Good-bye Grand Structures: The Small-Scale Civic Architecture of Today

Until we can once again believe in our collective destiny, the foreseeable future of American civic architecture is in precise, nimble interventions.

Chicago’s James R. Thompson Center, designed by Helmut Jahn and completed in 1985. Governor Bruce Rauner announced plans last October to auction it off.

Courtesy Jessica Pierotti


The city hall of my current hometown, Scottsdale, Arizona, gives no hint of any sort of civic function to the boulevard on which it sits. You enter it from the parking lot in back. The only reason I have been there was as part of a team presenting our credentials in a design selection process. My other dealings with government have been online, via mail, or at suburban locations where I have gone to handle such matters as smog tests. I vote by mail.

The big push in American local, state, and federal government is to take everything possible online and off-site and to make whatever remains as minimal and anonymous as possible. The actual operations of government have long taken place in back rooms where politicians and bureaucrats have done the real work. Yet they were often encased in grand structures that gave us a sense of identity and pride in our government while also serving as open sites where we could encounter our civic agents and one another. As a result, we live with a heritage of civic monuments that proclaim our investment in deliberation and democracy, but we build very few, if any, such structures today. Instead, we are looking to get rid of whatever relics of such a history of civic architecture we can—the governor of Illinois would like to sell the James R. Thompson Center, designed by Helmut Jahn in 1982–85, and only the specificity of the grand classical edifices that predate that Postmodern monument prevents other politicians from trying the same. Civic buildings cost money to build and maintain, and their formal spaces sit empty most of the time.

The same is true of the services the government supplies. Post offices are closing at a rapid rate, as are schools in inner cities. Train stations that are now served by the semi-governmental Amtrak lines are often sheds next to the edifices built during the height of that sort of travel. If you are looking for the physical representation of what brings us together and what we all share, whether as a heritage or an ideal, whether as services or in care, you will have to work ever harder.

Even our grandest structures—namely, the bridges, dams, roads, and other transportation and infrastructure components that literally brought us together and serviced us all—are now the subject of rebuilding and repair, rather than of new construction. We are way behind on the maintenance of our road and water networks, so that has first priority. When we do build something new and on a vast scale, it is often excruciatingly bad or boring, not to mention absurdly expensive, such as the new Bay Bridge replacement in San Francisco or the Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge in Boston. Much of the work also goes on where we cannot see it, whether in the new water tunnel and subways being built under Manhattan, or the Big Dig and the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement in Seattle.

Recently, the State Department has been trying to improve the ways in which the United States presents itself to the rest of the world. Under the leadership of the architect Casey Jones, it has been striving to mask the intense security demands on every foreign structure with good architecture. I was on the peer review committee for the embassy we are building in Mexico City to a design by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, and I saw how difficult it is to make such structures into anything other than fortresses that contain processing centers for thousands of visa applications a day. Now this program is under attack from Republican congressmen who see nothing but waste and vulnerability.

If there is hope, it is in small structures. That same Scottsdale where there is no civic heart has commissioned a series of public libraries, each named after a different breed of horse. Our neighborhood has the Arabian (2007), designed by local firm Richärd + Bauer. A Cor-Ten steel snake, it draws you into a hidden courtyard with slanting reddish walls before letting you explore lofts where books and tables doze under soft light from clerestories. A nearby fitness center, designed by Weddle Gilmore Black Rock Studio and finished the same year, shares much of the library’s aesthetic and grandeur.

Richärd + Bauer’s Arabian Library in Scottsdale, Arizona, won an IIDA Metropolis Smart Environments Award in 2009 for its groundbreaking approach to both sustainability and community needs. The building’s form and rusted-steel cladding were inspired by slot canyons in the Arizona desert.

Courtesy Richärd + Bauer


With so much of our work and play now online, the desire to experience real places, whether they are parks or squares, with real people, is increasing.
Branch libraries seem to have become the one area where there still is an investment not only in civic architecture but also in experimentation. David Adjaye’s two libraries in Washington, D.C., stand as examples of such good design, and you can find other examples by less well-known architects around the country. They are often a chance for local firms to make good design in a civic arena.

New York City, under former mayor Michael Bloomberg, embarked on a program of new libraries, police stations, and other improvements (the salt storage shed on Manhattan’s West Side, designed by Richard Dattner, has received a great deal of attention), and we can only hope that this boon of good, shared architecture will be continued by the less visionary current mayor.

What draws these moments of hope together is that they are all relatively small, and that they have very specific functions. Contrast the success of the salt shed with the turkey carcass of the $3.9 billion transit hub Santiago Calatrava finally managed to finish at Ground Zero and you can see the success of the modest and purposeful as opposed to the kinds of grand structures that become magnets for critics of government waste.

