The Architecture of Democracy
The Architecture of Democracy
“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
Architecture as an art, reflects the needs of the societies they placed in. Buildings create not only a space wherein people perform a set of activities, but manifest the ideas of a culture. Architecture, then, can be used to shape a political culture and to reinforce the ideas of a polity by contribut[ing] to the formation of political culture. Under this presumption, one would expect the buildings of a democratic society to be in stark contrast to those of the architecture in an authoritarian government. Democratic governments are characterized by equality, openness and public input while fascist societies are marked by secrecy, privatization and authority. In this light, physical characteristics of parliament buildings reflect the political culture because buildings are symbols of government. It is best stated that “while the physical setting does not by any means deterministically control the attitudes and behavior of people, it does condition their thoughts and actions in preliminary, subtle and interactive ways.” By examining different buildings from various governments, one should be able to see how they shape the thoughts of the people and what the buildings themselves say about the policies of the government. In this essay, the facades of three buildings from various governments will be studied in order to discover how architecture perpetuates and manifests the ideas of a political culture.
Ludwig and Franz Ruff, Nuremburg Congress Hall, Munich, Germany 1935
The National Socialist party of Germany between 1933-1945 is better known as the Nazi Party, an authoritarian government under the leadership of Adolph Hitler. German fascism during this time gave birth to many architectural monuments, all exuding the ideas of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Hitler recognized the need to create tangible symbols of the Nazi party that the people could look up to and began a project of building a new Germany. His dream of a thousand-year Reich would be expressed first and foremost through architecture that was dominating and sent the message that the Nazi party rule had dawned and was here to stay. Although unfinished, one of the best examples of Nazi architecture is the Nuremburg Congress Hall in Munich, Germany, designed by the brothers Ludwig and Franz Ruff.
The Congress Hall has its obvious similarities to the Roman Colosseum. The building is all stone and appears solid and unmovable. Buildings made of “durable materials such as stone, wood, metal and glass means that architecture performs well as a bearer of ideas over time” and solid facades make governmental institutions appear mighty and durable. Both these characteristics exemplify the ideas of fascist Germany, a regime that desired to be perceived as long-lasting, durable and intimidating. “Exterior facades of public buildings often exude a particular sense of strength, stability and dignity, thus presenting an image of enduring and legitimate state power”. The facade of the Nuremberg Congress Hall is faced with granite. It would be clear, then, that German architecture during this time would have facades that portrayed exactly this authoritarian image, showing all those who looked upon the buildings the solid and final ideas held by the government.
Another interesting feature of the Nuremberg Congress Hall is its similarity to Jeremy Bentham’s panoptical prison theory. Nazi German architecture reflects Bentham’s panoptican prison wherein one can see out of the building, however no one can perform surveillance within. The exterior of the Congress Hall, presents a building wherein those who are inside can easily peer out while limiting the field of view inward. This supports the idea that “many can be governed by the few” and creates “a space that makes possible both a certain discourse and certain power relations.” The facade of the Nuremberg Congress Hall makes clear the authoritarianism of the German fascist regime and the ideas that the masses will be governed by a few in a government polity that is lasting and indestructible. Hitler prided himself on his buildings, the “word in stone.” He realized the symbolism that architecture can be impart to the masses and understood that tangible edifices would strengthen the ideas of the Nazi Socialist party a good example of how an architectural facade manifests the ideas of a political culture.
Enric Miralles, Scottish Parliament House, Edinburgh, Scotland 2002
Enric Miralles was commissioned to build the new Scottish Parliament House in Edin-burgh, Scotland. He passed away before its completion but as his largest work, had much to say about the structure and how “the Parliament should be able to reflect the land it represents.” The Scottish Parliament campus does just this. The main building is constructed to combine elements of the surrounding nature along with political symbolism of Scotland and the philosophies of the government. The building itself was designed with the idea of creating national identity , much in the same way that Hitler sought to solidify German nationalism through his architecture.
In order for the complex to represent the democratic Scottish Parliament, it needed to portray the equality and tradition inherent in the culture. The complex resulted in a series of low-laying buildings with no hierarchy for a two-fold purpose: to enlist a feeling of equality with the land and the people and to allow the surrounding scenery to be seen, symbolizing the connection of the Scottish people with their land. In order to further strengthen this connection, elements of nature were designed into the architecture of the building. Leaf-shaped sky-lights in the main hall and branch-like exposed beams give the space a feeling of having risen out of the Scottish land itself. The facade itself is made from Scottish rock with the wood beams being constructed from oak and sycamore, both woods found native in the country.
The building also works to “symbolize the state and traditions.” The exterior of the building, in utilizing elements of the surrounding nature, invites people to enter the grounds. The non-threatening main building in its low-laying structure symbolizes the equality with the people and the idea that it does not rule over the people, but rather is a place wherein the people can meet to govern themselves the very principle of democracy.
The layout of the parliamentary campus as a whole also displays this seemingly seamless integration with the land, and hence the Scottish people. A large grass area extends the complex into the surrounding land and is open to the public at all times of the year, further establishing the democratic principle that power is available equally to all. The abstract layout of the buildings in relation to one another is another repeating motif of the campuses connection with nature and when viewed from outside, the complex of buildings do not obstruct views of the surrounding area. This adds the concept of the parliament being a part of the land, and a part of the people. A big contrast to Nazi architecture which demanded buildings that brought attention to the authoritarianism within, the Scottish Parliament House is a complex that just rises out of the land for the purpose of being a space wherein democracy could be promoted. This equality to the land and people is seen in the very architectural design of the building itself.
