Another Path to Our Democratic Hearts

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.

5 thoughts on “Another Path to Our Democratic Hearts”

  1. In High School (HL Richards in Oak Lawn) I was part of a State-wide group run by the YMCA called “Youth and Govt”. The highlight of the group was spending one weekend in Springfield in the State Capitol in the actual House , Senate, and Committee chambers doing a mock session that was prepared for during the preceding year.

    I felt in awe being in that building , with the high dome and the general architectural style that I assume most capitols have. It was very similar to being in the Vatican.

  2. Ginny, yours is a beautiful sentiment, but the Court-building process is North-Pole-far from the one you describe; namely – few consequent administrations continue and enrich State or Country Court project. May be that was the case in 19th century, bit not now.
    The appetites of various government agencies, all lusting after a piece of space in the building takes priority. Second come security concerns. Physical amount of space for prisoner’ housing, police, sherif, DOC, plus logistics of operations etc etc etc eat up most of the multi-million budgets; aesthetics come last.
    new courthouses are often less interesting and less awe-inspiring
    Architects are always visible for the public eye, very often they become a scapegoat, a substitute punchbag for the real culprit where “lack of awe and inspiration” is concerned: governments of various levels, overblown in unreasonable proportion.

  3. A great post. I had never thought about county courthouses as being so central and important in American life, but it is so true. Growing up in a small Ohio town, the court house had pride of place on a corner of the city square and was by far and away the most impressive building in town.

  4. Ginny –

    I understand your sentiment of relating buildings and emotions. In fact, a perfect measure of a successful architect is whether mastery form AND function are achieved in the design of a particular building.

    In times past, much money was spent on these masterpieces – the Bascillica in Baltimore is a beautiful example. As are the Capitol Building on Senate Circle in Annapolis, the Smithsonian, and any number of buildings in D.C.

    But consider architecture as you would any sort of art: the form and function are directly corelated to their context. Remember too that a large number of these were built during the Classical Revitalizim movement in the 18/19th centuries, where we modeled our building and church ideals after the great world powers – at a time when we ourselves were striving to become a great world power. Before leaps in travel and communication, much of a city/town’s time was spent salivating over the local happenings in politics, crime, and other such important events. But this is no longer necessary.

    Now we have the internet and television, which have allowed the general public to conduct business and recieve news from the comfort of their own home. People can travel to anywhere in the world cheaper and faster than it would have taken the average Joe to cross state lines 100 years ago. Not to minimize the importance of beauty in all things created (as a degreed student of both Art and Architecture), but there are any number of ways to entertain they eye. Frankly, TV is easier than a ride to “Downtown” for a day’s entertainment. Courtcases are often broadcasted anyway.

    Of course, there are still the Frank Gherys of and I.M. Peis of the world that will continue to make every experience in building space a work of art.

  5. Lori,
    Funny you should mention Gehry and Pei on “building experience”. Two of the worst designers of interior spaces among so called “starchitects”; they are only surpassed by Koolhaas in total disregard of inteior’s function and logic.

    As to the notion that courthouses are no longer the center of city life…well, I’m not an urban designer, just a city dweller. And in this capacity I can say – every city/town need some sort of architectural focus point, be it a Village Green, Town Hall, A courthouse or a church/temple. People still like to walk sometimes… as in “bodily function between sitting behind the wheel of a vehicle and sitting on a sofa in front of the TV”. And they like to walk with a purpose, “to see and be seen” is not the worst among them; and the best place for that is a city center.

    Said by practicing Contract Interior Designer currently working on 2 courthouse projects.

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