The Architecture of Commerce on Capitol Hill

Commerce is the foundation upon which urbanism is built. And, as a city is the highest cultural achievement of humankind, commerce is certainly one of humankind’s greatest pursuits. Hannah Arendt defined in her classic book The Human Condition that our existence is defined by our labor, work, and action. Labor are the travails we go through to sustain ourselves in the most fundamental ways: bathing, eating, or the making of shelter. Work is the means we employ to sustain our labors, and can be seen as the physical activities we endure to achieve the security of the former. To the ancient Greeks, action was solely the undertaking of the citizen, the man of means (a landholder) who because if his wealth, had sufficient resources to not engage in work, thereby freeing the intellect to speculate. Action was the time citizens spent exchanging ideas on politics, the arts, and culture; or, more succinctly, time spent on discussing how man ought to live. Action was therefore the noblest undertaking of the citizen, and the place that action was undertaken in ancient Greece was the Agora, the place for citizens to debate. The market place was also in the Agora, however, this was an almost incidental use as it involved work. Centuries after its founding in Greece, the Agora became the model for the Forum of ancient Rome. The key building typology of the Roman Forum was the basilica -- the market hall, and the most important building typology in Western architecture its forms  including the cathedral (St Peter’s Basilica, for example), various houses of governance, as well as the great covered markets of Italy and England (Covent Garden, for example), the nations that during and after the Renaissance founded our modern market economy.

In the British colonies of the New World, urban centers and markets were slow to develop, for settlers were pre-occupied with both labor and work, leaving little time for action. First the town green was established, if only for pasturing livestock or to afford a suitable landscape to front the meetinghouse (the place for action). As life became settled and progressed beyond substance farming, markets and then towns developed, centered about the original town green, hence forth known as the market square. The market square would have buildings of commerce as well as governance defining its boundaries, both being built in an architectural style imported from the Old World. Later, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the first American (domestically generated) ‘school’ of architecture emerged, the Chicago School, whose first practitioners pioneered the use of the iron frame in high-rise construction. Buildings by Louis Sullivan, Burnham and Root, and H. H. Richardson in turn inspired the early modernist architects of Europe, who praised their functional and performance driven design (qualities that were inherent in designing buildings for a speculative office and markets). Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Adolph Meyer held as exemplary other commerce-based buildings found in the United States as well, such as the concrete-framed warehouse and grain silo. While some contemporaries derided an architecture whose main drivers were economy, expediency, and capitalism, these first truly American buildings had a profound impact on early modernist practitioners, who at that time were the architectural arbiters of taste for both the Old and New Worlds.

Although not entirely within the Arendtian sense, today commerce falls increasingly within the realm of action, and less so in that of work. Purchasing petroleum for one’s Vespa does not put one on the same plane, as say debating the future form of the Broadway TOD sites, but there is much commerce that engages in the transaction of more than commodities. If the commerce includes a direct transaction of ideas – whether directly through conversation between merchant, or, if the item transacted includes the stuff of ideas, of action, we have made the shift from work to action. And in the case of commerce, the new place where this expanded understanding of action takes is the market. In a (much) more inclusive society than that of the ancient Greek (although by no means one that is free form its own forms of societal exclusion), a society such as our founded on commerce,  an evolution of ancient ideas is taking place by merging work with action, overlaying larger societal pursuits that parallel and advance commerce to a higher level.

At the dawn of the 21st century, consumers (townsfolk) have (rather belatedly) begun to incorporate cultural values as a metric (along with the traditional price, convenience, value metrics) with which to measure not only an item’s intrinsic value, but also its extrinsic value. Concerns for environmental stewardship and social justice are growing in the consciousness of the market place as witnessed by the so-called Triple Bottom Line, a term coined by John Elkington in his late 20th Century book Cannibals with Forks: the Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. With the introduction (into a larger, cultural context, although many had already made this association) of values into commerce, discourse about those values -- while engaged in commerce -- necessarily follows. The formerly traditional marketplace is now not only one of goods and services, but increasingly of ideas, whether spoken of otherwise. And what of that market as place, has it changed to reflect these values, and if it has, what is in evidence of these changes? How have these values informed the design of the place? In addition to aesthetics (of interest to an architect, such as myself), what other values come to bear on the formation of these places for commerce? Collectively, how do these marketplaces define how we do and ought to live our lives on Capitol Hill? How do they reflect our values?

On Capitol Hill evidence abounds in this blending of work and action; or, commerce and values.  How does the present and how will the future urbanism of Capitol Hill be informed as one looks at these places of commerce? I have written of several places where value driven commerce is in evidence, although not necessarily within the framework identified above. As residents of Capitol Hill, many of us doubtlessly engage in a progressive, value based commerce, so this may not be new to you. Even if it is not new, what I hope might be (to both you and me), is speculating about value based commerce, and how the spaces where this activity occurs, spaces of both work and action, blend values and aesthetics, with future posts building upon those already made on Melrose Market, Volunteer Park Café, and Molly Moon’s.