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Deconstructing Architecture and Culture: Exploring the Colonial Moment and Cultural Identity in Architecture

Architecture, as a discipline, has long been intertwined with cultural identity and societal influences. This article looks into the complex relationship between architecture and culture, tracing its historical foundations and questioning its universality. By excavating through several layers of cultural influences, we aim to understand the significance of cultural identity in architectural discourse and its implications for the discipline’s boundaries and inclusivity.

 The Dominance of Cultural Expression in Architecture

Throughout history, architecture has been regarded as a form of cultural expression, reflecting the beliefs, values, and customs of the societies in which it is created. From the majestic temples of ancient civilisations to the intricate palaces of medieval kingdoms, the architectural forms have been deeply embedded in cultural contexts. However, this association between architecture and culture raises critical questions about the nature of architectural identity and its universality.

As architecture evolves and transcends geographical boundaries, it becomes essential to examine the notion of architectural universality and cultural identity. The fact that house form can now be influenced by fashion suggests the need to reconsider the primacy of sociocultural factors in shaping architectural choices.

The Postcolonial Challenge to Cultural Identity

The colonial era played a crucial role in shaping architectural discourse and cultural identity. As colonial powers expanded their territories, they imposed their architectural styles and ideologies on colonised regions, erasing local building traditions and cultures. The imposition of Western architectural forms reinforced ethnic and racial hierarchies, consolidating the power of colonial domination.

European Colonial Architecture India - History & Evolution
Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai. Courtesy: wondermondo.com

The postcolonial world emerged as a challenge to this hegemonic cultural identity. Postcolonial theories dismantled the notion of culture as a unified and stable category, emphasizing concepts like hybridity, displacement, and transculturation. The postcolonial approach sought to question unifying and hegemonic cultural categories, privileging the perspectives of the Western world.

The Construction of Architecture as an Identity Category

To understand architecture’s relation to culture, we must explore the conceptual underpinnings of architectural identity. The classical treatise of Vitruvius, “Ten Books on Architecture,” is a cornerstone in the discussion of architectural theory. Vitruvius emphasised the importance of theory and practice in architecture, highlighting the need for both manual skills and scholarly knowledge.

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Manuscript of Vitruvius; parchment dating from about 1390. Courtesy: wiki

Vitruvius’s distinction between theory and practice reveals that architecture emerges as an empty category awaiting signification. It is only through language and scholarly discourse that the material substance gains architectural authority. In this sense, architecture is constructed as an identity category, where the boundaries are defined by what is included and excluded within it.

The Colonial Moment: Shifting Architectural Discourse

The colonial moment marked a significant shift in architectural discourse as cultural particularity entered the scene. Earlier discourses tended to view non-Western architecture as primitive and less developed versions of the Western canon. However, the colonial moment acknowledged the importance of cultural differences in shaping architectural forms and practices.

For instance, the works of Renaissance theorist Leon Battista Alberti exemplify this shift. In his “Ten Books of Architecture,” Alberti discusses how architecture began in Asia, flourished in Greece, and reached its perfection in Italy. This perspective highlighted the relative status of architecture in different cultural contexts, challenging the universality of architectural norms.

The Tension between Universal Notions of Architecture and Cultural Contexts

As architecture encountered diverse cultural contexts, the tension between a universal notion of architecture and the relative status of buildings from different cultures became apparent. The acknowledgment of cultural diversity in architectural discourse questioned the notion of a singular architectural canon and called for a reevaluation of inclusion and exclusion criteria.

Architecture’s inherent biases and cultural constraints were exposed through this tension, prompting scholars to challenge the historical and geographical foundations of the discipline. The architectural grid of inclusions and exclusions became subject to critical scrutiny, leading to a deeper understanding of cultural identity and its implications for the built environment.

Revisiting Architectural Canon and Identity

Critical theorists scrutinised the institutional mechanisms that defined architecture as a universal field of knowledge. The poststructuralist perspectives of scholars like Mark Wigley and Elizabeth Grosz questioned the historical stability of the architectural canon and emphasized the need to reconceptualize architecture beyond bounded identity categories.

Magali Sarfatti Larson’s sociological approach further exposed how cultural identity played a significant role in perpetuating exclusionary practices within the architectural discipline. The recognition of marginalized identities and experiences became crucial in challenging the stability and presumed universality of the architectural canon.

Cultural Identity and Architectural Discourse

The integration of themes like race, ethnicity, and sexuality into architectural discourse signaled a shift in addressing cultural identity within the discipline. Critics effectively highlighted how the stability and presumed universality of the architectural canon historically involved repressions of these aspects.

By acknowledging diverse cultural influences, architecture began to transcend its narrow boundaries and opened up to a more inclusive understanding of the built environment. Scholars emphasized the need to consider various cultural perspectives in architectural design and planning, fostering a richer and more nuanced approach to the discipline.

Deconstructing Architecture and Culture

To deconstruct architecture and culture, it is necessary to question the assumed universality of architectural identity and the relationship between that which signifies and that which is signified. Vitruvius’s treatise suggests that architecture is an empty category awaiting signification, and it is through language and discourse that the meaning of architecture is fixed.

This deconstruction of architecture and culture reveals that both are significatory entities with constructed rather than a priori and stable boundaries. Recognizing the historical and contextual foundations of cultural identity within architecture allows for a more critical understanding of architectural discourse and its implications for society.

Conclusion

The entanglement of architecture and culture has a deep-rooted history, influenced by colonial encounters and postcolonial challenges. As architecture continues to evolve, embracing cultural diversity and questioning the universal notions of the discipline is imperative. By critically deconstructing architecture and culture, we pave the way for a more inclusive and dynamic understanding of the built environment, free from the limitations of predefined identity categories. The architectural discourse must continually adapt to accommodate diverse cultural influences, allowing for a truly universal legitimisation of architecture beyond historical biases and cultural constraints. In doing so, architecture can be better equipped to meet the challenges of an ever-changing and interconnected world, where cultural identity plays a vital role in shaping the built environment.

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