Pace Of Culture In Architecture Cultural Studies Essay

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As a child, I grew up in a multicultural school. I was always fascinated by the different cultures around me. Each one was unique, yet at times very similar. The ultimate experience was being invited to my friends' house, where I would uncover their cultures. The minute I would step through the door I knew I was in a different world, one I didn't know of. From the colours of the interior, to the sound of the music, the smell of the food, and the outfits their mother's would wear, all was very new to me.

As I grew older and moved to Britain to study, my childhood experience returned, yet this time it was different. There was no apparent culture as in the middle-east. The globalization had taken over, and culture was replaced by a universally standardized and abstracted environment. The most perceptible culture was seen in the homes of foreigners who moved to Britain. These new arrivals tried to replicate a part of their homeland into their new homes, as a reminder to who they are.

As humans we bind our traits and culture together with our dreams to make a place that is uniquely our own. In doing so we build a resemblance of the world we know, adding it to the community that surrounds us. We use our surrounding to establish where and who we are. For these reasons people moving into a new society tend to create a new world, one that is a fusion of both their hometown and their new environment. They try to adapt into the new location, and altered it to meet their needs, whether it is religiously, or culturally.

However, as architects living in a world where populations are increasingly mobile and diverse, it is important to comprehend what the term "culture" might mean and evaluate its importance in the construction of architectural space, specifically how it should be manifested in the domestic.

The intent of this thesis is to address both the general and theoretical questions raised. How might one culture be layered onto another in architectural terms? How do we make culturally appropriate architecture in a "multi-cultural" society? This will be accompanied by the detailed study of a specific circumstance - the layering of a traditional Islamic dwelling onto an archetypal Scottish house.

Section 1

Cultural "confusion"

There is perhaps no phenomenon as complex as `culture'. So to speak, culture is everything in a particular society. It is not an easy combination of diverse styles and influences. And it isn't only a matter of music, dance, art, and cinema. For marriage customs, death rites, patterns of pilgrimage to holy cities, modes of raising children, treatment of elders, and innumerable other aspects of everyday life are stitched into the meaning of culture.

Culture, from the Latin word cultura stemming from colere, means "to cultivate, a term that has various meanings.

The most popular definition as used by sociologists and as defined by Edward Brunet Tylor is that "culture or civilisation is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society" or in a simpler terms a total life way of people.

The total life way of people must of necessity include beliefs, ideals and preferences which duly signify the notions of moral judgment - good and evil and the desirable objectives of an ordered society.

In every culture, therefore, people impose a set of standard for judging the behaviour and moral order of the codes of morality which are considered correct for their particular society.

Consequently it is our culture that makes us who we are. It nurtures within us as we grow, and is reflected in our surrounding. It is evident in our homes, and cities. In the choices we make, in our understanding of everything that is around us.

Individual and culture

"The external environment which man creates for himself is no more than a reflection of his inner state."


No matter how hard man tries it is impossible for him to separate himself from his own culture, for it has penetrated to the roots of his being and determines how he perceives the world. The complex relationship between man, artefact and culture is expressed by anthropologist Edward T. Hall, in his book 'The hidden dimensions'. He has brilliantly observed man's unconscious and culturally conditioned uses of space. As he states "It is evidence that people brought up in different cultures live in different perceptual worlds. It is to be found in their manner of orienting themselves in space, how they get around and move from one place to next."

He asserts that people from different cultures perceive the world in a different ways. Every culture has a distinct system which censors one type of information while paying close attention to another. For example, the Japanese can easily screen noises penetrating through thin walls; while Germans need sound proof walls for a good night sleep. Hence the experience perceived in one culture is rather different from experience perceived through other. Consequently these influences the way each culture builds their urban environment, as man's every actions, feelings, thoughts and understanding are all tailored by his culture.

There is a close identification between the image that man has of himself and the space that he inhabits.

The place of culture in architecture

"We shape our buildings and they shape us"

Sir Winston Churchill

Most of what we build today has no meaning for us. We can't claim it as our own, and we can't comfortably inhabit it. Thus, the legitimate search for roots has become frantic, as people seek to anchor themselves in an increasingly bland and undifferentiated geography.

