The Sustaining Identity symposium examins a seismic shift in thinking for architecture that enhances cultural character rather than homogonising it
Change is afoot. Not a revolution as such − that’s not its style − but slow, purposeful, perceptible change. For decades there has been a growing sense that our world is getting smaller and with it the built environment has become blander, monotonous, nullified by architectural ubiquity. Even the glitzy offerings by so-called ‘starchitects’ have become tired and predictable in their affectation. However, counter to the tidal wave of homogenisation that is supposed to have inundated settlements worldwide, an architectural undercurrent that has long struggled for legitimacy is coming to the fore.
The vanguard of this architecture recently gathered for the latest symposium in the series Sustaining Identity, at London’s V&A and the message was clear: architecture is changing, for the better.
The gravity of this change is best appreciated in a broad temporal and geographical context. For half a millennium Renaissance ideals and notions of modernity have underpinned Western thinking, fuelling colonial (mis)adventures whose consequences continue to shape the world today. Over the past three centuries, the industrial revolution has transformed the planet and humankind’s relationship with it.
The last century has witnessed unparalleled urbanisation, culminating recently in the majority of our species becoming city dwellers. Since the Second World War, the two pillars of perceived progress − modernisation and Westernisation − have been seen as bedfellows, and foisted upon developing nations by transatlantic consensus. But today it has become clear that these pillars were a mirage, an illusory edifice masking the damage caused beyond the West, culturally, socially, environmentally and, if the more resolute conservatives required more proof, economically.
Throughout the 20th century, modernity has been an elite club established by the West, who not only held the keys but also determined the dress-code. Architects dutifully provided the uniform, fashioned from novel materials − concrete, steel and glass − while their champions prescribed the style and modes of production.The rules were simple: you were either in it or you were out − modern or traditional, civilised or primitive, right or wrong. This crude outlook has been implicit in architectural production for centuries − whether seen through Baroque in Bogotá, Classicism throughout China or Modernism in Mogadishu.
Architectural universality, which reached its apogee with Modernism and became explicit in the International Style, like modernity itself, has brought untold benefits, but in both theory and practice it is also increasingly (occasionally catastrophically)outmoded, failing to satisfy sometimes even the basic needs of the user, the immediate setting or the wider context in which it is sited. In stark contrast, the architecture discussed in Sustaining Identity proposes a very different approach: ‘an architecture that stands in the face of commercial globalisation, rejects commoditisation and excess, and sustains local identity, both in terms of cultural heritage and conservation of the environment.’
Cynics will balk at the lofty aspirations and idealistic rhetoric, but what was evident from the many presentations is that terms like ‘people-centred’, ‘localised’, ‘cultural meaning’, ‘rootedness’, ‘authenticity’, and even ‘earth-bound’ are no longer fodder for the sceptics, but are the basis of a meaningful architectural response to the profound global problems that have accompanied centuries of progress. It was hard not to be moved by the passionate conviction of Francis Kéré, an ebullient architect trained at the Technische Universität Berlin and born in Burkina Faso.
In a country with endemic illiteracy and poverty, modern buildings designed to improve the human experience have often done the opposite. Modern concrete high-rises require air conditioning that can be neither afforded nor maintained, while modern classrooms of breeze block and corrugated iron generate temperatures above 40oC − an environment better suited to creating bread than wisdom. Determined to provide an alternative, Kéré is among a new generation of Africans that see the future not in the promised land of the West, but at home. His designs for primary and secondary schools (employing local materials, technologies and labour) are stimulating a quiet revolution in education and the building industry in Burkina Faso and bringing Kéré’s work international acclaim.
On the other side of the world the work of German architects Anna Heringer and Eike Roswag in Bangladesh is founded on the same conviction that architecture is a tool for improving lives, requiring the architect to get their hands dirty instead of ‘learning Rhino and a few mouse-clicks’. Their design for a school in the village of Rudrapur, built with locally produced cob and bamboo using locally sourced energy and workers exemplifies a more sophisticated understanding of sustainability − not the exhausted buzzword that even the keenest former adherents now abhor, but a return to its original values of ensuring that whatever we do today does not compromise tomorrow. More refreshing still is the anti-egotism and humility that this position demands from the architect in accepting their works have but a finite life and will soon return to the earth.
These approaches could be said to be far from novel − for decades people have been talking about the need for architecture to be more compatible with natural and human environments − but the difference now is one of scale and sophistication. Whether we like it or not, our societies today are more embedded in global networks than they have ever been. Barring nuclear Armageddon, this trend is unlikely to reverse.
The architecture of Sustaining Identity, which also features in the current edition of ADmagazine, is understandably more sophisticated on account of the larger and more complex problems confronting humankind and our planetary home, and the exceptional range of information and tools at our disposal to assist us in resolving these problems.
While the work of some speakers is founded on low-tech solutions, Declan O’Carroll of the symposium organisers, Arup Associates, made a compelling case for technology’s central role. Like all tools, it is merely a question of how to use it. Empowering and disabling in equal measure, technology in the right hands can cope with the extreme complexity of planning and delivering architecture that is of its place and which serves both people and the planet.
This was the third symposium in the series Sustaining Identity. An evident distinction from the previous two was the inclusion of Chinese practitioners. Li Xiaodong presented the award-winning Liyuan Library outside Beijing funded by the Luke Him Sau Charitable Trust, while the landscape architect, Yu Kongjian, promoted his ‘Big Feet Aesthetic’, which rejects the damaging consequences of high-culture and advocates building an infrastructure based on ecology and environmental ethics.
However, the symposium’s trump card was this year’s first ever China-based Pritzker Prize winner, Wang Shu. His work, more than any Chinese architect before him, combines the country’s unique aesthetics and customs associated with its ancient building traditions with the modern practice of architecture. In nearly all of his projects, not least the Ningbo Museum and the Xiangshan campus of the China Academy of Art, Wang Shu has reached unprecedented heights of originality and beauty in an architecture that invigorates cultural meaning and restores a sense of place.
Under the intellectual guidance of the symposium curators, the Finnish architect and theorist, Juhani Pallasmaa, and South African architect and director at Arup Associates, Paul Brislin, the seeds of this emerging architectural paradigm have been carefully nurtured and have flourished. It would be simplistic to deduce from Pallasmaa’s renowned rebuttal of newness for newness’s sake an endorsement of nostalgia, traditionalism or conservatism.
Sustaining Identity is a celebration of continuity in the creative process and an architecture that sustains cultural identity and is profoundly connected to place. Pallasmaa’s thinking resonates with his contemporaries in other intellectual fields, suggesting something more profound is under way. Building on the ground prepared by Edward Saïd, Shmuel Eisenstadt’s theory of ‘Multiple Modernities’ contends that ‘Western patterns of modernity are not the only “authentic” modernities.’
Instead, he proposes ‘the best way to understand the contemporary world, indeed the history of modernity, is to see it as a story of continual development and formation, constitution, and reconstitution of multiple, changing and often contested and conflicting modernities.’ If Pallasmaa, Eisenstadt and many other like-minded intellectuals and practitioners are right, then we are at last being liberated from the celerity and celebrity associated with 20th-century Modernism and its homogenising effects, and entering an era characterised by a planetary consciousness and a creative heterogeneity derived from manifold traditions − an age of multiple modernities.
How fitting that those blazing the trail in architecture are from territories formerly perceived as peripheral, places as far-removed as Burkina Faso, Finland and South Africa.