How Can Architecture Be Democratic?

How Can Architecture Be Democratic?


Joan Ockman’s lively review of several famous buildings and architects (“What Is Democratic Architecture?” Dissent, Fall 2011) asks what determines democratic architecture and answers that she is “suspicious of democracy talk in architecture.” I would go one step further and propose a different question: how can architecture be democratic? I would answer it negatively but will also argue that architecture could be egalitarian.

Architects design buildings, but their buildings do not engage in politics, vote, or give money to campaigning politicians. They simply house a variety of human activities, including political ones, but these could be democratic, fascist, or communist, even if they were designed by an architect active in democratic politics.

While the Stalinist, Nazi, and fascist rulers had architecture designed to glorify their political and other activities, these buildings were later used for ideologically very different activities. Similarly, many American government buildings used to be copies of Greek and Roman temples, but what went on inside was strictly American-style democratic politics.

True, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright claimed to be designing democratic architecture. However, they were engaging in dramatic rhetoric or amateur philosophizing, which famous architects often do—or in what Ockman rightly considers sloganeering.

Architecture might be called democratic if it could encourage or aid the people living in or working in them to engage in democratic politics, but buildings cannot shape political behavior. To adapt some classic words by a long ago New York mayor about the effect of books on girls, no machine politician ever became a reformer by moving to a city hall designed by a famous architect.

Ockman suggests that architects who provide for public space might be democratic, but as she properly suggests in debunking New Urbanist notions of democracy through design, “citizenship tends to find places of representations and enactment wherever it has to,” including the Internet. Moreover, public space can also be used for anti-democratic activities.

Perhaps architects who can design comfortable residential housing for people of low income—and even no income—could be called democratic. However, they would be practicing a technical skill rather than a political one, and in any case, the adjective would have to be attached to the politicians or philanthropists who hired them.

I propose instead that in this instance the architecture is redistributionist or, better still, egalitarian. Architecture would also be egalitarian if it were designed to treat unequal occupants more equally than they are treated in most buildings. An architect could be praised as egalitarian who designs office buildings in which clerical workers get about the same size offices as higher status employees and are entitled to their share of windows as w...

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