What Is Democratic Architecture? The Public Life of Buildings

What Is Democratic Architecture? The Public Life of Buildings

Democracy: A Man-Search, a book by Louis Sullivan, was first published fifty years ago, although he wrote it in 1908. The great Chicago architect completed what is a kind of 350-page prose poem at a moment when his career was at a low ebb. Its belated publication and the obscurity into which it has fallen are not surprising. By turns declamatory and almost deranged, evoking Whitman and Nietzsche, the book virtually guaranteed that architects, its most likely readers, would ignore it, as it did not mention architecture at all. Yet the idea of democracy it put forth is the same as that which Sullivan propounded in all his writings on American architecture.

What was this idea? That “democratic form” is an organically unfolding process and an object of symbolic representation; that it emerges from the collective imagination of a modern, progressive society and is an act of individual poetic genius. The tensions within this conception are evident, but you could say that they inhere in architecture itself, which erects fixed monuments to serve as spaces for action and participation. The coexistence in Sullivan’s skyscrapers of massive technological structure and exuberant, arabesquing ornament—an opposition Sullivan did not hesitate to label masculine and feminine—was the architectural expression of this dialectical possibility.

Sullivan transmitted his hortatory lessons whole-cloth to his disciple Frank Lloyd Wright, who in turn succeeded in transforming “the architecture of democracy” into a slogan that he brandished throughout his six-decade career. In the middle of the Second World War he had the temerity to direct a “citizens’ petition” to the National Planning Resources Board requesting a mandate from the federal government “to continue the search for Democratic FORM as the basis for a true capitalistic society.” By this he meant the building of Broadacre City, a utopian scheme for a decentralized, suburban society that he first conceived during the New Deal. Such a petition by an architect today would be almost unthinkable, but Wright managed, remarkably enough, to collect signatures for it from John Dewey, Albert Einstein, Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Robert Moses, Georgia O’Keeffe, Thornton Wilder, and fifty other luminaries. A few years later, in a tribute to his mentor, Wright denounced the tendency within democracy to “mob the tribe up” while “mobbing the master down,” excoriating American society for failing to recognize the originality of Sullivan’s, and by extension his own, vision.

The ideological ambiguities that surround democratic claims by architects point not only to the difficulties of translating political concepts into three dimensions but also to the historical instability of the term democracy itself, which, despite its symbolic value, has frequently amounted to a hurrah word or a safe-conduct pass. During the early Cold War, ...