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Dignity and delight.

Modern institutions are changing. An aversion to permanence and aggrandizement has produced a new and challenging climate for architecture, which has a crucial part to play in shaping new institutions through the encouragement of dignity and delight.

Throughout history, architecture has served to idealize and encapsulate institutions of various kinds. From the earliest tombs, temples and citadels to the contemporary excrescences of Western capitalism, architects have employed devices of rhetoric, grandeur and cosmic symbolism to give shape to the social hierarchy and lend an aura of permanence to powerful political, religious or cultural bodies. Eventually these groups disappear, but their buildings and monuments remain. Over time, the original meaning of such relics inevitably alters, as historical events invest them with new associations.

It is clear that the institutional building has become increasingly problematic to define. It could be loosely termed as the accommodation of some state or religious function, or as a series of typologies - for example town hall, law courts, church, hospital and museum. This broad family tree suggests a concept of public architecture that epitomizes a sense of commonwealth, mutual aid, civic and cultural advancement, as distinct from authoritarian monuments. The typological umbrella might also embrace certain business and commercial buildings, as many banks, finance houses and private companies embody institutional characteristics.

Designers of institutions in the twentieth century are confronted with entirely different sets of challenges from their predecessors. Cathartic social, economic and cultural changes have redefined the place of institutions in society. Modern social structures are rarely dominated by groups that can claim divine or absolute authority (except perhaps in the Islamic world) and industrialized societies are rarely able to foster a consensus about values or the way in which these values might be articulated. In the West, God has long been superseded by Mammon; where once St Peter's embodied ultimate institutional power and unsurpassed technological ingenuity, its modern equivalent might be the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. Yet as William Curtis notes: 'Though no modern monument can hope to possess the charisma of an Angkor War or a Pantheon, public myths, religious beliefs, state aspirations and cultural aims still require articulation'.(*)

Since the middle of this century, the dissolution of the public institution and the aversion to permanence and aggrandizement have produced a new and challenging climate for architecture. At the same time, shifts in architectural theory have helped evolve the programmatic and aesthetic concerns of the new institution. Considerations such as historical precedence, urban context and public participation have become important criteria for institutional buildings. The diffusion and dismantling of establishments is producing new and diverse types of institutions. Museums, for example, are no longer seen as static architectural frameworks, but are judged on the basis of unity with their contents, or in the case of art galleries, even as a catalyst for new art. Steven Holl's new Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki (p46) seeks to redefine the art museum as an institution, shifting its image from elitist treasure house to a dynamic, demotic focus for public interaction.

This issue contains examples of what might be broadly described as modern institutions - law courts, museums, churches, cultural centres and corporate headquarters. Niels Torp's complex for British Airways near Heathrow (p36) is a courageous attempt to make sense of the potentially drear reductivism of corporate culture. In this case, a large company is centralizing its numerous operations, but the potentially behemoth-like building is broken down and humanized into a series of office houses, linked by a luminous, animated street, with the potential for chance interaction and associated creative impulses that modern companies claim to value so highly. Yet for all the laudable intentions, the company still monitors and controls each individual worker; cellular offices are non-existent and the isolated location effectively cuts the workforce off from the quotidian activities and distractions of conventional city life.

Law courts are an obvious embodiment of institutional power, but in the modern era, the law must be seen as both approachable and fairly administered. Studio Granda's Iceland Supreme Court in Reykjavik (p54) combines openness with sober reflection on the place of the law in a small Nordic society. The origins of the conventional courtroom form are immemorial. In Europe, during the Middle Ages, justice was carried out in the open air. The court space was defined by two essential elements, the tree of justice and the surrounding hazel thicket. The tree sheltering the litigants evoked the pagan image of a pillar supporting the world, offering protection and support. At its base, a ring of branches marked out the area within which the proceedings took place. Over the centuries, these original symbolic elements have become more complex and been enriched with new meanings. However, the wooden fence has remained in courtrooms to this day, where it separates those involved in proceedings from the spectators.

Major developments in law court form reflect historical changes in the justice system itself. In France, for example, courtroom activities have increased as a growing number of citizens use the law to obtain justice. As the legal landscape changes, France's existing body of nineteenth-century NeoClassical law courts has been supplemented by an ambitious new national building programme coordinated by the Ministry of Justice. Jourda & Perraudin's latest regional law courts in Melun (p65) convey a sense of monumentality and institutional symbolism through contemporary formal and material expression.

Architecture has, in effect, become an active, structuring agent in the development of the legal process and, as the buildings in this issue show, it has a part to play in shaping other modern institutions through the cultivation of openness, approachability, dignity, and even delight.

* William J.R. Curtis 'Modern Architecture, Monumentality and the Meaning of Institutions: Reflections on Authenticity', Harvard Architectural Review, No 4, 1984, p65.
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Title Annotation:changes in the architecture of buildings for public institutions
Author:Slessor, Catherine
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Aug 1, 1998
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