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Now that an architect has been chosen to design "the first state capitol of the 21st century," there is something he really should know. Alaska by and large, is not in the 21st century, nor the 20th century. Alaska is firmly rooted in the 19th century and uncounted centuries before. Anyone designing public buildings here must think about that.
Many Alaskans feel strongly motivated to be part of the great 19th century "opening of the West," in spite of their belated arrival on the scene. Recently, an Anchorage resident wrote a letter to the Empire explaining why he believes we need a road from Juneau to Skagway. He compared the road to the building of the transcontinental railroad. The comparison demonstrates a common condition, namely that many Alaskans aren't standing in 2005 looking forward. They are standing in 1850 looking forward. They see a wilderness, and they want to build roads and railroads, find gold and oil, open things up, get goods to market.
Other Alaskans look at the Lower 48 and see a future they largely would like to avoid. With its clean air and water and balance of human and wildlife, Alaska seems already to be the future that other places will more and more strive for. But there is no model for how this future can be fully realized and sustained. Unlike the "railroad model," this future is uncharted and, therefore, hard to articulate and even a little frightening.
Finally, the future for Alaska Natives reflects an understanding of time and continuity that we who measure our residence in mere decades or centuries simply may not be able to fully appreciate.
What does this mean for a capitol building? Does it mean the design theme should be forever internally conflicted? No, but it means the design won't be easy. The architects who competed came with little sense of what they were dealing with and no time to find out. But everyone who lives here knows that Alaska is deceptively complex. Architecture that takes a Lower 48 future, or perhaps any single future, as its point of departure will miss. However, rather than a big public process with lots of input, I suggest we let the designer do his work. Now that we have one architect, let's give him a chance to look around.
Scott H. Miller