The paper will aim to clarify two opposing positions vis-à-vis the question of cultural identity. The first may be characterised as the position of the historian or cultural theorist; as outsiders to the making of buildings and urban space, a given built environment with its concomitant social life is taken as the point of departure for histories and theories which are constructed based on the existing. An analysis of cultural identity emerges after the artistic act. The second position can be characterised as that of the architect (urbanist, artist); the construction of a cultural identity should not have any relevance in the world of the imagination and the work that flows form it. In Barnett Newman’s terms, an idea of what a cultural identity should be should have as much relevance to the architect as ornithology has to the birds.
This argument is supported by the position that no nation, city, group, or person has a single culture or identity but rather a composite culture or identity with multiple overlaps to other nations/cities/groups/persons. An attempt to construct a cultural identity is principally a political and nationalistic project, rather than a creative one. The urgent need for political unity in many countries does not require any projection of an imagined unity of intention or expression in the world of art and architecture. Political unity should not antagonise or negate diversity.
This argument does not campaign against research into the past, the construction of ideas about what the culture of a place or a people is or has been or the conservation and adaptation of historical urban fabric.
The case against the construction of a cultural identity is investigated from three perspectives; the logic of cultural nationalism, the difference between conception and perception, and the implications of constitutional culture.
This paper is a proposition about how local characteristics should find a place in the creation of a piece of architecture that makes the work rooted intellectually and experientially in the world in which it is physically located. Such connections between the work and its context is fundamental in ending the legacy of colonial culture which saw work that all too often is a collection of motives disconnected from its context. The ability of architects to re-imagine the existing and to invent the new is as important in the construction of a cultural legacy as ornithology is to ornithologists.
The uncertainties of our time should not represent a crisis of the imagination; on the contrary, it represents a rare opportunity for invention.
In South Africa, where I am from, questions around the issue of cultural identity are often asked. In the face of political freedom, particularly freedom from political systems that did so much to destroy indigenous culture, one can understand the need to question who we are now (or who have we become). I have often thought that urgent questions about cultural identity follow recent political independence, which in the case of South Africa came only seventeen years ago. So my curiosity was triggered when a call for papers arrived from Tanzania which seemed equally occupied with the question of cultural identity despite having gained independence forty-seven years ago.
I would like to argue the case against the wilful construction of a (national) cultural identity. I will speak as an architect about these issues, but many of the points raised will equally apply to urban designers and even artists.
I have been wondering what the concept ‘cultural identity’ would mean to an ordinary person, as opposed to specialists such as academics or philosophers. I would think that in the context of a discussion about the built environment, that cultural identity would mean a series of interrelated practises (as opposed to a single practise/action), be they characteristics of the built environment or the social life that it accommodates. These interrelated practises could be contemporary, historical or both. Such practises become an identity if a group of people claims ownership as either the agents or the inheritors of these practises. These practises in turn confer an identity onto the people who claim them as their own.
The concept of cultural identity has of course been the subject of serious scholarship , but the critique contained in this paper is born precisely out of the discrepancy between a popular conception of the term and some of the most sophisticated thinking in the field related to this concept.
The paper will aim to clarify two opposing positions vis-à-vis the question of cultural identity. The first may be characterised as the position of the historian or cultural theorist; as outsiders to the making of buildings and urban space, a given built environment with its concomitant social life is taken as the point of departure for analysis and subsequent construction of histories or theories about such an environment. The order of events is important here; an environment exits before it is studied and commented on. Opinions about a cultural identity therefore follow the creative acts that have brought that environment into being.
The second position can be characterised as that of the architect (urbanist, artist). If an idea of cultural identity were to precede the creative act with the expectation that this cultural identity would be legible in the final product, the concept begins to mean something different. Legibility in this case would mean that the interrelated practises (referred to above) are still reasonably intact and that the group of people claiming ownership will also claim the new project as part of their identity. Let’s assume for the moment that this is possible, it would then mean that opinions about cultural identity would precede the creative acts that bring the built environment into being.
If we consider the situation of a place where people are keen to construct a cultural identity, it would mean that the creative act is preceded by something that does not exist. The surrogate for an existing cultural identity will then be an imagined one, without any existing basis or claimants. Such an imagined cultural identity would be brought about by creative work in itself. Therefore, the construction of a cultural identity through architectural work would be an act of pure creativity. It then follows that the construction of a cultural identity in a body of architectural work is either a denial of the creativity necessary to construct it or a pretence that the invention that actually took place, never happened. The denial or the negation of the creative work that underpins the wilful construction of a cultural identity requires the architect to design in bad faith .
I would therefore argue that the construction of a cultural identity should not have any relevance in the world of the imagination and the work that flows from it. In Barnett Newman’s terms, an idea of what a cultural identity should be should have as much relevance to the architect as ornithology has to the birds.
In the context of the built environment, it is most common that the idea of constructing a cultural identity is tied to the idea of the nation. Using Benedict Anderson (2006) definition of nation , in this context it could refer to a nation state, for example a ‘Tanzanian cultural identity’ or to a religion, for example a ‘Muslim cultural identity’. In the context of the built environment, notions of the nation related to language would be less common.
The idea of defining cultural identity at the scale of the nation state is a problematic one in my view. Firstly, in a post-colonial context, national borders are commonly very recent delineations that often contain great ethnic diversity and diverse cultural practises. This means that the national borders often have very little correspondence with actual geographies of cultural identities. If the ethnic diversity is not unified by a common religion or language, shared cultural values at a national scale are less likely. National cultural identities often rely on what Max Weber (1968:389) called the myth of common descent or a denial of its objective modernity in favour of an imagined antiquity (Anderson, B. 2006:5). Secondly, the cosmopolitan populations of major cities would bring with them different cultural identities which would not easily be accommodated under a single national identity.
