You can tell a lot about a society and its politics by its architecture: conservative and re-assuring, or brutal and ‘new’. But where would a future historian look for the defining architecture of today and what would they find? Ambiguity? Lack of conviction? A growing feeling that both architecture and politics have grown irrelevant? If they looked harder, might they find architecture, of a different sort, that promises – for the first time in our history – the potential to build structures that will support genuine democracy at last?
On a single night in May 1941, the Luftwaffe scored twelve direct hits on the Palace of Westminster – the home of the British Parliament. Firefighters saved the oldest part of the building, Westminster Hall, but the House of Commons, the democratic heart of Parliament, was destroyed. Later, when it came to be rebuilt there were questions: should the opportunity be taken to make the chamber larger – so that all MPs could be accommodated in it sitting down; should the corridors be made wider and more accessible; should we give up the traditional arrangement of two sides facing one another and, instead, have a semi-circular arrangement? These radical ideas were rejected and the Commons was rebuilt conservatively, roughly as it had been before. In 1944, during the rebuilding, Churchill gave a speech, observing ‘ We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us’.
Architecture tells you about how a society is shaped and its politics. Building and open spaces may be seen as the stage on which power, and ideas about it, have been – and continue to be – expressed. Ancient Gothic cathedrals for example, like shopping malls today, were designed to be high, and light. The inspiration behind them being that people are small and in need of ‘enlightenment’ … or should be made to feel that way. In the case of Ste Cecile in Albi (above), the cathedral is designed also as a fortress, complete with watchtowers. It was built from brick – so as to be constructed quickly – after the Catholic crusade against the ’good Christians’, or Cathars, of Languedoc, who the Church called heretics. The brutal modernity of Ste Cecile is striking. It looks brutal, perhaps, because the power that built it was.
Nuremberg – the arena created by the Nazi architect, Speer, for Hitler’s immense open air rallies during the 1930s. Expertly designed to make the individual seem insignificant, it was both a stage for Nazi propaganda and its message. The vast torchlit rallies held there featured upturned searchlights (one of Speer’s innovative ideas), so they projected vertically, like the walls of Ste Cecile. It was a look echoed in contemporary culture, for example in the 1935 logo of the 20th Century Fox studio:
In the 1930s: mass production and communication, electrical power and the manipulation of the power of the masses were modern and ‘new’. Modernist ‘new’ thinking was not confined to countries with totalitarian governments. Fascist architecture looks recognisably fascist whether built by Germans, Italians, Russians… or for the US Federal Reserve:
Totalitarianism and conservatism both have their distinctive forms and their convictions. But what is the important architecture of today and what would a future historian deduce from it about power in our society? The ambiguity of postmodern architecture is its genius – ‘it can be whatever you want it to be’. Doesn’t that sound very much like a criticism of much of contemporary politics: soundbites, spin and focus groups? Without conviction, the risk is that both architecture and politics start to seem irrelevant to us – the shape doesn’t matter any more.
It might all seem rather hopeless. Except, perhaps, we’ve just been looking in the wrong place. It could be that the important architecture of today isn’t so much shopping centres and office blocks, in housing estates, or even in model villages. There is also architecture in information. The structure we put on networks; the places we store data; how we make it available; the forms we put it in – this is the architecture that counts increasingly in future. The distinctive features of our time could be ‘open source’, ‘open data’ and ‘open government’. For the first time in history, it seems, we have the potential – no more than the potential – to be able to build structures that are truly capable of supporting democracy: not out of bricks and mortar, but out of networks, applications and data. As Mitch Kapor – founder of Lotus Developments, The Electronic Frontier Foundation, first chair of the Mozilla Foundation and founder of the Open Source Applications Foundation - speaking about this new architecture said, ‘Architecture is politics- and politics is architecture’. Or as a wise person might have said in an earlier time: ‘We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us’.