Can Architecture defend Democracy?

or infringe upon it?


An article speculating on the effect architecture and the built environment can have on democratic institutions.

Context

30 years ago, on the 13th of January, Lithuanian freedom & independence was challenged by the USSR. They sent armoured convoys of soviet troops into the country which was the first republic to declare independence from the soviet bloc a few months prior. The Lithuanians, armed only with songs and prayer, did not back down in the face of a foreign nation invading their lands. Instead, people walked, ran or drove to institutions of Lithuanian democracy in hopes of defending their freedom from Russian forces. This day is commemorated every year by Lithuanians from around the world, so that we do not forget the price we paid for freedom.

Feel free to read the full story about January 13, 1991 below:


Introduction

If we look at buildings not merely as lifeless clumps of well assembled materials, and realise they hold emotional, cultural & symbolic values, I think we can agree that the architectural embodiment of a nation, its heart, is arguably the parliament building. This is the space that people run the country and Architecture creates an opportunity to embody the soul of the nation. So when these buildings are defaced, destroyed or assaulted, it is tactical in order to disable the leadership, but also a means to assault the embodiment of a nation. So it’s no surprise that Lithuanians in 1991 instinctively knew that to defend their freedom, they must defend the people running the country, and this in-turn recruited architecture into their defensive ranks.

Lithuanian Parliment, barricaded by the people, against an invading army, Photo by Paulius Lileikis

Another foundation of democracy is free speech and freedom of press, so the next building on the line of defence would be broadcasting stations. Architecturally less significant, an attack on such a building is purely tactical, stopping the spread of information. Thats exactly what the soviet troops did. Using tanks on unarmed protestors they forced their way through to stop Lithuanian free speech, committing war crimes in the process. Their goal – to attack Lithuanian independence. The scene: Vilnius TV tower.

Soviet troops and broken windows, the base of the Broadcasting Tower in Vilnius.

Can Architecture defend democracy?

If we assume that an aspect of democracy can be embodied to some extent by Architecture, or at the very least housed by it, we surely can solve the question with more Architecture and building? If the Vilnius TV tower was surrounded by a castle like-wall, perhaps that would have stopped the Soviet forces?After the attack on the broadcasting tower, The soviets did not storm the fortified parliament building, instead they retreated from the country and Lithuania won its freedom. Was this because it was turned into a fortress? Perhaps it played a role, regardless, they were doomed to fail from the beginning, because Lithuanians wanted to be free, and were willing to die for it.

The barricades outside Lithuanian parliament, photo by Paulius Lileikis

In the Lithuanian scenario there is merit in the hypothesis that architecture may have aided the defence of democracy & freedom. Historically we have been forever building walls, castles, moats and any physical barriers to keep the people that don’t like us out, So then surely the answer is simple, we turn parliament into a fortresses, so in the event of foreign aggression, people may more easily defend their democracy? Solved! Well, not quite, and this is where my interest lies…


What if the attack is from within?

On the 6th of January 2021, Trump supporters forced their way into the white house, threatening American democracy. In response to these events, Opposite Office suggested a 1.5m thick wall surrounding the classical building:

Opposite office proposes a wall around the white house

The point of their dystopian vision is made to highlight that democracy cannot hide behind walls, that architecture cannot help, their point being:

Democracy is not a fortress! The only protection of democracy lies in social justice, fair living conditions, fair wages and a real social perspective for everybody!

Democracy is love!

Opposite Office

I agree in part with their message, but I still believe architecture can play a role in defending it.

If you fortify parliament you can help protect certain aspects of democracy as the Lithuanian case study shows. Physical barriers are but one aspect, and one that has been used since the birth of civilisation. but fortifying parliament creates an interesting paradox. What if the attack on democracy & freedom comes not from an invading army, but from within? In the form of lies, deception & corruption. In that case, those very walls made to protect democracy switch, without hesitation, to infringe upon it, locking the people out.

So the immediate reaction to this would be proposing parliament not as a fortress, but instead as a glass house, open to the people. Its harder for corruption to fester inside the shadows if there are no shadows. you cant hide behind closed doors when there are no doors. This architectural solution would help to defend against internal threats, but at the same time, it becomes defenceless against violence, be it from foreign armies or the people of a divided nation. Ancient Greek public houses were just that, they had columns in place of walls, and were open to the public, and its no surprise that democracy was born in such a place.


Conclusion

So, can architecture defend democracy? I believe it can & has, be it through physical fortifications or through transparency, but we are still presented with a choice: a fortified parliament protects from violent threats such as invading armies, but allows corruption to fester in the dark whereas an exposed glass parliament burns corruption in the light but will shatter once violence is at its threshold.

The first, fortification option, has been tried & tested historically, but I feel transparency does not have a solid place in modern society. Buildings do not have a moral compass, but they are instruments that may be used for ‘good’ or ‘evil’ relative on who is using them and why. That’s why its crucial we study how architecture is used. Where it is used for ‘evil’ and why, and where it can be used for ‘good’. Often times it embodies the ‘good’, the ‘bad’ & many times the ‘ugly’, depending on your perspective. Above all we must learn.


Thanks for reading! Im always looking to start a discussion and look forward to hearing any comments!

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