Friday, February 16, 2007

An Accessible State Capitol?

I recently had the pleasure of visitng Madison, WI. Besides being a really cool city all-around, it has the particularly interesting feature of housing the Wisconsin State Capitol Building (pictured above). Although it's certainly a great piece of architecture, I'm writing about it today for a different reason. Would you believe that this single building--arguably the most important government building in the entire state--is actually situated in the middle of a pedestrian-friendly square?

That's right, folks: the Capitol building itself is flanked on all sides by (gasp!) residences and businesses right across the street! You can actually walk from the Capitol to, say, a bookstore in about two minutes.

Ok, let's back up a second. Why is this significant? Why does the location and orientation of the Capitol building matter?

I chose to write about this because so many of our government buildings are surrounded by quasi-moats these days. Between concrete (Jersey) barriers, six-lane roads, armed security patrols, gigantic unpassable lawns, vehicle checkpoints, and poor signage, I've started to wonder whether our government actually wants us to stop by and say "Hi!" once in awhile.

In our secular democracy, government buildings are the most important, and to a large extent the most publicly revered structures. I believe that it is right and proper to build beautiful statehouses atop hills, flank them with beautiful greenery, and otherwise make them pretty to look at. Democracy, however, also requires the participation of the citizenry. To that end, government must be accessible--not just remotely (via the Internet or Snail mail), but tangibly! We need to be able to see where our elected representatives work. The functioning of our own self-created government must be visible above all else (I'll go watch some C-SPAN now!). The Wisconsin State Capitol is a great step in that direction.

Also, now I'm in the Twin Cities, where the State Capitol (in St. Paul) is apart from the city's downtown and difficult to walk to...


Blogger zkorb said...

That's a great observation. The capital in Madison is not only accessible (you can walk right up to it), but I (and many other people) would walk through it -- as a shortcut. There is something very democratic about visiting one's capital building on an almost daily basis.

I very rarely have an opportunity to visit the capital in St. Paul. Flanked with large lawns, it feels much less accessible.

Part of this is also probably due to the geography of the space the capital exists within. The capital in Madison is in a pedestrian dominated area. The capital in St. Paul feels like it is surrounded much more by heavy street traffic and long roadways, while being setback behind large lawn areas. It's a little hard to "get to" the capital if you're on foot.

Should all government buildings (including adminstration buildings) be highly accessible?

8:51 AM  
Blogger Frank A. Mills said...

Point well taken. A few other state capitals that are quite accessible are in Oregon (Salem), Massachusetts (Boston ... like Madison, a shortcut to the other side), and Maryland (Annapolis). Maryland's stands dead center between two business districts, Maryland Avenue and the larger Cromwell-City Harbor district.

While not a state capital, I am reminded of how isolated Cleveland's City Hall and County Building is from the amenities.

11:29 AM  
Anonymous Bonnie Erickson said...

Stephen, Glad to find you blogging about the Twin Cities. I live 4 blocks from the Capitol in St. Paul. To me it seems very accessible. We walk the dog there and back (plastic bags in hand, of course) when we're so inclined. There's no security to enter the building either! When the light rail comes to St. Paul, it will run on University Ave. right next to the Capitol and turn at Cedar (if it remains on the proposed route). Until a few years ago, the Capitol grounds were used for many of the community festivals, i.e., 4th of July fireworks, Festival of Nations, etc. Moving those celebrations to Harriet Island requiring a person to drive to them was a huge mistake in my opinion. Even the Winter Carnival seemed sterile on Harriet Island. Ice sculptures were much nicer at Rice Park. Many marathons and fund raisers still end on the Capitol grounds where tents and booths are set up for the public. Having happily left the suburbs and moved to the city complete with sidewalks and front porches, I love knowing my neighbors! I know more neighbors in the 4 square block area of my 2.5 year home than I knew of the 10 houses on my former block where I resided for 18 years! The only thing my neighborhood is lacking is a coffee shop!

1:02 AM  
Blogger LoudMusic said...

Is it really the case that Capitol buildings are less accessible? I live outside of Little Rock and commute in every day. Our Capitol building has never seemed inaccessible to me. There are no guard towers, or security officers roaming the campus. I don't believe there are any concrete barriers. Not that I've tried (recently), but I bet I could eat lunch on the lawn, or even walk in the front door.

However, a friend recently had relatives in town and gave them a tour. They are a married couple and both in the police service. They too seemed shocked to be able to drive up to our Capitol building and even through the building where they have loading / unloading for bad weather days.

Over the past few years I've taken to photographing our nation's state capitol buildings. Albany NY's building is right next to Lincoln Park, which is fully publicly accessible. There were barricades there that day because it was the 4th of July and they were managing people flow, but I don't remember seeing anything permanent looking. My wife and I walked all over the campus at Charleston WV. And the same with Harrisburg PA. Both of which were absolutely beautiful grounds. On another trip in Olympia WA I actually climbed on some of the structure to get better pictures (ended up they were worse), and no one confronted me. I did get a couple strange looks though (:

In Chicago a couple years ago I do remember seeing plenty of barricades and dramatically increased security around the big buildings (Sears, Hancock, Aeon, etc), but I think the common trend now is that these forms of security are rather worthless. They just ugly up our architecture and make it more difficult for the millions of people who are just there to enjoy it.

Anyway, we're off on another adventure in a few months. Oklahoma City, Denver, Salt Lake City, Boise, Helena, St Paul, Madison, Springfield ... If I remember I'll report back here on the accessibility of all these state capitol building complexes (:

3:30 PM  

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