Architecture Studio, European Parliament, Strasbourg, France 1999
Democracy is a government ruled by the people, for the people, holding the ideals of fairness, openness and justice. The unification of the nations of Europe to form the European Union is a modern day symbol for unity and democracy. In Strasbourg, France the European Parliament building is a testament to exactly the philosophies of democracy. The very architecture of the building promotes democracy through the materials it utilizes and the spaces it occupies. Architecture affects not only the physical environment, but the mental environment of the populace. One of the first principles of democracy is that all members of the society have equal access to power. Studying the facade of the European Parliament building makes clear that it is a space that enables all to have access to power by eliminating the conventional walls in favor of transparent glass. By making the European parliament building in a way that promotes the principles of democracy, it subsequently encourages the people who use the space as well as those who see it to live in democratic ways as well.
The facade of the European Parliament in contrast to that of the Nuremberg Congress Hall is immediately apparent the building is composed almost entirely of glass. This gives the building as a whole the appearance of being open, and indicator for democratic inclinations . The glass material also contrasts the panoptical theory and allows all to be able to see in and all to see out. At night, light illuminates the interior of the building, a sight that can be viewed for spectators outside. This also eliminates the idea that what occurs inside the building is secret-the transparency of the glass indicates the ability for all to participate in the proceedings of the European Parliament. It is a building that makes use of the principle of equality and unity to manifest the ideas of democracy to all who view it.
The main tower of the European Parliament building is a cylinder, another clue to the principles of democracy it manifests. The shape of a circle promotes equality, with no none person having more access to power than another. It is a shape conditioned to being sentiments of balance, unity and solidarity to one cause . All of these principles support the polity of democracy and add to the symbolism of the building as an architectural piece that promotes government policies. The shape of the building in combination with the materials that it is composed of result in an architectural space that breathes the principles of a democratic government. It is a building that promotes a democratic way of thinking, a sharing of power through the sharing of space and the sentiment of unity through the shapes it occupies. It limits the feeling of secrecy and authoritarian power through tactful architecture that agrees with the philosophies that speak of democracy.
Architecture is about a space and how it is used as well as the art it provokes. But architecture can also be used by governments to promote political ideas and to symbolize a ruling party. The materials used in the building as well as the shapes it is composed of subconsciously hint at conditioned concepts that are intrinsically linked with them. A building made of stone sends a different massage than one built of glass and one that lays low into the land is a stark difference than one that stands high and imposing. By looking at different government regimes, one can gain a better understanding to the architecture of their buildings of politics.
Fascist Germany sought to build an image of an authoritarian regime that could last for a thousand years. Its architecture was marked by megalithic structures made of solid stone and granite, with very little windows or translucent spaces. This sent the message of not only a building that would stand the test of time, but a political idea that would also last. It symbolized a people that could be ruled by few and the large structures demanded respect and submission.
In contrast, the democratic governments of the European Union and Scotland are open polities that enjoy free discussion, unity, and an equality of power between the people and those chosen to make decisions. Hence the buildings utilize materials such as glass, which allow the inner space of the building to be shared with the exterior. Raw materials that are found locally also helps to place the building symbolically on an equal ground as the people. Both structures are non-imposing-they are open spaces that invite everyday people to see within, holding no secrets and sending the message that they are spaces for democracy and the principles it promotes.
All three buildings manifest the political philosophies of the governments that built them and send very definite messages about the kind of government present. A building can be more than just art and more than simply a space. It can be a tangible symbol for the citizens, reflecting the political ideas that are held to. The buildings can be solid manifestations of desires for authority or democracy, tradition or modernity. Just as the rising of a building can entice sentiments of nationalism and pride, the presence of a structure can promote political feelings subconsciously. The symbolism that a building can impart in the subconscious of the people can not be underestimated. It is clear that architecture can be used to shape a political culture and to reinforce the ideas of a polity by contributing to the formation of political culture.
Betrunk, Carola Von, Architecture Studio Europe, and Marco Zanta. Architecture Studio Europe: The European Parliament, Strasbourg. Milan: Charta, 2001.
Buchanan, Peter, and Dennis Dollens. The Architecture of Enric Miralles & Carme Pinos. Tokyo: Lumen Books, 1990.
Goodsell, Charles T. “The Architecture of Parliaments: Legislative House and Political Culture.” British Journal of Political Science 18.3 (1988): 287-302.
Greenberg, Allan. Architecture of Democracy. New York: Rizzoli, 2006.
Hirst, Paul. “Foucault and Architecture.” AA Files 1 (1993): 52-60.
Jencks, Charles , and Maggie Valentine. “The Architecture of Democracy: The Hidden Tradition.” Architectural Design 57.9-10 (1987): 9-25.
Jones, Helen, and Deyan Sudjic. Architecture and Democracy. New York: te Neues Publishing Company, 2001.
Kahler, Gert. New German Architecture. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2002.
Milne, David. “Architecture, Politics and the Public Realm.” Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory 5 (1981): 131-46.
Miralles, Enric. Enric Miralles: Works and Projects 1975-1995. New York: Monacelli, 1996.
Mourier, Pierre-Francois. The European Parliament in Strasbourg. Brussels: Art Books Intl Ltd, 2000.
Rendell, Jane. “Architecture-writing.” The Journal of Architecture 10.3 (2005): 255-264.
Riding, Christine. Houses of Parliament: History, Art, Architecture. New York: Merrell, 2000.
Till, Jeremy. “The architect and the other | openDemocracy.” openDemocracy. 21 May 2008.
The Architecture of Democracy: The Phoenix Municipal Government Center Design Competition (Architectural Design Profile). New York: St Martins Pr, 1988.