Saturday, May 28, 2011

Projections of Power

Here's another topic on which I am perhaps just playing catchup: projections of power in architecture.

For starters, I suppose that just about every durable structure can be read as a projection of power:d the Great Pyramid, the Parthenon, the Hagia Sophia, whatever.  But move closer to home: for thre moment, I'm particularly interested in the late-19th Century bank building.  You recall: it was down at the corner of Fourth and Main.  It may have been Greek revival, perhaps faux Renaissance.  In any event, its point was: we are stable and durable, we will be here when you need us.  Correspondingly, I think one of the inflexion points in modern finance came to pass at that point--say, the early 80s--when it sank in on bankers that you didn't need a building for a bank.  If you were a money center potentate, sloshing around in surplus capital, you could just ship it all out to some guy with a swivel chair and a computer in an office in a strip mall between the Karate Dojo and the manicurist.  Presto, a bank.

Item two: the opera house.  Seems to me the standard opera house in Central Europe or Northern Italy is  an outcrop of the Austrian Empire, saying "we're here and we're staying--deal with it."  Perhaps this explains why every jerkwater pioneer town beyond the 100th Meridian in the 19th Century had to fling up an opera house, as if to say, "don't be misled, we are real."  I can only begin to imagine what we will do with that tradition as face-to-face opera gives way to multiplex HD.

Item three: railroads.  Up in Tacoma a couple of weeks ago, I marveled at the splendid old rail terminal, now a courthouse, and wondered to myself--what kind of optimism,  not to say cash, led to the construction of so grand a facility in what is, after all, something of a tank town?

I thought of these "projections of power" again this morning when I read the splendid  Business Week piece on the implosion of the postal service. Here in Palookaville, we've a newish post office in drab Steelcase modern.  We also still keep the old one--a dignified pile on the south side of the town square.  The new one always seems to be packed with customers, the old one, not so.  What would it be like if we just abolished the old one and farmed out the residual traffic to, say, the convenience store just a couple of blocks up the street?  We'd have more convenient parking, for one thing.

I know that each of these examples poses issues of its own.  Post offices, for example--I know that no community, no matter how small and forlorn, wants to let go of its local postal service (in this, it is just like passenger rail, although I guess the rail battle had been pretty much fought and lost).     Post-office building must also have a lot do with political patronage--the local politician getting goodies for the boys and projecting his own power via a heap of building material with his name on it.

I really don't know where to go with this except to roll my eyes and say declare that "my, it's a changed world."  I guess it is obvious that our lives today are more abstract, more in our head.  But do we know how to live in a world without stable points of reference--banks, opera houses, railroad stations, post offices, that have done so much, for good or ill, to define who we are?   


Ebenezer Scrooge said...

Bank architecture was destroyed by the FDIC: a bit earlier than the 1980's. There was more power in the little FDIC sticker on the window than in 100 faux-Corinthian columns.

But this cavil on dating aside, your point is certainly correct. Although it raises an interesting question.

Apart from courthouses and the wonderful strip on the Mall, government buildings seem to be getting their architectural inspiration from Uriah Heep. The State's desire to project its power seems defeated by its bureaucracy's need to be 'umble. (Or even contrast the magnificent corridors in the Cannon building with the rabbit warrens in which our elected officials reside.)

Buce said...

A worthwhile point although I don't think bankers started wearing Mickey Mouse ears until the 80s. Cf.

My friend Scott likes to say that when the earthquake comes, he wants to be in the LA Courthouse; he says that any building built by Jim Farley on cost-plus has a good chance of survival.Also says he suspects it has a swimming pool, though he has never found it.