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Charles Jencks on Democracy at the Venice Biennale

Charles Jencks critiques the Venice Biennale’s portrayals of democracy

To understand democracy you have to understand that it is more than the people, it is more than demonstrations on the street, it is more than self-organising clusters, and it is more than the democratic institutions that emerge in a revolution like the Arab Spring.

In the Biennale Monditalia section, democracy is compared to theatre, and physically results in a semicircular space. Of course that’s important, as opposed to the British system of oppositional space, with two sides of the House of Commons; but it’s only one possibility. The most important part of democracy is public space, the square, the agora – the way people congregate in the public realm and take their own decisions to influence the politics that goes on in the semicircles. Semicircles are controlling spaces, but real political events occur in squares (many of them unplanned, and ‘found by events’).

Theatres of Democracy

The exhibition Theatres of Democracy, part of Monditalia at this year’s Biennale, compared democracy to a semicircular, theatraical space which, while important, is only one of many physical manifestations, such as the British system of oppositional space (below).


The House of Lords

In the Giardini, the Austrian Pavilion shows every parliament in the world in a 1:500 model. When I held an exhibition on the architecture of democracy at UCLA in 1987 (around the Phoenix Government Competition) we did a similar thing, but it’s not just about parliaments and spaces. The thing about democracy is it has got four or five different organs that must compete with each other. If there is no a competition between the executive and the legislature, the legislature and judiciary, the judiciary and the executive – then you don’t have democracy. If the rights of minorities are not upheld you don’t have democracy. If it’s not the people speaking you don’t have democracy. The media are also a power, the fourth one. Conflict is built into it.

We know that America is now in stalemate because of the wrong kind of conflict between the two mega-parties; and that the Arab Spring has missed democracy because it cannot deal politically with pluralism.


A diagram by Maggie Keswick Jencks detailing the four ‘organs’ of democracy in constant competition

And you won’t find positive conflict in the parliaments around the world, because they are designed by architects, and architects, like the power structure, don’t internalise opposition. I put the mixture of the four forces, with the people in the square becoming the fifth power (see diagram), but found that the minute you put the media and the people in boxes, you enclose and preclude what democracy is. I realised I had the theory of mixture and competition, but it was not quite right.

Democracy is also about the spontaneous, both the unorganised as well as the organised, whereas architecture is most always about organisation. So trying to organise the unorganised, as Herbert Marcuse used to say, can become a form of repressive toleration. Yet we need the competition between somewhat stable institutions to encourage and then allow democracy to work. A certain planned contradiction has to be built into it – not on show in the Biennale diagrams.

Film Interview with Charles Jencks

You can view Charles Jencks’ critique of the entire Biennale here

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