The Architecture of Democracy

By Endre Dányi

During a session at this year’s Milton Wolf Seminar, panelists debated two major conceptualizations of the Internet. According to the first one, the Internet should be thought of as a tool or an instrument; whereas according to the second, it should be conceived of as the extension of a public place where people can gather. In response to the latter, I maintain that there is a pressing need to examine how public places have historically been regulated by and through the architecture of democracy.

This proposed turn to architecture is not new. Ever since the social theorist Michel Foucault used Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon to demonstrate the subtle, seemingly invisible mechanisms of disciplinary power, various buildings have been used as sites for socio-cultural analysis. Sociologists of science have entered laboratories, hospitals, and high-tech innovation centers to examine how scientific knowledge is made and put to use. Social anthropologists and cultural historians have analyzed everyday practices associated with museums and archives to describe how art and history are organized. Economic sociologists have scrutinized both physical and virtual markets in order to explain the evolution of the global economy. Interestingly, however, there have hardly been any studies that use buildings as a focal point through which to explore the nuances of democratic politics.

What could we learn if—following in the footsteps of Michael Foucault and the sociologists of science, art, and economy—we tried to understand democracy not against the background of, but through its architecture? This was the question that guided my PhD project at Lancaster University, which was a combination of historical and ethnographic research about the Hungarian Parliament building. What makes the parliament building in the centre of Budapest interesting is not so much the fact that at its opening in 1902 it was the largest parliament in the world, but that it is simultaneously older and younger than Hungarian democracy. It was built fifty years after the first democratic election in Hungary, and a hundred years before the country became a fully functioning, independent republic. As such, it actively resists the idea that democracy in Hungary began in 1989. Instead, it portrays democracy as a historically and culturally specific development that began sometime in the end of the 18th century, and took a hundred years to institutionalize.

This, in itself, is not very surprising; but the Hungarian Parliament building also provides clues about the less tangible processes of constructing a democracy. One of the main purposes of the building was to demonstrate the existence of a Hungarian political community within the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. While the classical Austrian parliament building was meant to be the manifestation of universal values and ideas, its Hungarian counterpart was supposed to emphasize the uniqueness of the Hungarian people and their thousand-year-old state. This is the reason why the late 19th century building is full of historical references to medieval princes, kings, and queens, and why the royal jewels (including the Holy Crown) are on display in the Parliament’s Cupola Hall.

Clearly, there is no democracy without demos, or the populace; in this sense, a parliament building can be seen as a monument to a (well-defined) group of people. But a parliament building is also the home of a legislature, the only political institution that has the right to create and modify laws, and, as such, it has to meet certain architectural requirements. Unlike Bentham’s Panopticon, which was envisioned as an oval structure with an invisible center and an outer layer of transparent rooms, in a parliament building, it is the political center that has to be fully transparent to the public, while the public is expected to remain invisible. At the time of the Hungarian Parliament’s construction, transparency was achieved in two ways. On the one hand, all plenary sittings of the National Assembly were openly accessible, and as such were usually attended by large groups of citizens and journalists. On the other hand, all political debates were promptly transcribed and published in the official Parliamentary journals. Although the dominant media technologies have changed, this is still the case today: All plenary sittings are broadcast and archived on the Parliament’s official website

There is no doubt that political debates have to be fully visible in a democratic setting. But, why does the public have to remain invisible? Why can citizens attend and listen, but not speak in plenary sittings? Does democracy not mean the kratos, or rule, of the demos? Well, it does; but in contemporary democracies this rule is mostly practiced through elected representatives. The first Hungarian democratic election took place in 1848, soon after the outbreak of the anti-Habsburg revolution. The setting up of the revolutionary government marked the beginning of professional politics in Hungary. For the first time, members of the National Assembly could take part in politics not because of their wealth or family connections, but because of the authority granted to them by the people. If representatives failed to adequately represent the people’s interests, they would be replaced at a subsequent election. This ensured that the symbolic core of democratic politics remained constant, while politicians came and went.

Despite the best-laid plans of architect Imre Steindl, the Hungarian Parliament itself—the symbolic core of democratic politics in Hungary—underwent several transformations. In the first 100 years of its existence, the “House of the Nation” witnessed two world wars and three revolutions. As a result, hardly anything that was cast in stone during the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy remains valid today. In the words of writer Lajos Parti Nagy, in the beginning of the 21st century the parliament building looks like “an ‘in-the-meantime’ disproportionate monster, designed for a different, earlier country.”

It is tempting to think of the post-1989 period as a second chance to complete the architecture of democracy in Hungary, but what I have tried to demonstrate is the necessary incompleteness of that architecture.

The widespread use of the Internet and other media technologies are powerful extensions of this incomplete architecture. The Internet can make the boundaries between politicians and the demos more porous and more distributed, turning seemingly local issues like the 2010 Hungarian Media Law into international controversies in a very short period of time. They can complicate notions of transparency in democratic politics (as in the case of the WikiLeaks). Equally importantly, they can challenge conventional notions of political participation, as they did during the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere. The important question is not whether we like all these changes or not, but whether we are willing to engage in an ongoing dialogue about them.



Endre Dányi is a final-year PhD student at the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University and a visiting researcher at the Innovation in Governance Research Group at the Center for Technology and Society at the Technical University in Berlin.

[Photo courtesy of Alex E. Proimos via Flickr]


This is the second in a series of five dispatches from the 2012 Milton Wolf Seminar titled, "Transitions Transformed: Ideas of Information and Democracy Post-2011". To read the others, click here:  I, III, IV, V.

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