Capitol Ideas

I’m back in the Scenic City and in a considerably better mood. I will say I’m a bit disappointed though- as soon as I leave town, it’s a party: Creative Placemaking roundtable, the Project Pop-up VIP, Hackanooga, people dry-humping at the Riverfront. Sorry to miss all that, but I’m back for a few weeks so I’ll try to catch up. This one has naught to do with Chattanooga specifically, and I offer apologies for that.

Last week my client and I had a couple of free hours in Des Moines between meetings. I saw in the distance a golden dome, surmised that it was the state capitol building and suggested that we take a walk. While I’m still partial to a building on Goat Hill, the Iowa State Capitol is pretty impressive. My client correctly observed “they sure don’t build ‘em like this anymore”. Indeed. There once was a time when buildings were constructed with a care and purpose to embody the spirit of the institutions they housed. In this case, this state building was nothing less than the physical expression of society, community, inalienable rights, and democracy. Consider the vast majority of state buildings constructed within the past 50 years, do any of those concepts pop into mind? (The adjectives that pop into my mind when considering the State building on MLKing are anonymity, frugality, and indifference.)

I love Modern architecture, but I can't hate on this....

As I stood under the golden dome of Iowa’s Capitol, I thought of Stuart Brand’s book How Building’s Learn. The basic premise of his book is that buildings should never be “finished” and should be in continual state of alteration and adaptation. Brand makes some very good points in the book, and I agree with a great deal of what he has to say. In 1994, when he released the book, he went on a tour to support it- one of his stops was in Albuquerque at the UNM School of Architecture. As you may have suspected, as an undergrad I was not a likely attendee at school lectures unless required by one of my professors. This, however, was an exception. At that point in my academic career, I was still working on becoming an architect but the disillusionment that would eventually make me jump that track had taken hold. How Buildings Learn helped me bring into focus some of the issues I was struggling with. Mr. Brand was a rock-star in my eyes and I was relishing the opportunity of watching him rip my professors a new one.

As I recall, he did proceed to pillory both the profession of architecture and its academic root. My memories from the event are hazy, save for a point that one of the professors made. In his book, Brand uses the Metropolitan Cathedral proposal by Boullee as an example to show that the architect “wanted people awed, tiny and powerless before the magnificence of the architect’s achievement.” During the discussion portion of the lecture, one of the professors (can’t remember who, aside from the fact that she was female) called him out on his assertion. Her point was that it was not the architect’s achievement that was the object of marvel- it was, in this case, God. She made the point that buildings at their best have the ability to express immeasurable concepts and to evoke emotion- based on the purpose of the structure. If an architect is designing a place to worship God, is it not appropriate to design in a way that evokes emotions of awe? If one designs a bank, is it not appropriate to try to evoke feelings of stability and conservatism? If one designs a public space, is it not appropriate to evoke and preserve the spirits of openness, inclusiveness, and democracy?

Tell me Stuart, should this space be designed for
any other purpose than serving as the heart of Iowa?
Perhaps some buildings teach instead of learn.

I strongly disagree with the view that every building needs to “learn” and should be able to accommodate any use or change of use in its lifetime. I am wary of one-size-fits-all solutions that apply across the board with no consideration for context. I think that a city built of base, vernacular structures that are in constant flux and that have no ability to evoke emotion is a depressing concept to consider. The development of an architecture that is preoccupied with a constant, hyper-functionality is an interesting concept, however, there are elements of architecture that operate on higher level than the pragmatic. All due respect to Mr. Brand, I think it is perfectly acceptable for a building to be “finished”, maintained and preserved instead of being constantly amended- especially if the building embodies something more than the material it comprises. Architecture has meaning- it represents more than simply meeting our need for shelter and desire for storage. Buildings can rise above being places to store our stuff; they can speak to our souls.

The trip to the Iowa State Capitol was an unexpected treat- I was not anticipating being moved by a building during a lunch break. However, the deliberate placement of limestone, sandstone, granite, gold leaf, wood, and copper made me feel something. The value of architects is their ability to make us feel and to provide us with shared experience. A city full of buildings that make us feel something, and that create experiences we can all share and value should be our goal.

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