"We create architecture, and it creates us"

Abstract art.  © Fotolia

A nation’s ideals are reflected in its representative buildings. When the art historian Anna Minta interprets them, she’s feeling the political pulse of our democratic culture. By Urs Hafner

(From "Horizons" no. 104, March 2015)​Books, books, everywhere books. On just about every wall of the apartment there’s a bookcase filled with illustrated books and brochures. “My partner is also an art historian”, says Anna Minta when she notices the astonished glances of her visitor. In the corner of her study there’s a white sheet hung out between the shelves. “The twins have built a cave. They’re gradually taking over the whole apartment”. Amidst all these children’s games and the books with their texts and images, you certainly feel very much alive in these four walls.

What people build in their habitats, how political communities express themselves in architecture, how democracies represent themselves and how this in turn has an impact on people – all this is Minta’s field of research. “We create architecture, and the architecture creates us”. If you know how to read them, our representative buildings can tell us much about our political culture, our cultural ideals and the inner struggles of a nation.

But what about giving us an example? Minta obliges, eloquently tracing out the history of the Federal Parliament in Bern – the ‘Bundeshaus’ – which is a typical tale of Swiss compromise. But there again, how could it ever have been anything else? In the late 19th century, a Capitol was planned for the prominent hill where the university now stands enthroned above the old city. The USA – Switzerland’s “sister republic” – naturally provided the model for it. But the project couldn’t get majority support. Protests from the city’s restaurants also played an important role, because they didn’t want to see the centre of political power shift to what was then the outer edge of the city. “The influence of business is often underestimated”, says Minta.

The architecture of the Bundeshaus appropriates elements of the Renaissance style of the republican city states of northern Italy. It’s recently been renovated, and Minta thinks that it’s been carried out with immense success, given its protected status. The building was in part returned to its original state of 1900, and no effort or expense was spared. Though she was astonished that hardly any measures were made to update the building during the renovations – measures such as adding contemporary works of art, which might have signalled some revitalisation of national political ideals. The Reichstag in Berlin, for example, exudes transparency thanks to its glass dome, thereby displaying openly the damage done to the building during the Second World War. The fissures of history are thus inscribed in it. For the government buildings in Bonn, which was the capital of West Germany after the War, an intentionally modest architectural language was chosen: “After the totalitarianism of the Nazis, they wanted to put modesty and openness on show”.

Holy spaces of the modern

Minta is an SNSF professor at the University of Zurich, and in her new research project she wants to investigate the ‘holy spaces of the modern’ in the cultural context
of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. She will be joined in this by three doctoral
students. But do ‘holy spaces’ still exist in our predominantly secular world today?
Minta actually finds it highly topical, and sketches out how religions are instrumentalised for political ends, and how they express themselves in both construction and destruction. There is the civil religious tradition in the USA, for example (‘In God we trust’), then the desecration of synagogues, the destruction of sacred art in Timbuctoo, the ‘political religion’ of National Socialism and of Soviet communism, Islamic extremism, etc.

Her visitor is still somewhat sceptical, so Minta embarks on a “little theoretical
excursion”. The West is not completely secularised, she says, for the profane hasn’t
simply replaced the sacred. People still have a need for “sacred systems of symbols
and societal institutions of order”. Religion provided both for centuries – though religion is itself a social construct, as Minta emphasises; “nothing is holy in and of itself”. Until about 1800, the ‘transcendence paradigm’ of the Church was dominant,
and it used this paradigm to assert itself as a normative institution that could not
be questioned. But then it was replaced by the nation-state. The nation created institutions of politics and art and manifests itself in ‘alternative auratic spaces’, such as parliament buildings and museums. It creates values and communities, and situates them in the past and the future. Just how a nation does this, and what new, seemingly sacred spaces it builds are the subject of Minta’s investigations.

Campaigning for middle management

But Minta isn’t just interested in the ‘numinous’ – the divine that lives in the profane.
She’s also a career politician. She sat on the middle management committee
of the University of Bern for many years, campaigning for tenure-track professorships to be set up. She’s happy that she now has an SNSF professorship. This gives her a magnificent opportunity to build up her own research group and to research and to teach. Switzerland has to remain integrated in the European and international research landscape in order to maintain its excellent standards – in that sense, the partial nature of Switzerland’s association with EU framework programmes such as ‘Horizon 2020’ is to her mind a catastrophe.

If Minta hadn’t been given her professorship, she would now be facing an uncertain
future. “It happens repeatedly in academia that someone works successfully for
years, they write their habilitation thesis, and then they can no longer be employed at
their own university. And that’s just not a tenable situation”, she says. So it’s not surprising that young people turn down the chance of an academic career. She wishes
that the humanities could enjoy conditions similar to the other faculties, where
individual professorships have been transformed into several lectureships, thereby
offering new perspectives to the non-professorial academic staff. “That seems to
function very well”.

Urs Hafner is a journalist and historian.

Anna Minta

The art historian Anna Minta is an SNSF Professor at the Institute of Art History of
the University of Zurich. Before this she worked at the University of Bern where she
researched into the political dimensions of representative architecture in democracies
(in Washington, Bern and Jerusalem). Minta was born in Düsseldorf in 1970. She and her partner have two children.