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Editorial: foreign bodies

1466 cover ar foreign + emerging architecture

Working at the intersection between the global and the local, foreignness and familiarity become the focus of the November issue

Etched in the golden subsoil of Peru’s desert sands, the geoglyph pictured on the cover is a lonely ‘giant’ or ‘astronaut’ of soft contours and bulging eyes, the only human figure to have been identified in the extensive yet inconclusive investigation of the Nazca Lines. Attracting the attention of the military, pilots, and archaeologists who travelled from near and far to study them, they have been thought to be irrigation tracks, sacred paths, or astronomical markings, but are still imbued with mystery. One hypothesis suggested they were giant, primitive looms while another attested they were the work of ‘ancient astronauts’ visiting planet Earth a long time ago. 

Projecting meaning onto these lines, we seek to unearth their origin and significance. Our desire to understand is an attempt to become familiar with the unknown, to situate the individuals that drew them and position ourselves in relation to ‘others’ – their culture, their science, their beliefs. 

As the International Style reduced buildings to skin and bones, it encouraged the idea that a modern architect could build anywhere, appropriately responding to the realities of a nation independently of their background and relationship with a site. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo resisted the earthquake better than Japanese constructions, Le Corbusier fully realised his Modernist vision in Chandigarh, and Louis Kahn’s poetic gravity resonated in Bangladesh. 

‘Distances become elastic, the “other” is not so far away after all’

By multiplying viewpoints, welcoming difference and embracing the foreign, globalisation was imagined as a force for good; and yet it has been contorted and distorted to mean a single vision, proposed by a self-seeking elite and imposed on the rest of the world to protect its interests. The explosion of inequalities, scope of deregulation and extent of environmental degradation have led to scepticism and distrust. The globalised world promised wealth, knowledge and freedom for all – but the planet cannot contain these ideals of progress, emancipation and development. The counter-attack is the resurgence of the local, the distressing realisation that there is no ‘common world’ to be shared. Under our feet, the soil is beginning to shake and slip, sweeping away our dreams of universality.

The reconciliation of the local and the global naturally takes us back to Kenneth Frampton’s 1983 essay ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism’. While Laurie Baker showed that learning from traditional architectural wisdom could actually widen the horizon of creative freedom for the modern architect, Charles Holland argues that ‘vernacular architecture’ is an oxymoron: ‘it cannot be appropriated without becoming something else’.

From his Porto studio overlooking the Douro, Álvaro Siza pokes his head through large models of structures inhabiting Korean landscapes. Remote-designing requires handing over a degree of control and opens up a conversation between the ‘here’ and the ‘there’.  

‘Globalisation has been contorted and distorted to mean a single vision, proposed by a self-seeking elite’

Beyond the more commonly understood economic transfer of funds and goods, social remittances also set in motion flows of knowledge and ideas, of political values and technological skills. Assessing the out-turn of these transactions, Lesley Lokko concludes that these narratives of aspiration and dynamic change impact both senders and receivers, reminding us that we have more in common than might at first be assumed.

Distances become elastic, the ‘other’ is not so far away after all. As Bruno Latour writes in his latest book Down to Earth, ‘The planet is much too narrow and limited for the globe of globalisation; at the same time, it is too big, infinitely too large, too active, too complex, to remain within the narrow and limited borders of any locality whatsoever. We are all overwhelmed twice over: by what is too big, and by what is too small.’ Scale collapses – just like it does in the Peruvian desert.

This piece is featured in the AR November issue on the Foreign + Emerging Architecture – click here to purchase your copy today