"Man learns while he sees and what he learns influences what he sees"

The failure of our surrounding to establish where and who we are seems to us to require a search for the habitable- both physically habitable, where we can be comfortable and live our lives, and the metaphorically habitable, where we can go beyond where we actually are to wherever our imaginations will transport us. Establishing a territory for habitation, physical and metaphorical, is the prime base of architecture, and therefore of house- building, and this thesis.

Many people seek an environment which endeavours to create particular sense of identity pertaining to all their regional and national heritage and tradition, while still striving to provide the obvious attributes and benefits of modern living and technology. A progressive environment must therefore struggle to be seen to maintain these traditions while responding to the ever changing demands of human needs and aspirations.

However, a culturally adapted architecture is not merely a matter of visual style, but of the integration of culture, behaviour and environment. To deny culturally differentiation is foolish, but equally, a cultural specific character or style cannot be consciously learned and layered onto the surface of a design. A culturally specific design is a result of profound subjection within a specific patter of culture, and of the creative synthesis fusing conscious intentions, unconscious conditioning, memories, and experiences, in a dialogue between the individual and the collective.

In addition, there have been two main responses within the architectural world.

The traditionalists who simply re-affirm the validity of the past as the example for the present, they accept the authority of the past as the only source for the present. This attitude is totally restrictive and produces traditionalism.

The alternative response is the liberal one. They neither accept the past`s authority nor authenticity as a source for the present. As that which is simply expressed by Abdallah Laroui, their assumption is...

"Tradition is a destiny and progress is necessarily an intervention from outside."

Hence an authentic, culturally differentiated architecture can only be born from differentiated patterns of culture, not from fashionable ideals in design.

Significance of the house

"Home is not merely an apartment or a house but a local area in which some of the most meaniful aspects of life are experienced."

Marc Fried

Heidegger ays:

"What does it mean to build? The old German word for to build was "buan" and means to dwell. That is, to say, to remain...the word "bin" (am) came from the old word to build, so that "I am", "you are" means: I dwell, you dwell. The way that you are and I am, the way men are on earth is "Buan", dwelling..." Dwelling is the basic principle of existence."

The house, therefore, remains the central place of human existence, the place where the child learns to understand his being in the world, the place from which man aparts and to which he returns. The poet Milosz says:

"I say Mother. And my thoughts are of you, oh, House. House of the lovely dark summer of my childhood."

Consequently Gaston Bachelard describes the house as 'one of the great integrative forces in man's life.' In the house man finds his identity.

The structure of the house is primarily that of a place, but as such it also contains an interior structure which is differentiated in several subordinate places and connecting paths. Different activities take place in the house, and their co-ordinate totality expresses a form of life. The activities have a varying relation to the outside and to the basic directions of vertical and horizontal. When bachelard gives prime importance to the verticality of the house, he obviously recognizes the fundamental relationship discussed by Heidegger: to dwell does not only mean 'to be on earth', but also 'to be under the heavens'. The house gives man his place on earth, but the 'vertical' is always within him. In general, the house expresses the structure of the dwelling, with all its physical and psychic aspects. It is imagined as a system of meaningful activities concretized as a space consisting of place with varying characters. To illustrate the depth which is given to the world 'character' in this context, Bachelard quotes C.G. Jung who says: "conscience behaves like the man who hearing a suspicious noise in the cellar rushes up to the attic to make sure that there are not thieves and subsequently that the noise was a figment of his imagination. In reality the cautious man hadn't dared to go down to the cellar." The image of the house, therefore depends on the existence of differentiated places which interact among themselves and which the environment in varying ways. Above all however, the character is determined by concrete 'things' such as the fire place, the table and the bed.

Being directly connected with certain functions, 'things' usually have a maximum of precise forms, and are known by man in the most direct way possible. We have already mentioned that elements on this level may serve as foci in the house. The fire place, for instance, has since ancient times been the very centre of the dwelling, and the table was the 'place' where the family joined to form a 'ring'. Bollnow points out that the bed represents the centre even more convincingly, being the place from where man starts his day, and to which he returns in the evening. In bed the circle of the day, and of life, is closed.

