The slow death of the Mauritian Architectural Identity: A call for regenerative Architecture.

By November 27, 2012 Blog No Comments

Architects and urban designers have a unique sense of ownership and responsibility in the way that our towns and villages emerge and take shape. With this change of infrastructure comes a change in the way we perceive ourselves and hence a change in our identity. The identity of a place and its relationship to the community matters since it is an intrinsic part of a community’s sense of belonging. Hence, when architects bring about change in an environment, they should be considering the community’s needs in the equation. But do they really? 

This is an individualistic precept that globalization is creating an undesirable uniformity in cities around the world. Architects are heralding it as the era of ‘modernization’. However, an interesting conundrum emerges from that concept. Should we, as a country that prides itself to be the face of leadership and innovation in the African World, adhere to such an ideology? We claim the banner of leadership and yet, paradoxically, exhibit all the scars of a victim of globalization. We not only bear the wounds to show for it but sadly verge on the brink of a free fall as we are embracing the deconstruction of the unique identity of places that marvel and enrapture through their distinctiveness. By promoting the embracement of foreign cultures, we are denying our own roots. We forget all too quickly that a colorful, historic Mauritius, a cradle of laughter and fulfillment to one and all, appeals far more that an island that is a mere&nbsp notch on the belt of globalization.

Our architects and engineers tend to forget that architecture is not prescriptive. It does not state that all buildings should be of the same mould nor that they should be carved from the same materials. Glass, shiny 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 being intelligent Architecture.

We are more or less accustomed to out rich colonization history by the Dutch, French and English but our cities do not reflect that fact. Our infrastructure or planning do not tell a story and our style can no longer be perceived as an adaptation or evolution of our past. The way an architect or a community visualizes a place does not mirror the image that is projected by that same place to an outsider. What he will see would be historical buildings that have been left to slowly crumble or are, sadly, being used only by hawkers or the homeless. The prestige that was once linked to such places seeped in history, is slowly fading away as we are witnesses to the demolition of other such buildings in favor of erecting new ones. Our history is being erased…our memories soiled.

The identity of any architectural piece is fundamentally related to its emergent locality, the spirit endowed by the place and its symbolism. However, we tend to belie these very principles by deconstructing our history and instead giving life to structures without contextual identity. Such types of building now adorn our skyline. Instead of constructing around our cultural attributes and unique society, our architects, urban designers and engineers are instead creating a multitude of styles that reflect westernized culture without projecting the spirit and essence of the place. This unfortunately leads to not only a lack of harmony among the merging architectural trends but also deconstructs the context, value and story of the community involved. Since any city has a strong impact on the community it houses, we can only imagine the consequences of such a haphazard planning on our future.

Multiple issues are bound to arise from such a trend. Socially speaking, there will be increasing concerns about the equitable access to services and resources by the local residents as well as a questionable impact on their health and well-being as social well-being is invariably strongly entwined with physical well-being. Ecological repercussions are also to be considered. The urbanization process&nbsp often creates controversy in terms of energy efficiency since it relies on a huge consumption of resources. Moreover, development alters the biodiversity of habitats, a fact which needs to be carefully weighed in the equation. We also need to factor in the governance issues relating to the judicial and ethical aspect of settlement patterns involved in urban development.

Hence, it is crucial to find a proper balance between those aspects in order to celebrate our diversity and promote a good standard of living while protecting and preserving our cultural and architectural identity. Strong emphasis should be placed on proper planning since the continuation of our present haphazard construction puts our future generations at risk of inheriting a place that lacks not only design but also an embodied cultural identity. Our cities and our buildings would face a slow decay our history forgotten to all, hanging on to sheer survival in wizened history books that scream to be read.

At present, the only widely known exotic architectural pieces that embrace the colloquialisms of colonial style and philosophies are hotels. Our economy thrives on tourism and hence numerous structures have been set up to accommodate our visitors in good fashion. While it is still questionable as to how much some of those buildings really relate to our country’s identity, we must nevertheless acknowledge the attempted efforts at projecting a semi-historical image to our guests. However, one must not forget that the tourist experience is not confined to hotels. Most people like to immerse themselves in the culture of a place and tend to travel and interact with the local populace. The overall and most lasting impact would hence be their experience in our different cities or villages their impression of our local architecture and its relation to our people and our cultural identity. Should we take time to ponder on that experience, we come to notice that we are actually highlighting the very real dichotomy in our infrastructure: The luxurious, well designed hotels versus our crumbling cities and villages. We should reflect upon how this transition is perceived by tourists. Is our government ultimately promoting wrongful advertisement? Is the projected glossy image of Mauritius as a tropical paradise a deceitful one?

We cannot be blinded to the fact that the architectural emphasis placed on the tourism sector is sorely lacking in our public sector. We tend to forget that our cultural identity is a matter of being as well as becoming and hence, it belongs to our future as much as to our past. Thus, our cultural heritage should not be confined within the walls of hotels but extended to encompass our streets. The cultural ethos needs to be shared so that a common, true experienced can be shared by our tourists and our people. This, by no means, promotes a radical shift towards the architectural style of centuries gone by but instead advocates for an evolution based on our architectural roots while enriching our landscape diaspora by clever designing and construction. There is a need for a new urbanism which will not be based on uncertainty or irrationality. It should not be primarily concerned with the notion of permanence but instead elaborate on territories of potential and value. It should not aim for the erection of stable configurations alone but instead aim to create a co-habitation between history and structure, between our past and present. We need to redefine how we want to visualize our future and as such, make provision for it.

We also need to provide an intelligent yet cohesive architecture that is responsive to human needs and sensibilities. This can be achieved by constant re-adaptation to existing buildings, nature and culture. We need to connect to our buildings just as we connect to the world as ultimately our structures are the visual narrators of our history. We need to use our imagination to create post-traditional relationships that are both new and meaningful.

Over the years, we have been favoring our economic stability to the detriment of our heritage and identity. We should now pause and reflect upon our current position. Our city reflects who we are and should we encourage the developing, so called modern trend, we should inevitably question the image we are projecting of ourselves. The global economy is unfortunately an instrument of undoing towards the magnificent expressions of ancient cultures as western interventions negate the identity and values of people. In effect, we are cutting the ties that bind them and their sense of belonging in the world. Human architecture is shaped by its material presence, not by image, and yet our technological focus seems intent on replacing civilization through images.

Architectural philosophy states that “form follows function” but we are now entering an alarming era where the function defies the form. Hence, we need to act accordingly to restore our image. We need to bring back glory to our heritage sites and we need to retrofit existing old structures into community spaces instead of demolishing them in favor of building new ones. We also need to attempt to discover the relationship between site specific design, the symbolic creations of the architect and the unique connection that the involved community has with their city, town or village.

It is the era of change and excitement for us to advocate personally, academically, and professionally a different kind of architecture. One that is clear in precedence, of form and material appropriate to the particular task at hand, focused in purpose on the reconstruction of the city and the regeneration of culture, and dedicated equally to the service of status and wealth as it is to social equity. It is high time for us to promote our culture, not only on foreign ground but to our own people and within our own community so that we can create a place not only rich in history but also in culture.


Photo credit: Salman Toorawa

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