Democracy in architecture is a vastly debated subject for decades. Many famous architects like Frank Lloyd Wright have spent their entire lives building up spaces that can be called ‘democratic’. But is our architecture really democratic?
What is architecture?
Julia Morgan once quoted, “Architecture is a visual art, the buildings speak for themselves”. Through medieval times architecture has been a voice. In layman’s words, architecture has always been used to distinguish poor and rich, kings and slaves, politicians and common people!
The kings have always shown their power and superiority through their magnificent castles while common people could barely afford a shelter. But time changed and thus changed the ruling systems. A new form of government came and experiments happened but the use of land always remained the same. However, this time, the common man became the decision-maker! But did they voice their opinions righteously?
What is democracy?
Democracy as we know in simple terms, is a government of the people, for the people and by the people. A form of government in which the citizens exercise the power of choosing a leader themselves through majority. This could be done either directly or by selecting a representative who would, in turn, take the major decisions. Very easy to comprehend and very hard to follow right? But Walter Gropius said, “A modern, harmonious and lively architecture is the visible sign of authentic democracy.”
So, democratic architecture should, therefore, be architecture where people have equal rights to contribute to the design. ‘Democratic Architecture’ thus would be a collective opinion of modern, progressive society towards designing a structure that would be used by the people themselves. These spaces should commonly serve the purpose of gathering people for action and participation. And the design should be such that the beauty of terrain is enhanced and it harmonizes with nature.
Famous architect, Sullivan designed sky-high buildings juxtaposing the arabesque structures and very confidently coined them as masculine and feminine style. He passed on all his architectural knowledge and ambitions to his disciple, Frank Llyod Wright, who throughout his six-decade architectural career enunciated the slogan, ‘the architecture of democracy’. He extended his ideologies to the National Planning Resource Board which promoted ‘the search of democratic form as the basis of capitalist society’. Remarkably, he managed to get the petition signed by some of the most renowned personalities like Albert Einstein, Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, Robert Moses and fifty more, something that we cannot imagine doing at this moment. However, many veterans today consider Wright and Sullivan and their doctrines as ‘sloganeering’ and not very effective.
But in reality, how is it possible to design a structure taking into consideration all the people and their views? Is it practically possible to gather every person in one room and take their opinion about designing a public building? Has it ever happened in history, where a building was designed not by the city planners but by people themselves? The answer is no! Hence, to call any existing structure truly democratic would be slightly wrong.
But on the brighter side, measures are being taken in all democratic countries to include the people in decision-making. At least the people who are going to be affected by the project would soon be consulted. Although, butterfly effect should be considered for the start, just counting the opinions of a bunch of affected people should do the task too. Only the people who would be living, using, consuming the resources of that area would be having a say in the verdicts.
Many specialists also consider democracy as designing structures for low-income or even worse, no-income people. But this would only require technical skills and not political. When democracy is added to architecture it raises too many questions, some of which could not even be answered. For example, if architecture truly became democratic would that mean that while designing an office, the architect will provide equal space to both clerk and CEO. All the employees will have equally sized cabins and no hierarchy would actually be conveyed through architectural elements. Politically speaking isn’t it the main motive of political parties in the end? Well, ideally, it should be!
Architecture is an important subset of democracy. A lot of political changes might happen if architecture became purely democratic. But pragmatically, for a country like India, even though it is the largest democracy in the world, it would be difficult to incorporate such a humongous population for such decision-making. Just imagine, for a new public park, all the residents living around would have an equal say for the utilization of space. For the construction of parliament, people would have the power to decide the type of assembly seating they want to adopt. Easier said than done, a lot of technical aspects have to be considered while designing a city. Urban planning, after all, is not just the redistribution of grey and green spaces but something beyond that, something that still requires years of scrutiny and critique. But if it ever gets adopted in the future, what a time would it be, to be alive!