Democratic representation: since the beginning of the state, all governments have built to demonstrate their power. How can modern democracies find expression when many perceive that terrorism is a major threat?
Traditionally, of course, most governments have built to impress the people from whom they exact their money. Augustus may not have had a huge palace in Rome, but he built magnificent temples throughout the empire, and in Rome the wonderful Ara Pacis survives, on which the emperor, his family and friends paraded as a perfect example of noble civic propriety. Some five centuries later, Justinian created his amazing church of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, which was intended to awe the populace with reverence for emperor and pantocrator equally. The Gothic castles of the Middle Ages were much more direct in their message: might is right. Baroque palaces were intended to put across the same frightening power in the era of gunpowder.
In the nineteenth century, as usual at the time in all architecture, there was much confusion about how to represent purpose. Emerging democracy could draw on few precedents. In the brave new United States, Classical models were favoured, demonstrating the notion of democracy for free males (with no interference from women, slaves or the poorest--a society in some ways consciously derived from an idealization of the Roman Republic). The Capitol (completed 1867) would certainly have been recognized as the major building of the nation by the ghosts of the fathers of the Roman Republic and emperors as dissimilar as Augustus and Justinian.
In Britain, Barry and Pugin built the Houses of Parliament (completed 1868), drawing on Gothic and Tudor precedents, to show how British democratic institutions were descended from a strangely idealized noble and free society of medieval yeomen and aristocrats (with no interference from women or the poor). In Germany, struggling to realize Bismarck's cautious acceptance of a degree of democracy within what had been imperial absolutism, the Reichstag, designed by Paul Wallot, was completed in 1894. As Brian Ladd has pointed out, Wallot 'despaired of the difficulty of his task: he had to create a symbol of Germany and German parliamentarianism, when there was no model for either, and little consensus about what they meant'. (3) He ended up with a huge and stodgy Baroque palazzo (to symbolize authority) topped by a great glass dome over the chamber (to symbolize modernity and openness). Kaiser Wilhelm II thought the place 'the height of tastelessness' (4) and it was only in 1916 that the famous motto DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE (To the German People) was added, much to the emperor's chagrin.
Hitler loved the Reichstag (perhaps because of its lumpen heaviness), and demanded its retention, even after the notorious fire of February 1933. It remained in partial use until it was destroyed by the Soviet army in 1945. Then it remained as a badly converted ruin until it was transformed by Foster as a symbol of the unification of the country (AR July 1999). Within Wallot's masonry shell (now restored as a symbol of the continuity of history), (5) there is a new chamber in which the Bundestag meets. On top, the new transparent dome, in which the public strolls up and down the helical ramps gazing over the panoramas of Berlin, has become a symbol of the relationship of the legislators in the chamber below to their electors.
In some ways, the symbolic relationship of public to the legislature had been foreshadowed by the Australian parliament building by Mitchell/Giurgola and Thorp, which is partly buried in a grassy hill in the middle of Canberra (AR October 1988). The symbolic aims were to allow the electorate to wander over their MPs, and perhaps to suggest that legislation should emerge from the very bowels of the country.
Some 40 years before, in a different way, and at a very different scale, Aalto had suggested a mystical relationship between public, legislators and the earth at Saynatsalo. Here is a tiny town hall, the smallest possible, set on an outcrop of rock and built round a small green court. The perfect little brick acropolis is in the middle of the forest, and its mullions echo the rhythms of the surrounding dark tree-trunks. From the court, the activities of the councillors and their staff can be seen through glass walls: electors are able to see whether or not their representatives are getting on with their work, and how they are going about it. Here, in the middle of the forest, is surely a monument to the democratic process.
Perhaps Saynatsalo was too perfect to last: perhaps such an ideal relationship between place, people and politics could only be achieved at very small scale. The town hall has for long been little used for its original purpose, as local government re-organization has moved decision-making and administration to a larger regional headquarters serving a much wider community. In any case, in our times, any public building, particularly any building built for its own use by government, is a potential target for terrorists.
In Britain, for decades we have become used to seeing the shabby presence of blast curtains (6) behind any large area of glass in a government building. Many other devices to combat terrorist attacks are being adopted. Most of the obvious ones, like the walls that surround many embassies and courthouses, are intended to repel unauthorized vehicular approach. But such things insert a physical and optical barrier between electors and their representatives, the public and its servants. The innocent idealism of Saynatsalo can probably never be recaptured, though in a curious contemporary echo, Helin's extension to the Finnish parliament allows the electors to look direct into their MPs' offices from the street (p70). Such literal and metaphorical transparency is perhaps achievable only in a peaceable country on quite a small scale, using vastly expensive glass. Even more bravely, electors can actually reach out and touch their MPs at the Scottish Parliament (p50).
Such efforts are worth making. The experiments of the second half of the twentieth century like Saynatsalo, Canberra and the remodelled Reichstag began to indicate ways of generating government buildings appropriate for modern democracies: ones of presence and dignity, yet open and transparent too. We must not allow potential threats to prevent development of democratic idealism--a challenge as important in architecture as in every other aspect of culture. Otherwise, we shall have given in to the terrorists, and be back where we started with the emperors.
1 Julius Caesar, who had adopted his great nephew Augustus.
2 Granger, Frank (trans), Vitruvius on Architecture, Heinemann, London, 1983.
3 Ladd, Brian, The Ghosts of Berlin, Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1997, p86.
4 Ibid, p87.
5 Other symbols of continuity include the controversial preservation of graffiti by Russian soldiers on some of the internal walls.
6 Blast curtains are made of tough plastic gauze and are arranged loosely so that a good deal of their material is on the floor, and they have many vertical overlaps. If the glass is shattered by an explosion, they are intended to balloon to catch the shards. They inevitably look shabby and rather dirty.
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|Publication:||The Architectural Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2004|
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