For many of us, one of the worst parts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the isolation. Digital hangouts do not satisfy our need to be in public in the company of others. On-screen, we remain apart, each in our discrete boxes — alone together, if you will.
People have flocked to parks during the pandemic, and with good reason: they are one of the few public spaces we may enter safely and freely and experience a respite from COVID-19-related stress. The pandemic has given us a renewed appreciation for the spaces that we share, where we encounter one another, and where we affirm our common experience.
Which makes this an opportune time for a massive investment in public infrastructure. President Joe Biden has unveiled a plan to repair roads, bridges, ports, and public transit systems, while also expanding the number of energy-efficient housing units, renovating schools in minority neighborhoods, and “address[ing] the disproportionate air pollution in communities of color.”
But it is not enough to make our physical infrastructure functional, fairer, and nonpolluting. The spaces we share — our schools, our parks, our public transportation systems — must also be beautiful. To bring us together and help us appreciate our shared fate, these places and structures must declare that the public is an object of devotion. They must be monuments to democracy.
Philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that what we look for in the public realm, what principally draws us in, is a hunger for a transcendence that we cannot get at home. The private realm is privative in this regard — it deprives us of what it means to be uniquely and truly human. For the home is largely devoted to functional concerns and fleeting physical needs — the business of living. When we enter the public realm, Arendt argued, we are part of a larger entity, with the capacity to interact on the basis of freedom and equality.
As we turn our attention to repairing public structures, we ought to invest them with meaning — designing them so they announce and affirm democratic ideals.
In the middle of the last century, modernist architect Le Corbusier spoke of homes as “machines à habiter” — machines for living. His functional approach is evident in the rows of towering high-rise apartment buildings that populate the dreary banlieues ringing major French cities. These structures were utterly utilitarian, and in the end, utterly demoralizing.
For too long, we have taken a similar approach to public construction in the United States. Government buildings are treated as “machines” for public business — places where you unceremoniously secure a permit or a license, pay your taxes, or contest a parking ticket — rather than edifices imbued with the principles of popular sovereignty.
We have treated public schools, too, as “machines for learning” — or worse still, warehouses for the young — and now, too many are dilapidated and in need of crucial updates. My own children attend a large public high school whose structure is abject and failing. Windows from the 1970s are clouded over; tiles are cracked, stained, or hang from the ceiling; brown water pours out of fountains and sinks. A sense of disrespect emanates from every pore of this structure and infects the students within.
Another area high school lacks windows — a cost-saving move when it was built. No one considered the cost, however of our children inhabiting such dispiriting places. When a high school was renovated nearby, one parent told reporters, “this is so bright and open. It kind of commands respect. It seems that more is expected of [the students] now that they have something new and nice.”
Do our public schools convey bold hopes and ambitions for our children? Do they announce and affirm egalitarian ideals? Do they manifest the democratic society that students are supposed to inherit?
Beauty matters to a democracy. It instills reverence for the common good and fosters a sense that the public sphere is worthy of exaltation. The particular aesthetic does not matter so much as the clear sense
that people took care and put thought into the construction at hand — that there is a sense of respect and deep aspiration for all who enter and use our public spaces.
Historian Tony Judt argued there is no better place to advertise and glorify the common good than the public transit system. He marveled at Europe’s magnificent train stations; in Paris, they sport elegant facades and soaring interiors — almost church-like. Radiating glory, they attract attention and are the natural focal point of many a boulevard and square.
Why did the French put so much time and effort into edifices that people would merely pass through and occupy temporarily? Because they are a temple to the best ideals of the French Republic, the things that working-class movements have fought for: technological progress, freedom, and equality. Consider, too, the artful care and attention of Parisian metro signs. Even this was an occasion for intricate design considerations that transcended the functional and injected a moment of grace into the mundane.
Politics, philosopher Jacques Rancière tells us, “consists in transforming this space of ‘moving along,’ of circulation, into a space for the appearance of a subject: the people, the workers, the citizens.” Tangential, utilitarian — otherwise blank and empty — spaces offer a political opportunity. They are important vessels that can convey a vision of citizenship and issue a call to action, even if implicit.
Over the past year, we have heard it said repeatedly: every crisis provides an opportunity. The long-awaited investment in public infrastructure offers a tantalizing chance not only to rebuild and fight the threat of climate change. It offers an opportunity to promote our shared public life — and to treat the democratic sphere as a luxurious space worthy of the best our society can produce.