Architecture and Identity

architecture and identity

Just as architecture may be usefully likened to a language in so far as different traditions of architecture embody different systems of belief and different priorities, so the 'learning' of architectural design may be likened to the 'learning' of a language. When we acquire a new language, we do not normally consciously examine those beliefs and values 'built into' the language, so to speak. We acquire them implicitly, in the natural course of learning the language. The very act of discrimination involved in learning to interpret events in one way, rather than in another, entails choices of a cultural and social import of which we are normally unaware. We, therefore, learn to think and behave in a rather special fashion, which sets us apart in many subtle and varied ways from those who speak a different language.

Now, I do not believe that we pay sufficient regard to the effects on a student's personal and social identity that a commitment to one or the other form of architecture can have. Educators, generally, seem to assume that students know what 'they are taking on' when they learn to design in a given fashion, and that they have the good sense to hold back till such time as they have experimented with enough different approaches to make a reasoned commitment. But, I believe that this is being too optimistic. The educational process of learning to be an architect, subjects a student to a great many pressures, only some of which are encompassed by the normal educational vocabulary. Learning architecture may entail a process of cultural assimilation just as much as learning a language. This is, I think, something students are subconsciously aware of in their search for identity, both when they first choose to be an architect and when they later engross themselves in a selected form of architecture.

From: 'The language analogy in architectural theory and criticism: some remarks in the light of Wittgenstein's linguistic relativism', Architectural Association Quarterly, December 1979, pp. 45-46.

Colonial architecture, I suggest, is the outcome of a process whereby a people quite literally recreate familiar locations in an alien environment, thus retaining that part of their identity which is their architecture. The transformations specific forms of architecture undergo in the process of dislocation and relocation reveal to us the inner core of stability and logic that enables us still to recognise a 'family resemblance' between the original style and the colonial style. The differences between the original style and the colonial style reveal to us the processes of adaptation to the new environment the original style has undergone.

In all of this what we are seeing is transformations of mind, an evolving 'form of life' in itself. Blumer, a disciple of Mead, claims that in so far as objects have meanings, then they must enter into the human group consciousness much as the meanings we attach to our own behaviour and the behaviour of other persons do. A theory of mind which disperses the processes of human mentation among the group must also take into account the role of the physical environment in the evolution of mind. My own inclination is to take seriously the claim made by Pask, that 'there is no such thing as an inanimate object' (in conversation with the author). That is to say, there are no objects in the human realm of being without meaning, and thus no objects that do not somehow become animate within the processes of human interaction and individuation.

From: 'Architecture as identity'. In M. Herzfeld and M. Lenhart (eds). Semiotics 1980, Plenum Press, 1981, pp. 9-10.

To my mind, the proper and most useful definition of cultural identity will arise out of a fuller understanding of the creative processes of cultural interaction, not out of some kind of pre-selection of the supposedly 'purer' elements of regional culture. It is extremely doubtful that any culture still exists which has not, at one time or another, been exposed to 'alien' genes and culture forms. But what has emerged, when we look at specific historical regions like Malaysia, is not some mere substitution of local culture forms for imported forms, but a new and original product, which is not exactly like any of the previously existing elements, but presents to us a cultural innovation.

From: 'Living in a hybrid world'. In R. Langdon and N. Cross (eds). Design and Society. Design Council, 1984, p. 18.

We do not have architecture, therefore, but a part of us is architecture. Architecture is a way of being, just as science, art, and the other major culture-forms are ways of being. So when we come to define the true and deeper functions of architecture, we will not be simply describing the production of a certain type of artefact, but explaining one of the original ways in which we know ourselves.

From: the edited text of 'Architecture as Identity' (1981) in Architecture and Identity (1st ed). Architectural Press, 1997, p. 150.

The emergence of new cultures does not therefore mean that we shall automatically shed all our former ways, as we sometimes fancy, like a butterfly sheds its former self to re-emerge in an entirely new life-form. This is just as well. If the last century has taught us anything, it is that revolutionary change of this sort is just as likely to sweep away the good as it is the bad. But we are not like caterpillars, waiting to be reborn in a new guise. We are much more like crabs, still pretty much earth-bound and clinging to our familiar shells, moving sideways as much as forwards, and not changing so much during our life span that we cannot still recognize ourselves for who we are, and where we came from.

From: 'Architecture in the Pacific Century'. In M. Pu (ed), Public Places in Asian Pacific Cities, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001, p. 232.