Democracy and Buildings

What kind of places would we build together?

In college, my senior thesis in Politics was called “Architectural Democracy.” One of my frustrations with studying political theory in school was that “politics” was considered to be about “the government.” So “political science” is the study of elections and the behavior of government officials, and political theory is about what makes government actions legitimate or illegitimate. But I always found this very limiting, because the “politics” I experienced in my day-to-day life wasn’t about the government, but was the politics that took place in offices, at school, and in organizations and clubs. If “politics” is the process by which power is apportioned and used, then it doesn’t just happen in Congress, it also happens in families and faculty lounges. When, around age 20, I discovered the writings of anarchist socialists, they were a revelation. They helped me take the political concepts of democracy and authoritarianism and apply them to the internal workings of companies and groups. There could be democratic workplaces and hierarchical workplaces, a democratically-run school and an authoritarian school. This seems so obvious to me now, but in our political theory courses we had never discussed how political theory should affect, say, our understanding of who should be in charge at the university. 

I became particularly interested in the politics of architecture. When I was little I had wanted very badly to be an architect, and used to fill a giant binder with elaborate hand-drawn floorplans. I had given it up when I realized that the architectural profession is rigidly hierarchical, and the sorts of things I wanted to build were probably never, ever going to get built. Only a handful of “starchitects” ever get the freedom to design whatever weird shit happens to pop out of their brain. But even though I was never going to be an architect myself, I retained an amateur interest in buildings, and in my thesis I took the political question “Who Decides?” and used it to study different ways you could make a building.

Architecture has long had a democracy problem: The people who must live and work in buildings don’t have much of a say over what they’re going to look like. If you’re wealthy enough, you might get to build your dream house, although even then a lot of architects believe it’s their job to guide the client. (Yale architecture professor Peter Eisenman said of the residents of his buildings: “Do I need to engage with the people who live in these units? No. I don’t believe so, because I believe that the architect is supposed to know more about what they [would] want if they could know what they wanted.” We can see here a striking similarity with those who say that there is “too much democracy” in the American political process, and party leaders should tell the electorate what is good for them rather than serving the wishes of the electorate.

The question that motivated my thesis was: “What would authentic participatory design look like? How would you do such a thing?” And even though it was about architecture, it touched on questions about authority/expertise/elite rule that are present across many domains. For example, in both architecture and law a “professional” serves a “client,” and the professional is supposed to use their judgment to serve the client’s interests. But what happens when the client doesn’t like what the professional does? If someone believes their lawyer’s strategy is terrible, or the users of a building hate what the architect did, how much credence should we give someone who lacks “expertise?” 

I found some helpful answers in the work of architect Christopher Alexander, a dissident in the field who has written a series of fascinating and unique books on design processes. I strongly recommend picking up Alexander’s books The Timeless Way of Building, A Pattern Language, The Nature of Order (Vols. 1-4), and The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth. Alexander’s architecture focuses on the individual human experiences of people who inhabit places, and as a result he prioritizes little things, like the feeling of delight you get when turning a corner and seeing something unexpected, or the way the plants grow, or the perfect snugness of a window seat, or having common spaces where people will have chance encounters. But he also thinks that the architect cannot simply be a visionary imposing their individual monumental vision on the world (there’s a reason that Ayn Rand’s individualistic hero, Howard Roark, was an architect). An architect has to understand the life of a place, and get to know it. Alexander is even skeptical of blueprints, because he believes it’s impossible to design something in full ahead of time: A good building has to “unfold,” and it unfolds through a collaborative process.

Lest anyone think he is talking in mere abstraction, Alexander’s The Battle For The Life And Beauty of the Earth describes very clearly how this works, by recounting how he built a school in Japan. To build the school well, he wanted to understand very clearly what feelings people wanted to have when they walked through their campus, and that required getting to understand them deeply: 

The very first thing we did was spend two weeks just talking to different teachers and students, to get a feeling for their hopes and dreams. These talks were one-on-one and often lasted for an hour, for any one interview, during which we asked questions, talked, probed, explored dreams of an ideal campus, and tried to understand each person’s deepest visions as a teacher, or as a student…This was not easy to do. It required much of both the interviewer and the person being interviewed. … In the context of present-day Japan, where most schools are massive concrete boxes, with an asphalt playground on one side, it was hard to overcome this difficulty.  In any case, I always gently insisted…. In answer to this kind of gentle invitation, most people would begin to say something. Reluctantly, hesitatingly, often with some embarrassment, they would begin to describe their feelings about things — shyly, as if it was not allowed, or if it was crazy for them to attempt it. …. For example, one teacher said something like this to me: “I imagine walking by a stream, small streams and islands, perhaps bridges, and trees hanging in the water — a place where I can walk quietly and think about my class, or collect my thoughts as I prepare to teach.” We shall see that many of these shyly presented, hesitating thoughts and feelings, were deeply true. They represented a real truth, which was demonstrated empirically once the school was built.

