A few years ago I was in Bucharest helping judge a competition to design a large-scale temporary installation in one of the city’s squares. The organisers set the judging panel up in the Palace of the Parliament constructed in the 1990s with forced labour as the centrepiece of former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s rebuilding of the city centre. It’s a big building. In fact it is the second largest administration building in the world (the Pentagon is bigger). No matching big entrance for us (although I suppose there must be one) as each day we entered through a small door at the back. Inside there was clearly plenty of available floor space to say the least. We worked on the upper level of a large open area. One corner had a very good photography exhibition in it, but it just filled one corner – the rest of the walls were blank, except for another corner where the competition panels were placed. One day they took us up to the roof of the building, passing through room after empty room, until we finally stood looking over the city – giant straight avenues (supposedly modelled on North Korea’s capital Pyongyang) leading away from the vast centrepiece on which we stood. This building project, regardless of what you thought of it in architectural (or humanitarian) terms, was undoubtedly a ‘big’ statement.
It’s obvious that this year has been a tumultuous one in terms of global politics. I was in Berlin that night in June when I heard my European citizenship was about to be taken away from me. The day of the result of the UK’s referendum on EU membership was a lovely late spring day. I walked through the beautiful rebuilt city, which has in most areas erased the signs of its terrible disputed past, though down near what was once Check-Point Charlie there are still some empty sites were the wall once was – some left on purpose as a reminder. When the Reichstag was rebuilt Norman Foster placed the debating chamber within a glass cupola intended to represent transparency in the new reunited German government. It shines out at night, an illuminated token of democracy – a clever gesture. In the UK we have also had some internal political change in recent years. Devolution has led to the creation of new parliament buildings in Cardiff, Wales (Richard Rogers), and Edinburgh, Scotland (Rafael Moneo), and the re-use of an old one – Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland. These new buildings have public areas in the debating chambers, as does London’s nineteenth century Palace of Westminster (the centre of UK government), and Washington DC’s US Capitol Building. The theory, incorporated into these nineteenth century buildings by the inclusion of a physical space for members of the public to watch what is going on, was that it would make the democratic process itself more open and by implication more accountable. These buildings are all statements, and as they are designed for the process of government, they are therefore political statements. But they are undeniably different from the ‘big’ statement that Ceaușescu instigated. Though each is quite large, and each has a powerful presence in the city landscape, the primary emotion upon seeing them for the first time is that they are not overwhelming, not impregnable. They are undoubtedly landmarks but not grotesque ones. It is interesting to do an anonymous survey of the government buildings of democratic versus totalitarian states – its easy to see which leaders favour democracy and which favour other less palatable systems. The conclusion is that ‘big’ control needs ‘big’ architectural statements to assert power and domination. These ‘big’ buildings are also trying to convey something else – permanence, reinforcing the ruler’s belief that the power they hold will last forever. Designing-in permanence is not easy, but creating rigidity and inflexibility is, and that is what this sort of architecture is very good at producing. Perhaps that is also a part of the brief… after all you don’t want people lower down the chain thinking for themselves and changing things.
A change of government in the democratic system isn’t always easy but it is remarkably flexible. The people vote, the politicians accept their fate, and prepare to move out of their homes of the past few years. Yes there might be some game playing (in 2001 the Democrat Clinton administration famously removed 62 computer keyboards when leaving the White House after Republican George Bush was elected) but the buildings of government administration are flexible enough to accommodate the needs of different political parties. Changes are made in detail for sure. Some sensitive British observers were upset that President Obama removed the bust of Winston Churchill after a makeover of his apartments (as if he doesn’t he have the right to surround himself with the objects that inspire him). It is with interest (and some say trepidation) to see what the new President Elect of the United States does with the buildings under his control in the coming months and years, after all in his professional life he has had more to do with building than any past-President since Thomas Jefferson. Don and Mel will want to redecorate for sure and if the Trump Corporation’s other developments are anything to go by I bet its going to be more glitzy than anything we have seen in recent times. US manufacturers of gold paint better get ready for a big order. However, I hope and believe that the democratic process inherent in the US system will not be requiring any new ‘big’ architectural statements (walls and infrastructure promises aside) to be erected in Washington DC in the next four years before change comes along again. The elected government of Romania has struggled to find a proper use for their ‘big’ Palace (although well done them for refusing to sell it to Rupert Murdoch in the 1990s, another ‘big’ guy), but structures like that are hard to knock down – culturally as well as physically. How do you make a statement that everything that has happened in the last few decades was worthless? Isn’t that the same as the dictator who destroyed whole parts of the city in the first place? The only thing that can be done is to look for an ingenious solution, hopefully one that is flexible enough to respond to future change easily and democratically, and that change to be accessible to and activated by the general population.