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Simrita Shaheed


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Subtopic 2: Bliss or Misery? — Contemplating the Engagement of Cultural Forms and Economic Progress Downtown, Anywhere: inter-relationships between architecture, Simrita Shaheed culture and the economy. The image taken to represent a nation or city is often of its architecture; New York is ―imagined and imaged through its Manhattan skyline‖, Moscow by the ―stark wall of the Kremlin, and bulbous towers of St. Basils Cathedral‖1. Thus architecture is not just how you experience a place; it is what a city says to the rest of the world about itself, its people, its culture. Architecture is an often overlooked form of cultural and economic engagement; focus on just prime real estate ignores the complex role architecture plays in the world economy. It creates tourism, international competition and collaboration, and literally sets the stage for world events such as the Olympics. In return, architecture itself is influenced by economic and political shifts across the world, especially colonisation and globalisation. This reciprocal arrangement has the power to create successes and failures extending beyond money penetrating everyday lives; for this reason it necessitates a deeper analysis. Historically, these engagements have been prevalent. In a colonial context, architecture is used to define the cultural differences between rulers and subjects. Buildings in a foreign architectural style can provide a permanent symbol of occupation, cementing power relationships, so that a ruling nation can legitimise draining resources from others. During the British rule of India, Edward Lutyens designed the city that is now the seat of the Indian government: New Delhi, showing how these colonial additions can retain importance. Shifting to conditions of post-colonialism, brings the city of Chandigarh to the fore. Despite limited funds, the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, commissioned a new Capital city for the state of Punjab to replace the losses of partition in 1947. However, the design of this show of national strength fell to a foreign architect, the Swiss-born Le Corbusier. Rather than drawing on traditional forms from the past to break from colonial rule, Nehru wanted to step defiantly forwards. A cultural fracture results; Chandigarh is criticised for being ―un-Indian.‖ The dilemma faced by post-colonial nations is that years under colonial rule are typified by foreign developments – if the newly independent country continues in this style they are untrue to the original culture, but in returning to the previous style, they face a void of missed developmental years, ―going forward into the past.‖2 The third choice is modernisation; an unbiased improvement of living standards, this solution is what Nehru meant by, ―Let this be a new city, unfettered by the traditions of the past…a symbol of the nation‘s faith in the future.‖3. However, our idea of modernisation, rather than being a set of ideals to be interpreted by each culture, has resulted in imposed standardised architectural forms and ways of living, sometimes inappropriate. Italian architect Ettore Sottsass‘s opinion captures this, ―India today is a different place and that is why I do not travel anymore. Nowadays, I find cars, radio stations and TVs, I find shops all over: it is the American way of life.‖4

1

Anthony D. King, Spaces of Global Cultures: Architecture Urbanism Identity, (London, 2004), p.xvi Carl Breckenridge et al., Cosmopolitanisms, (Durham and London, 2002), p.3 3 Vikramaditya Prakesh, Chandigarh’s Le Corbusier: The struggle for Modernity in Postcolonial India, (Seattle, 2002), p. 9 4 Ettore Sottsass, in The Domestic and the Foreign in Architecture, ed. Sang Lee and Ruth Baumeister (Rotterdam, 2007), p.331 2


Simrita Shaheed

This association between Modern and the West5 is what is causing many of our cities to begin to look alike; sometimes erasing the past, such as vernacular architectures which evolved over centuries, to make way for untested futures. The risks of these regional developments have already come to the fore. Chandigarh‘s problems of slums, overloaded transport links and buildings suffering in the climate, can be traced back to Corbusier‘s work as architect; he was more interested in realising his ideas than adapting to the Indian context. ―Modernization has been characterised by a strange combination of the progressive and the oppressive‖6, the way to protect these opportunities is to ask for more than just modernity. The architect Arata Isozaki describes his experience of this process as a ―discussion about how to merge the Japanese tradition with Western technology without getting too close to either Western or vernacular architecture.‖7 Considering the process of colonisation itself; the difference between colonial powers ruling other territories, while others trade and engage with them, is a parallel with contemporary globalisation, where there are instances of imposed homogenisation of chains such as McDonalds, versus localised cultural transfers. Mathews writes, ―there has been a massive ‗Westernization‘ of architecture, in tandem with European political colonization and, later, American economic new-colonisation of much of the globe.‖8 Globalisation is here referred to as a ―new-colonization‖ because it is understood as a process whereby ―rich countries generally dominate the poorer ones thanks to the prevalence of their cultural products.‖9. This view of globalisation correlates with a process by which ―the world becomes a single place.‖10 A typical ‗Downtown, Anywhere‘ experience is walking into any Starbucks, which applies the same model, from the décor to the drinks, irrespective of nation or culture: a generic place. A contrasting state of globalisation occurs in the idea of ―a series of global cultures at once.‖11 In this model, rather than moving towards homogenisation, the flows of many different cultures into a place, through businesses, migrants and knowledge transfer, reacts with what is there already. Cecil Balmond, of Arup and Partners Ltd, explains that ―a more amoeba-like system grows, fits together and ultimately acts in unison.‖ Globalisation therefore is not a single monolithic idea, but describes the process by which a city adapts and is directly influenced by ―its social, ethnic and cultural composition.‖ Such as the historical example of the differences between Greek Byzantium, Roman Constantinople and Ottoman Istanbul, this all occurred in the same physical space.12 It is clear that both these conditions of globalisation exist today; the concern is that if homegenisation begins to take prevalence, the cultural rooting of a place is lost. It cannot be discounted that the survival of mass-produced brands relies on customers choosing to buy these products, like McDonald‘s burgers and Gap jeans, and the frequency of the associated architectural forms – superstores, shopping centres, chain outlets is an honest reflection of their popularity. However, as Ritzer writes, ―there is a pervasive, if largely subliminal, sense that even with this monumental abundance, there has also been

