It’s common to judge a piece of architecture based on its functional and aesthetic values, and how the two might complement or compete with one other.
Do buildings express political viewpoints? Some buildings do, of course: think about monuments to fallen soldiers, city hall buildings, or public housing. But is architecture always political? When it comes to pretty buildings, isn’t a flying buttress sometimes just a flying buttress?
Clearly, there’s plenty of architecture that makes political statements (as monuments do) or implies political positions (as city halls do). Think of all that neoclassical architecture imperialists love so much: impressive columns, high ceilings, huge steps where the Dear Leader can look down on the hoi polloi… Very different from a congressional debate chamber, where everyone is literally on the same level. As Winston Churchill once said, the horizontal design of the House of Commons sings out democracy, loud and clear.
But then again, what about those lovely Ionic columns at the National Gallery in Washington, DC? They’re supposed to remind us of ancient Athens, cradle of democracy. So one and the same style—ancient-style architecture, bunches of columns—can be associated with antithetical political attitudes.
What’s more, some architecture expresses attitudes that aren’t political at all. Think about a Frank Lloyd Wright house, and its grounding in a deep love for the beauty of nature. Surely there’s nothing specifically political about that.
Our resident cynics aren’t going to be beaten that easily, however. They’re going to remind us that whoever gets to own a Frank Lloyd Wright house clearly has a few bucks to throw around. And heck, maybe that owner want the passers-by to admire them for living in their designer castle. So even just owning a Frank Lloyd Wright is a political statement. Indeed, the very existence of Frank Lloyd Wrights tells us something about our society: if there weren’t any super-wealthy people to throw money around, maybe there would be no such thing as living in an artwork!
Maybe. But surely it’s at least possible to imagine a world where everyone gets a nice house: nature lovers would get garden houses, tech-lovers would get all mod cons, people with a fear of heights would get bungalows... In that world, there would be nothing political about living in an architectural masterpiece.
And even in our current world, can’t you just build yourself a nice little cottage at the end of a cul de sac—some cute, quiet place to retire to and write the great American novel, leaving everyone else alone? Can’t you build it responsibly, and use sustainable materials, and make it energy-efficient? At that point, can’t it just be a great place to live? We'll see what our guest thinks—it’s Vladimir Kulić, Professor of Architecture in the College of Design at Iowa State University.