by Eve Fineman
The relationship between art and politics is both old and new, clear and complex. Numerous mediums lend themselves quite readily toward a political end, music being particularly apt through its blending of word and sound. Yet music can do much more than simply inspire through its lyrics; it is a vehicle for giving large groups of people a political voice.
Being fortunate enough to come of age in Washington D.C. in the 1980’s, the multifaceted relationship between music and politics revealed itself to me in life-changing ways. Through participation in punk percussion protests across the street from the White House, and organizing benefit shows for local women’s shelters, I was able to see how many layers of political meaning can exist within the single medium of music.
During the same period that grassroots music scenes were addressing political issues head-on, the visual arts were also moving in a more outwardly political direction, with such unforgettable works as Martha Rosler’s 1989 collaboration entitled “If you lived here.” This Dia Foundation exhibition presented multiple positions on issues of housing and homelessness in disarmingly graphic and straightforward ways. The interdisciplinary approach brought together fine artists, graphic artists, designers, architects and urban planners to address an ostensibly unsolvable problem.
It was invigorating, as a newly minted architecture student, to learn that these issues for which I had sought an outlet through music, were clearly relevant to the field I was beginning to explore. And yet somehow this relationship, the one between architecture and politics, remained elusive to my peers outside of the discipline. To be political and creative meant writing, performing, painting and protesting, but not designing.
Seeing this disconnect between the politics of architecture and the artistic activism of other genres, it became clear to me that the general public was not likely to perceive the political potential in buildings. Yet now, as we approach an ever-more politically active and aware time in the collective consciousness, it is perplexing that there remains a general unawareness of how our most public of arts can have much to do with governments, wars and our relationship to the earth. Although large groups of non-designers seem to have a greater interest and investment in aesthetics and “green design,” we continue to believe the myth of architecture as a vessel, either benignly apolitical or symbolically heroic. We must, if we are to move forward with a deep desire for sustainability, look at public architecture with a more critical eye, and hold it to higher standards than the current ones of structure, surface and systems.
For an example of the structures we mistakenly hail as symbols of our democracy, we can look at Miesvan der Rohe and his iconic buildings in Chicago. With a charming trip down the Chicago River on an architectural boat tour, a visitor can learn how Mies escaped Nazi Germany and was given amnesty here to produce his modernist visions, the steel and glass structures which are now emblematic of Chicago’s skyline. Chicagoans readily embrace the notion that, without our open Democracy, modernism as we know it may not have been given a chance to flourish. Yet rarely is it mentioned on these tours or in conversation that in 1934, roughly four years before moving to the U.S., Mies signed a motion in support of Hitler, in the hopes that he may be selected as the Architect of State, beginning with his being shortlisted for the design of the state’s new Reichsbank. Nor do Mies’ soaring structures get shown alongside his 1935 competition entry for the German pavilion at the Brussels World Fair, upon which a similarly visionary structure is adorned with an eagle and a swastika.
While we cannot hold Mies responsible for the outcomes of Hitler’s regime, neither can we continue to perpetuate the myth that he is a political hero whose buildings represent pure democracy. This democratic ideal that we so strongly believed in during the middle of the 20th century is now morphing into our desire to respect the earth and live sustainably. And so, with the Mies story in hindsight, we must be careful when jumping on the sustainability bandwagon and not get too seduced by the latest renewable material or self-generating energy source. These things alone do not turn buildings into heroic emblems.
With the rigorous standards developed by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), corporations around the country are boasting of their greenness with regard to the ratings of their newly constructed or renovated buildings. Yet perhaps it is our responsibility to look into this a bit further before feeling placated that companies are treading more lightly on the land. Take, for example, Lockheed Martin’s new facility in Sunnyvale, California. This LEED certified headquarters houses a corporation which, according to its stated mission, is “pursuing projects that protect natural resources, conserve energy and reduce emissions,” all while producing, storing and developing a vast supply of bombs, missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
I might suggest that LEED incorporate a client or occupant profile into its ratings checklist, requiring negative points for things such as providing the means for destroying human life, or denying certification altogether for a company that paid a $110 million dollar fine for failing to properly clean up a nuclear waste site. We may want to ask ourselves what about these practices is sustainable, or how such a corporation came to be awarded the “Global Climate Change Champion” by National Geographic in 2007. As informed citizens, I ask that we look beyond the vessel and into the story behind the building to see how these beautiful structures we build are intrinsically tied to the politics of our time.