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© 2009-2019 by ISPA

The Great Just Place: an Architectural Representation of Public Morality, by James Cook

This presentation uses Heidegger’s concept of the hermeneutic circle to question how the architecture of administrative offices functions symbolically. The conference venue, Polaris Hall at the US Air Force Academy, serves as one example of how the hermeneutic circle may be applied to analyzing architecture in general vis-à-vis civic virtue.


The title of the presentation plays on sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s 1989 book, The Great Good Place, which argued that thriving democracies require a Third Place, a location besides home and work, where rich civic engagement can occur. On Oldenburg’s account marketplaces of ideas such as bars, coffee shops, beer gardens, and even post offices need no architecturally distinctive features; it suffices that they be ubiquitous where people live and work. To the extent that suburbs and office parks separate home and office from the Third Place, holes are ripped in the fabric of democracy.


Going beyond Oldenburg’s thesis, we can reflect on the difference between the informal discussion and formal administration of civic virtue. If Oldenburg’s Third Place is the laboratory where citizens express and debate their insights on how best to live, where are the surviving ideas implemented? After the voting booth, which is rarely of architectural interest, there are of course executive offices and residences, legislative chambers, and courthouses where lawyers argue and judges pass sentence. These locales often feature distinctive architectures that point to the origins of their societies’ modes of governance. In the US that generally means classical architecture as exemplified by the White House, the Capitol, and the Supreme Court in recognition of the roots of governmental philosophies in Greek and Roman antiquity. Ironically, however, scholars of ancient Athens speculate that trials and legislative debates were often held all around Athens— among other places in buildings flanking the bustling agora and on the hill called Pnyx, chosen because it is centrally located and could accommodate thousands of engaged citizens. These venues were very much a part of day-to-day life in the ancient city-state; they were separate from daily life neither spatially nor architecturally.


The venue of ISPA’s 2018 meeting is interesting not just as a latish addendum to a landmark of International Style but also because of its intended symbolic function. In the initial dialogue about the nature of the structure and its ideal location on campus, the symbolic aspect was a major concern. Ideally, said several of the interlocutors, the new facility would visually demonstrate the institution’s emphasis on the development of sound moral character in officer candidates. One result is evident in the building’s location and its interior layout. Arguably the linchpin is the room where honor cases are tried. Though the chamber is smaller than the conference venue proper, it is the focal point of the signature steel-and-glass edifice that points toward the building’s namesake, the polestar Polaris.


This was not always the case. For decades, from the founding of the Air Force Academy until the opening of Polaris Hall, honor hearings took place at what many still see as the center of cadet life—the original and still largest dormitory, Vandenberg Hall. That original venue and its near environs functioned like an architectural representation of what Heidegger called the Hermeneutic Circle. One could parse Air Force Academy culture as a whole in terms of the daily Third-Place dialogues in dorm rooms and hallways as well as of its formal administrative processes; and vice versa, one could understand those conversations and processes in terms of the institutional culture.


A debate arose as the Academy sought funding for what would become Polaris Hall that respected this hermeneutic pattern without explicitly mentioning it. Some worried that creating a separate center for character development, especially one concentrated in a dedicated building that cadets never visit informally, would undercut an axiom of Academy and Air Force culture—that everyone is responsible for developing leaders of character and that the development process must occur everywhere and constantly.


I close by generalizing from this example to what I call “administrative” architecture more generally. What does a big spatial and architectural gulf between Third Place and administrative center do to civic engagement?