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Facades

"Work expands to fill the time available for its completion, and subordinates multiply at a fixed rate, regardless of the amount of work produced."

Remember Parkinson's Law? It was formulated in 1958 by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, an obscure British political scientist who was then teaching at the University of Malaya in Singapore. When I read Parkinson's book, sometime in the mid-sixties, it was already a classic. I don't remember what prompted me to buy a copy—I was studying architecture, not politics. Most of the book dealt with business organization, albeit with tongue in cheek. "Heaven forbid that students should cease to read books on the science of business administration," Parkinson advised, "provided only that these works are classified as fiction."

One chapter, titled "Plans and Plants, or The Administrative Block," did deal with architecture. I remember it since it undermined much of what I was being taught in my classes. Parkinson's thesis, briefly put, was that when an organization commissioned an architectural masterpiece for itself, it was almost always done at precisely the moment when that organization was on its last legs. "During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters," he wrote. "The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death."

Parkinson backed his argument with examples. St. Peter's in Rome appears to represent the perfect home for the papacy at the height of its powers. In fact, it was not built by such exemplary popes as Innocent III or Gregory VII (St. Gregory), but much later by popes who were enmeshed in worldly affairs and had lost much of their moral authority. The Palace of Versailles appears the neoclassical quintessence of Louis XIV's monarchy. In reality, the Sun King only lived there several decades after his great military triumphs and at a time when his power was in decline. The British built New Delhi as the perfect Imperial capital. The year after the Viceroy moved into his new palace, the Indian Congress demanded independence and began the chain of events that lead to the dissolution of the Raj.

A final example: the Pentagon. A perfect embodiment of American military prowess? "It was not completed until the later stages of World War II," Parkinson points out, "and, of course, the architecture of the great victory was not constructed here, but in the crowded and untidy Munitions Building on Constitution Avenue." So, the five-sided office complex is properly associated with less glorious military conflicts: Korea, Vietnam, and Grenada.

The idea that great works of architecture really are façades for crumbling institutions, and that the architect is a kind of bricks-and-mortar spin-meister, was a disturbing one for an architectural tyro. It continues to nag at me. Over the years I have come across many examples that support Parkinson's contention that "perfection of planning is a symbol of decay." CBS was once the country's foremost news organization. By the time it built its imposing black granite headquarters in Manhattan, Edward R. Murrow was gone and infotainment was just around the corner. Pan American Airways did not build its huge headquarters on Park Avenue until long after it pioneered transoceanic air travel—and not so long before it ceased operations. In 1962 TWA, which had been one of the country's "Big Four" airlines, completed what is perhaps the most striking airport terminal ever built, Eero Saarinen's bird-like structure in New York; less than twenty years later, the airline was on the edge of insolvency, and now exists in a much-reduced state. In 1981, steel was being erected for a new IBM headquarters office tower on Madison Avenue. That was the same year that IBM introduced its first PC, with a microprocessor manufactured by Intel and an operating system licensed from a small Seattle-based company called Microsoft. By the mid-1990s, IBM was in deep financial trouble and selling its art collection; Intel was the world's largest chip manufacturer, and Bill Gates was the richest man in America. Did IBM learn its lesson? Last year Big Blue moved into yet another new home. According to Architecture magazine, the dramatic building "mirrors the transformation of Big Blue into a company predicated on change." Want to bet?

It is always easier to build an impressive building than to build—or rebuild—an impressive organization or institution. There is a corollary to Parkinson's Law. Just as perfect buildings mask decaying institutions, a new institution that starts life by building a perfect building risks choking itself. There is a recent tragi-comic example. The American Center in Paris set out to make its mark by hiring the celebrated architect Frank Gehry to design its new building. Gehry delivered a characteristically striking design. It was perfect: it won awards, the architectural critics loved it, it made the American Center an overnight sensation. The problem was that the construction was expensive, indeed, so expensive that the building stood empty for months after it was finished. The American Center for Paris is now up for sale. Only ailing organizations need apply.