Beyond Buildings


Shrink-Wrapping Democracy

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Courtesy AP, via Huffington Post.


The crisis is being averted.That is the status of this summer’s big story as I write this on Monday morning.The debt ceiling will be raised, the government will shrink, and our debts will as well, or at least that is the hope.


What strikes me as I look at it from a spatial perspective, which is what I cannot help but doing, is how much we seem to be in the era of shrink-wrapping. Space is contracting, and every object and idea is now constrained and packaged ever more tightly. There are no big ideas in the Not So Grand Compromise, no vision of how we will do things better in the future, and no sense of new ways to go. There is only cut, cap, and contain.


The visual images reflect and strengthen this message. Remember those shots of the columns of the Capitol looming over the deliberative gentlemen Hollywood used to give us? Remember the crowds gathering in our Mall of Demonstrations between the Classical monuments? Remember past presidents grandstanding in front of large projects or war toys? In the last few weeks, we have seen none of that. We have only received tight shots of certain sections of Congress, its members never listening in serried ranks, but rather chatting among themselves even as somebody faceless drones on. When the President appears, he is serious and dour, standing in the restricted space of the White House press room. You would think that the leaders would announce their proposals and compromises in evocative settings—in front of crumbling infrastructure, or a gleaming corporate headquarters unshackled by government interference—but all we get is nameless conference rooms.


Architecture as a stage setting is obviously not necessary anymore.That makes much of Washington, D.C., useless, which is what many people think it is anyhow. We have already closed many military bases and government facilities, perhaps the time will come that we will no longer need all those hulks of bureaucracy that fill L’Enfant’s grids. We might also not need the Mall itself, which, after all, is just empty space eating up tax dollars. Hell, the President could rent a nice condo near Dupont Circle, and congress could meet in the Convention Center when it needs to. It would probably be cheaper to rent space for those times when the body needs to gather for what appears more and more to be ceremonial purposes.


The same could happen with our parks, which are just fallow land, and could be sold at a nice profit. The remaining military bases also just take up valuable land. The government obviously does not need all that office space anymore, and it certainly does not need to subsidize housing or provide any other services.


But why stop there? Get rid of state capitols, state parks, city halls and any social service that takes up space. Privatize the schools. The only things we really need are jails, the places where we shrink-wrap those citizens who take too much advantage of the new-found freedoms that this era of dissipation provides.


Things fall apart, the center will not hold, and so will sit like an empty hulk, a tragic reminder of the great acts of democracy that once took place there. They will become ruins, tragic reminders of the society we built and then destroyed.


I remain a romantic. I want those useless buildings and open spaces, those places for endless and seemingly senseless deliberation. I am happy to see my paycheck shrunk every few weeks to finance this charade that is democracy and the stage on which it takes place. Ask me for help, don’t just fold the tent and let the armies of senseless shrink-wrapping lay waste to the edifices of democracy.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.