Desktop version

Home arrow Sociology

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Plurality of architectural approaches and multiple modernities

Modernity, identity, and plurality

During the post-WWII period, social scientists were promoting the modernisation theory; this effort aimed to identify the variables of social progress by charting an intrinsic evolutionary route of development for all societies. According to this theory, all societies go through predetermined developmental stages. Supporting such a theory, many modernisation theorists integrated various theoretical views into a seemingly coherent system that highlights the ‘uniqueness of Western societies’ while ignoring that of non- Western societies. Modernisation was often viewed by social scientists as a process of Westernisation, wherein some Western countries became the accepted model of development for all other countries. Accordingly, this simplistic linear form of development was used as a constant parameter of transformation of societies, from primitive to modern, from undeveloped to developed, and from a low level to a higher one. The theory became instrumental in comparing what was viewed as two distinct cultural and socio-economic systems: the “modern West” versus the “non-modern and traditional rest” (Kamali, 2009). However, some critics argue that these theoretical meta-narratives of modernisation used to evaluate other societies were, in fact, based on imaginary postulations of typical homogenised Western societies.

Descriptive terms such as local, alternative, or multiple modernities were coined to refer to a global phenomenon that lies beyond the supposed Eurocentric horizontal linear parameter. Such terms are often used to refer to various interwoven vernacular expressions, experiences, and adaptations of modernity as a global phenomenon (Weber, 2009). These expressions or “structural differentiations” can be in the form of opposition to hegemonic assumptions (Eisenstadt, 2000), a search of alternative models, or adherence to a particular context. The argument suggests that many pre-modern societies do not necessarily follow the single development template of the Western model. Instead, in actuality, notions of modernity can be perceived and developed in various ways based on specific historical and socio-cul- tural attributes in contexts outside Europe and North America. In essence, development and hence modernity is not a simple, or even logical, linear process but a diverse multifaceted one based on a wide variety of factors, contexts, conditions, complexities, histories, experiences, and environments.

According to Weber (2009:145), “it is the communication and interaction, the dependence and simultaneous deviation from the other which makes this development an entangled modernity.” He further states that although certain aspects, such as industrialisation, urbanisation, and rationalisation, are of great importance, they are not the only and exclusive ways in which modernity can be expressed in different cultures (Weber, 2009). In this same vein, Mitchell highlights that the phenomenon of global modernity should be viewed as a cross-cultural fertilisation, which involves interacting with, negotiating with, or opposing various dynamics within the unequal power relations between the West and the rest (Mitchell, 1999).

Architecturally, from the early 1900s, numerous ‘modernisation’ movements were initiated and developed in various parts of Europe. Each of these movements claimed to be modern in concept, despite the varying levels of technological capability. However, soon after WWI, one architectural movement claimed modernity for itself. Known as architectural modernism, building design in the new movement was generally characterised by white walls and flat roofs, in addition to some attempts towards industrial production (Melvin, 2009). However, many experts would argue that modernity in architecture went far beyond this simplistic view and should be perceived as a complex cultural phenomenon with multiple manifestations, which might be different and diverse but are all thoroughly interlinked and interwoven.

In this respect, many historians stated that the notion of a single form of modernism was too limiting and, in fact, modernism was far more heterogeneous and self-contradictory than suggested by the early writings of Sigfried Giedion and Henry-Russell Hitchcock. Nevertheless, multiple modernities can only be articulated in light of the modernism movement and thus contemporary architects today can only claim to be modern by acknowledging modernism, even if that acknowledgement comes in the form of rejection (Melvin, 2009). In order to gain a better understanding of the concept of multiple modernities, it is important to highlight the significance and the pluralism of civilizational legacies in the creation and development of various routes and approaches to notions of modernity.

The complex and plural dynamics of civilisations link power and culture in such a way that expresses structures and institutions based on economic prosperity. Viewing civilisations in this way conceptualises a framework that can be used to distinguish the various expressions of modernity, or expressions of multiple modernities (Salvatore, 2009). In addition to civilizational legacies, multiple modernities must be articulated in terms of identity, which includes the qualities and attitudes of an object or a person that differentiate them from others. In cultural terms, identity can be defined as a strong feeling of belonging to a distinct group or community. Philosophically, the identity of a physical object can be determined by three qualities: permanence, distinction, and recognition (Salama, 2012).

Expressing cultural identity through architecture and urban structures preserves a significant position within architectural and urban discourse. While some theorists perceive identity as a human necessity, others regard it as a process of constructing meaning by giving priority to a specific set of cultural attributes over other sources of meaning. Architecturally, identity can be described as the collective set of characteristics by which a building or an urban tissue is definitively recognised (Salama, 2011). Architectural identity and distinction in Western cultures doesn’t seem to be an issue of significant concern within architectural discourse. However, the search for architectural identity in the Muslim world is typically recognised as one of the pressing topics that keeps presenting itself on the map of professional interests and intellectual discussions. This is mainly because the cultural uniqueness and plurality of the Muslim world have resulted in a sacred symbolism that is often difficult to comprehend, particularly by Western cultures. Architects and designers are often influenced by constructed identities that underline a dialectic relationship between tradition and modernity (Salama, 2012). While their design concepts must relate to the traditional values, they also need to project their unique self-image in modern times.

Within this context, by adopting various approaches, architectural discourses and practices often strive to construct a meaningful representation in contemporary cities by reclaiming traditional architecture and its elements. One approach to constructing identity in Muslim cities is the refurbishing of traditional buildings and settlements or conserving and reconstructing old or ancient structures. Another approach is the establishment of visual references by borrowing or capturing certain motifs and elements from the past and incorporating them into contemporary designs (Salama, 2012). By simulating or refashioning history in contemporary designs, architects can help establish and inculcate a sense of belonging and a strong emotional connection between society, place, memory, and contemporary intervention.

Identity in architecture goes far beyond the basic visual appearance of a building or a built environment; it connotes meanings to the designer as well as to the occupants. Nevertheless, identity is governed by the visual field. Perceiving the visual milieu is a complex process which involves the interaction of human psychology, experience, and cultural values with outside stimuli (Salama, 2005). In the simple discrimination of elements in the visual field of architecture, people tend to rely on the interaction of physical qualities, such as size, shape, and colour. Selected characteristics of the perceived built environment, at a psychological level, are interpreted in terms of associations and values that denote identity and status, while at the same time establish a definitive and defining situation.

This chapter presents several projects that are recognised for reflecting a unique visual identity and a deep interpretation of inherited historical symbols. They also manifest the notion of multiple modernities and demonstrate how these various forces of modernity can be envisaged, received, encountered, and developed in numerous ways in different contexts. Therefore, the resulting architecture reflects the unique interaction between internal and external forces; it is a vivid amalgamation of locality and globalisation that, in many cases, generates an evolving and vibrant identity.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics