Architecture and Democracy

Stefan Behnisch

This is an extensive topic. It generates several questions. In particular I ask myself from what angle one should approach it.

Functional buildings for democracy?
Design of buildings for public enities and institutions?
Democracy as the client?
The architectural-formal view on architecture for democratic structures, what does it mean formally?
Democratic architecture? In the making? Under observation? In utilisation? Communicative? Non-hierarchical?

It was challenging to find a central focus here. I have therefore approached the topic from different perspectives and have attempted to formulate theses. I then summarised these under headings and elaborated on them up with realized buildings.

Adolf Arndt calls democracy a universal principle.

Democracy is first and foremost an organisational structure for society, or more the organisational structure for determining and forming the government, a methodology to regulate our social order internally and pursue our interests externally. The thought behind this is that democracy is something self-determined, something that is not imposed, at least ideally. So all the talk about going to war to bring other countries our idea of democracy is a self defying concept. As a result, overthrows and revolutions generally lead in the short term to non-democratic structures. There are many examples that have, at least in the medium-term, led to democratic success though.

In art, the process of democratisation is significantly tied to the representation of individuals. Paul Revere, George Washington, or in France to the myth of Marianne, who supposedly symbolised the people. In architecture, designing and building is not a purely aesthetic-formal challenge but should be considered more on a contextual level.

In his letters entitled “On the Aesthetic Education of Man”, Schiller, for example, almost adoringly describes an Elysian (blissful) country of freedom and beauty, a “kalogathia state” (ideal state). Here, all human beings are united in beautiful harmony and art should be the path leading to this. Hence art becomes the educator, the liberator of humankind. Here, Schiller makes a statement of faith to the power of beauty.

All power comes from the people! The maxim of democracy. Interestingly, we ourselves do not trust democracy with such an aesthetic, creative power as Schiller does in his adoration. We see democracy as something very plural, anonymous, even inartistic. We do not believe it is capable of making ethos discernible. This may be very German, yet we like to withdraw to the functional or the aestheticisation of the functional. [...]

The Agora in Athens developed over centuries in a close parallel to society. This went so far that the number of democratically legitimised persons was limited. Democracy was not oriented towards expansion but on the contrary to restriction. It was not considered possible to democratise a large empire. From today's point of view an elitist attitude.
Plato’s relationship to democracy was very cynical here, based on painful experience, in particular on the realisations emerging from Sophist philosophy. I will refer to this at a later stage:

In his History of Philosophy, volume 1, Hirschberger describes Plato's perspective as follows:
If leadership is exercised for the benefit of those governing, then we are dealing with the bad, the degenerate form of government. If only one individual rules, it is tyranny, which represents the greatest deterioration. If several people rule, from the political party of the rich, then we have an oligarchy. If, however, no longer a number of excellent wealthy persons but on the contrary the destitute, in their entirety, rule, then it is a democracy. (Hirschberger, History of Philosophy I)

Interestingly, Plato defines the human being as a political entity. Only when it shows a commitment in and towards society, it fulfils its destiny or purpose. This leads us to the aspect of education. We cannot and should not ignore this as it nonetheless leads us to a cultural viewpoint. Education is the toolkit for our diverse societies.

Education, freedom and democracy

In particular during the years 2016/2017 and in the present, we have become more and more aware of how inequality in education, at times even the arrogance of middle-class and elitist intellectuals but also the complexes of the less privileged, can lead to a questioning of the social contract and via populism to anti-intellectualism and a detoriation of political style. Yet this seeming arrogance is not founded in assumed superiority but often in ignorance, inattentiveness and a certain degree of speechlessness.

Such eras often led to far-reaching changes in society, to revolts, to de-democratisation, to absolutist systems, to barbarity. They led subsequently to a representative form of architecture, to absolutist claims to power that are once again similar to religion with their claim to eternity.

