Architecture and Politics

I may lose half of my readers doing this, but I’m going to go ahead and do it anyway:

Architecture and politics are inextricably linked. Buildings do not get built without many different people figuring out how to get along and working hard to create a final product; they are the products of collaboration, and where there is weak collaboration, there are generally bad buildings.

But the link is deeper than that. On a much more theoretical level, architecture and politics are one and the same. They draw upon the same reasoning and ideas, and they work to do the same fundamental thing — help people. Both require clear thinking and careful attention to all of the facts, without a loss of sight of social nuance and circumstance. Both also require a deeply held optimism about the state of people and their ability to change the world in a positive way.

So is architecture progressive or conservative? Find out after the break.

Good architecture is equivalent to progressive politics. Both are founded in an objective yet nuanced look at concrete facts and both seek to improve people’s lives in meaningful ways. Progressive politics favors help for the disadvantaged and open-mindedness towards all people. Projects like President Obama’s healthcare law succeed because they are built on noble ambitions but not without regard to circumstance — the law builds off of our existing system to improve it without remaking it (I do think it could have gone further with the inclusion of the public option, however). Similarly, the best buildings are rooted in their environments, but not limited by them. Buildings like Kevin Roche’s Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts do not pretend to be somewhere they are not — Roche’s building takes UMass’s highly urban campus on its own terms, but then goes further, adding a sense of grace and elegance to it. It is an original work that works off of its surroundings to make a interesting, challenging and beautiful building.

The facade of Roche's UMass Fine Arts Center.

Architectural form is not the only way in which architecture is equivalent to progressive politics, however. Function, the other ‘half’ of architecture, should similarly be founded in progressive ideals. Buildings should not only serve their users, but go beyond that. Republicans believe that the national government should assume as small a role as possible (or so they say — though there is much evidence of hypocrisy on this, for the sake of this post I’ll just explain why the original logic is wrong). The central question of governing our nation should NOT be, “How can we make the government as small as possible?” And why do conservatives focus on that so much? Because only people working for profit-seeking companies actually do things well, they will say. If that were really the case, then wouldn’t more government involvement be necessary in order to help those left behind by the ‘heartless capitalists’? No, big-hearted people will help them without government prodding, conservatives say. Truly bizarre. I have no idea what one has to do to oneself in order to buy such convoluted, hypocritical logic.

Likewise, it makes no sense for a building to just serve a function in the most basic way. The architect has not just an opportunity but an obligation to use his or her abilities to extend that functionality to help the client get a building that actively challenges people to think and experience in new ways. That sounds rather vague, so I’ll use an example to illustrate my point:

Take Dallas’s  Dee and Charles Wyly Theater, by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus. The client wanted a new theater with lots of stage configurability. Easy enough to do — theater layouts are typically not complex. A normal architect would produce a building that would have a lobby in front, then a theater, then a backstage area, probably with generous facilities for all. It would probably also be received warmly by both users and visitors. But Koolhaas and Prince-Ramus instead challenge our conception of a theater, with an incredible building that extends functionality and the act of viewing theater in radical, dynamic ways. Here is the overall scheme:

Prince-Ramus and Koolhaas's conceptual scheme. Photo courtesy ArchDaily.

So simple. Yet it unlocked massive potential in terms of configurability and experience that would not be possible in any other way. The main theater can open out via huge glass doors to invite people outdoors to experience productions and use the skyline of Dallas as a piece of stage scenery. It can become a Socratian lecture hall, a black-box theater or even a huge, empty space with no seating whatsoever (for the most experimental productions), all at the touch of just a few buttons. It can be entered traditionally through a lobby, or down a long, compressive outdoor slope directly into the theater itself.

The Wyly Theater does what the national government should do — it uses its unique role to help people. Granted, the buildings I’ve chosen as examples here, like most of the buildings I know best, help people in rather esoteric, intellectual ways. But the same exact principles apply to successful low-income housing projects, hospitals and other buildings that take a more direct role in helping people. The key for all of them is committing to help people in real, meaningful ways.

Architecture holds a unique place at the intersection of form and function — navigating it successfully draws upon precise methodologies, thoughtfulness and intelligence. But is not only appealing for the challenges it provides, but for its ability to help people. Architecture, like politics, should and must be about improving the world. That is how Concrete Aspirations derives its name.

It takes not just noble motives but a clear head to tackle tough political issues as well as architectural ones. We must be informed and thoughtful and we must avoid reactionary viewpoints. The result of that — in all fields — is progressivism: faith in the future and in our ability to shape it.

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2 thoughts on “Architecture and Politics

  1. […] watching the U.S.’s political system reach an astonishing level of dysfunction. (I’ve blogged before about architecture and politics — the two are closely linked.) My views on this […]

  2. […] An excellent piece that makes a very similar point to the one I made a few months ago in this post about architecture and politics — fundamentally, building is an act of faith in the future, […]

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