1 person, 1 vote, 1 big storage spot
The phrase “democracy in action,” which we throw around with such proud nonchalance in this country, tends to conjure up images of stock heroics: chanting crowds in the street, Mr. Smith taking Washington by storm.
In fact, democracy and action hardly ever deserve to share the same sentence. With the exception of pulling a lever or punching a chad, the apparatus of voting is made up entirely of elements that are static and protective. If our system ever comes close to reaching the classical ideals of democracy, it is only in safeguarding both the right to vote and, literally, the vote itself -- in allowing people full access to the polls and then keeping their ballots securely organized once they’ve been there. Architecturally, that means a row of stately Doric columns -- the default symbolism of government buildings -- is almost comically superfluous to the actual business of running an electoral system.
Los Angeles County’s Elections Operations Center is efficient proof of that: a piece of architecture that finds some surprising and effective grandeur in -- of all things -- the mechanics of storage. Designed by the Los Angeles architect Michael Lehrer and his firm Lehrer Architects and officially dedicated late last month, it is tucked away in an anonymous office park in Santa Fe Springs. Lehrer has converted a plain tilt-up warehouse, 110,000 square feet in all, into the facility where the county keeps its ballots before and after elections. If you live in L.A. County, the ballot that you punch today was on a shelf in that warehouse last month, and will be back on a different one, barring a recount or some electoral calamity, within a few weeks. The facility also holds birth, death, marriage, tax and property records for L.A. County residents.
This, then, isn’t democracy in action. The Operations Center is instead about how we organize and catalog the products of our electoral process. This is democracy after a trip to the Container Store.
That’s not to suggest that the warehouse is purely about utility. Lehrer has taken pains to add color and visual charisma, bringing a surprising degree of liveliness to a design he calls a tribute to the “infrastructure of democracy.” The floor is lined with orange stripes that correspond with rows of gigantic, open storage racks, 30 feet high and 200 feet long, that hold ballots, voting machines and other materials. One interior wall is painted the same vivid red that male presidential candidates prefer for campaign ties. The employee lunch room is wrapped in a plastic curtain -- the kind typically used in gymnasiums -- colored bright green.
Working with his clients at the county, Lehrer pressed to gain “1% for art” funding for the project, which had a total budget of $5.6 million. The result is a hanging photomural banner by the artist and UCLA professor Rebeca Mendez titled “Tree by Tree, From Sea to Mountains.” Fifteen feet tall and 150 feet long, it is inspired by the L.A. County seal, which depicts a Native American woman standing near the shore, with the mountains at her back. Mendez’s banner shows a series of images leading from the ocean at the far left to the San Gabriel Mountains at the extreme right.
The images are superbly composed, and as an architectural feature the banner helps balance the hangar-like quality of the space with its own eye-grabbing scale. But as a piece of art it strikes an odd note. Isn’t the point of this building to suggest that there is pride to be taken in the most mundane and literal of man-made tasks, if they’re done in the service of some larger goal -- that it’s not the sublime but the quotidian, executed on a massive scale, that’s being celebrated?
The Elections Operations Center, as its entirely unpoetic name suggests, is about the culture, not the nature, of politics. Lehrer’s design is most effective where it uses color and graphics to frame, rather than obscure or memorialize, the plain, repetitive nature of the work that gets done here. Row after row of voting machines, stacks of pallets holding sample ballots: When the architecture echoes the minimal, serial beauty of these materials, the clarity of the design becomes its own justification. The literal stuff of American politics might be stubbornly inert, but positioned in just the right way it can look almost noble.