The Architect as Citizen

The architect as citizen seeks beauty as the counterpart to justice.
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William Thornton, Thomas U Walter et al, U. S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., 1793ff; 1850ff

William Thornton, Thomas U Walter et al, U. S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., 1793ff; 1850ff

A few architects now achieve fame as creative artists on the front edge of the avant-garde while the others keep an eye on the avant-garde fashions as they provide services to clients on time and within the budget. In an earlier age architects were citizens who worked with others in communities to build secure places to serve the pursuit of happiness.

Today the art of architecture is treated like painting, sculpture, and other visual arts even though it differs in two fundamental ways. The art of architecture is hedged in by laws, ordinances, restrictions, and requirements imposed by governments large and small and by bankers, insurance brokers, and others to protect health, safety, and the general welfare.

And, equally important, unlike a painting or sculpture, a building must necessarily occupy the public realm. If the public finds a painting or sculpture objectionable it may be moved into a secluded realm, but the public cannot avoid a building, although its interior can be off limits.

M. Frederic Butler, California State Capitol, 1861-74

M. Frederic Butler, California State Capitol, 1861-74

As a public object a building carries with it what any person or act carries, which is an obligation to serve a public interest and contribute to the common good or, at a minimum, not to disrupt them. This obligation extends to whoever hires the architect, whether a private person, a corporation, or a public body. What builders and architects do is “touched by a public interest,” as common law puts it, no less than the errand run by a young person, the work of captains of industry and finance, and the activities of public officials, not to mention teachers busy inside schools and the offerings of cultural institutions and their patrons.

The laws, ordinances, and other restrictions are after-the-fact codifications seeking to prevent the repetition of earlier harm to the common good. Beyond these strictures are the more important customs and traditions embedded in the communities of the common good. These communities range from the smallest one, the family, to the largest, the nation, and the wide variety in between. These vary and have distinctive markers in how we greet one another, in dress, and in behavior at a rock concert, a symphony concert, or a church service. Yankees feel ill at ease in the South, and it takes time to become comfortable when marriage beings a newcomer into a family.

Fresno County Court House

Fresno County Court House, Fresno, California, 1875; dome replaced 1895

All of these communities, from family to nation and those in between, occupy specific places: a family home, a neighborhood school, and a parish church. Even bridge clubs meet in some specific place. Authoritative over them all is the nation with its flag, anthem, army, and its many distinct regional cuisines. It provides our most important identity, and it commands our greatest trust and deepest affection.

Architecture serves these communities and is equally varied. Traditional formal conventions differ from nation to nation, and within each nation it calls out the roles of its many institutions. Those that are most important in governing the nation display greater formal homogeneity and greater variations across regions and according to the reach of the authority of the purpose the building is serving. Note, for example, that most state capitols call the national capitol to mind while houses display greater variation and regional peculiarities.

Fresno High School, Fresno, California, 1922

Fresno High School, Fresno, California, 1922

Architecture’s traditions stress architecture’s role in serving the common good from the smallest among them, the family house, to the largest, the nation. What, then, of the rapidly increasing reach of globalization in our modern age? Nations have always made common cause with one another, but our world is globalized as never before. What is architecture’s role in this new modern world? Is it to be globalized as well? Setting aside defense and ignoring the protection of proprietorial assets we can identify four fields of global activity, commerce, science, technology, and the avant-garde in the arts, that challenge our traditional role for nations and for their distinctive architectures.

Global commerce improves market efficiency and thereby makes essential needs more accessible.

Science seeks to uncover and marshal the laws of physical, material nature and thereby serve the curiosity that is innate in human nature and therefore warrant being shared globally.

Helmut Jahn, State Office Building (James R. Thompson Center), Chicago, Illinois, 1985

Helmut Jahn, State Office Building (James R. Thompson Center), Chicago, Illinois, 1985

Technology applies sciences’ discoveries for good and ill in diverse fields from agriculture to energy production and from transportation to communication. It has knitted the world together, and it has vastly expanded the industrial production that feeds commerce.