You can see photos of the school that resulted on Flickr, and it does indeed seem to depart very significantly from anything else being built in our era. It doesn’t look contemporary, but it also doesn’t have a kind of “faux vintage” quality. Alexander says he believes good architecture should feel “timeless,” and that’s kind of how it does feel. It’s a tranquil place, with a bridge over a lake, a little canal, shady alleyways, wood floors. It feels distinctly Japanese but not in an affected way. Compare it to a school like this and you can see it was formed through a very different process of thinking and construction. 

Image by Takeshi Kakeda on Flickr

Alexander describes the difference between the participatory approach and the dominant approach as the difference between two whole different kinds of systems:

System-A is concerned with the well-being of the land, its integrity, the well-being of the people and plants and animals who inhabit the land…. [T]his has very much to do with the integral nature of plants, animals, water resources, and with the tailoring of each part of every part to its immediate context… System-B is concerned with efficiency, with money, with power and control… System-A places emphasis on subtleties, finesse… System-B places emphasis on more gross aspects of size, speed, profit, efficiency, and numerical productivity.

If one feels as if this is a little vague, I think it’s worth looking at another built example, one that we can contrast with Alexander’s placid, leafy Eishin Campus. The new Hunters Point library has just opened in Queens, and been hailed as an architectural masterpiece. Here it is being built:

Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman called it “among the finest and most uplifting public buildings New York has produced so far this century.” He describe its aesthetic pleasures:

On dark days and evenings, its enormous, eccentric windows will act like inviting beacons of light, attracting eyes and feet. They carve whimsical jigsaw puzzle pieces out of a cool, silvered-concrete facade.That facade is a load-bearing structure, allowing the library’s liberated interior to spiral some 60 feet upward and outward from a shallow canyon-like lobby, unfolding in elevation as a sequence of tiered desks, book stacks and social spaces. The inside is mostly warm bamboo, with spectacular views.

Kimmelman’s article was accompanied by a series of design magazine type photos of the library’s interior. They showcased its airy minimalist spaces, and notably did not feature any actual human beings. I say notably, because as soon as Queens residents actually began streaming into the library and trying to use it, it became evident that the library seemed to have prioritized form over function. It had an “encyclopedia’s worth of issues.” The adult fiction section was only accessible via steep stairs, and so the books had to be relocated, leaving the area as dead space. There were leaks when it rained. The single elevator was constantly congested with strollers. And much more:

A curved wall in the children’s section resembling a quarter-pipe skateboard ramp had to be blocked off by rolling bookshelves to make sure kids didn’t hurt themselves climbing it.

Stairs in another children’s section were also blocked off with pieces of wood as a safety measure, before the building opened…

The structure’s acoustics are also inadequate, with the simple act of pulling out a chair on the fifth-floor generating a raucous, echoing screech.

“It’s loud I know,” said a man sitting nearby when a reporter moved the chair. “They didn’t think about that. You’d think they would put some kind of padding down.”

A supposed “quiet room” also isn’t soundproof. A reporter inside could hear footsteps, coughing, and even a broom sweeping outside the room.

One librarian said she wished the building was designed less like a museum or gallery — and more like a library.

“I would have liked more space, more shelves. As any public librarians would agree, more space,” she said. “I’d like for the floors to be open where you can see everyone and everything. It is best for their safety and our safety, too.”

If you build a library, and when your library opens, the patrons immediately begin pointing out that there are too few elevators, the books are inaccessible, and one of your proudest design features might injure children, you could say the patrons are being ungrateful. But you might alternatively conclude that you are bad at building libraries. 

The accessibility problem meant that disabled patrons couldn’t visit the fiction section, and had to ask librarians to retrieve books for them. The architecture firm who designed the building admitted they hadn’t thought about this, saying “To be honest, we hadn’t thought, ‘O.K. we have to provide an exactly equivalent browsing experience.’”

