What it is we are doing here (short answer: we're redesigning the US Congress)

It occurred to me recently that perhaps I owe you an explanation. I've been writing here about various topics ranging from foam to curtain walls to congress and never once stopped to state more explicitly where all of this is leading. I'm currently doing my thesis in architecture which is a two part project. I spent the fall preparing a body of research that would form the underpinnings of the actual design project (a building) that I am designing right now1. This blog was a pool of words, ideas, and images that I used to gather up and refine my thoughts in anticipation of producing the dreaded "thesis prep document." Traditionally, the GSD prep document should be as lengthy as possible, contain as many references as possible to post Deleuzian socio-economic mitigation translation fold factors, be chock full of provocative but vague images, and be bound in an elaborate fashion. For bonus points it's recommended that you apply a silver-leafed emboss to the cover. I turned in an eight page broadsheet newspaper, a format I chose because because of its importance in the early history of this country and the general challenge2 of designing for press.

That document is finished, printed, turned in, and I now have a stack of 500 450 or so sitting in my apartment (Want one? email me). But the newspaper was the prep, the work I did to set up a problem for myself that I could address this spring, now, as I design my thesis project. Based on some of my previous posts to this site it may be obvious, but the design project I've chosen for myself is to redesign the US Capitol building.

The short version of the pitch is that the Congress is broken, evidenced in recent years by the strident expansion of executive powers by the Bush II administration while the Congress fails to act as any substantial check or balance. That is to say, now matter how much we dislike the current administration, they're playing by the rules of the game, more or less. The American system of government is set up as a network of loosely defined powers and is designed to force its actors to continually refine, test, and reinforce their relationships to one another while defending their autonomy. When one branch, say the executive, becomes power hungry it's the job of the other branches to restrain them and maintain a Constitutional balance. As a matter of politics this could be argued ad nauseum so we'll simply take it as a given: we're redesigning the US Capitol.

In the course of my research I discovered an interesting coincidence in the history of the US House of Representatives. Intended to grow with each uptick of the census and maintain something of a parity with the population, the House of Representatives actually stopped growing in 1911. The date has no significance, but it's interesting to note that 435 is about as many people as can comfortably fit into the chamber of the house as it stands today (the current chamber was first occupied in 1858 with 262 desks). In other words, the House's membership stopped growing because of architecture, not politics. By interfering with the political process of the country, in 1911 the US Capitol changed from monument to memorial.

The real issue is what architectural questions we can address with the Capitol as our vehicle. The primary issue at stake here is how one may develop a sense of monumentality without fixity. Perfect static environments, little capsules of space preserved for future generations, are memorials that purposefully mark a certain moment in time. They are designed to stay that way until eternity (or at least revolution). Monumentality, on the other hand, is a quality that we may seek to bestow upon even a living building. Is Grand Central Station monumental? Was it once? Are airports? What about MOMA? SFMOMA? Answering these questions is especially difficult because constituency has been shattered. What you consider monumental and important may not be so to your neighbor. In 9 Points on Monumentality, largely considered to be the last significant tract on architectural monumentality, Sert, Leger, and Gideon argued that only "periods in which a unifying consciousness and unifying culture" can produce monuments. We can easily say that there's little to unify our difference except difference itself; does this mean that monumentality is an extinct quality or did S&L&G have it wrong?

As the preeminent symbol of the US government, the Capitol building provides an excellent opportunity to address the question of architectural monumentality, a subject which has been laying dead under a rock for the past 50 years (Sorry, Dan, I don't think too highly of Canberra's parliament bldg from 1988). What qualities does a building have to have to appear on money? How can a building be both monumental and alive, current with the times?

My project is addressing these dual issues of the Capitol. The Congress is a space-hungry entity currently consuming some 7 million square feet of surface area spread out across about 10 buildings. Having grown relatively slowly into the behemoth that it is now, this expansion was never planned per se. What gains are to be had by considering the totality of the problem from the point of view of performance? Concurrently, can the Capitol building itself provide a home for this most important branch of government that is satisfyingly monumental while able to grow, even expand, without repeating the mistake of 1911?

I'll let you know after May 15th.

1 Yup, right now as I type this I am designing.

2 Underestimated that one a weensy bit. I am now pretty decent at copyfitting, however.