Architecture and Democracy: An Introduction
How can a piece of architecture be democratic?
What makes a piece of architecture democratic? Opinions are mixed on whether public spaces and buildings can reflect democracy in their entirety, or if the process of building a piece of architecture itself is enough to qualify the building as democratic in nature.
Some say that a building itself can exhibit “democratic” qualities, such as featuring a wide, open space that suggests freedom. Others maintain that no matter what the end result of a building looks like, if the process of designing and building it was not democratic and did not involve direct input from the citizens, then the building cannot be democratic.
To further debate these points of view, let us first consider the different models of democracy.
Well, first off, what is a democracy?
The concept of democracy originated from Greece, coming from the Greek word “dēmokratia” which means “rule of the people”. A democracy allows for its people to provide feedback and input directly to the leaders, as opposed to different types of rule such as a dictatorship or a monarchy.
While democracy is used in many countries today, each country – and in fact, each citizen – tends to have a different view on what a democracy entails. There are many names to the myriad of different democracy theories out there, but here is a breakdown on just a few popular views on democracy.
A direct democracy allows the citizens to vote directly on whatever policy the government passes, without the need of any intermediate party or parliament. The people get a direct say in whatever issues arise, along with the ability to bring up issues on their own as long as they have a majority support.
A direct democracy can work best in a small population where the general populace is fairly well educated and homogenous, at least when it comes to policy- and decision-making. For instance, one country that has had a successful history of direct democracy is Switzerland.
However, when it comes to larger or more populated countries or countries where the people are divided on political stances, direct democracy may not be such a good idea. In such situations, it may be better for the people to elect representatives to decide on matters instead of voting on every small issue themselves.
The authoritarian or elite democratic model argues that only a small number of well-informed people should have the ability to participate in politics because they should be able to make the best decisions for all the citizens. Authoritarian democracies allow the citizens to vote for their desired political candidate, but are not allowed to enter the elections as a candidate themselves. As such, the parliament comprises of only the “ruling elite” without a representative from the common folk, and political decisions are solely made and influenced by these ruling elite.
An example of authoritarian democracy today is modern Russia under Vladimir Putin. Some other modern countries also fall loosely under this category, such as Hong Kong.
Participatory democracy is the opposite of authoritarian democracy. The participatory model is similar to direct democracy in that citizens have some say in decisions and policy making. However, the main difference from direct democracy is that in direct democracies, citizens can directly make policy decisions, while in participatory democracies, citizens can influence these decisions but do not make them. Participatory democracy focuses on empowering all citizens to make meaningful contributions to the population’s politics, while politicians are still in charge of making the final decisions and implementing the final stance.
Today, no country actively uses the participatory democracy style. Although sound in theory, putting it into practice across an entire nation comes with various complications. However, we can see a participatory democracy in use in smaller populations, such as town hall meetings. Some social movements, such as the Bolivarian Movement in Venezuela and the Narmada Bachao Andolan in India also make use of the participatory democracy model.
In pluralist democracy, power is dispersed across multiple groups and no one group dominates the playing field in politics. The pluralist belief is that citizens are not interested in becoming involved in politics. As such, groups are formed through people having common interests, where those who feel engaged can then involve themselves in political agendas. These groups then compete with one another to gain support from politicians that can advocate for their causes.
One form of pluralism today can be seen in official signs and documents written in more than one language. For example, many official statements in Canada are required to be written in both English and French to cater to those who speak only either language. Road signs may be written in multiple languages especially around the border separating countries.
So, what does architecture have to do with democracy?
There may seem to be no link between the two, but upon further thought, it is undeniable that the way a government decides to structure and design its buildings plays a part in the impression citizens and foreign visitors get from the resulting architecture.
One notable example of democracy in history is in ancient Athens, Greece – also called the birthplace of democracy. In the fourth and fifth centuries BC, Athens practiced a direct democratic model. At least once a month, an assembly would gather on the Pnyx hill and every male citizen over the age of 18 was able to participate. They could speak to the assembly if desired and voted on political decisions by holding up their hands. The voting was observed by nine presidents – elected by lot and holding the office only once. At the end of the day, the majority won the vote.
Ancient Greek architecture features a temple-rich scene, with many monuments and structures dedicated to the Greek gods. Greek architecture also contributed to the modern world the concept of amphitheaters and theaters, in which the people gathered to discuss and vote on political procedures. It was around the fifth century BC that the Greek amphitheater took on its most recognizable form: the semi-circular rising rows of seats in the middle of an open-air complex.
The architects of ancient Greece were well advanced in their understanding of buildings, and believed that public architecture should not only perform its function of housing statues of deities, but it should additionally look good from the inside, close by, and also from afar. As such, temples from that time period made use of complex geometry and optical tricks such as thickening lower columns, thickening corner columns, and having columns lean inwards very slightly so that the building would appear perfectly straight and in harmony if one looked at it from a distance. Even to this day, such refinements in ancient Greek architecture are undetectable to the naked eye, and require special measuring equipment to tell the difference. We can thus conclude that the ancient Greeks did not just believe in fulfilling the functional aspect of public buildings, but also intended for them to look appealing to the viewer as a symbolic cornerstone in the landscape.
The democracy of today takes on many different forms, with different groups of people favoring their own styles of leadership. Do you think the different forms of democracy play a part in deciding the architectural procedures of a nation?