I would argue that attempts to construct a cultural identity fail to recognise that nations, regions, cities, groups or individuals never have a single coherent cultural identity. This point has also been made by Bhabha (1994) and Gans (2003), who both argue that the construction of a cultural nationalism serves political ends rather than cultural ends . Nations, regions, cities, groups or individuals are made up of composite cultural identifiers, such as geography, climate, history, language, religion, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, sport, etc. The denial of diversity or hybridity can manifest in exclusionary practises such as discrimination and xenophobia.
The urgent need for political unity in many countries that suffer from ethnic, religious or racial conflict does not require the projection of an imagined cultural unity. Political unity within a constitutional democracy should accommodate and encourage the cultural diversity of its citizens. Within the context of national conflict, the state may very well be circumspect about the way the state represents itself in public architecture. Such was the case when Nehru opted for Modern architecture as the preferred expression for the new capital buildings in Chandigarh. Modernism was seen as representing a neutral middle ground between conflicting Hindus and Muslims .
To conclude this section on cultural nationalism, I would argue that the failure of architects to recognise the nature of the society that we are in service of cannot be justifiable grounds for the development of creative work.
Conception and perception
I made the case earlier that our understanding of the concept of cultural identity is contingent upon whether it is contemplated by an observer/analyst or by a creator/originator. The discrepancy of subjectivity has correlations to the philosophical debate on the relationship between a phenomenon and the world of ideas. The debate centres on the way we perceive things and the way such perception becomes an independent ‘object in our minds’ as distinct from the thing-in-itself.
A cultural identity in the context of the built environment comes into being though perception of interrelated practices or phenomena. Such perception(s) triggers the mind to project understandings onto the thing-in-itself (an inert, potentially meaningless thing). In order for such perception to have the societal significance associated with ‘culture’ or ‘identity’, this perception must be shared by many. The continued correspondence in perception would validate the existence of such a cultural identity.
The case I am making against the wilful construction of a cultural identity does not deny the existence of cultural identities. I am drawing attention to what is really happing when we are involved in creative work with the intention of constructing a cultural identity. In such a case, ‘cultural identity’ would be a matter of preconception rather than perception.
To attempt to give expression to a cultural identity in a design, when such an identity is seen as a complex but coherent whole, would be an impossible design task. The difficulty would lie in representing the whole identity in a single building. The particularities of a single building project are irreconcilable with the generalities contained in the notion of a cultural identity. The fact that the process of drawing and design inflects unpredictable distortions on the intentions we have at the onset of the process, adds to the difficulty in transcribing cultural identity directly into an architectural design. A preconceived notion of how a design should embody a cultural identity would foreclose creative opportunity inherent in the design process. The ability of architects to re-imagine the existing and to invent the new is as important in the construction of a cultural legacy as ornithology is to ornithologists.
The final critique considers how attempts to construct a cultural identity come into conflict with a constitution. I would like to raise only one issue for the purposes of this paper and that is the proclamation of aesthetic guidelines. I am not sure how much of an issue it may be in Tanzania, but in South Africa aesthetic guidelines are used ever more frequently. In relation to the topic under discussion here, I would argue that aesthetic guidelines are used for two contradictory purposes; firstly, to guide the exterior architectural treatment of a new buildings to be in harmony with existing historical fabric. In this case the aesthetic guidelines are to some extent derived from the pre-existing and exert influence over future development. In other words, first many decades (or centuries) of development, then guidelines.
The second application is of particular concern in the case against the construction of cultural identity. In the case of new suburban or urban developments, aesthetic guidelines are laid down before a single building is built. In other words, a compulsory appearance (masquerading as a cultural identity) is chosen, usually quite arbitrarily, and guides all buildings that would ever be built in the affected zone. In South Africa, the imposed aesthetic guidelines are mostly European or colonial in character.
What is at stake, admittedly in varying degrees, is the violation of freedom of expression. For instance, Clause 18.1 of the constitution of The United Republic of Tanzania says:
…every person has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and to seek, receive and impart or disseminate information and ideas through any media regardless of national frontiers, and also has the right of freedom from interference with his communications.
I am not arguing against considering the impact that new buildings have on historic fabric or special buildings. It is reasonable to make guidelines to mitigate impacts on heritage, but we should recognise that aesthetic guidelines could contradict the freedoms contemplated in the constitution. In the second case outlined above, is the impulse to assign aesthetic guidelines to vast areas of new development not an attempt to antagonise the consequences of free architectural expression? To tie future generations and to the whims and insecurities of self-appointed style mongers is elitist, self-centred and short sighted.
Why would our generation be so afraid of the architectural consequences of freedom of expression? I would suggest that if we are concerned about the quality of the built environment that our generation is producing, then we should not conceal real problems with a sugar coat of aesthetic pastiche. Visual appearance is not the most serious problem of the African city today.
Anderson, B. (1983) Imagined Communities – Reflections On The Origin and Spread Of Nationalism London/New York: Verso.
Bhabah, H.K. (1994) The Location Of Culture. London / New York: Routledge.
Gans, C. (2003) The Limits of Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Prakash, V. (2002) Chandigarh’s Le Corbusier: The Struggle For Modernity In Post-Colonial India. Seattle / London: University of Washington Press
Sartre, J-P. (1956) Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel E Barnes. New York: Random House.