Culture is“the complex of distinctive attainments, beliefs, traditions [which establish] the background of [a] racial, religious, or social group” (Kenney, 1994).
“Architecture is the art and science of making sure that our cities and buildings actually fit with the way we want to live our lives: the process of manifesting our society into our physical world.” (Bjarke Ingels, in AD interviews)
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Taking into consideration these definitions you can say that the role of culture in promoting architectural identity seems essential. In some places you can understand the people’s culture just from the architecture and in other places the architecture creates the city and its culture.
A building can represent designs that reflect the culture or period of era it was created. If we were to travel around the world crossing different countries and borders, we would notice that each region is different than another. And if we were to trace back in history why these differences exist, the answer would come down to culture and civilisation.
It is already clear and understood that various cultures exist around the world we live in. These cultures are more like imprints on the people and are passed down from one generation to another. The culture affects the lives of the people in many sophisticated ways that include how they live their daily lives, how they deal with other people. This might be due to the ideological factors that created their culture. Furthermore, geographical factors have affected people’s lives more in physical terms, and this can be clearly seen in the way people have constructed their homes and cities. This is proof of how culture in general has affected the architectural concepts that people use in designing their homes. It is also crucial to mention that it is not only the geographical factors that affect architecture, ideological factors also leave their imprints on architecture and this can be easily seen when looking at regions that have the same religion and background but have still developed different architectural styles.
As time progresses, the modern day society and cultures are slowly integrating into “a world that is increasingly becoming one global economically and technologically interdependent whole, where universal mobility is taking architects and architecture across borders and through continents at an unprecedented speed.” (Tzonis and Lefaivre) The universalising of culture is in some ways an advancement for humanity, however global integration is threatening to subtly disintegrate the stylistic innovation in architecture as the universal styles and cultures takes over. By the integration of buildings into the site and usage of local materials and style, the architect can revitalise and preserve the uniqueness of the local cultures in their modern design interpretations. In the era of globalisation, the concept of identity and cultural rootedness is fading away.
Globalisation is a movement that encourages worldwide standardisation of social, cultural, political, economical and technological aspects of societies.
In our attempt to erase boundaries we have diffused the idea of identity, roots and traditions, forgetting the past and focusing on idea of ‘future’ not realising the damage that is being done to the ‘present’. While most architecture in the rural areas is primitive and addresses the basic fundamentals of context, climate and community participation, modern architecture has fractured this very thought and mechanised spaces.
We are living in an era where Architecture is labelled as anything that is ‘built’. In the current era, most of the buildings are software generated renders without any relation to the space, time and context in is built in. The most conventional materials used in abundance in cities nowadays are concrete, steel and glass.
Architecture as Identity
Vernacular architecture is the term use to describe local architecture; the word first came about in 1861. The term vernacular is derived from the Latin word vernaculus which means native or local to a place. The idea of regional architecture goes back as far as Vitruvius but under the term historical regionalism. Norberg-Schulz suggests that the relationship of man to place is more than just being able to orientate oneself to the surroundings, as Lynch suggest, but ‘to become “friends” with a particular environment’ (Architecture and identity, 1997). The purpose of architecture is defined as “…To belong to a place means to have an existential foothold, in a concrete everyday sense.” (Abel, 2017).
The layering of the Mediterranean is multidimensional and is reflected through: geographical distribution and specificity of three continents, natural and climatic conditions, intensive cultural and historical events and their impact on the entire human civilisation, invaluable cultural and historical heritage, religious and social diversity. The space from which spread the impact of civilisation of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Byzantine, Moorish, Norman and the Ottoman Empire, the Renaissance, to modern times. This series of civilising development on the shores of the Mediterranean has its continuity in a period of more than 5200 years. Each culture was created under the influence of previous and at the same time leaving a strong impact on the future of following culture. Such a diverse and geographically large area with a wide range of contextual influencers on architectural design. The Mediterranean has a climate with long, hot, dry summers with short and wet winters. The site and the availability of materials from the immediate environment influenced the indigenous architecture of this part of the world according to centuries-old traditions. The architecture of some of the cities within the Mediterranean is determined by cultural, socio-political, historical, traditional and religious considerations on one side and natural conditions on the other side. Despite there being obvious differences of context from the perspective of modern architecture, there are also a number of common criteria that will influence the shaping of modern and recent architecture.
