Politics of City Hall architecture

Seattle's seems to suit its current mayor, stylistically at least.
Seattle's seems to suit its current mayor, stylistically at least.

If Mossback were dictator, no government office could be more than six stories off the ground. That would check public officials from getting too grand in their visions, and it would ensure that public employees were always within shouting range of the people. That scale is one of the things I like about Seattle's City Hall (which is actually a little bigger, at seven stories), though there are also things about it I don't like: the fake stream, for one.

One thing is certain: buildings make a statement. Churches used to be grand with spires; now the old ones are being demolished or recycled (Town Hall, for example) or vacated for ones that seem like suburban entertainment centers. Banks used to have tall columns and were built as temples to power, enterprise and authority; now they have counters and tellers in your local QFC. The ubiquity of banking is convenient, although the recent mortgage crisis is enough to make one yearn for the days when loans were harder to come by.

Libraries also used to be temples of a kind that suggest grandeur and permanence; now they're being replaced by a new generation of structures, architecturally fascinating, like Seattle's Koolhaas cubes, but also signifying a distinct lack of permanence. Instead of buttresses you have exposed bolts. They have the ephemeral feel of dot-com start-up spaces. Many of the old Carnegie structures seem to endure, even if not as libraries; yet many of the modern libraries that replaced them, like the 1960 modern central downtown branch, are already dust. We get new libraries that reflect our own transitional concept of what libraries should be, our doubts about whether or not they have anything to do with housing actual books.

City Halls were often once grand structures. I love the great gilded dome of San Francisco's, which seemed to perfectly capture the Golden Gate city's aspirations. Also, I've been reading about the restoration of Philadelphia's massive Second Empire pile which has been described as a civic white elephant, an expensive edifice that took so long to build that it outlived its architectural style. It looks, to some, like a Monte Carlo casino. Yet it has been expensively restored and is a tourist attraction, mainly for European visitors. It is a high-culture relic in a city that has become known for its blue-collar ethic. It would never be built today, especially in this era of Tea Party politics. No one thinks that highly of government anymore, or of bureaucrats.

Back to Seattle: We seem to have a mayor now who fits his City Hall. The grassy roof matches his beard (there is a mini beard trend down there: even Mayor Mike McGinn's spokesman has sprouted whiskers). The greenish building expresses the kind of ambivalence about power reflected in the politics of our eco-activist mayor. Our City Hall, unlike Philadelphia's, mirrors the concept, at least, of sustainability. It's a comparatively modest structure that stands ready to be recycled and composted. A wise choice for our political times.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.