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Architecture and Democracy: Democratic Procedures

How do you make a building democratic? Well, by making sure the people contribute to the design, of course.

Mention “democratic architecture” and that is probably the idea that comes to mind. Perhaps the most straightforward way of making architecture democratic would be to involve everyone in the decision making process in some way or another. Of course, this would depend on the type of democracy the population makes use of – a direct democracy may open the floor to its citizens to suggest possible design ideas, an authoritarian democracy may hold a vote and have the leaders finalize the plans, while a participatory democracy may have the leaders suggest ideas that the population then votes for. Regardless of the individual democratic models, the main idea would ideally be that every citizen gets to make some form of input into at least influencing the decision of every new public building.

Physical Limitations of Involving Everyone

Realistically speaking, having such a democratic procedure may be difficult to implement. For one, some citizens may be disinterested in voting on the designs of public architecture, preferring to leave that decision up to the authorities. Although a democracy tries to involve and represent different demographic groups, especially the minorities, we all know that there is a portion of the people in any group that simply do not care or do not wish to be involved.

Even if everyone was on board with deciding on the matter, how would a nation manage to get every input from millions of individuals? It would not be physically possible to crowd everyone into the same room and get everyone to vote. Even the ancient Athenians had a gathering area to accommodate only around 6,000 people, while the actual population of those eligible to vote on political matters ranged from around 30,000 to 60,000.

Deciding Who Should Vote

One could simply say that those who are not affected by the new architecture should not be required to vote on the procedure. Indeed, it may be easier to count the voting if the new architecture was, for example, a community center where only the people who were going to be served by that center would be largely impacted by the new building. This might also solve the problem of having disinterested citizens void a vote or decide not to vote.

However, this theory becomes a problem when considering the magnitude of just who is affected by certain buildings. To illustrate, let us consider the design for a new train station. Since we do not know who is going to pass through that station and thus be affected by its design, should the polling be opened to the entire city, the state, or even the country? Just how do we set the guidelines for deciding who is going to be affected by the architecture?

Consider the symbolic site of Ground Zero. The event of 9/11 impacted billions of people worldwide. However, does that really mean that the entire world population is part of the constituency for deciding on the architecture of Ground Zero? Is it necessary to involve every affected person in the decisions for a single plot of land?

How About Trusting An Architect?

Getting every citizen to vote on their desired outcome may work well and good if the citizens were all educated and mostly had homogenous political opinions, but what if some could not be trusted to provide any valuable input? In such a case, there may be the argument made that an uneducated group of people would not be able to make educated decisions as to what the design of a building should look like. Why would an elite ruling party have to ask the common folk for their input when they knew the majority would not make an informed decision, instead going by reasons such as “I like it” or “It looks nice”?

For the new World Trade Center complex, the architect Daniel Libeskind was entrusted with the design of the building, but getting him to work on the site was really George Pataki’s decision – the governor of New York State. The matter can be greatly contested as to whether the mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, should have had a greater say in who got to design the new building. Who should have assumed greater responsibility for restoring the city after the 9/11 attacks, anyway?

The ruling party may also decide to open the floor to the people to vote on their favorite architect. However, we may also end up with the problem of people simply choosing arbitrarily or being biased in their opinions, instead of really considering the matter at hand. For some of the general public, a matter of a new public building that they will hardly use might not be enough to spark their interest.

How Much Democracy Is Enough?

At some point, the ruling parties should have to make certain decisions on their own. If they were to ask the public about their opinion on every minute detail of the new building, they would quite likely bore every common citizen.

Obviously, the extent of democratic voting for every new public building is dependent on each citizen’s view. However, a democracy cannot well afford to go out and poll every citizen on their input. Common boundaries need to be drawn, and if the democracy was going to ask every citizen on what these common boundaries should be, the cycle will never end.

How then should a country go about voting for democratic input of architecture?

A small-scale example would be the painting of a new condominium. The management typically proposes two or three color schemes, and then polls the residents for their desired color scheme. At the end, the majority wins, or the final decision could still be made by the management while considering the input of the residents.

While it is clear that the people in a democracy expect to be asked for their input on a decision that directly affects them, some parties may actually be asking for the people’s input simply for the sake of asking, to satisfy an attempt and any concerns regarding their model of democracy.

We should consider this question: are the authorities going by this approach really attempting to employ democratic approaches, or are they simply trying to appease the portion of the people that would cry out at an executive decision being made without their consult?


To summarize, involving the citizens of a democracy in the decision making process can be the simplest way to ensure democratic procedures are adhered to. However, some limitations may need to be drawn as to who really gets a say in the final design, and what parts of the design are to be voted on. As long as it is done in moderationArchitecture and Democracy: Democratic Procedures, the people and the authorities should be able to come to an agreement on whether the architectural process was truly democratic…or was it simply a means to let the political party reassure themselves that they have made an attempt at democracy? 


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