5

King, Spaces of Global Cultures, p71 Hajime Yatsuka, ‗Fragmented Subjects in Former Colonial Cities‘, in The Domestic and the Foreign in Architecture, ed. Sang Lee and Ruth Baumeister (Rotterdam, 2007), p.60 7 Arata Isozaki, in The Domestic and the Foreign in Architecture, ed. Sang Lee and Ruth Baumeister (Rotterdam, 2007), p.276 8 Gordon Mathews, ‗Cultural Identity‘, in The Domestic and the Foreign in Architecture, ed. Sang Lee and Ruth Baumeister (Rotterdam, 2007), p.50 9 Ibid, p. 18 10 King, Spaces of Global Cultures, p24 11 King, Spaces of Global Cultures, p31 12 King, Spaces of Global Cultures, p82 6

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loss.‖13 Not only is there a loss in cultural identity specific to a place, but also a threat to the tourism industry. If ―traditional architecture is a means of attracting cosmopolitan attention, and in particular tourists and their dollars, euros, or yen,‖ 14 then its preservation should become an important priority. The architect Denise Scott Brown makes the point that, ―throughout history the new has replaced the old…the question is when to preserve the old and when to obliterate it for the sake of the new.‖15 So should fitting into a local cultural context, for the benefit of identity and tourism, be a requirement of architecture? From apartment blocks to public hospitals, should a national style be imposed? The risk with this approach is that ―people everywhere increasingly identify with more than one culture: they develop multiple, flexible and simultaneous identities, no longer mediated mainly or only by the state,‖ 16 extracting a representative architecture for a place without creating an outdated pastiche is difficult to achieve, to do this for a cosmopolitan people is even more so. Prakash writes, ―at its most vital, architecture is an agent of change. To invent tomorrow, that is its finest function,‖17 so perhaps the best action is to respond to the specific people this architecture is for, its clients and users, and in doing so engage their contemporary culture and identity. One such example is the Void Space/Hinged Space Housing designed by American architect Steven Holl for a development in Fukuoka, Japan.18 Holl drew on the idea of fusuma – opaque sliding screens – to develop the concept of the project; hinged walls that allowed changes in the apartments‘ plans in both everyday life, and over the course of family changes19. In this complex, Holl acts against the generic, and moves between modernity and tradition. Architects working on an international level can therefore achieve sensitive and exciting results. Perhaps it was Holl‘s ability to see that in Japan, as in his native Manhattan, ―every square meter is universal, precious,‖20 that allowed him to act appropriately. David Chipperfield, whose firm frequently works on an international level, suggests that: ―like a tourist, you are sometimes more enthusiastic about trying to understand a city than are people who always live there.‖21 Jaquelin Robertson gives a specific example of this from her work in the Middle East, ―We learned from vernacular low-rise buildings that responded to the climate.‖22 As a foreign architect, Robertson was able to extract the positive aspects of the existing forms and apply them to a modern development. Conversely, when architects misjudge or ignore cultural conditions, they cause failures which range in affect; from the traffic-choked streets of Chandigarh, to social disasters such as the Pruitt-Igoe housing in America. New Gourna Village near Luxor in Egypt, was designed by Hassan Fathy to be a new home for people the Egyptian government wanted to relocate. Fathy drew his inspiration from the traditional vernacular forms of Egypt, 13

George Ritzer, ‗Can Globalized Commercial Architecture be Anything but McDonaldized?‘, in The Domestic and the Foreign in Architecture, ed. Sang Lee and Ruth Baumeister (Rotterdam, 2007), p.145 14 Gordon Mathews, ‗Cultural Identity‘, in The Domestic and the Foreign in Architecture, ed. Sang Lee and Ruth Baumeister (Rotterdam, 2007), p.52 15 Denise Scott Brown, in The Domestic and the Foreign in Architecture, ed. Sang Lee and Ruth Baumeister (Rotterdam, 2007), p.210 16 Nezar Alsayyad, ‗Consuming Heritage, in The Domestic and the Foreign in Architecture, ed. Sang Lee and Ruth Baumeister (Rotterdam, 2007), p.204 17 Vikramaditya Prakash, ‗Identity Production in Postcolonial Indian Architecture: Re-Covering What We Never Had‘, in postcolonial spaces, ed. G.B. Nalbantoglu and C.T. Wong (New York, 1997), p.40 18 Hilary French, Key Urban Housing of the Twentieth Century, (Horton, 2008), p.186 19 Yukio Futagawa, Global Architecture Architect: Steven Holl (Tokyo, 1993), p.114 20 Steven Holl, Parallax, (New York, 2000) p.228 21 David Chipperfield, in The Domestic and the Foreign in Architecture, ed. Sang Lee and Ruth Baumeister (Rotterdam, 2007), p.310 22 Jaquelin Robertson, Architectural Record, 2009,3.

