Great architecture makes great ideas visible. What are the ideas expressed in great American architecture? The answer is simple: American architecture embodies the ideals of democracy for which our revolution was fought and our Constitution created.
What is the significance of this revolutionary idea? A scene in John Ford's masterful 1962 western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance suggests the answer. In a small frontier settlement, a class of children and adults is learning to read. It is a diverse group, including immigrants from Europe and Mexico and a former slave. Their teacher is a lawyer from the East played by James Stewart. Using the Declaration of Independence as the class text, he asks, “What kind of government do we have?” This is a question many teachers in classrooms throughout the United States ask every day. Nora, a Swedish immigrant, answers that “the United States is a republic and a republic is a state in which the people are the bosses. And that means us.” (See Notes.)
Nora understands that the American Revolution created a new nation and a new form of government. In order for this endeavor to succeed, the Constitutional Convention intentionally turned upside-down the political ideology of European monarchies, in which the king was the government. Under this arrangement, the monarch is chosen by God and rules by divine right; the people are the king's subjects and have no function other than a source of revenue and service.
King James I of England asserted that his role was to sit “upon GOD's … throne in earth,” and that “even by GOD himselfe [kings] are called Gods.” (See Notes.) The people were the king's subjects. Louis XIV of France aptly defined this role when he said, “L'Etat, c'est moi”—“I am the state.” The U.S. Constitution subverted these claims by defining “We the People” as the government, giving ordinary citizens the responsibility to determine their own destiny as well as that of the nation. The president, the cabinet, and the congress, as well as governors and mayors, became servants of the people. Herman Melville distinguished the status of the citizens of the new nation from that accorded to kings: This august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The center and circumference of all democracy. (See Notes.)
As they forged the components of democratic government, the founders also created a new architecture to express their revolutionary vision of society. We see this in two radical aspects of the architecture that developed out of the American Revolution:
First, the basic building block of this new architecture is not the king's palace or the church, as in England and Europe, but is instead the modest single-family house. Because the government is the People, citizens' houses—the homes of members of the government—become the architectural equivalent of the royal palace. For the first time in history, the ordinary person's house became a work of architecture.
Second, because the idea of the citizen's house is so fundamental to our national identity, to our sense of who we are and how we live, we identify our public buildings by the suffix house. Thus, we have statehouses, courthouses, firehouses, schoolhouses, police station houses, and even jail houses. The United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. was originally called the Congress House; early city halls in New England and Pennsylvania were town houses. The familiar suffix-house tells us that a statehouse is the collective home of all the citizens of that particular state—that is, of the state's government; a courthouse is the home of citizens seeking justice; and schoolhouses are the homes of children seeking education.
FromArchitecture of Democracy, by Allan Greenberg, Rizzoli New York, 2006.
- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962 (Ford Productions-Paramount), directed by John Ford, produced by Willis Goldbeck, script written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck from a story by Dorothy M. Johnson.
- King James I, “A Speech to the Lords and Commons of the Parliament at White-Hall, on Wednesday the XXI, of March, anno 1609.”
- Herman Melville, Moby- Dick, or, the Whale (New York: Modern Library, 2000), p. 166.