Such trends are a historically repetitive pattern. This is because cultivated and dark eras have always been mutually interdependent. If we again consider ancient history, we can observe this interdependency as early as the sophistic era almost 500 years before the beginning of our common era—at a time in which the natural law, meaning the right of the strongest to enforce their desires, was not only accepted but even encouraged. The sophistic movement describes an epoch of the ancient times in which, despite all the contradictions known to us today, the foundations of a democratically organised social system were laid, ones which—obviously in an expanded and more liberalised form—still correspond to our political ideals today. The choice of a person who was delegated with a society’s power and the power of decision was thus not made through violence and physical conflict but in political discourse. Speech and rhetoric became stylised to art. The conviction conveyed here did not only serve the truth but also the implementation of one's own goals. While the sophistic representatives perceived it to be a "leading of the soul", Plato considered it to be a "trapping of the soul". A sceptical relativism became the teaching of power. Not the "truth" in the sense of a concordance between the statement and the objective facts was considered to be an appropriate means but rather the "truth" that seemed to serve a purpose. Today we would speak of "alternative facts.”

In this era of the ancient times, human beings became the measure of all things. The gods became less important, were called into question and were ultimately perceived as something invented by humans for the preservation of power.

Doesn't this all seem rather familiar?

The law of nature became a lawless natural law and the unlimited power of the strongest, ruled by natural desires. This naturalism permeates the history of humankind. It is the basis of absolutist and fascist ideas and ideologies but also the basis of nationalism and exceptionalism in negotiations between states, above all those who claim a special status. [...]

Architecture as a political responsibility

Architecture is a prominent human artefact. It defines location, time and history for us. Accordingly, the creation of architecture is an important cultural achievement.
Think about New York, about Istanbul, about Chicago, London, Paris, Rome, Hong Kong; you see Architecture either skyline, individual buildings, or public realm.

If we continue this thought, we quickly ascertain that this achievement involves responsibility, that we intervene in other systems, in other natural and above all social ecologies. We become part of regional, but also national and to some extent also global economic spheres of influence, with the corresponding responsibility.

On the occasion of the plans for the football stadiums in Qatar for the World Cup, a partially good but also frequently shallow and diffuse debate was held regarding to what extent architects are jointly responsible for the actions of those that they build for, or for the utilisation and social significance of their works. Ultimately, our buildings serve our clients in whatever sense. This is what they were commissioned for. And these clients have the power to act freely with regard to our works and their possession. If I build a stadium for a politically absolutist or dictatorially-led country, I need not be surprised if my building in the best case serves propaganda purposes and in the worst case inhuman actions. [...]

“Creating big, unique artefacts (Architecture) impies absoltue power. Only Dicators posess absolute power and thus are able to have such artefacts (Architecture) implemented. But such unique Architecture of greateness does not belong in our time., not in our political orders, and not to us. We should not strive for it.” Günter Behnisch, 2002

Someone once wrote about Stefan Behnisch that does not build for dictators. This should be self-evident however it is too simplyfied. A comprehensive and differentiated debate was of course summarised in one headline. The theme is much more complex. In fact, the nature of ourselves and our work is such that both we and our buildings can only function in open societies. We have discussed this in great depth in our office and have in my opinion reached a consensus, which we must adjust if new situations arise. We have attempted to work in several countries of different political colour. In general, it is less about the country and more about the client, the task. Indeed, one can also accomplish something in a society that is not open, with the appropriate task for a particular client. We would very much like to build a women's refuge in a fundamentalist religious, non laizistic country. However not army barracks or an administration building.

This is also the issue when we presume the fact that each and every one of us should be able to work on every project and hence for every client, regardless of the colour of our skin, our religion, gender or sexual orientation. With this goal, we have already struck a large part of our world from the list of potential clients. Of course, this is a question that every one of us must answer for themselves. It is not in our jurisdiction or even ability to calibrate moral compasses. However, I personally find it inacceptable when architects perceive themselves purely as service providers, without moral or political responsibility for the cultural commodities created at their behest. In this respect, the Sochi- Qatar- and Ryahd, Teheran and Syria debates must be held, by all means open-ended yet without polemics. This is not a question of so-called political correctness alone but the standards that each person sets him or herself. Incidentally, to this day I do not understand what is supposedly wrong with politically correct behaviour.

Democracy as the building client

In a closer examination of this topic, Adolf Arndt's speech "Democracy as the Building Client", which he made during the Building Weeks in 1960 in the Berlin Academy of Arts, inevitably serves as a guideline. From the perspective of that time, he aptly summarises the outstanding task of what was at that time a still young and inexperienced democracy. Much of what we today either accept as a matter of course or have discarded inadvertently or wearily, at that time still seemed to be a special and valuable asset. Adolf Arndt would have in no way considered it possible that the young privilege, the fact that a society creates its own cultural buildings, would "privatise" its own public buildings. Public-private partnerships must have seemed obscene to the politicians of that time. The voluntary task of a long-desired privilege, a privilege that a society could responsibly deal with its own artistic appearance and representation, as the client. [...]