“It is a crossroads, a border zone, a trade route, a pleasure ground. It is a great cradle of culture and the birthplace of Western architecture. But the Mediterranean is also a place of intense and profound cross-pollination with the vibrant influences of myriad past cultures…” (Mediterranean Modern, 2006).
There are masses of compact settlements which have public facilities for various purposes such as religious, trade and political. Traditional and religious events and the living trading activity takes place within. The settlements are designed in accordance to the Mediterranean climate. They are generally orientated toward the South and have a long East to West axis, in response to the summer breeze and direction of the sun. The climatic conditions mean that you can stay outdoors all year round, this has impacted the design of the house courtyards, gardens and terraces as fundamental parts of the residential units. These external spaces were used as climate moderators for the rest of the dwelling.
In Mediterranean housing, different parts of the dwellings are used more extensively according to the season. They usually have a fireplace on the ground floor used in the winter and an upper floor used in the summer. The external spaces in the houses, such as the terraces are designed to be used during the day to stay out of the heat in the shade or even to sleep on hot nights. Summer villas and houses were designed surrounded by greenery.
When designing, careful consideration was paid to creating an intimate family space in the houses. During the Ottoman period and in Arab cities, the status of women in Islam determined the design and arrangement of the living spaces. Although there is no strict separation between the inner and outer spaces, there is a noticeable division between female and male, the public and private parts of the house. The houses which have an internal courtyard are influenced from Mesopotamia continued to exists in houses built in later periods. European Mediterranean cities have different variations of these courtyards. In these domestic spaces and within their society, the patio is the essence of family life. This part of the house gives off a cosmic atmosphere because of the way it opens up to the sky; allows you to look up at the moon and gaze at the stars. The design of the patio and the use of water features produce a nice microclimate. Depending on the culture, a garden, concealed from the view of the public, is often joined onto the patio. This garden has a spiritual meaning and conveys the concept of Heaven in Islam. The spatial arrangement is noticeably different in the way you enter the building; you enter directly from the street into the courtyard of the house, this evolved later on into houses with private and public courtyards.
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Mediterranean houses are functional for not only residence but a variety of other purposes. The most common activity in mediterranean life was agriculture. Majority of these houses included spaces for storage for produce and spaces for cattle to be kept. Outdoor spaces are significant spaces, due to the climate; they are used as family spaces, to socialise, collect rainwater or drying fruit which was a common practice.
For the construction of traditional Mediterranean buildings, local and readily available materials, were generally used. The buildings are constructed using using sun-dried mud-brick and stone which is then rendered with mud plaster. These materials create thick walls which stabilise the temperature variations throughout summer days. They are also used as thermal mass to warm up the interior spaces during winter nights. In order to reflect the strong solar radiation, the walls are generally painted white. This is still used today and can be seen on buildings on some Greek Islands. Mediterranean buildings are strategically constructed with small windows located high up on walls and are closed off with small bushes. This acts as thermal insulation during the winter and to encourage cross ventilation in the summer.
The architectural style and design of mediterranean buildings was simple until the 19th Century. Geometric, floral patterns and artistically built-inscriptions of Quran verses had a fundamental role in architectural expression of Islamic architecture.
Designing in Mediterranean and Arab countries today Architecture should reflect the spirit the of local people, their history and culture. During the design process, one should not only consider the site but a wider cultural and historical context. Jean Nouvel states that a building should always have its roots and links; when designing in Arab or Mediterranean countries it is like you are taking part or adding to their history. “I can’t imagine creating a building in Paris that can be in Doha – and in Doha a building that can be in Paris. It seems difficult for me, yet that there are buildings that can be in both.” (Nouvel, 2016). It is not just about how the building integrates onto the site but it is a deeper integration into a historical depth and cultural influences. Environmental aspects, climatic conditions, the natural and built environment should also be considered during the design process. An architect should also study and compare the needs of the people within that society then and now. Ignoring the surrounding context, whatever structure is built will dominate and not belong to the environment its in. The easiest approach to integrate the architecture with its context and respect the surrounding environment is Bioclimatic architecture. Mediterranean countries are rich of world heritage due to the size, diversity within and the layers of the different civilisations that have emerged throughout history This is reflected in the existence of the different architectural styles and use of materials that can still be seen in the Mediterranean today. “The traditional notion of Mediterranean living is suffused with simplicity, an openness to landscape and the sea, and with that particular erosion of divisions between indoor and outdoor space, as well as an emphasis on texture, organic and sea-blown colours, and solid, natural materials.” (Mediterranean Modern, 2006). Designing spaces today should be done by studying the traditional architectural styles and construction methods but reinterpreted in accordance to today’s society and not just copied.
