Invasive Aesthetics: A Manifesto for Reviving Architectural Identity in Developing Nations

Dubai. © Daniel Cheong

We have entered an era of ‘modernization’, led by the Western world.  In our times of unprecedented demographic expansion, infrastructural development is racing to meet demand with supply. As architects and designers, we have been pressured to embrace consumerism. has been adopted as a solution to the problem.  Developing countries have equated economic prosperity and success to the adoption of ‘contemporary architecture’ in a bid to demonstrate leadership and innovation. And voila, we have a palette of sleek buildings to meet the population’s needs, as well as to “modernize” our landscape. Surely, mimicking the formula of technologically advanced countries will project us into the public eye.

Well it certainly does, but not necessarily in a positive way. It is creating a global architectural uniformity as designs promoted by Western ‘architectural gurus’ are being replicated around the world. We are neglecting vibrant contextual elements and hence constructing a generic world lacking humane facets of design.  Would it not be a tragedy if Paris, Venice and Barcelona all looked similar? Would we not mourn the vibrancy of Parisian streets around the Eiffel Tower, the romanticism of Venetian waters and the monumental Sagrada Familia that dominates the skies of Barcelona? Do we really want a world that is basically a mirror image of the US?

More after the break…

We forget too often that Architecture is the epitome of creative expression. It is not prescriptive. It does not dictate the mould, materials or design to be used. Shiny glass or titanium surfaces and other such bearings of the said ‘avant-garde’ movement are not the embodiment of architectural promise and achievement. They are ultimately expressions of a visual ideology encapsulated in architectural mantras of modernity. What we are experiencing and creating is far from intelligent Architecture. We have denied ourselves our own creativity and our duty to enrich the cultural fabric of a place.

By becoming a willing victim of globalization, we not only exhibit its scars but also teeter on the brink of a free fall, embracing the deconstruction of the unique identity of places that marvel and enrapture through their distinctiveness. By embracing foreign cultures, we too often deny our own roots.

In previously colonized countries such as , there is a rich history of occupation by the Dutch, French and English of the 17th century. However, Mauritian cities do not translate that history to life. The infrastructure or planning does not tell a story and the style can no longer be perceived as an adaptation or evolution of its past.

Dubai. © Daniel Cheong

This is taken to another extreme in places such as Hong Kong or the United Arab Emirates. Thriving on natural resources, Dubai has changed its skyline beyond recognition and prides itself on delivering an easy lifestyle to its inhabitants. The level of vibrancy here is not translated into adaptive design but promotes consumerism and ‘Avant-garde’ structures. It is only the dress code that still reminds us that we are in fact in an Arab country.

Currently, the only architectural pieces that display the colloquialisms of historical philosophy are hotels. As transcontinental transport is thriving, the economy of many countries depends on tourism, and hence provision has been made to house tourists in good fashion. However, we should remember that the tourist experience is not confined to hotels. Most people like to immerse themselves into the local culture; after all, the overall experience of the average tourist depends on their impressions of local architecture and culture.

Should we take the time to ponder on that fact, we notice that we are actually highlighting the very real dichotomy in the infrastructure we design: the culturally enriched hotels versus non-adaptive cities. We should reflect on how this dissonance is perceived by tourists. Moreover, and more importantly, local inhabitants should have the right to experience their own culture in every street and building as well. The cultural ethos needs to be shared so that a common, true experience can be enjoyed by both tourists and the local populace alike. Our cultural heritage should not be confined to those who can afford staying in a hotel but extended to encompass all of our streets.

Urban theorist Nikos Salingaros shares the belief that star architects who readily stamp their ‘unique architectural signature’ on every building they design, be they in different geographical locations, is ultimately short-sighted. How exciting would it be for the jet-setter of 2100 when every city on his path has no distinctive characteristics; each one blending into a uniform canvas in his memories?

Over the years, we have been favoring our economic stability over our concern towards our architectural heritage and identity. It is time to halt and think. History is being erased… memories soiled. We tend to forget that our cultural identity is a matter of being as well as becoming, and thus it belongs to our future as much as our past. Ultimately, our structures are the visual narrators of our history and will stand long after we are gone. Cities and buildings are at risk of facing a slow decay; history forgotten to all, hanging on to sheer survival in wizened history books that scream to be read. The global economy has unfortunately become an instrument of undoing the magnificent expressions of our ancient cultures and values.

Hong Kong. © Daniel Cheong

There is a need for a new urbanism, one that should not aim for the construction of standardized configurations, but instead aim to create a harmony between history and structure, between our past and our present.  We need to provide a cohesive architecture that is responsive to human needs and sensibilities. We must emphasize the importance of proper planning more than ever, since the continuation of our present haphazard construction trends will deprive our descendants of a heritage rich in cultural identity and design.

As architects and designers, we shoulder the responsibility of creating the landscapes of our towns and villages. We must recognize that any architectural piece is fundamentally related to its emergent locality and so should be endowed in its spirit and symbolism. We must take inspiration from a community’s identity to shape our designs, and in so doing, bring back glory to our cities and their people.

