Architecture can move us and if we come to associate the institutions and offices of a democracy, the role of the rule of law, then those buildings are going to invoke in us a powerful allegiance. State capitols and county seats are the focus of our towns. In Europe, a visitor asks the natives where the cathedral is; a good tourist visits even the tucked-away chapel with the great painting. Few Europeans coming here find very satisfactory answers when they ask us. A few churches are lovely, of course. While we may be more religious in many ways than Europe, you can’t necessarily tell that from the beauty, centrality, or even inspiring nature of most of our churches. It isn’t just that we haven’t been religious as long and missed the great cathedral building centuries. We are splintered and take our religion a lot more personally.Across broad swaths of America and in small to middling towns, county courthouses define the geography, the history, and even the current social life of a town. Local citizens sit on the square, gossiping, watching the town’s life go by. As I sit wait to be taken or excused from a jury, I watch a cross-section of our community. Our history/government department put up a large poster of the county seats in Texas – some old, some new. Students stare at them intently, trying to find their county. The poster connects them to both the towns from which they came and the importance of the requirements for American history and federal/state government.
Many courthouses are interesting in themselves – different decades had different tastes. Of course, like novels that are losing their plots & characters, the new courthouses are often less interesting and less awe-inspiring. Still, we go to them during the most important passages of our lives – when we get a title or start a business, need a marriage license or a passport, a birth or death certificate. This is why we should build such buildings with more in mind than utility; they should inspire us to remember how important those titles to land are, how much our marriages are a civic responsibility as well as a personal or religious one, how much birth and death matter to our civil community as well as our family.
Faulkner was quite aware of what the rule of law brought and what it meant. He was also aware that the South, in some ways, began in debt. He theorizes on this at length in the introductions to his eccentric Requiem for a Nun. In “Barn Burning,” his much anthologized short story, he describes a community’s attempt at both mercy and justice countered by the interpretation of those gestures by Ab Snopes, whose perspectives are those of “blood” and “pride.” The courthouse (whether a mere country store or what he compares a farmhouse to) becomes a symbol of the peace that comes with the rule of law – even though that rule is tainted by a history of slavery. But, Faulkner knows that even a man like the boy’s father can use it for his own ends.
We Nebraskans tend to love our capitol. Hartley Alexander chose and sometimes created the words carved into so many parts of the building. On the North Entrance, the words that welcome the visitor are: “Honour to citizens who build an house of state where men might live well.” That particular building, with its proud tower, is walking distance from down town, from the university, from a dozen churches and several museums. Boulevards lead to the city buildings and to the Historical Society. The buildings around are relatively low, so that broad azure strip and gold dome, on which perches a Sower, can be seen across the broad flat prairie. And, carved on the South Entrance, is another observation: “Political society exists for the sake of Noble living.” I suppose both of these can be turned to argue for a government libertarians would oppose but both see government at the service of man rather than man at the service of government. The ideal is of the noble but free citizen. It is not the communal we but the individual living well that gives such a building purpose.
This is no solution. It is not music. But it is awe-inspiring, with a sense of the long line of law givers that are portrayed outside the building. Its grandeur, unlike the proletarian architecture that was being built at the same time, comes from its humanism as well as its grandeur. It was built slowly, plaid for as it went. No one person dominates it for it was built through several administrations. And its power is that of the word, of a shared history – that is a part of what the building tries to convey. I can still remember the Supreme Court room where we stood at Girl’s State. In that beautiful wooden room Heraclites warns, “The eye and ears are poor witnesses when the soul is barbarous.” This is far from the assurance of the songs Lex refers to and may well be ineffective in an emotional contest between the two. Still, such a warning and such self-consciousness are the essence of the free market, of an open market where our witness may be challenged and supported.