A tale of architecture and democracy

When government buildings incorporate elements of representation, accessibility and accountability, people can better appreciate their true role and power in national politics.

IN Malaysia, one of the most untaught concepts is the idea of democracy. What most people understand about democracy is that you get to vote once every five years.

Just before that happens, your kampung road gets repaved, your decrepit low-cost flats get a fresh coat of paint and some smiling

chap goes around shaking your hands.

After that, you wait and read about corruption of civil servants and politicians, elected representative switching parties, and some Opposition politicians going to prison for sex of the “unnatural kind”. Then life goes on until the next general election.

My life in academia exposes me to maximum ignorance of democracy, especially among vice-chancellors who love sending out notices to students and lecturers to warn them against taking part in peaceful assemblies or inviting Opposition speakers.

I now understand why all public universities have fences – to keep out the Opposition politicians.

My profession of architecture is the same. The architectural curriculum is devoid of the idea of a democratic architecture... unless you happen to sit in at my Architecture Theory classes.

I will enlighten readers with my idea of democratic architecture in administrative buildings. My criticism will be of Perdana Putra, the Prime Minister’s Office in Putrajaya.

In my lectures on architecture and democracy, I outline three main values or characteristic of a democratic system: representation, accessibility and accountability.

Representation means that the Parliament and state assemblies comprise people’s representatives from various races, religious beliefs, cultures, economic status and education levels. The people are the “boss” of the country and during elections, they chose whom to send to the legislative bodies to represent them.

Accountability is about how the people’s representatives must make sure that the civil service spends the people’s money with efficiency and integrity.

The people’s representatives should also monitor each other so that the rakyat’s money is not used for their personal benefit. Accountability is also about transparency.

Accessibility is about how the civil servants and the elected representative (some of whom may be appointed to the Cabinet or state executive councils) must always be accessible to the people.

As the wakil rakyat, they must not surround themselves with layers and layers of bureaucratic mumbo jumbo that make it hard for their constituents to get access to them.

Now what do these three elements mean in architecture?

Well, first, presenting a building like Perdana Putra with a strong Malay-Muslim language is not really representative of the 30 or so ethnic groups in Malaysia, is it?

Dewan Jubli Intan in Johor Baru, commissioned by the state, has three languages of architecture from the Malay, Chinese and Indian heritages. This is called “eclectic architecture”. So, yes, at least it has three.

The Parliament building in KL has a different approach with architectural language. It does not have any ethno-centric references at all. So, ok, none at all.

The Perdana Putra? Only one selective language. Thus, Perdana Putra has no democratic architecture.

What about accountability? Just to remind everyone, it is about how the civil servants and the politicians use OUR money.

I have noticed that Perdana Putra has so many embellishments, ornaments and expensive tiles that it comes closer to a palace. Another experience I had is visiting the Mentri Besar’s office in Johor Baru. It is another “palace”.

Is the Prime Minister or a Mentri Besar a Ruler or a great spiritual leader? No, he or she is just a “people’s representative”.

I have noticed also that Perdana Putra does not use much sun-shading devices as do the Parliament building and Masjid Negara. Built in the 1960s, both the latter buildings have more tropical integrity than the architecture during Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s first tenure as prime minister.

If you Google King Louis XIV of France, you may think that our Perdana Putra is reminiscent of his palace called Versailles.

Question: Why have the architects made the office of our Prime Minister look like a French palace? Is it to honour the office of the prime minister or to signal to the rakyat that the prime minister has immense power?

Where did the architects study democracy and the power of the prime minister?

Now let’s deal with the issue of accessibility. Have you noticed how far Perdana Putra is set back from the main gateway? If you throw a stone, it would not even reach a third of the way.

Now try throwing a stone (please don’t!) at the Houses of Parliament in London. The building is set back a mere 6m from the street. And there are no fences.

Some would argue that it is for security reasons that the Perdana Putra is set back so far. Really? In the age of drones selectively bombing buildings and people from halfway across the world? One drone operated from Taiping could level the whole complex.

The British parliamentarians know that any attempt to destroy politics in the country by killing all or most of the MPs, would be futile because another group of people will rise to replace them.

To me, the best example of democratic architecture is courtesy of the genius of Norman Foster, who redesigned the Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany.

Foster replaced the traditional masonry domes with a glass dome that can be accessed by the people.

The citizens can come up to the rooftop, enter the glass dome and via another glass dome, witness the parliamentarians debating below. Now, that is what I call a powerful symbol of who is the boss in the country.

The people are up above looking down onto the debating parliamentarians. Accessibility and accountability addressed in a single statement of architecture.

In comparing Perdana Putra and the Reichstag building, I think we have a long, long way to go for our people to understand that they are the ones truly responsible for this nation, not those people we sent to Parliament.

Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at UCSI University. Readers can go to YouTube to watch his talk titled ‘A Theory of Malaysian Architecture: Democracy and Multiculturalism’. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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