Shields and Arrogance




My friend, Al, visited Versailles years ago. Al was very disappointed. He knew what a king’s home should look like. Shield walls. A portcullis. Drawbridges. Instead he found this very large, nice house. Not even a moat.

I tried to suggest the arrogance in such a choice was the mark of an absolute monarch. The statement that one’s armies are so strong that one needn’t live in a bunker. Indeed, the walls of a medieval castle were less than useless against artillery such as Louis had. Real wars became contests of maneuver in the field since castle walls could only stymie people without cannons. Imagine the break in tradition. Louis IV told the other nations that he was too tough to be touched or intimidated. Worse, he told their people that their rulers were insecure and hiding in fortresses. The other absolute rulers could look insecure – a fatal thing for a leader – or spend money to look confident. Even then they were seen to copy the French King. A beautiful move that put him on top culturally.

Too bad that Louis VI had no walls to hide behind when the peasants came for him.

There is a fellow that keeps saying ‘architecture is art in which you live.’ That is very like Louis IV because the 1950’s were very like King Louis. America came out of the Second World War with no threats. Nuclear weapons were beyond defense, but no army could dream of attacking us. People around me live in open, wooden houses with large windows because they are inexpensive, attractive, comfortable, and easy to build. What they are not is secure. The locks on my house keep out the honest or the curious. Since the 1950’s real security has been provided by the military, the police, the Bill of Rights, and a secure culture. Anyone can get in my house by breaking a picture window. Going through a wood frame wall is not hard either. To this day I don’t fear the police coming through my door because the Bill of Rights still holds. I don’t much fear anyone else because I live in a very safe culture. As Louis VI learned, cultures change.

A century and a half ago folks out here had different houses. First floors had small windows and walls could stop bullets. A log cabin isn’t just concealment. It is real cover. Picture windows are a vanity in crime-ridden neighborhoods. Your architecture depends on its culture. My house is only sensible if I maintain a civil culture.

1831 South Face of the White House. Library of Congress. (2)

We can see this in the White House. When there was a Civil War looming nearby the White House was still open and accessible. The fence came later. It wasn’t until 1995 that Pennsylvania Avenue was closed in front of the mansion. Richard Nixon had a bowling alley. Barack Obama has built a bunker. Thus our cultural changes are visible.


The real question is what will our culture be and what architecture will match it.


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