturbing and boring, since as a whole it expresses a different kind of uninspiring uniformity of common desire to impress: by means of size (who’s got the tallest building and most brilliant plumage?) of ‘different’ signature architecture. Coming across as more puerile than ‘inspiring’: is that who we are as a society?

So the question of whether at least some clear distinction between governmental architecture and other buildings should be re-established, is not an entirely meaningless one. But insisting that the issue should be the sole domain of architects to decide rather than the government is also missing just that point: what is it that architecture tells us about who we — and our government — are, or ought to be? Just big and impressively ‘imperial’ — like the Roman or other empires that ended up collapsing under their own weight and corruption that all the marble couldn’t hide? The ‘inspiration’ being mainly the same kind of puerile awe of its sheer power but also — and not just incidentally: fear? What is the kind of architecture that would inspire us to cooperate, through our government, towards a more ‘perfect’ just, free, creative but kind and peaceful society?

Part of the problem is that we do not have a good forum for the discussion of these issues. The government itself, in most countries, has lost the standing of being that forum, for various reasons. The forms of ‘classical’ architecture won’t bring it back — they have too easily been adopted by commercial and other building clients: the example of an insane asylum with a classical portico, an old standard joke in architecture schools that advocated more modern styles, is beginning to give us a new chilling feeling… So where: Books? Movies? TV? Ah: Twitter? Is that who we are? Just asking…

(1) I have written about this issue (under the heading of the role of ‘occasion’ and ‘image’ in the built environment) in some articles and book; using the example of government architecture in Renaissance Florence, (where we can see buildings showing the dramatic evolution of the image of government in close proximity) and about the forum for discussion of public policy. I consider the design and organization of that ‘forum’ one of the urgent challenges of our time.

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