Bliss or Misery? Contemplating the Engagement of Cultural Forms and Economic Progress


Simrita Shaheed

but the outdated styles were to the village‘s new inhabitants ―associated with the tombs and shrines of the dead.‖23 This grim misalignment shows a need for a deeper understanding of culture, to judge the cultural significance of symbols and forms the end users need to be consulted, or at least understood. The work of international architects brings to focus the competitive aspects of architecture. Architectural practices are businesses in their own right, and winning contracts is vital to their survival. One product of globalisation is the international competition, often launched for the design of state or city symbols such as museums, theatres or libraries, to the strange exclusion of architects at home. Paolo Desideri, the Rome based architect, warned of ―the risk that, although Italy will be a very important market for European architects, Italian architects themselves will have big problems in competing in their home markets.‖24 Scott Brown referred to a similar condition in America, whereby ―cultural institutions want to import the good stuff, from another place.‖25 The contradiction created between a local cultural symbol and desire to employ a foreign architect can perhaps be explained by the aspiration to create an international symbol. Skyscrapers are another example of this advertising-by-architecture. Starting from practical requirements of space in New York, and the economy of building upwards when land prices were high, the skyscraper became famous as a mode of competition between two newspapers vying to outdo each other in height, and thus assert their dominance. The first time the tallest building in the World was outside North America, it drew all eyes East. Towers and skyscrapers have become a ―symbol of world economy, and a country or culture‘s place in it.‖26 This definition could be extended to most major works of architecture today; it is hard to think of Sydney without making the association with its Opera House, or to talk of London without imagining icons such as Big Ben. These perceptions of a place do not act solely as tourism – they can attract investment by transmitting the right messages of stability and trust, especially at a local scale. This tactic has been employed on the recent construction of a Barclays Bank outlet in Sheffield – the visibly expensive refurbishment seeks to reassure customers of financial stability in uncertain times, and suggests a transparency of process by extensive use of glass in the façade. The relationship between architecture, culture and economic progress is complex in its interplays and influences, but what it teaches us about the realities of globalisation, the impacts of colonisation, and the financial side of tourism and design, makes it an important study. The opportunities architecture holds to create symbolism and identity – be it for a nation, business or institution - are exciting and effective, but the risks of homogenisation in construction, and architecture which fails its people or location, with the knock-on effects this poses to tourism and diversity, have to be kept in check. As David Chipperfield commented, ―We take different qualities from different cultures. Difference is not only inescapable; it is also enjoyable.‖27

23

Nezar Alsayyad, ‗Consuming Heritage, in The Domestic and the Foreign in Architecture, ed. Sang Lee and Ruth Baumeister (Rotterdam, 2007), p.184 24 Paolo Desideri, in The Domestic and the Foreign in Architecture, ed. Sang Lee and Ruth Baumeister (Rotterdam, 2007), p.293 25 Denise Scott Brown, in The Domestic and the Foreign in Architecture, ed. Sang Lee and Ruth Baumeister (Rotterdam, 2007), p.210 26 King, Spaces of Global Cultures, p4 27 David Chipperfield, in The Domestic and the Foreign in Architecture, ed. Sang Lee and Ruth Baumeister (Rotterdam, 2007), p.310

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Bibliography Anthony D. King, Spaces of Global Cultures: Architecture Urbanism Identity, (London, 2004) Sang Lee and Ruth Baumeister, The Domestic and the Foreign in Architecture, (Rotterdam, 2007) Carl Breckenridge et al., Cosmopolitanisms, (Durham and London, 2002) Vikramaditya Prakesh, (Seattle, 2002)Chandigarh’s Le Corbusier: The struggle for Modernity in Postcolonial India, G.B. Nalbantoglu and C.T. Wong, postcolonial spaces, (New York, 1997) Hilary French, Key Urban Housing of the Twentieth Century, (Horton, 2008) Yukio Futagawa, Global Architecture Architect: Steven Holl, (Tokyo, 1993) Steven Holl, Parallax, (New York, 2000)

Bliss or Misery? Contemplating the Engagement of Cultural Forms and Economic Progress


Simrita Shaheed

Global Initiatives Symposium in Taiwan 2009

Simrita Shaheed  

Simrita Shaheed Word Count: 1,999/PIN: 10596 Carl Breckenridge et al., Cosmopolitanisms, (Durham and London, 2002), p.3 Anthony D. King, Spa...

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