When I was wandering around DC I couldn’t help but notice they’ve been bitten by the same bug as Nashville. Whether they’re national or state, capitals are designed to be impressive and government buildings in the capital tend to be designed with an eye to impress. (At least until fairly recently.) I suppose I realize the necessity of the changes, but it makes me sad that we really can’t use them the right way now that we’re in the era of the terrorist. It has diminished somewhat over the years, but all these grand government buildings have entrances designed to impress the general public with the gravity of the work that goes on inside. These days though, we’ve been forced to relegate public entrances to the smallest least impressive ways to get into the building. All in the name of security.
Take this grand edifice for instance. The west entrance to the Capitol building is meant to be impressive. Marble columns as far as the eye can see and a stair case that makes you contemplate the power wielded inside. No doubt the view from the top is pretty impressive since it looks straight down the national mall. But notice those little columns and the chain connecting them. NO PUBLIC ACCESS from this side. You have to trek around to the east side, cross the driveway, and go down a big ramp so that you can enter from underground. Their’s nothing visible other than a blank wall with some generic glass doors.
The rest of my examples below are actually from Nashville because these are the ones I walk by every day.
Here we have the John Sevier building. Named for Tennessee’s first governor. The left side shows the nice entrance the builders intended for us to use. It has a sandstone facade and wide open windows, but these days you can’t get in that way. You have to go around the back and enter the small door underground, with no windows and a security camera staring you in the face. If you’re ever in need of state issued birth or death certificates, that particular office is just inside this dismal entrance.
Next up we have the Andrew Jackson building. Named after the first of three Tennesseans who became president of the US and home of the much loved TN Department of Revenue. The picture on the left doesn’t show it very well, but it has a nice entrance with exposed columns and floor to ceiling windows. Their is a nice plaza along the four sides of the building. Only employees can get in that way now. The public entrance is in the basement as shown on the right. No windows, no exposed marble columns. Nothing but a hallway built in the 70’s and greatly in need of refurbishment.
Last we have the William Snodgrass Tennessee Tower. This used to be owned by an insurance company and the windows on the east facade were used to spell out messages at night by leaving the lights on and selectively closing the blinds in various windows. There’s been no more fun stuff since the state bought it out and renamed it for Snodgrass who was comptroller of the Treasury for fourty-four years. The old public entrance is elevated and has an interior two level plaza with floor to ceiling windows. There’s a white marble plaza out front. These days though, the main entrance is the basement area shown on the right. Don’t be fooled by the flowers in the foreground of the picture. They’re in a concrete planter designed to keep truck bombs from getting too close. This entrance isn’t so bad on the inside, but it’s still the basement where sunlight is banished and everything is lit only by florescents. (Davidson County’s least used driver’s license bureau is also just inside.
I’m noticing a trend. The ‘safe’ entrances that we use so often these days are always underground. I’m fairly certain this is because they’re smaller and easier to control, but the symbolism is inescapable. Governments are supposed to be open and exposed for all to see the inner workings, but the only way to get inside is through the basement where there is no sunlight. It’s also highly ironic that the so called ‘secure’ entrances which are designed to see everything are in dark underground areas.
Those squat concrete pillars are designed to keep vehicles from pulling in close to the entrance. When they were installed back in 2002 a coworker and I lobbied to have them decorated as prominent legislators. Preferably in the style of Fisher Price’s Little People line of squat toys meant for toddlers.