Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The Architecture of Misgovernment

The Arizona Capitol. Image taken from the Flickr feed of DanMacMan and used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Harpers magazine correspondent Ken Silverstein opens his account of how the crackpot radical-right administration in the American state of Arizona shows the likely tone of the new Congress in Washington DC with a bit of architectural criticism:
In 1897, when the Territory of Arizona was seeking to demonstrate its fitness for statehood, the legislature solicited bids to design a new capitol building and grounds in Phoenix. The winning entry was that of James Riely Gordon, the architect behind a number of well-regarded public buildings in Texas and Maryland. He drew up ambitious plans: an expansive dome, a grand rotunda, stately wings for each house. But funding fell short, and so the legislative wings were scrapped, and a diminutive lead-alloy top was chosen in lieu of Gordon’s more elaborate dome. Worse, in the building’s interior, a mosaic of the state seal was bungled by the contractor, who forgot to include the images of cattle and citrus, two of Arizona’s “five C’s” (the others being climate, copper, and cotton).

Despite much talk over the years of an upgrade — including a proposal from none other than Frank Lloyd Wright, who envisioned the addition of fountains, gardens, and reflecting pools — all plans were rejected as too expensive. In the 1960s, two new buildings were finally erected on either side of the capitol, one for the house and one for the senate; but these structures, which resemble Soviet apartment blocks, only made matters worse. Nowadays, the capitol’s dingy, unshaded plaza is bare save for a few small rosebushes and some patches of dry grass. The buildings themselves have been plagued by plumbing problems and leaks, making the complex “wholly inadequate” to Arizona’s future needs, according to a task force charged with studying the matter.

The general unsightliness of the capitol makes it a fitting home for today’s Arizona legislature, which is composed almost entirely of dimwits, racists, and cranks.

Ignore that lazy "Soviet apartment block" jibe for a moment - there's an intriguing suggestion here of an architecture of misgovernment. "We shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us," said Winston Churchill while restricting the capacity of the rebuilt post-Blitz chamber of the House of Commons to less than the number of MPs. Churchill wanted the chamber to retain a sense of event in moments of parliamentary drama by forcing many Members to stand, an idea with considerable merit. But if we accept that thoughtful design can improve the quality of government or administration, surely there is also a way to design official buildings that will reduce that quality? Does dysfunction follow form? Silverstein suggests that corner-cutting construction, aesthetic incoherence and poor maintenance are the essential elements of the architecture of misgovernment; but those things are as likely to be the result of misgovernment as its cause. Or they could stem from a debased political culture like the one taking hold in the UK, where the completion of a world-class headquarters for the state broadcaster - a place that will immeasurably improve the efficiency of that broadcaster, as well as being a potential source of pride for the people it serves - is met with a dreary chorus of commenters moaning about "a waste of money". Or where the pioneer of a new model of school procurement believes that the architects of those schools have an obligation not to create "civic monuments". This is why we can't have nice things.

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