27 July 2010

Building Hope ?

Springfield, Illinois is a bureaucratic town -- the downtown, besides having the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, is a solidly 19th century place with enough neoclassicism straight from provincial ancient Rome to choke an Ostrogoth.  It's flat enough to have an almost perfect Cardo Maximus-Decumanus Maximus layout, used as it was designed to be.  The result is a 19th century New Rome -- and the architecture follows, because it has to, in order to reinforce the democratic ideals upon which the state of Illinois and the United States of America are built on.

The ancient center of Naples, Italy, laid out on a grid plan.

Springfield, Illinois, also laid out on a grid plan.

 And so then, following the grid plan, the buildings that must reinforce the democratic ideals developed by the Greeks and ahem, Romans, must follow:
Temple of Athena at Paestum, Italy
Old Statehouse, Springfield, Illinois - right down to the drum columns!
So far, everything fits: democracy, New Rome, neoclassical architecture -- but what happens when that envelope gets pushed?  The next generation, in the late 19th century, after the War of 1812 (at least the British really aren't coming back) and the Civil War (at least the unity of the country is preserved), a country on the verge of the Industrialized Victorian period comes out with guns blazing in a showcase of exuberance and confidence - keeping the vocabulary but yammering away like a 4-year-old with a sugar high.
Illinois State Capital

And so, for almost a hundred years, this vocabulary works.  It continues to work after WWI, and a bit after WWII, because while they're doing crazy things up in Chicago, it must have taken a while for such things to trickle down to Springfield - our guide at the Dana-Thomas House suggested Springfield was 15-20 years behind Chicago... And while I've had the International Style/High Modernism described to me as 'fascist' (perhaps mainly as a criticism of egomaniac architects like Le Courbousier and to an extent, FLW, who wanted everyone to use their buildings as they decided) and impersonal, to me it's quite the opposite.  I've lived in pánelaks, and waxed poetic about it plenty.

To me, this bureaucratic building across the street from the Illinois State Capital sums it all up:
Post-war, functional, transparent.  Technology is still the savior of mankind, and hope in progress is visible here - now, after proving ourselves and the worth of our system on two fronts in a World War, this is how we run our democratic bureaucracy - with efficiency and transparency.  Ideally.

It's rather fitting that in the birthplace of Lincoln and the birthplace of a politics of hope, this is where we see this sort of urban planning in real life.

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