Shortly after the riots on Jan. 6, several senators took to the floor to excoriate the mob for actions no one had dared to take since 1814, when British general Robert Ross captured Washington and burned the Capitol building in retaliation to transgressions against British interests in Canada. The senators called the vigilantes “thugs” and “domestic terrorists,” among other names.
The senators seemed genuinely shocked and struggled to point out the degree to which American politics rests on solid and august ground. They finally landed on architecture, specifically the Capitol Building, looking for a moral equivalent between a grave and sublime edifice, and what one senator called the “temple to democracy,” and American governance.
Dick Durbin, the senator from Illinois, called the building “sacred” and retold the story of Lincoln who insisted upon arrival as the new president that its unfinished dome be completed. And this despite the fact that the Civil War was about to rage on. For him, Lincoln, the dome symbolized the unity the country lacked but needed so desperately.
For one writer, the building was nothing to write home about but the dome certainly was. “It is something unsurpassed,” he said, “it springs to the sky as lightly as a bubble and rests as easily as a cloud.” He went on to say much more, all in high praise, including eventually the interior of the building itself, so full of magnificent art and architectural ornament.
Indeed, how could they? How could these thugs and domestic terrorists storm a building as awesome as this and seek to sack the political system for which it stands? The senators seemed baffled, their words suggesting that the transgressors should have known better, that they should have known their architectural history and theory and respected the role that buildings play in social and political discourse.
But why should they? Most of the examples they grew up with back home likely did not suggest anything of the sort. If their architecture is anything like ours here in the Palouse, 90 percent of it is trash, built to last for a short time and then replaced by something new. “We build our buildings common, angular and plain,” said Frederick Jackson Turner, the late 19th century critic and author of the end of “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” “Our times are plebian; it is visible in our architecture.”
Just take our decision in Pullman to move city hall from the center of town where it belongs to the edge where it does not, and in a suburban environment whose allegiance to civic space is about as vacant as a white surrendering flag. There is no there there. What plaza should have fronted that center of democratic practice is here replaced by a mega parking lot, reminiscent of shopping malls and other big box stores. The reference is shameful and hard to swallow. But it is ubiquitous.
Why would a person growing up and living under those circumstances go on to respect any building, the Capitol or otherwise? Unless otherwise punished by law, that person is likely to continue to disrespect architecture. Which is why often our schools and other public buildings are designed to look like prisons, protecting against abuse and general neglect. But also our homes, assembled less to advance a life and more financial equity, often judged by the degree to which they can be passed on to the next sucker down the road. Resale and not sale is their aim.
There are of course exceptions but by and large, and as one observer said of America, it “neither knows nor cares about” architecture. “It does not seek buildings generated by plan instead of façade,” nor does it “look for living beauty and restfulness in its houses.” The result is “architectural anarchy that has so far blighted our cities and our land.”
And so just as we may teach our children not to transgress in school because we do not transgress at home, so the reverse is upheld: it is fine to desecrate the Capitol because that’s how we’ve always rolled back home — on Main, Bishop, 3rd, 6th and more. The two are a telescope of each other. What happens in one is amplified in the other.
The senators back in Washington DC may feign surprise but if they really want people to respect the Capitol Building they should revisit their fidelity to the values of architecture. They should work toward a culture of respect toward all buildings, each a sacred entity in its own special way, not just the grandiose. They should fund and support policies that promote excellence in the built environment, attractive and coherent communities, beautiful streets, elegant civic spaces. And so much more.
Ayad Rahmani has been with Washington State University since 1997 and is an associate associate professor in the School of Design and Construction.