Yet what a pity that the Berlin Republic did not study this lecture before the strictly symmetrical buildings, above all the chancellery, were developed. Under the premise that architecture for our representative democracy should not correspond to the schemata of the architecture of rulership, the recommissioning of the Reichstag building seems worthy of discussion. In the first instance, the buildings for democracy emerge from a need. We don't build them to honour our form of society but because we need them and benefit from them. Yet this also means that a great responsibility lies in the way in which we design these "in any case" needed buildings.

Schools, universities, kindergartens, town halls, hospitals, administration buildings, sports facilities, infrastructure facilities, museums. All these were once public tasks which were not to be considered purely in terms of profit but which were attributed a higher value, something special. The different institutions of our societies are represented in such buildings. We can no longer consider democracy on a national level, we must consider it on a Europe-wide, even global level.

The UN, the World Parliament, the European Parliament, the German Bundesparlament, the state parliaments, cities and municipalities in town halls, the political parties in their headquarters, unions, trade associations, hospitals and also associations, organisations, NGOs, courts, police stations, citizen centres, administration offices. They all have their buildings, they form a place, an address, a representation. They are all institutions of our society, they bear the resposibility to represent our society, and we, the people bear the responsibility to enable them to do this adequately. This is important for our society, the fact that the functions and corporate bodies of our shared, ministering and representative apparatus are visible and represented. [...]

However, occasionally, our society is completely off the mark in its role as client. Even if the building task is for legendary, shadowy institutions such as the BND, such a thing should not happen. Seen their alienating, closed, secretive, dark new home in Berlin, one questions the openness of our own society. One understands, why democratic control has often, too often failed.
Arndt explains this as follows: "Because all space created by construction is not a mathematically Euclidean space and is not simply a conceived shape but an evolved time-space that can be walked in, a space with history, such as space has directions and can give people a direction. Hence politically there is a totalitarian space, which does not give people a direction but, to use an inhumane language, directs, lines people up. In view of these directions it is no coincidence that the secret police force does its business down in the basement…”
This is a symbolic step, a step that stands for the fact that society has moved away from the control of these institutions. The misconduct of these institutions has been well documented in recent years. The NSA affairs, illegal administrative assistance to a foreign power, spying on one’s own citizens. Well, who would be surprised, if we now allow them to retreat back into hiding.

Does no one realise that we are making an absurdity out of the great effort and risk of the failed German revolution of 1848? The palaces, which re-establish symbols of past suppression, as a distorted persiflage, can by no means legitimated as democratic symbols.

We would have been more inclined to forgive Disney for this, as an absurdly romanticised curiosity. It is with good reason that Arndt talks disdainfully about the Neuschwanstein tourists, who ruin the buildings of our democracy today with their obsession with economising, yet make pilgrimages to Neuschwanstein at the weekend.

Couldn't we have made something of the “Palast der Republik”, the so called "Erich's Lamp Store"? I would have loved to have shown my children such a symbol of the two Germanys, the endless tastelessness of the GDR government clique. Could this not have been a wonderful house of history for the Cold War? If one considers today's political developments, such a museum is needed. Instead, I have to understand why a palace that had disappeared is reconstructed, as a transfer, a lukewarm reinterpretation, a symbol of absolutism, though a very lame one. No Versailles, for sure, no Potsdam, not even a Neuschwanstein. Just the crippeled reincarnation of a palace that was mediocre to begin with.

We must allow ourselves to be measured culturally against our build environment, against what develops architecturally in our day and age. Also against what we allow for the individual sectors and groups, members of our political system. What, for example, do we endorse the weakest with? What do we invest in our school buildings, homes for refugees, who do we fob off and how? And what do we invest in new opera houses in order to satisfy a by all means limited audience, which by nature usually includes the most influential and affluent people of our society. And in return, what do we invest for the weakest, the defenceless, those without influence.

These are the key, existential questions for democracy, it is this that shows its inner perpetuity. Here, architecture does indeed have a symbolic power. Here too, architecture is political.

Photography/Credits:
Christian Kandzia (1), Vatican Museums (2), Stefan Behnisch (3, 4, 5), David Matthiessen (6,7,8)