But note that all of this is only possible because the architects view building users as irrelevant to the actual design process. Christopher Alexander’s method, which involved months of sitting with the types of people who would use the building, and figuring out everything they could possibly want from their space, prevents this kind of awkward mismatch between user needs and designer ambitions. If the space for children looks unsafe, and the elevator is too small, and parents immediately point this out upon entering the library, something went wrong with the process. Whoever designed the building seemed more concerned with impressing the New York Times than with serving the actual needs of librarians, children, parents, and disabled patrons. (But they did impress the Times, which wondered why we couldn’t have more “gems” like this building.)

The gap between designers and users makes for uncomfortable spaces. Here, I think we also see a bit of a problem with the contemporary minimalist aesthetic itself, which I have lambasted before. Applying it to a library exposes the philosophy’s absurdity: A good library is overstuffed with books, but if you see books as clutter, then you end up with… a library without books. This is precisely what the librarians complained about, and it’s also what you get at the expensively designed 53rd Street Library in New York, which New York magazine described as “nice, unless you like to read books.

Good spaces are not actually even “designed,” at least not in their final form. They grow over time. For example, take my office. Here is a picture of me in it. It’s in a 19th century building, which the owner remodeled a few years ago, installing those built-in bookshelves. When I moved in, I painted the walls red. I was very careful in picking the color of red I wanted. It needed to be cheerful but not garish, serious but not drab. Slowly, I filled the shelves with books and little knickknacks. My desk is always a mess, but it’s an interesting mess. Every object in my office has a story, everything has been arranged carefully. It has evolved over time thanks to an endless series of choices on my part in to a place that is distinctively my office.

That’s what a good space is like. It’s full of the life of the people who inhabit it. In fact, if you can take pictures of it without the people in it, and it doesn’t seem like there’s something missing, you’ve got a problem. Good buildings are not just “masterpieces” and “gems” designed by prestigious firms. They are places that people build together over time. This is why I love living in the French Quarter so much. No one person is responsible for it. It has evolved over time. It is eclectic. It accommodates human differences and quirks. When people drape beads and banners from their balconies, it does not look like they are despoiling a pristine design (as it would, say, if you did it off one of these), but like they are complementing and improving it. Good places are messy in a most beautiful and orderly way, just as nature itself is.

You know, I probably shouldn’t be diving into this subject at all. I never get angrier responses than when I write about buildings. People have very strong feelings, and because I think traditional styles are acceptable, I have been told that I am an ignorant reactionary. I think often I am a bit misunderstood when I talk about this, because I’m not actually suggesting returning to techniques of the past, but developing something quite new and different that I have not yet quite found the vocabulary to articulate. I hope that someday I can finish doing political writing, because I’d like to further develop some ideas for what “democratic architecture” would really look like. I think it’s a problem that the only two alternatives people can conceive of now are: do cheap imitations of the past, McMansion style, or keep to the dominant cold, asymmetrical, minimalist metal-and-glass contemporary style. What we really need is a new vision both for aesthetics and process, something that judges whether a building succeeds on the basis of the experiences that people have in it.

Relatedly, I’ve recently concluded there’s a way in which the statement that “beauty is objective” is true, even though beauty is subjective. It’s subjective because whether you think a thing is beautiful or not is up to you, and nobody can tell you to like a thing you don’t like. But it’s objective in that your opinion itself is a fact, the same way “58 percent of Americans prefer X to Y” is a fact. The way I think of beauty is: Does it give you a feeling of elation just to look at something? And whether it does or it doesn’t do this to you is a fact, and whether it does or doesn’t do this to most of the people who see it is a fact. So it’s true that there are spaces that are beautiful and spaces that are ugly, because there are spaces that will make people want to come and visit just to look at them, and there are spaces that won’t.

I think there’s a very strong resistance to the idea that we should defer to “vulgar” and untrained public opinion in architecture, because people are seen to not understand why things are Good. But I am an architectural democrat. I believe that buildings, like governments, exist to serve the people, and whether they are beautiful, or whether they are doing a good job, is up to those people themselves. A lot of my friends wish I’d shut up about buildings, but I can’t, because my obsession with this comes straight from my socialistic instinct that everything needs to be democratized, and that so long as we are subjected to the “built world,” rather than building it ourselves, we have not achieved the kind of radically democratic culture that is at the core of my political aspirations. When teachers decide what the schools look like, and librarians dream up the libraries, and children the playgrounds, then we will finally have something we can proudly call democracy.

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