Gerald Frug Counters “All-Or-Nothing” Approach to Government

Event: Stirling Lecture: Gerald Frug
Location: Center for Architecture, 10.20.11
Speaker: Gerald Frug — Louis D. Brandeis Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
Organizers: Center for Architecture; Canadian Centre for Architecture

“A major design problem is the government system and the inability to get things done… at least the right things,” said Gerald Frug, Louis D. Brandeis Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and winner of the 2010-11 James Stirling Memorial Lecture on the City competition. He maintains that our architectural system is designed along the lines of a state legislature: numerous governmental agencies must collaborate to allow buildings and infrastructure to be built. That they do not do so causes problems, which is detrimental to elected democratic government.

Frug identified a series of fragmentations that are undermining the urban quality of life. By creating appointed public authorities that have little, if any, accountability, he argued that inexpert decisions are made without adequate public input. Similarly, territorial fragmentation occurs as political boundaries are redrawn favoring some neighborhoods over others, giving local preference without thinking of the larger interactive system. Presenting an idea that is often taken out of context, cannot be negotiated, and sustains an “all-or-nothing” nature weakens the government’s ability to act. Meanwhile, public/private partnerships of stakeholders and interest groups (and rarely ordinary voting citizens) leave open the door for corruption.

While identifying problems with governance, Frug offered ideas on rebuilding the government. He stated that a successful system takes both a top-down and bottom-up approach, whereby states divide and cities combine (he called this “accreted regionalism”), rather than by centralizing power, or granting excessive local autonomy.

Considering the economic and political situation in which we strive to build, it is no wonder that Frug quoted Rem Koolhaas, who said, “Architecture is a poisonous mixture of power and impotence.”