Gaston Bachelard also gives an interpretation of such 'things' as cupboard and drawers. 'The cupboard', he says, 'there lives a centre of order, which protects the whole house against chaos. 'The cupboard and the chest of drawers are things, which may be opened'. They are therefore connected with the basic action of hiding and revealing, of conserving and remembering.

The levels of existential space form a structured totality which corresponds to the structure of existence. Man exists in relation to many objects: to physical objects, psychic objects, social objects, and cultural objects. All these objects he encounters at several levels, the levels of things, of house, of the city, and of the landscape. Yet there still seems to be a natural correspondence between objects and levels. In things everything is focused, in nature everything is contained and in between there is man's dwelling. From his dwelling he can search out as well as he can look in; he can find the depth of distance as well as the depth of nearness. The levels of things, of dwelling and of nature, therefore, are general properties of existential space, but they do not always appear in the same way. We have already mentioned variation in the public and private aspects of dwelling, and hinted at the fact that modern man to a large extent has lost the level of nature.

The question of complexity has been discussed by Amos Rapoport and Robert E. Kantor who refer to recent works by psychologists investigating the degree of environmental complexity preferred. In general human beings prefer complex environments to simple ones. The authors also discuss a similar interest in ambiguity among present day architects and quote Aldo van Eyck who says: 'each place is multi-suggestive.' In particular van Eyck gives importance to the inside outside relations. His statements reflect what we have found to be basic properties of existential space, and van Eyck himself realizes the determining force behind it, when he says: 'man is both centre bound and horizontal bound'. The structure of existence space expresses the incessant tension inherent in life.

In his book 'the lost centre' Hans Sedlmayr says the environmental problem we are facing, is not of a technical, economical, social or political nature. It is a human problem, the problem of preserving man's identity. In his 'free' arrogance he departed from his place and 'conquered' the world. But he left with emptiness and no real freedom. He has forgotten what it means to 'dwell'. Perhaps man's departure was motivated by a wrong idea of 'freedom'. Heidegger reminds us that the words 'dwell', 'protection', 'peace' and 'freedom' originally belong together, and everything seems to indicate that this is still the case. Freedom still presupposes security, and security is only possible through the human identity of which existential space is one aspect. This is the essence of 'dwelling' but we have to learn to dwell. In fact, our experience shows us that man does not spontaneously find his foothold. The problem of environment, therefore, is a problem of intention and attitudes. As Rudolf Schwarz says 'man cannot plan the world without designing himself'.

What is a Dwelling?

"A house is not nature: it is culture"

Sverre Fehn

A house is in delicate balance with its surrounding, and they with it. A good house is created from many parts economically and is meaningfully assembled. It speaks not just of the materials from which it is made, but of the intangible rhythms, spirits, culture, and dreams of people's lives. Its site is only a tiny piece of the real world, yet this place is made to seem like an entire world. In its parts it accommodates important human activities, yet in sum it expresses an attitude toward life.

However, it is important to consider how the human civilization in the past thousands of years defined a dwelling, and how has this definition framed our spaces and determined them? We all go to our house so that we can return to the city. In this journey between home and the city and vice versa, doesn't the house play a significant role in the development of human existence in the society and the family?

Researchers and philosophers who have explored this subject identified different definition for dwelling. Each definition explores a different aspect of this theory. However, they all agree that a dwelling is more than just a place for shelter; it's made of countless layers of ideas and meaning.

Below are a few examples of these definitions:

As Amos Rapoport suggested "The house is an institution not just a structure, created for a complex set of purposes. Because building a house is a cultural phenomenon, its form and organization are greatly influenced by the cultural milieu to which it belongs. Very early in recorded time the house became more than shelter for primitive man, and almost from the beginning "function" was much more than a physical or utilitarian concept. Religious ceremonial has almost always preceded and accompanied its foundation, erection, and occupation. If provision of shelter is the passive function of the house, then its positive purpose is the creation of an environment best suited to the way of life of a people-in other words, a social unit of space".

