Transparency in Architecture and Politics

The Casa del Fascio is an assertive presence in the heart of Como, Italy; compared to its traditional, much older neighboring structures, it is bright, clean, geometrically pure, and unquestionably alien. Rows of windows permit views of the interior to those outside, clear of the government to the public. Its architect, Giuseppe Terragni, wrote of this quality: “(this is) a house of glass into which all may look… no obstruction, no barrier, no obstacle between political leaders and the people.”

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Likewise, the recent addition to the Reichstag in Berlin glitters amidst the old structure’s dark nineteenth-century masonry. The public is invited first into the “dignified” modern lobby and then the airy glass dome, from which they can look down through a skylight into the living, working parliamentary chamber. Its architect, Norman Foster, writes of his design: “we have ensured that where possible it is transparent and its activities are on view. It is a building without secrets.”

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The theory that literal transparency in the architecture of government buildings equates with figurative transparency in government itself- the visibility and accountability of the leaders to the led- is thus espoused by both architects. However, Terragni and Foster and those who commissioned each design are in agreement in little else. The Casa del Fascio is built along the lines of the Fascist ideology and in glorification of authoritarian leadership, while the new sections of the Reichstag are built in celebration of democracy and in antithesis of the Naziism that once dwelt in the structure. Thus, transparency manifests itself differently in each edifice; also at odds are the methods by which each presents this transparency to the public . The general trends of each design are as follows: in the Casa del Fascio, the means by which transparency is created are displayed as an architectural centerpiece, artifice presented as a monument, whereas in the Reichstag the means of transparency are underemphasized compared to other features and, rather than being exhibited to the masses, are allowed to be viewed up close.

In his essay “Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal”, architectural historian Colin Rowe details methods by which transparency can be presented besides the plain fact of a surface being see-through. The quality, he asserts, can be achieved and emphasized through the layering of planes; he gives examples from the artistic world, particularly in cubism from the era of Terragni, where spatial order is defined by the placement of images between such planes. The visibility of both the images themselves and their individual positions allows for “the simultaneous perception of different spatial locations.”

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The Casa del Fascio in its urban context

Like cubists such as Picasso or Braque, Terragni establishes a space-defining plane using a grid; this is the Casa del Fascio’s front facade, whose defined lines of white concrete are unflinchingly presented to the adjoining piazza. There is no ambiguity. The grid is the surface of the building, and the offices visible behind it are the interior; these facts are intended to be the first noted upon viewing the structure. The windows are too divided to offer insight into the nature of the spaces within- it is implied and intuitive but not demonstrated that the simple grid structure continues inside- so instead the transparency is shallow, having what Rowe labels “surface tension.” The other three elevations of the building are, though still heavily planar, more solid- after all, these are the less viewed sides of the building, so it is less necessary for them to appear transparent. Theorist Manfredo Tafuri notes the presence of “masks” in the unbuilt work of Terragni, of features artificially cloaked in qualities not natural to them, such as a damlike wall given a hint of fragility. Perhaps the facade of the Casa del Fascio could itself be read as a mask, a labored emphasis of transparency pasted onto a structure whose true nature has mass and depth not far enough removed from such traditionally opaque institutions as “a royal palace, a barracks, or a bank” for Terragni’s liking.

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Visitors to the Reichstag looking into the parliamentary chamber

Though the dome of the Reichstag hints at an overall quality of transparency, it does not provide the direct view from exterior to inner workings that the Casa del Fascio purports to offer. Such a direct view is available from the interior public space: it is a round, conical window dividing the upper dome from the chamber. The primary purpose of the frame of the glass appears not to be to establish a plane, but rather to draw the eye to the centerpiece of the space- the mirrored stalactite which reflects light onto the MPs within the Reichstag’s heart. In placing this feature on a pedestal, this pipeline for natural light, Foster emphasizes the dissolution rather than the definition of surfaces; this dissolution was even more prominent in the initial competition entry which was submitted for the building, in which a massive flat awning spans the entire old Reichstag. The glass curtain wall connecting the roof and the parapet below is barely visible, and thus the intended impression is one of connected interior and exterior.

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The Reichstag’s chamber

Where the Casa del Fascio’s transparency was shallow and frontal, Foster revels in the depth of the open spaces which are made visible. The slope of the window in the dome is the most immediate indicator of the presence of three-dimensional form in the design. Additionally, the parliamentary chamber expands out of the field of view from both that position and glazed walls in the main lobby, and the resulting sense that space exists beyond detracts from the surface tension of the glass partitions. Terragni arbitrarily creates a plane as a device for the indication of transparency; Foster, it seems, reluctantly places a glass barrier where it is necessary for  purposes of security and practicality. His transparency is Rowe’s titular literal; Terragni’s is phenomenal.

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The atrium of the Casa del Fascio- unopen to the outside

It would be misguided to treat the differences between the Casa del Fascio and the Reichstag as if they were solely the result of political views; who knows how Terragni would have designed if he had access to the technology available to Foster, or what Foster would have created if his brief was to rebuild the Reichstag from scratch. For instance, much could be made of the fact that the interior public spaces are placed on the ground floor (below government offices) by Terragni and on the roof (above the chamber) by Foster. The latter architect claims that the public is placed symbolically above the heads of their representatives, and the reverse could be interpreted from the Casa del Fascio’s plan. However, a discerning critic could claim that Foster is simply spinning the fact that the existing structure had no other possible positions for such a space, and that the atrium’s placement in Como is steeped more in Rationalism than Fascism. Nevertheless, there are certainly parallels that can be drawn between construction and context.

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In fascism, the authoritarian government has popular support but not, at least at its upper levels, popular participation. A functioning fascist government, unlike a standard dictatorship, claims its legitimacy from this popular support, and therefore must maintain an image of acting fully in the people’s interest. In Como, Terragni erected a grand exhibition of transparency which symbolizes the ability of the people to view the inner workings of the fascist machine, and in turn the lack of necessity for the leaders to conceal any bureaucracy from their base of support.

In democratic modern Germany, public participation is the basis of government; Foster’s design reflects this by inviting the public in to experience the transparency, rather than externally broadcasting the feature. The dissonance of futuristic dome and neoclassical base, the gentle spiraling of the ramp within, and other elements of the renovation entice Germans to summit the structure; once they have done so, they have the ability to look down and see their representatives in action. Interestingly, Foster takes further steps to signal the building’s desired lack of secrets, including the preservation of Soviet graffiti left after the Battle of Berlin- the Reichstag’s unsavoury past is thus left unsanitized.

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Inside the Reichstag’s dome

The natural reaction to these differences is to ask, disassociating oneself from political bias, which structure creates the more effective metaphor of physical to political transparency? Terragni’s mastery of architectural devices to convey an appearance of permeability is an impressive artistic achievement, but Foster’s unobstructed vistas of the senate chamber provide actual views of government for the public. Although the latter’s methods are still very much figurative- the rooftop viewing platform is no Athenian Pnyx or Roman Rostra, as the public can only observe rather than interact- by current standards, they are arguably the more ethical, “honest” way to design a public building. Mussolini’s comparison of government to a “house of glass” inspired and was effectively synthesized by Terragni, but ironically manifests itself more literally in Foster’s new “beacon of democracy”.

 

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