We have entered an era of ‘modernization’, led by the Western world. In our times of unprecedented demographic expansion, infrastructural development is racing to meet demand with supply. As architects and designers, we have been pressured to embrace consumerism. Globalization has been adopted as a solution to the problem. Developing countries have equated economic prosperity and success to the adoption of ‘contemporary architecture’ in a bid to demonstrate leadership and innovation. And voila, we have a palette of sleek buildings to meet the population’s needs, as well as to “modernize” our landscape. Surely, mimicking the formula of technologically advanced countries will project us into the public eye.
Well it certainly does, but not necessarily in a positive way. It is creating a global architectural uniformity as designs promoted by Western ‘architectural gurus’ are being replicated around the world. We are neglecting vibrant contextual elements and hence constructing a generic world lacking humane facets of design. Would it not be a tragedy if Paris, Venice and Barcelona all looked similar? Would we not mourn the vibrancy of Parisian streets around the Eiffel Tower, the romanticism of Venetian waters and the monumental Sagrada Familia that dominates the skies of Barcelona? Do we really want a world that is basically a mirror image of the US?
We forget too often that Architecture is the epitome of creative expression. It is not prescriptive. It does not dictate the mould, materials or design to be used. Shiny glass or titanium surfaces and other such bearings of the said ‘avant-garde’ movement are not the embodiment of architectural promise and achievement. They are ultimately expressions of a visual ideology encapsulated in architectural mantras of modernity. What we are experiencing and creating is far from intelligent Architecture. We have denied ourselves our own creativity and our duty to enrich the cultural fabric of a place.
By becoming a willing victim of globalization, we not only exhibit its scars but also teeter on the brink of a free fall, embracing the deconstruction of the unique identity of places that marvel and enrapture through their distinctiveness. By embracing foreign cultures, we too often deny our own roots.
In previously colonized countries such as Mauritius, there is a rich history of occupation by the Dutch, French and English of the 17th century. However, Mauritian cities do not translate that history to life. The infrastructure or planning does not tell a story and the style can no longer be perceived as an adaptation or evolution of its past.
This is taken to another extreme in places such as Hong Kong or the United Arab Emirates. Thriving on natural resources, Dubai has changed its skyline beyond recognition and prides itself on delivering an easy lifestyle to its inhabitants. The level of vibrancy here is not translated into adaptive design but promotes consumerism and ‘Avant-garde’ structures. It is only the dress code that still reminds us that we are in fact in an Arab country.
Currently, the only architectural pieces that display the colloquialisms of historical philosophy are hotels. As transcontinental transport is thriving, the economy of many countries depends on tourism, and hence provision has been made to house tourists in good fashion. However, we should remember that the tourist experience is not confined to hotels. Most people like to immerse themselves into the local culture; after all, the overall experience of the average tourist depends on their impressions of local architecture and culture.
Should we take the time to ponder on that fact, we notice that we are actually highlighting the very real dichotomy in the infrastructure we design: the culturally enriched hotels versus non-adaptive cities. We should reflect on how this dissonance is perceived by tourists. Moreover, and more importantly, local inhabitants should have the right to experience their own culture in every street and building as well. The cultural ethos needs to be shared so that a common, true experience can be enjoyed by both tourists and the local populace alike. Our cultural heritage should not be confined to those who can afford staying in a hotel but extended to encompass all of our streets.
Urban theorist Nikos Salingaros shares the belief that star architects who readily stamp their ‘unique architectural signature’ on every building they design, be they in different geographical locations, is ultimately short-sighted. How exciting would it be for the jet-setter of 2100 when every city on his path has no distinctive characteristics; each one blending into a uniform canvas in his memories?
Over the years, we have been favoring our economic stability over our concern towards our architectural heritage and identity. It is time to halt and think. History is being erased… memories soiled. We tend to forget that our cultural identity is a matter of being as well as becoming, and thus it belongs to our future as much as our past. Ultimately, our structures are the visual narrators of our history and will stand long after we are gone. Cities and buildings are at risk of facing a slow decay; history forgotten to all, hanging on to sheer survival in wizened history books that scream to be read. The global economy has unfortunately become an instrument of undoing the magnificent expressions of our ancient cultures and values.
There is a need for a new urbanism, one that should not aim for the construction of standardized configurations, but instead aim to create a harmony between history and structure, between our past and our present. We need to provide a cohesive architecture that is responsive to human needs and sensibilities. We must emphasize the importance of proper planning more than ever, since the continuation of our present haphazard construction trends will deprive our descendants of a heritage rich in cultural identity and design.
As architects and designers, we shoulder the responsibility of creating the landscapes of our towns and villages. We must recognize that any architectural piece is fundamentally related to its emergent locality and so should be endowed in its spirit and symbolism. We must take inspiration from a community’s identity to shape our designs, and in so doing, bring back glory to our cities and their people.
Photo credit: Daniel Cheong