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Finding the Inner Beauty of the Legislature
By Damon Circosta
Published: May 17, 2010
RALEIGH - The General Assembly is once again in session and North Carolina’s legislative building is buzzing with activity. Legislators, staff and lobbyists traverse the hallways and crowd into committee rooms.
Occasionally there are grumbles that our legislative building isn’t on par with other seats of government. Some say that noisy hallways and a notable lack of adornment make the legislature an inappropriate place for our government to conduct business. It may not be grand, but the legislative building in downtown Raleigh is the perfect place to conduct democracy.
The N.C. General Assembly has occupied its present location since 1963. Before that the seat of government was in the “old capitol” a few blocks away.
At the time the new legislative building was being designed, North Carolina was in the midst of a particularly tumultuous era. Civil rights legislation was progressing in Washington, D.C., and there was increased racial tension throughout the state. The South was embroiled in a generational transition and North Carolina was furiously attempting to modernize with new ideas like the Research Triangle Park and heavy investments in public infrastructure.
As our state grappled between its historical roots and a leap into a new era, so too was our state government. Given the unique period of history, the designers of the legislative building had a choice to make: should they create a public space that pays homage to years past, or design a modern building with an eye towards the future?
Politics has a way of permeating everything and architecture is no exception. After some give and take it was ultimately decided that the building that houses our legislative branch should be modern in style and forward in design. It boasts angular columns, pyramid skylights and open atriums. You could say it is reminiscent of something from “Star Trek.” When given a choice between looking backward or looking forward, the architects chose the future.
If you walk the halls of the legislative building today, the aesthetics of the place aren’t particularly striking. Despite its modernist design, it looks and feels like most other nondescript government buildings. The concrete walls are mostly bare except for old black-and-white photos of bygone politicians. There is cheap furniture crowding the hallways and florescent lighting throughout. But it isn’t grand architecture or unique design that makes the place great. The genius of the legislative building is its functionality.
The legislative offices are smaller than most prison cells. Many of them don’t have reception areas. Consequently our elected officials aren’t able to hide behind closed doors. In a most democratic way, the layout of the place forces our officials to face the public head on.
There is also very little rhyme or reason behind office assignments. Democrats get stuck next to Republicans; mountain representatives share space with legislators from the coast. It’s a hodgepodge, but the melting-pot approach can facilitate an interesting exchange of ideas from people who might not come into contact if the place were sectioned off.
The under-furnished and under-sized committee rooms also benefit democracy. Meetings aren’t tucked away in hidden corridors, and the general public can sit very close to the action. A more stylish, well-apportioned legislative building would not afford so many opportunities for the public to engage with their elected officials.
A modern building surrounded by historic architecture might not make city planners swoon and the concrete slabs aren’t the most decorative. But as the state motto says at the entrance to the building, North Carolina strives to be, rather than to seem. It matters little if we have the loveliest legislative building in the nation -- so long as the work that goes on inside is a testament to the art of democracy.