Can design help close the nation's political divide?

Practically every building typology is evolving to meet the needs of the innovation economy. Why not legislative spaces?

January 11, 2017 |

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During a time of great political divide across the nation and widespread distrust of bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., can architecture offer a practical solution to partisan politics? 

Deadlock continues to fester on Capitol Hill. Congress’ approval rating ended the year at a meager 17%, and has hovered below the historic average (31%) since mid-2009. President-elect Donald Trump has stated that he plans to work with those on both sides of the aisle in Congress to accomplish his goals. Observers and experts predict Trump will have a tough go at it, even with a GOP-controlled Congress.

This begs the question, Is the “aisle” part of the problem in Washington? I’m not referring to the metaphorical divide between political parties, rather the physical layout of legislative spaces. 

From K-12 schools to offices to universities, building owners across practically every sector are retooling their spaces to meet the needs of today’s innovation economy. Why not legislative spaces?

“In such a tumultuous period, shouldn’t we be questioning whether these spaces are working?” wrote New York Times architecture writer Allison Arieff, in a Nov. 2 opinion piece

So much has changed in the business of governing—social and mass media, electronic voting, global convenings—yet the vast majority of spaces for political congregation remain virtually untouched, “frozen in time,” wrote Arieff.

She points to a study by Amsterdam-based creative agency XML that breaks down the design of 193 legislative buildings across the world. The most prominent layouts—opposing benches, classroom, and semicircle—were developed 165–215 years ago and remain intact with little modification. When updates are required, governments tend to restore these spaces, rather than rethink the layout. 

There are outliers, though, including a meeting hall with zero tables and chairs for the European Union Council in Brussels. The layout, designed by XML and Jurgen Bey, utilizes blocky, interlocking furniture pieces that encourage council members to mingle. Check out XML’s report here.

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