More burg than Beauburg
Public architecture of the capital is not capital
September 28, 1979
Being the state capital and a county seat, Springfield has more than a few public buildings of all types. Few are good examples of their type, save one, which was an avowed imitation of older structures. They have not ennobled the city, but that might be demanding too much; Springfield is probably beyond ennobling by even the greatest architecture.
The new courts complex mentioned here was never built, by the way. And I did an injustice to Springfield's Municipal Building by describing it as dull. It is in fact a good if modest building in the neo-Art Deco style. It also illustrates the maxim that today's new buildings that disappoint will be favorites in 40 years, because everything else built in the interim will always be worse.
This version has been revised slightly for readability.
I was strolling west on Adams Street in downtown Springfield not long ago, busily dodging wrecking balls and asphalt pavers, when I passed the new computer center being built bv the State of Illinois on the north edge of the Capitol complex. I usually go to some pains to avoid looking at the building, which resembles a half-open bread box; it is perhaps the only lot in the city 1 would rather see made into a parking lot. In any event, the computer center reminded me of the new Department of Revenue building going up two blocks to its north, which in turn reminded me of the courts complex planned for Fifth and Capitol, which in turn reminded me that, because it is a center of government, most of Springfield’s major buildings are public buildings. (It is important to distinguish between public buildings and public structures. The latter include some of the city’s more graceful designs—the Lindsay Bridge is an example—and its least. The new parking ramp at the Prairie Capital Convention Center, for example, has a lot more burg that Beaubourg about it.)
There are a few maxims worth remembering about the design of public buildings, especially in the smaller cities of the Midwest. One is that they must always be designed in idioms that are from ten to twenty years old. This is a persistent motif in government; it is the principle by which governments order their problem-solving priorities.
Another maxim holds that public buildings be designed in one of apparently numberless variants of the classic style. This is a broad net that sweeps in a clutch of Revivals and Neo’s but which has at its root a commitment to a certain classical proportion, symmetry and style of ornament; it includes (their apparent dissimilarities notwithstanding) such buildings as the state armory and the Stratton office building.
The result isn’t necessarily buildings that are ugly—the computer center being an exception to that and most other rules about public buildings—so much as they are dull. My particular favorite is the newest Sangamon County Building. Built in 1966 (and outmoded less than a dozen years later) in an anemic International style, it aspires to a certain spare elegance but remains a blot on the landscape. Part of its costs went for marble which is used to its unhappiest effect in the corridors. In the hands of the craftsmen of the last century, the marble in the new Statehouse imparts warmth and visual variety; in the spartan style of the ’50s used in the county building, it imparts coldness and distance. Whenever I visit the place, I half expect a mausoleum salesman to appear at my elbow explaining to me what a comfort it would be to my loved ones if I let myself be planted in such a stout box.
The Municipal Building is also dull, but in a friendlier way. If I had to compare them. I’d say that the county building makes you feel unwelcome; the city hall makes you feel welcome, but you can’t think of why you came. If the League of Women Voters ever sell enough cookies to build a place of their own, that’s what it will look like.
The State of Illinois is Springfield’s busiest builder, of course. Most of its major buildings were done in the neoclassic style so long favored by governments trying to lend themselves a grandeur they did not deserve; clothes might make the man, but buildings do not make the government. There has been a wave of new state buildings in the last twenty years, of course, but as different as the new arrivals appear from their older cousins like the Centennial Building, they all share a deep conservatism of design. The designs for the state’s new courts complex and its revenue building, which between them will transform four full square blocks of downtown Springfield, have not been made public. We must hope for the best, which in the case of the state is a very ambitious hope indeed.
In the meantime we may study the two newest additions to the taxpayers’ asset inventory. The new Lincoln Library is a better library than its predecessor—even though, inevitably, its roof leaked—but it is probably not a handsomer design. Because of its upper-story overhang (built for energy conservation) and because it is too large for its site, it looks like an aircraft carrier at its moorings.
The building that everyone is talking about, however, is the Prairie Capital Convention Center. Not so much its design (which reminds me of the Titantic for reasons that have nothing to do with its shape) but for its construction. Convention centers around the country have shown a dismaying tendency to fall down lately. Wind did it in Kansas City, snow did it in Hartford, a jet plane helped do it in Rosemont. and people are setting up pools to see who guesses what might do it in Springfield, and when. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it isn’t safe. It’s just that if I were the manager, I wouldn’t go around tempting fate by advertising shows that will bring the house down. I mean it’s one thing to have our public buildings put us to sleep, but it’s quite another to have them put us to rest. □