Hence amongst the spaces that human inhabit, a dwelling is a linked space, it both influences and is influenced by people on a daily bases. Dwelling is the primary space that human feels attached to. Our five senses are continuously exploring the spaces and are gradually adapting to it. It is the only place that we encounter our first experience with space, accompanied or unaccompanied. Whether you're by yourself, with your other half, or with family and friends, one can enjoy his company without intrusions of stranger.

Section 2

The inner dimension of Islamic culture

It is essential to consider Islamic culture and the Muslim way of life prior to formulating an option on the variance of architectural styles.

Islam created a social revolution throughout civilisation approximately 1500 years ago and imposed a total life way to all believers based on a unique simplistic approach.

It infers that the entire way of life of a Muslim is submissive to the will of Allah. Therefore, all conform to the code of guidance as revealed by Allah in the book of God - the Quran and the teaching of his prophet- Mohammad (pbuh).

The code of conduct the "shariah" clearly defines the standards of social behaviour of a person, both individually and collectively. Therefore, it can be understood that with this power, the influence and effects extended to the built environment and principles of architectural values. Hence it will determine how people build and use buildings.

The Islamic architectural style resulted from the adaptation of local materials and local trades with deference to climatic conditions. There was always an emphasis on symmetry and the continuity of space. This is an obvious determining factor which affects the concept of the overall Muslim life.

This also produced a third dimension of spirituality by the formation of patterns, colours and calligraphic designs, features which now dominate Islamic art and architecture, and are in essence the identity of Islamic design culture. These designs and fashions were based on text from the Quran giving the semiotic status to Quranic verses and teachings.

Having these dominant aspects of divine and human creation which seem to prevail over Islamic design philosophy, an analogy can be made by architects and designers between the structure of the soul and the structure of the world.

Therefore, Architecture and Arts both should be a reflection of certain societies, peoples, places and times. They are essentially public and popular, illustrating the scope of human endeavour, character, traditions conventions, laws and the religions. As Leon Kirchner states:

"an artist must create a personal cosmos, a verdant world in continuity with tradition, further fulfilling man`s awareness, his degree of consciousness, and bringing new subtilization, vision and beauty to the elements of experience. It is in this way that Idea, powered by conviction and necessity will create its own style and the singular, momentous structure capable of realizing its intent."

The Muslim dwelling

To penetrate the traditions of the Islamic culture, the domestic architecture has to be considered as a system of animated spatial cells and interior spaces, shaped by particular attitudes, response and philosophical concepts. The enhancement of the interior quality of the house depends on family and kinship being sacred, and on the wife being the protectress of purity and honour. The interior of the house represents the private, 'feminine', realm of the family, and in Arabic it is literally called the 'sanctuary' or the (haram).

To this fundamental view corresponds a whole series of behavioural patterns that have strongly influenced the structure and use of the space. A polarity arises between 'profane' and 'sacred' space, and between other pairs such as 'masculine' and feminine', 'public' and 'private', and 'exterior' and 'interior'. This polarity is often merely latent, but comes into full force as soon as male strangers approach and enter the house, and conversely, as soon as the woman of the house leaves it for the outside.

Entering into someone else's house is particularly very critical, even for friends of the household. The visitor has to announce himself at the door, avoid any glance inside, and wait until the family members have taken the necessary precautions of leaving the 'male' room and retreating to the 'female' quarter. Like the city, the house is divided into 'public' and 'private' areas, and a rich household usually has reception rooms on the ground floor, near the entrance, where the men can, as necessary, socialize with their male guests. Whenever this is the case, the house divides itself into a 'male' area (selamlik) and a 'female' area (haram), which functions independently of one another. At normal times, when the householder is not receiving guests, but spending time with his family, once again the whole house becomes a haram.

The order of space in Islamic architecture

In the contemporary organization of space, the connection between the city and the house has changed and the possibility of direct entrance from street to the house is now possible. There is no longer a defined space that links the outside of the dwelling to the inner spaces. Now, one can directly enter from the street through a set of door to the inner most parts of the house.

