MaximusMarch 26, 2009
Here deep below the harbour waves at the Eye of the Fish, the recent discussion on Domes, Power, and the Judiciary set us thinking: What exactly is our self-image as reflected through our National architecture? Why do we have an emergent dome just peeking up out of a box, as a undefined symbol of our highest legal power? We had an extended discussion on symbols of power, mostly between M-D and Jayseatee, but a very telling quote comes from local commentator Honeywood:
I am intrigued by the dome, its burial in the podium, its cross-section and what all this says about our attitude to egalitarianism, justice and national identity. The dome is doubtless a grand volume but its submersion in the building is perhaps the most significant gesture of architectural and cultural denial I have seen in our national architecture, anywhere (although it is rivaled by Noel Lane’s inaccessible egg out the back of the Auckland Museum). Why, when we have the second most important civic building in the country do we diminish it so? Is this the ultimate in tall poppy fear? What would we risk by raising the dome, elevating it to a height appropriate to its function? Externally, the Supreme Court is proportionately the perfect podium in need of completion. WAM have positioned the dome post-earthquake. Where is the architectural courage when most we need it? We finally wrest supreme legal power from mother’s apron strings and then we ameliorate and reduce it.
We don’t have much of a neo-classical background on which to base our symbols of Judiciary, and while our Parliamentary hub looks like a Beehive, the metaphorical images within our nation’s architectural vocabulary seem to have dried up pretty quickly after that. Our national museum looks like… well, sadly, nothing much at all, except perhaps a mountain of mis-placed concrete planks, marooned on a asphalt island, waiting for a car race that will never come. Our national art gallery is… sadly missing, gone AWOL, presumed dead: subsumed within Te Papa’s ravaged hulking outline, lost on level 5. Our National Library currently looks like a giant inverted segmented pyramid, but is due to be re-imaged as an elusive fragmented parchment. Our proposed Supreme Court may look like a box of twigs or a post-modern birdsnest (is this implying, by its reference to a Box of Birds, that She’ll be Right ?); however the Sinbadian egghead at the heart of the Court has got us all wigged out, if not twigged right back. Perhaps its low browed dome is suitable as a response to the gently balding greying pates within, 5 judges in a row, pontificating on the highest matters of the land.
Domes are difficult to do well: Justinian’s architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus didn’t quite get it right with the domed roof of Santa Sophia in Constantinople, and the dome caved in during an earthquake: that’s a fairly serious claim on your PI insurance. Since then, angle of repose sorted out, domes have been a feature of many religious buildings, and indeed are often an architectural symbol of the religion concerned. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Seikhs, Buddhists: everyone likes a dome. Must be a God thing.
Meanwhile, other nations don’t feel quite so inhibited about the whole church / dome thing – after all, the Dome as an architectural feature (other than church) has been a constant amongst many cultures, some with more success than others. Let’s take a brief swim back in time, away from Rongotai and the airport, and by special Fish-travel back to France in the 18th century.
First up on any search for Domes must have to be Claude Nicolas Ledoux, the French neo-classical architect cum visionary: with his “House of the Gardener in an Ideal Town” (above). The Gardener’s House is a pretty tasty morsel of architectural mystery, but why would a gardener need to live in a dome only reachable by elaborate air-bridges? And if he’s the Gardener, why the big empty pit and the field of cows? Search me….
There’s a massive scale difference between the Ledoux home dome and the next Domic visionary, Etienne-Louis Boulee, with his monstrously sized “Monument to Isaac Newton” (below).
The monument for Newton is a huge structure 150m in diameter (shown with a ring of tall trees girdling its monumental girth), completely hollow inside and doubling as a planetarium by night. Lacking in a serious budget for the project, and no doubt subject to stringent ‘value engineering’ works, as well as suffering from the non-popular choice of an Englishman as the subject of a staunchly French monument, I’m guessing it’s likely that Boulee’s QS came up with an alternative solution to see the stars at night: just stand outside. Possibly predictably, it was never built.
There is only one dome that I know of to beat that, and that of course was Albert Speer’s modest Hall of the People in his plans for post-war Berlin or Welthauptstadt (“world capital”) as his boss would have him call it (let’s not mention who he was working for).
Speer’s Volkshalle was to be the capital’s most important and impressive building in terms of size and symbolism. Visually, it was to have been the architectural masterpiece of Berlin as the world capital. Its dimensions were so large that it would have dwarfed every other structure in Berlin, include those on the north-south axis itself. The oculus of the building’s dome, 46 metres in diameter, would have accommodated the entire rotunda of Hadrian’s Pantheon and the dome of the St. Peter’s Basilica. The dome of the Volkshalle was to rise from a massive granite podium 315 by 315 metres and 74 metres high, to a total inclusive height of 290 metres.
So big in scale that clouds and a little rain may have formed inside the dome (for an idea of scale, look at the little grey portico on the bottom right: that is the Brandenburg Gate). The benefactor of Speer’s vision having gone the way of all crazed dictators, and Speer having been locked up in Spandau for decades, this dome was going nowhere either. Anyone might think you’d be planning to be around for a 1000 years or more… You can’t beat that for size or majesty, or even for sheer pomposity and outrageousness. Or can you?
The Brits, on the other hand, stunned the world recently by doing big, but barely beautiful, with the Millennium Dome (architect: Mike Davies at the Richard Rogers Partnership), a thin skin of teflon-coated fibreglass strung over a series of wires. I’m not sure how big it would be if it wasn’t sunk half way into the ground: as it is, the visible portion sticks up 50m, allegedly big enough to fit 18,000 double decker buses inside. So, it may have been a bigger diameter than Speer’s, although by comparison barely made it out of the ground. My rough calcs are that the Dome would have been around a kilometre in diameter if it had really been allowed to be a Dome, and not just a shallow, depressed, egghead.
Looking a little closer to reality, and spurred on by Jayseatee’s homeland and the American appropriation of a neoclassical base complete with dome as a symbol of both Statehood and Nationhood, we can look at America as the home of the Dome in a parliamentary sense, as opposed to the more European use of Dome as Church.
The Americans can do Domes with aplomb. Yes, they also have the AstroDome, the SuperDome, the Orange Bowl, etc: all paens to national sport – some open, some closed, but their true spirit comes through with a dome to democracy. Each State has its own Capitol, most (but not all, surely?) based on the original in Washington DC, of whom, you may be interested to know, there have been numerous steps along the way and thus numerous architects: William Thornton, Henry Latrobe, Charles Bullfinch, Thomas Walter. The Capitol in DC is very finely proportioned, and is a proudly resplendent symbol of the people of that country.
None of which, however, explains to me the attraction of installing our Supreme Judges in a dome so shallow that no one will see, from either the outside, or within. It’s a curious choice. 5 Judges sit inside, enjoying its Domishness. Or should that be Domesticity? TV cameras probably won’t be allowed inside, as the cases will be, gosh, just sooo important. School children will be scurrying around the perimeter, pretending to be Judges in the faithfully restored and historically moribund Court next door. Tourists and locals alike will be slowly circling the glass pavilion, behind the Box of Twigs, tapping on the eggshell surface, seeing if Horton will indeed hatch an egg.