Previously, we discussed the different models of democracy and looked into an example of how ancient Greek architecture ties in with the direct democracy that was practiced in ancient Athens.
Let us now look at the viewpoint that public buildings and spaces should reflect democratic values.
One might imagine a totalitarian ruler drafting up their own designs and floor plans and making their own executive decisions to implement them. However, when it comes to a democratic ruling party, what happens to the architecture then?
One major feature of a democracy is its transparency. As such, some people may view the material glass as appropriate for the public spaces of a democracy, and by association, also democratic accountability.
Of course, it would not be sensible to have every public building made out of glass. One material favored by the ancient Greeks was marble, but that may not have been for purely democratic reasons as much as its availability in those times.
Other materials in notably democratic countries such as Germany, Finland and Puerto Rico include natural stone, brick, and wood. However, this can be anyone’s guess as to whether they really have anything to do with the country’s state of democracy, or just happen to be readily available to construct buildings from.
While using certain materials in buildings to promote democracy can be easily explained away, it does raise the question of whether these materials truly are an embodiment of democracy themselves, or just a final but surface touch to the design concept.
As previously seen, the ancient Greek architecture imparted to us much inspiration from which we still shape our buildings today. One such structure is the amphitheater or the semicircle-shaped seating arrangement, which is in use in many modern-day parliaments. However, some ruling parties have adapted the amphitheater into different styles, such as the horseshoe, in which Norway conducts its parliament meetings.
Other countries have innovated their own forms of democratic architecture. Norway, ranked the best democracy in the world for the sixth year in a row by the Economist Intelligence Unit, holds a parliament made up of 169 members. With progressive developments along Oslo’s skyline – notably the Munch Museum and the Oslo Public Library flanking the Oslo Opera House, Norway features an entirely new district. One major feature of the Opera House is that it allows people to walk on the roof. While you probably would not want to see that feature on a parliament house, it does add an interesting touch to the Opera House and perhaps provide some insight into what the architects intended that concept to be.
Although we have already touched on the importance of ancient Greek architecture in influencing their democratic ideals, it is also worth mentioning that some countries have attempted to adopt similar structures reminiscent of classical antiquity to reinforce the democratic ideals of those civilizations. For example, when the United States was still developing its idea of democracy, some Greek-style buildings were constructed, perhaps to remind people to heed those ideals. Some countries simply settled on the ruins of their predecessors, such as many of the European countries, which feature elements from the Renaissance and Gothic periods.
Daniel Libeskind, the architect of the new World Trade Center complex, decided that the height of the tower should be a symbolic 1776 feet. Originally, the spire of the building was also supposed to be on the edge of the tower’s roof, akin to the arm and the torch of the Statue of Liberty. However, this design was not eventually carried out. As the next article will discuss, perhaps this decision may have been voted on by the entire world, which was affected by the calamity.
It is perhaps easy to explain away certain elements of a public building in favor of democracy. For instance, constructing wide, open spaces tends to send people the subconscious message of openness and congregation. Meeting in an amphitheater-shaped complex for official discussions could help to further reinforce the idea of the people’s contribution. As far as the general look and feel of a piece of architecture are concerned, they may well be encouraging democracy in their own ways.
However, when it comes to more pedantic details such as the height of the new World Trade Center, would the common observer be able to notice such a small detail without looking at the building and deciding, “Let me try to measure the height of that building”? If Libeskind had never explained the symbolism of 1776 feet, and had instead chosen an arbitrary number with no significance at all, would anyone have realized that there was a missing link there and suggested that the number 1776 be referenced?
It is also worth noting that the overall democratic nature of the ruling party much plays a role in how people perceive the architectural elements of the surrounding public buildings. A town square in a dictatorship and the same town square in a democracy could have very different uses and attributions regardless of how open the space is, how many people it can accommodate, or whether its dimensions hold any historical significance. For example, if the town square was used by a military leader to issue commands to the people, it would be more probable that the people viewed it as a place for utilitarian happenings, instead of if the space was used for people’s gatherings and rally speeches.
When it comes to materials used in buildings, sure, these may help to enhance some ideas of democracy, but do they add any actual democratic substance other than obscuring the fact that there is none? For example, if you were to visit a building made entirely of glass, but made for totalitarian use, would your assessment of the building be to notice that it is made of glass and therefore embodies some form of democracy, or is the glass merely a distraction from the fact that the building itself is actually used for totalitarian purposes?
This comes down to the question: is there democracy in designs, or are the designs fashioned in democracy?
While it is impossible to draw a proper conclusion as to whether the principles of architecture are really able to embody democratic values, we can at least agree that a democratic party can shape the architecture of the country in such a way that enhances their democratic views. On the other hand, if the democracy itself is not strongly reinforced, would any attempts to make the buildings look more democratic actually have any real impact on the democratic ideals of the people?