Imagine if the elected representatives of the people were to vote on the future style of the country’s buildings. Picture fiery Bundestag speeches, delivered by the factions of glass, concrete, wood, postmodernism, post-post-postmodernism, “something with columns” and “somehow more human.” From now on, the style, determined by the majority vote, would spread rapidly across cities, states and embassy buildings abroad. You could casually say that’s pretty far-fetched.

But what about June 20, 1991, one might reply. That was the day when the question “How many MPs do you need to change a style” was answered. The answer was ten. If those ten had changed their minds that day, united Germany would have remained a Bonn-governed republic. What does that have to do with architecture? Just look at the visage of the capital city of Berlin today: The dystopian punch-card façade of the new BND (Federal Intelligence Service) headquarters, the cabbage-like bloated chancellery and the historic zombie known as the Stadtschloss. Alongside and in between a filling that seamlessly closes all the gaps in the history-rutted city. Before, it had always been somewhat incomprehensible, contradictory and scattered, but Berlin, once it became the capital city, was forcibly transformed into a city of significance, weight and historicity: everything became ponderous and serious. At last, Germany, with its quasi-genetically ordained regionalism, had a center! Finally, the makeshifting was over!

This non-eternal, but wistfully permanent centeredness instantaneously spread an enormous gravitational field across Berlin, which manifested itself with weighty, stone punch-press edifices. The twenty-first century has seen the Rhenish free spirit, rebellious southern German 1848 liberalism, cautious northern German bourgeoisie, and other traditions, steamrollered by this forced Prussian-ness just as much as this region’s building culture has been shot through and broken down bit by bit with Berlin-style blocks of stone. Is it really so far-fetched to assume that a Bonn-governed republic would have had a completely different visage today, a more open, lighter and carefree one? Then we can only wonder whether the system of government itself would have been different thanks to this structural lightness. At any rate, we should grasp the simple equation “glass = democracy” with careful and skeptical fingers.

But let’s ignore the questions of materials and turn to the processes of building. Has decision-making really become more authoritarian; were the plans agreed over the heads of the citizens? Here we must urge caution. If the Elbphilharmonie had been decided back in 2003 by a plebiscite fully aware of its final budget, the project certainly would have been thrown prenatally into the river. Yet today people sing its praises. What would the Centre Pompidou, the Sydney Opera House or the Florence Cathedral have looked like if, in the planning process, they had been presented to a gym full of enraged citizens? They would have been swept out of the room with arguments like: Don’t we have anything more important to do? Children in the world are dying! In a less polemical sense: planning always involves a degree of forced decision-making in order for ideas to be asserted. The fact that today the suffocating and frequent use of buzzwords like “vision” perverts this is another matter.

Yet we are by no means all enraged citizens, and architecture affects us all because we are confronted constantly with it. Wouldn’t greater participation, increased bottom-up appraisal be more appropriate? If we look at central and northern Europe, we could conclude that there was never more citizen-participation than there is today. Information-gathering evenings, consultations, hearings, planning exhibitions, contests, Facebook petitions: citizen participation is no more of a panacea in Berlin any more than it is in central and northern Europe, according to the architectural theorist Markus Miessen. In his 2010 book The Nightmare of Participation, he warned that for politicians, civic participation is either only ostensible, or a method of shifting the burden of responsibility: “You wanted it that way, so don’t complain.”

Nevertheless, complaints are persistent. Has everything gotten worse? Or is there simply more media resonance for the complaints? Is it ill will, dilettantism or irresponsibility when something doesn’t work out, and at taxpayers’ expense at that? Are major construction sites like the Berlin Airport beacons of the failure of democracy, or are they outgrowths of its success? They spiral as endless loops into a whirlpool of blame, underpinned by legal overregulation, fueled by armies of lawyers who, obsessed with searching for a culprit, set out on the warpath looking for every little flaw in contracts and spreadsheets. This kind of claim management – the identification of defects and additional charges – is a booming sector in the construction industry. Of course, there’s already a thing called counterclaim management, and certainly there will soon be counter-counter-counterclaim management. Once the big construction site is finished, it stands on the foundations of bankrupt companies, ruined credibility and thousands of shelves of file folders.

Architecture and its architects have long since been crushed and worn down. Weren’t they once idealists, back in the day when everything was more tangible, more doable, more manageable? Didn’t they want to make the world a better place? Have they become cynics, or can an architect not be a cynic per se, because building is always utterly constructive, something that can’t be done against one’s own convictions?

Of course, architects haven’t become cynics. For architecture has rediscovered the social and the small, not least in response to the derailed large-scale construction industry and the tedious reduction of architecture to icons that is puffed up with media “wow” content and booming PR offensives by a handful of celebrity architects distributed across the globe. The British Turner Prize winners Assemble build as a collective to change constellations and their aim is not for their work to last forever. The international We-Traders alliance develops spatial strategies for self-empowerment in the midst of the economic crisis. Construction groups and urban gardening are booming, even though some may see these as the preserve of the slightly precarious educated classes. Alejandro Aravena develops social housing systems in Chile. Wang Shu counters the assembly-line cities of China with regionally sourced bricks and slowness. Architects develop typologies for refugee lodgings without putting on the rose-colored spectacles of those “out to save the world.” Small self-construction initiatives worldwide are opposing the alienated industry with a new and intelligent simplicity.

Neither architects nor citizens need to submit to the supposed powerlessness. Large construction sites are occupied by the lawyers, the bureaucrats and the consulting mafia. The small construction site is the future. And as for its style, decreed or not, we can still talk about that later.