On civic architecture

A painting of the New York Public Library by Carrère & Hastings. Graphic courtesy Gothamist.

2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of the New York Public Library’s main branch, a fantastic example of early 20th century Beaux Arts architecture. The famed building stands as a testament to civic pride — to the government’s unique role as an overarching organization ideally dedicated entirely to the public good. More after the break.

The New York Times Editorial Board put it quite well in an 1872 editorial (available online here):

It would appear to be a proposition requiring no argument, that the City of New York greatly needs, and would largely profit by the early establishment of a Free Public Library. To meet such need and accomplish its mission of benefit to the people, a library of the kind we refer to must be projected, endowed, furnished, and a thereafter managed on a scale of liberality commensurate both with the object intended , and the growing greatness of our City.

And the library did just that. To this day it a source of civic pride for New Yorkers. And yes, civic pride does matter. Quite a bit. Why? More than a hundred years later, the same newspaper has a good answer (or its architecture critic does):

It is a reminder… that governments actually do get things right sometimes.

Faith in our government is essential in a democracy where we are our government. And if we vote based on a totally unwarranted lack of faith in that institution, then naturally we’re not going to make decisions in its — or in our — best interest.

Architecture is a funny thing in that not only is it frequently an embodiment of societal factors, but it has the unique capacity to influence those factors. So the New York Public Library certainly exhibits civic pride, but at the same time it generated civic pride. Now on a much smaller scale a hundred years later, I have another example: a new police station under construction in my hometown, Northampton, MA. (It should be noted that the station is being funded by a voter-approved tax increase, a testament to the liberality of my town.) Here it is:

Architects' drawings of the new Northampton police station. Graphic courtesy The Republican (masslive.com).

Yes, it’s that ugly. And that ugliness says something disturbing about my town and about the mindset of America as a whole.

Northampton is exceptionally liberal, so I would not say that it is a town of people who have lost faith in their government, at least not on the surface. But the design of this police station tells us that our faith in the government is a vestige of another era — the era of New York’s public library, the Beaux Arts era. The 1960s, the last time there was significant expansion of government and of its architecture, has fallen out of style, and we feel crushed. The only place we can find solace is in the Beaux Arts era.

Am I reading too much into the design of this police station? I don’t think so. The police station isn’t alone. Virtually anyone can tell you that this police station is just stock 21st century civic architecture, dreadfully monotonous, excruciatingly boring and frighteningly unoriginal.

We need to change that. President Obama’s big jobs plan (not big enough, in my opinion) includes much funding for infrastructure and for building public schools, which is a good start. This could be a huge opportunity. This could be a moment in which he seizes this opportunity to construct grand new contemporary public buildings and instill faith in government in Americans. This could be a moment in which he takes advantage of architecture’s unique ability to influence society.

There has been progress on this front on a smaller scale in individual cities. New York’s public architecture, as Kimmelman noted in the review I linked to earlier in this post, has improved significantly in the past decade. But we need something far bigger to transform how we, as a culture and as a society, understand our government.

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