In historical houses however, importance was given to sheltered spaces like, Iwan, and close rooms, similar to opened spaces like the garden, balcony, and roof top. These spaces enable privacy for family members to enjoy and rest throughout the day.

It was also possible to have different type of gathering spaces, without imposing on one another. The area of small house, proximately 200 m2, did not prevent their architecture to be similar to the architecture of larger houses, proximately 1000 m2. Although smaller in size they still could benefit from open, semi open, and closed spaces.

Pattern of open spaces

The courtyards are the most important spaces within the house. In Islamic architecture, there are different open spaces in a dwelling. These open spaces begin from the courtyard and rise toward the sky in different levels of the building. Consequently, above the courtyard is the terrace, which is an extension of the building above ground level, above that is the belvedere, which is built in the upper part of a building so as to command a fine view, and finally the highest of the open spaces is the roof top.

When required, these open spaces can be linked to the rooms behind them, hence forming one continuous space. Simply by opening doors and windows one can transfer numerous activities of daily life into the open spaces. In addition, during the spring and summer night, these open rooms overlooking the courtyard are mainly used for sleep. Furthermore, simultaneous daily routine of individuals could successively take place both in open and close spaces. These spaces enable the person to enhance his everyday activities by providing the sense of freedom and allowing diverse range of events.

The outline of a courtyard

In Islamic houses, in order to arrive at the courtyard one must pass though the main entrance via a semi dim corridor. As one gets closer to the courtyard the corridor lightens up announcing the approach of an open space. A courtyard is a roofless room with defined boundaries. Its ground is decorated with plants, earth and water. The presence of these elements defines the courtyard and adds vitality. The water pond with its proportional dimensions lies in the centre of the courtyard. The gradual evaporation of water from the pond cools the courtyard and the inner rooms of the house.

Almost all the paths, stairs, and rooms of the house are connected to the courtyard; equally the courtyard is carefully designed scenery for each of these spaces. Its openness enables the individual to enjoy the breath of freshness from all parts of the house. It is also where the women of the house can feel free to not wear the traditional Islamic outfit that is worn in public, and in the Streets.

In some house there is more than one courtyard, typically one large courtyard and one or more smaller ones, one of which is allocated for the guest and the others are designate for private use. The larger courtyard is called the 'inner yard' and the smaller one designated for the visitors is called 'outer yard'. The 'outer yard' with its direct link to the main entrance and its surrounding rooms is assigned for receiving guest and outsiders. The link between the 'inner' and 'outer' courtyards are set in a way that when necessary they can be combined into a single space, enabling for big gatherings and other occasions.

Patter of semi open spaces - covered spaces

Typically, in Islamic houses, semi open spaces or better known as covered spaces are used as an intermediate between open and closed rooms. These mediating spaces create a distinctive relation between nature, light, and climate. They also facilitate for everyday activities and play a fundamental role in household socialising. Similar to private areas, the semi open rooms prevent blending of internal and external spaces. However, when appropriate, with respect to the individual way of living these mediating spaces can open into one continues space. Therefore, these areas are equally important to the closed and open spaces of the Islamic house. The most significant covered spaces of the Islamic architecture are the Entrance/Threshold, Iwan, and the octagonal space.

The threshold of Islamic dwellings

The entrance of Islamic houses functions as both a linking and transferring zone, connecting the outside/city to the inside/ house. The threshold is drawn away from the street to create a space for visitors to stand while they wait and shelters them from the weather. While the decorated calligraphy bands, glazed tile work, and geometric designs welcome them into the house. Typically the entrance is constructed of double doors, with a different knocker on each. In response to the Islamic culture, each knock has a distinctive shape and sound, one with a deep tone, and the other with a high tone. These distinct sounds help the household to distinguish between male and female visitors and therefore, take the right precautions.

The patter of close spaces

The other type of space known in Islamic architecture is the close spaces. These spaces are defined by three elements, ceiling, floor, and walls, with other sub elements like doors, windows. There are variety of closed spaces in an Islamic dwelling, each named according to their functions and location in relation to the inner (private/feminine) and the outer( guest quarter/ masculine) part of the house.