Access to architecture and building customized by nature and location has a strong foundation in history when man was directly dependent on climatic and environmental factors and resources
“The rain of light is a display and it’s also a memory. When you are under a tree you have lots of little spots of light. For me the Greek and Arab architecture is always to do with light and geometry.”(Nouvel, 2017)
The Louvre Abu Dhabi located within the Saadiyat Cultural District, United Arab Emirates, was completed in 2017. The structure is set low down and close to the water. The galleries and facilities are made up of a sequence of white, mostly single-storey cuboid blocks, that are arranged to depict the layout of a traditional Arab Medina (town). This arrangement surrounds a series of promenades and public squares that are all orientated towards sea water. A dome structure goes over the ‘museum city’, the is to symbolise the sky and the constellations. “The dome gleams in the Abu Dhabi sunshine. At night, this protected landscape is an oasis of light under a starry dome.” (Nouvel, 2017)
This metal dome acts as protection from the harsh Middle Eastern sun and the museum’s ‘streets’ allow for a sea breeze to pass through. The ‘museum city’ is comprised of 55 buildings which include 23 permanent and temporary galleries and a children’s museum. The design includes two-storey standalone structures, an auditorium and restaurant. Nouvel purposely designs the roof structure to only just be visible from the car park and the cube buildings from the entrance. After passing neutral coloured public spaces, into the lobby and ticket office and pass further to the greatly anticipated revelation of the starry atmosphere of the dome. The dome is made up of eight layers which are superimposed onto one another, which is reminiscent of Arab architecture. Nouvel’s concept was to create spiritual atmosphere by merging water, sand and sky. The light and shading was inspired by moving palm trees and visitors are able to feel a drop in temperature and play of light. The way in which the material of the dome is woven means that creates unique star forms and when the sun shines through it was intended to create a cinematic affect and a rain of light. “The sun is like a huge projector and it is moving around the dome. The shadows it creates will change at different times of the day, with different light stains [taches de lumiére] appearing on different buildings. So you will never see the same light twice in one day.” (Nouvel 2017).
The museum was designed to belong to the space, history and climate it was built in. “It belongs to the territory, to the history. Every sign and symbol of this building is linked to Arab culture. The idea is to have enabled more than the building: to have a microclimate using the idea of the sea and the wind, the breeze. It is a building that speaks of the sun, the sky and the sea.” (Nouvel, 2017)
Architecture is an art, the epitome of artist expression; there is no recipe you have to follow, no design or materials that should be used. Rather than using that artist expression with the consideration of culture and history to create masterpieces and which can become symbols and create vibrant city skylines that convey distinct culture identity. The Western world has began an era of modernisation and in turn globalisation in architecture has become the solution to consumerism. Developing countries followed suit using the the idea of contemporary architecture as a sign of success and to show dominance. This issue being that majority of the world’s city skylines are beginning to look extremely similar of sleek, modern, glass structures; no sense of place or culture and traditional identity.
“The disaster of the epoch today is the damage of the generic building, parachuted in everywhere, to all the metropolises.” (Nouvel, 2017)
As globalisation is being embraced, the unique cultural identity of places, is being deconstructed. The world’s history and heritage are decaying the more global architecture is becoming. Layers of history are now fading memories. The structures we design become symbols and tell the story of our era as they still stand after our time. An architectural response to globalisation is vernacular architecture. A designer must consider the context, history and culture of the place, the structure must achieve a “sense of belonging” (Nouvel,2017).
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