Thursday, May 17, 2007

Architecture as a reflection of cultural identity

A while ago, on one of my posts, a friend commented: " What if anything do you think a people or nation's choice of architecture says about their cultural identity?"

I think this is an intriguing question, worthy of a Ph.D. I will post my initial thoughts about this and maybe we can start a lovely discussion on this.

First of all, the nation's choice of architecture is not always, if ever, the choice of the people. Public buildings designs are usually picked without any kind of approval of the people. I'm not saying it is right or wrong, just mention it. So the design of a public building is either the choice of a specially appointed committee that hopefully is made of people relevant to the subject at hand or the choice of the head of a public organization or holder of a civic office.
For example, the new Town Hall by architect Tassos Biris and his late brother Demetrios, in my hometown of Thessaloniki is a nondescript building built in the worst possible place, chosen by the appointed committee without people's consent. Whether it reflects the citizens' cultural identity? I think it does. If people really cared about it, they would have protested it being built. They did nothing of the kind. And in a city in need of a modern architectural identity, it is a gravely missed opportunity.

Public buildings are a chance for the state or city or municipality, to show their power, position in the world, affluence. Take as examples the huge monumental National Library of France in Paris, built by François Mitterrand. Or the now standard procedure of hiring star architects to built important landmarks in cities that may even change their cultural identity, not reflect it. Case in point: the Bilbao Guggenheim museum. And don't tell me Bilbao was a mainstay of modern architecture and style when Gehry was picked to do that museum there. But it happened. The town people had done the right thing. And see where they are now.

Private buildings on the other hand are the choice of the owner, in collaboration with his architect. Grand scale private buildings or small adobes, if designed by an architect worth his salt, will be an accurate reflection of the owner filtered through the eyes of the architect. Therefore they will reflect his culture, tastes, personality, identity. It will also reflect the public taste of the times - building styles change throughout the ages. It also reflects people's lifestyle: People have different needs in Oslo than in Thessaloniki. The problems begin when the local authority's regulating offices are issuing regulations that hamper any chance of building beautiful and functional housing projects, forcing instead the people to build huge blocks of cement to make a quick buck. See what Greece suffered from maligned building laws and regulations from the 50s onwards.
So, as the future archaeologists examine the ruins of our civilizations, what will they make of our public and private buildings? Will they marvel at our now modern wonders of architecture? Will they laugh at the awful apartment blocks and housing projects that fill many cities around the world? Will they preserve beautiful samples of architecture like this wonderful summer house of Mies Van de Rohe?


  1. Hi and thanks for the link.

    And why should people bother about public buildings and architecture? Especially here in Greece? When did the local government bothered to ask the public's opinion? I guess, never! They are only interested in spending the public money, while contractors getting reacher and reacher. And to use the Greek word (how appropriate) "mizes" is in their blood! As simple as that!

    Have you heard what happened in Nicosia, Cyprus? People are protesting against the Nicosia's Mayor who wants to "re-design" the city's main square, Eleftheria Sq. Check this out into my Architecture Cyprus category.

    George (aka grhomeboy)

  2. This is exactly what I am talking about - people should express their opinions on major buildings being built in their homecity - but this is a double edged sword. Is the public taste better than the taste of its leaders?

  3. It's not only a matter of taste. If you ask me, I would say that much to my regret, people do not have taste, they luck that "something" an architect has. The eye catching and yet the knowledge as well as the technical background and skills. And leaders, any kind and type of what it meant by this word, are included in the public/people. They should at first consult the professionals, just like we consult our doctor when for medical advice. Otherwise, it's gonna be a "dead" or an everlasting "sick" building. In major projects, little the public opinion has to do, provided their opinion is not prejaudiced but backed with sounded and professional advice. As a last note, this is going to be a never ending debate.

  4. Hi there! I found your blog today, I have bookmarked it. Are you greek? Your name sounds Swedish. :-) Hope you have a nice weekend, I´ll be back!

  5. Hi,

    I am writing my BA dissertation on the Frankish Imperial Architecture. I found your article very interesting in general and I believe that you are absolutely right. I have studied Architectural History and Archaeology for a number of years and what you are saying is fundamentally right. Architecture can (if not should)be looked at as a reflection cultural identity.