These can be justified for the benefits they bestow, but the claim of the avant-garde in the arts for global status is different. From its inception it has claimed to be limitless and transcend art rooted in national identify by reaching directly into the part of the human person that is universal. It has also drawn sustenance from commerce, science, and technology as tools for the progress that is inevitable in a global world, progress that nation retard.

This romantic notion that alle Menschen werden Brueder emerged in the wake of the French Revolution. In reaction, a more aggressive nationalism emerged during a long period of relative peace that ended with a war to end all wars, the most horrific of all wars, a war that in its aftermath stimulated more revolution. Reject the past! Cut it out root and branch! Establish new political and social orders that liberate humankind from parochial, national identities! In this new, modern, industrial world, "Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!" Karl Marx cried.

Helmut Jahn, Sony Center, Berlin, 2000

Helmut Jahn, Sony Center, Berlin, 2000

The political revolutions drafted the avant-garde to their causes, but the connections quickly frayed and the avant-gardists looked for new causes to serve with even their attempts to become coat-holders for radical right regimes failing. The United States, remote from revolution and pushing into a global commercial world, imported the avant-garde first as Modernist perfume bottles, then in the shops selling them, and eventually in the Museum of Modern Art that was founded as a display case for avant-garde fashions. Its first architecture exhibition was the International Style in 1932. Commerce discovered that the latest fashions boosted the sale of goods, and Modernism was abundantly displayed at the 1939-40 World’s Fair in New York where the General Motors Pavilion presented the “City of Tomorrow.” Another war delayed “Tomorrow,” but an industry retooled to make war provided the means of shrouding post-war prosperity with the new avant-garde aesthetic while the Modernist who had failed to find patron in Europe found them in America’s schools of architecture.

Central cities in America were remade to accommodate bureaucratic operations that boosted production and provided government services. Their glistening towers favored non-descript Modernism with the more expensive avant-garde designs in play for clients who wanted to be noticed. Beyond the older cities suburbs with dead-worm plans builders pushed across the countryside with houses that evoked valued traditional forms holding families as much alike in large swaths as the houses holding them and accommodating the families’ familiar customs and traditions.

Elementary School, Henrico County, Virginia, 2013

Elementary School, Henrico County, Virginia, 2013

The practices that built this two-part urbanism connected by roadways has continued down to the present with an ever increasing homogeneity of buildings in the center and in the suburbs that interspersed residential districts with strip shopping and malls interspersed. The earlier, traditional role for architecture has been lost. In earlier days architects and other builders furnished a nation, region, state, city, and specific site with buildings and urbanism that offered security and happiness to trusted communities served by buildings that connections with traditional made familiar to them. The continuity and variety produced an urbanism with a beauty exhibiting that comes from service to the common good. This beauty was a community good that displayed the community’s commitment to the wellbeing of its members within family home or the many other buildings serving larger communities right up to those serving the nation.

Superior Court, Los Angeles, date unknown

Superior Court, Los Angeles, date unknown

The avant-garde that captured command of architecture has been successful the connections with traditional community values in the centers and in various spots, especially in schools, out beyond the center. The role for beauty has been abandoned by architects and those who hire and treat the public realm as a canvas for displaying unique creativity of artists or at least to follow fashion while building on time and within the budget. They are oblivious to architecture’s obligation as a public object to serve the common, public good with beauty that is the counterpart to the good and the justice that is sought within communities from families to nation. Its master is commerce, which certainly plays an essential role in our lives, but nations supervise even global commerce, and nations, not global entities, protect (or deny) individual liberty and seek justice as its members pursue their happiness.

In the past and outside Modernism architects know this, acting first as citizens and receiving fame when it is deserved, a fame that is unlike the fame Modernists architects seek because it does not lose its luster when fashions change. 

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