I would argue that this is as it should be, and we should focus our attention on the very specific elements and services government provides in a manner that invests money wisely and only when and where it is needed. That is not to say that the resulting architecture should be cheap and banal. What we must rescue at that small scale is exactly what draws us out of the everyday, away from what separates us, and toward a common purpose, place, and sense of community.

We must also understand that civic space has to embed itself both in existing buildings and in larger complexes that serve other functions. We have a long history of using schools to vote and shopping malls as locations for certain services, but now we must try to understand how to take those opportunities and use them to draw attention to and ennoble—I am not ashamed to use that word—civic architecture.

In Sacramento, a private developer who is creating a new residential neighborhood across the river from downtown commissioned landscape architect Jerry van Eyck to design the Barn, a torus-shaped event structure that has no particular function, but serves to focus the nascent community and provides space for parties or concerts, or just shade. Its instigator, Fulcrum Property design director Stephen Jaycox, sees it as a prototype for such structures that do for smaller neighborhoods what stadiums and museums do on a civic scale.

In an even more commercial sense, Apple works hard to make its stores have an appeal that goes beyond, but ultimately enhances, the products it sells (see the company’s new San Francisco flagship). If it can do so even in shopping malls, why should cities and agencies not be able to do likewise? People gather and linger in places like hospitals and clinics, which are dismal spaces on the whole; could we not enhance them with places of pride and hope?

I realize this is overly optimistic. There is no reason for civic entities to invest in such good places because it will not get politicians reelected or bureaucrats promoted. We need to be even more tactical. Perhaps civic architecture can be temporary. Pop-up election information booths, or tents where hot propositions or candidates can be discussed, would seem to fit within the tenor of the times. The German cultural theorist Peter Sloterdijk has proposed pop-up domes to enhance democracy, and perhaps that is something we could use in this country as well. In the United Kingdom, the multidisciplinary team Assemble won the Turner Prize last  year at least in part for its temporary theaters and event spaces, which it often constructs with the neighbors and out of material already on the site. There are pop-up “parklets” in many cities now, but they are on the whole rogue events. Why not make them into sanctioned temporary amenities?

We do this already by encouraging various sorts of fairs and markets in public spaces. The Scottsdale city hall has a regular market, and around the country we are seeing a rebirth of such once-a-week places where people gather, drawn by good produce, but lingering for entertainment and perhaps even social engagement. Why not formalize these gatherings by adding political elements? And if the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival can commission the likes of Jimenez Lai to create temporary structures for its gathering, why can’t cities?

During this year’s Coachella, the arts and music festival in Indio, California, Jimenez Lai’s 52-foot-tall installation, the Tower of Twelve Stories, provided some much-needed shade as well as an iconic gathering spot for attendees. The fun shapes, stacked together on top of a 20-foot-tall steel base, lit up at night with LED strips, while 12 other light sources projected shapes and colors onto the entire structure.

Courtesy Jimenez Lai


Which brings us, finally, to the one part of our civic infrastructure that is improving almost everywhere: public space. With so much of our work and play now online, the desire to experience real places, whether they are parks or squares, with real people, is increasing. Bike lanes and bike share programs open cities up to a use that is more social and experiential than what we have when we cocoon ourselves in our cars. Social networks make it easier to find one another for whatever reason, whether it is music, sex, or protest, and thus crowds can form in an instant. We might be over flash-mob performances, but the idea will reappear in some form. Through public-private partnerships, most cities have leveraged the investment of retailers and restaurant owners, who benefit from lively public space, to upgrade our streets and squares in business improvement districts. Even in suburbs, shopping malls are turning outdoors, mixing public and private spaces.

The question is how to activate all these small moments of hope. I would argue that a task for architects and architecture schools should be to devise civic forms that make use of and energize public services and gatherings, then lift them into a realm where they make us aware of where and who we are in relation to one another and our surroundings. Classical architecture, with its colonnades and domes, did this once. We need a new version of such a collective form-making that is more open, more resonant with different cultures, and cheaper to make, and can even reuse existing structures and materials.

Whatever we do, we should not aspire to make grand new structures like our own city halls and state capitols. We should rather take what we have and imbue it with civic qualities. We should open up our office buildings and shopping malls, which will become redundant as we work and shop more and more online, to collective uses and make them new kinds of focal points.

For all that, I do miss the Hoover Dams and the state capitols we once built. I dream that one day we can once again believe in our collective destiny and the importance of deliberating that future enough to make a true civic architecture. Until then, we must take solace in the small, the temporary, the lively, and the strange, in whatever form it might take to draw us together.

In 1996, the California Department of Transportation proposed a replacement of the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge at a cost of just over $1 billion. By the time the replacement finally neared completion 17 years later, costs exceeded $6 billion. The project continues to require cash infusions for upkeep—this past May the oversight committee approved another $12 million to replace some rods at the base of a tower.

Courtesy Oleg Alexandrov

Categories: Architecture, Cities

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