Last month, US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer spoke in an engaging panel discussion  on the role of art and architecture in civic spheres at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. He talked about the design of Boston’s federal courthouse: an effort that strove to create a building that was accessible and inviting to the people, so that they would recognize it as a public space—their space—and use it.
Justice Breyer’s presentation made me think about the notions of open government and the agora. Open government would, quite literally, mean just that: not only in terms of access to information, but also access to the actual building, space, and officials themselves. Art and architecture could, in a tangible sense, make government more open, accessible and transparent to its citizens. The design, layout and the “feel” of a building can send a strong signal to the public. The more attractive and pleasant it is, the more it could attract people to congregate in that space and hold discussions on topics that matter to them, turning this space into their agora. And the more people congregate there, the more they should feel welcomed and have exposure to, and eventually take part in the business of government and hold it to account.
In Utility and Democracy: The Political Thought of Jeremy Bentham , Professor Philip Schofield  describes Bentham’s ideas on the role of architecture in good governance. For a debating chamber for a political assembly, Bentham called for a “nearly circular,” amphitheater-type seating arrangement to facilitate discussion and scrutiny. He envisaged the use of the panopticon design for prisons—a design he also deemed appropriate for mental asylums, hospitals, and schools—to ensure transparency of activities by all parties. Moreover, these institutions would be open to inspection by anyone interested in visiting them to promote good behavior of officials working within. Schofield explains further: “The primary purpose of these architectural arrangements was to secure the publicity of official actions, whether those officials were ministers, prison governors, judges, or legislators. Architecture was a means of securing publicity, while publicity was a means of securing responsibility. Government was a trust, and its officials were trustees for the people, to whom they were—or if not, ought to be made—responsible.”
This concept is simple and powerful. Architecture in public spaces could facilitate or hinder the notion of open government in practice. Bentham stated, “the doors of all public establishments ought to be thrown wide open to the body of the curious at large—the great open committee of the tribunal of the world.” As a first step towards transforming this concept into reality, public buildings should not come across as cold, intimidating, or distant to the people, but welcoming, friendly, and safe. After all, civic spheres belong not to the government, but to the people.
Photo credit: Flickr user cliff1066