Traditional Architecture and the New Politics

A great deal is changing in the wider world and architecture is bound, eventually, to reflect this.
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A great deal is changing in the wider world and architecture is bound, eventually, to reflect this.

We are entering a new architectural era but it may take some time to recognise it. A great deal is changing in the wider world and architecture is bound, eventually, to reflect this. This has always been the case: the architectural renaissance followed the competitive wealth of the Italian city states and literary humanism; the baroque followed the counter reformation; Modernism followed social and political revolutions in central Europe. We know this with the great gift of hindsight. But what can we glean from current events which crowd in on us every day?

We are all very aware of the surprise Presidential election result and, as Donald Trump himself pointed out, this follows the British referendum to leave the European Union, or ‘Brexit’. To this we must add the Italian referendum, the repercussions of which will be significant but are not fully evident at the time this was written.

Following my own work on globalisation and architecture, this is not a great surprise. Since about 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Shanghai stock exchange re-opened, and the Indian economy liberalised, the tension between homogenisation (everything becoming the same) and localisation (the re-assertion of local identity) became more pronounced. Although I would not claim the gift of prediction, the localisation trend in politics has been evident for some time; but one can never fully predict the way it will turn out.

Some of us may regret the political direction this has taken (I voted to stay in the European Union, albeit with misgivings) but we must recognise that there is widespread alienation to the economic and political outcomes of twenty-five years of globalisation. This will have far-reaching repercussions, not necessarily all bad, and this is a phenomenon of some importance which will inevitably affect architecture, we just don’t know how.

I think that the followers of traditional architecture can take some encouragement from recent events. It is not hard to identify the architectural manifestation of global homogenisation. In the 1930s Modernism was given the name ‘The International Style’ and, while this name has been largely dropped, this is exactly what it has become. Indeed, it is an irony that about ten years ago, it was Greek academic architects that proposed that Modernism should be the style of the European Union. I’m not sure that Greeks, in their bankrupt state bailed out with European Union controls, feel that way now! Should we now regard traditional architecture as the movement that recognises the disillusion with internationalism and globalisation and reflects the rise of localisation?

It is my belief that we should. The dominance of global elites in politics and economics has its counterpart in architecture with architects, a definitively elite group, who believe that the views of the public are of no interest or consequence. The threat to the identity of the everyday citizen, which has found a scapegoat in resistance to immigration (even in a nation defined by immigration) is echoed in the anonymity of towns and cities.

We know that there is a consistent desire for traditional homes. We can speculate on the reason for this but we do know that the home is the piece of architecture with which people most closely identify. While some architects may sneer at the desire for familiarity, proposing that people should be artistically challenged, the wish to be comfortable in a place which reflects what you feel about yourself is, in all other contexts, entirely reasonable. Of course, there will be people who wish to express their differences and their radical credentials and, in a free society and provided it harms no one, they must be able to do so. But the widespread sense that personal identity is best found in a home that is traditional is only a reflection of the fact that most aspects of our identity are based on traditions, be they family, religious, regional or national.

In this one simple sense, people who have the financial means to do so, can protect themselves against the personal alienation that many feel is forced upon them by social change, transformed employment, global corporations, remote political activity, and of course alien architecture. But many people—and in particular the people most vulnerable to the effects of alienation—do not have the financial means to control their immediate environment. And even those that do have the means must venture out into their communities, their neighbourhoods and their cities. In this wider environment, in projects, apartment blocks and in the workplace, personal preference and identity are no longer the concern of designers. These buildings are of a scale that they will be designed by an architectural profession that despises tradition and they will be allowed by bureaucrats who, often as not, belong to the same or associated professions and, being professionals, will always defer to the authority of other professionals.

This is the alien environment which we have created in the last fifty years or so. As with all things architectural, it is only a reflection of the alien environment which we have created in our corporations, our employment and our political systems. The international reaction against this alienation has found its political voice, in my view this voice is not always coherent, but it nonetheless expresses real alienation and real anxiety which we ignore at our peril.

There are signs that the architectural profession is losing its monolithic cohesion but it is a supertanker that will take a long time to turn. In the gaps that are opening up in the profession, there is a place for traditional architecture to develop and grow and be inventive. Traditional architects must take up the challenge with renewed vigour. This is an opportunity to step up to the spirit of the times and, in the only small way that the profession can, help ordinary citizens feel that they have a place in the world that is theirs, that is familiar, that has real identity and, above all, is not alien.