Photography credits: Daniel Cheong

Zaheer Allam is an independent scholar with a background in Green Architecture & Project Management. He currently resides Mauritius and his field of interest lies in ecological & utilitarian urbanism. 

Zarrin Allam is a medical practitioner living in Perth, Australia. Her passion expands to literary works and exploring avenues for environmental & cultural conservation and regeneration.

Cite: Zaheer Allam & Zarrin Allam. "Invasive Aesthetics: A Manifesto for Reviving Architectural Identity in Developing Nations" 13 Jun 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 Jul 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=385904>

13 comments

  1. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    You’re article is extremely entertaining and well written. But I would suggest that the aesthetic you suggest is infecting the world really has nothing to do with culture. Just money. The aesthetic of the skyscraper: money. Aesthetics of Modernity: money. I would also like to add that you, as architects, should not forget your role. You exist as a service providor with people who already have the money and power required to build a building (or realise a masterplan). You have no cultural agency, because you have no capital. So next time you want to imbue buildings with cultural spirit, consider whether your client, who is indeed your master, will pay for it!

  2. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    This is so beautifully written, but ” pessimistic” in the eyes of the non architectural public. Yes we are erasing our history, but the people of Dubai and Hong Kong do not care for heritage, and would feel proud to be represented by these sky scraping glass and steel finger nails.
    A future generation will look with insight at our high school attempt to fit in with the ephemeral popular kids, and all these buildings will come to be pictures and dust.
    Maybe the only way to counter this oblivious architecture is for every architect and designer and planner to prove in the best way possible, that their buildings can be vernacular, traditional, exciting, and surpass the beauty of these fickle acts of mimicry. It would be our classic romantic ending!

  3. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    good work;
    I got sure that so called problems are universal!but anyway,it is a big challenge using past and traditional architecture in today’s technology work,because it’s efficiency that matters most!

    • Thumb up Thumb down +1

      If the efficiency of the buildings mattered most, then there would never have a skyscraper been built in arab countries !
      The only reason to build them was the childish desire of these clients to built higher or more grandiose than his budy sheick. This I know for sure, I was there !

  4. Thumb up Thumb down +4

    By becoming a willing victim of globalization, we not only exhibit its scars but also teeter on the brink of a free fall, embracing the deconstruction of the unique identity of places…..

    Yes, this is exactly what is happening !
    But is an inevitable outcome when psychopaths rule the world and not humans.

  5. Thumb up Thumb down +3

    The global economy has unfortunately become an instrument of undoing the magnificent expressions of our ancient cultures and values.

    This is also very true and is intended so by the ruling psychopaths who are pushing all countries to a New World Order through a massive creation of debt. A new world of uniformity and debt slavery.

  6. Thumb up Thumb down +4

    There is a need for a new urbanism, one that should not aim for the construction of standardized configurations, but instead aim to create a harmony between history and structure, between our past and our present……..
    Very true, but won’t happen as long as we humans are ruled by psychopaths ! (if you think we are ruled by politicians – you are wrong)

  7. Thumb up Thumb down -2

    I am afraid that I cannot agree with author of article. Well, taking in consideration local culture and symbolism when designing is important, no doubt but ” but instead aim to create a harmony between history and structure” sounds pretty dangerous. It wouldn’t be wise to go back to XIX century and its dull, uninnovative “style”. Architecture is an art and as such it must develope – hiding behind historical context just like behind mother’s dress may only make harm to it.

    (but yes, skyscrapers in Dubai look silly. They remind me of cargo cults from Pacific archipelagos)

  8. Thumb up Thumb down +3

    You had me, then lost me when you decided to take a shot at the USA just for spite. I see no commonalities between the lack of identity in Dubai and what is found in most major American cities. The missing ingredient in these new cities is the lack of historical and cultural context…it has nothing to do with mean ole ‘merica.

    • Thumb up Thumb down -2

      You are right. Dubai is just a bad copy of New York and Chicago and the worst part is – it’s an ambitious one !
      Those high ranking people in Dubai who decide to build skyscrapers may don’t realise that the same architects who build those are laughing at them back home. How silly one must be to throw money out the window by choosing the worst possible type of a building (skyscraper) for a crazy climate like in those arab countries !?
      I think this is more than just silly !

  9. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Modernization can be better handled, or handled differently, if the community, city, even state or province wants to support their cultural heritage with a twist of modern. A bit of the past with a taste of the new! However, to think that those with the money to build will not want to make a different statement and the local government wont support new money investments in their community is quite a dream. Life moves forward, art changes the world, and architecture changes its look everywhere.
    BTW, the poke at the USA really wasn’t necessary.

  10. Thumb up Thumb down +4

    Great article. I’m not sure if ArchDaily gets enough of this viewpoint. The New Urbanism, the work of Leon Krier, and many other urbanists are addressing similar issues. There have been very few examples of archiecture and urbanism done in the past century (with the occasional exception) that has defined places as effectively as work prior. Beijing is still more defined by the Forbidden City than by the Bird’s Nest. The Eiffel Tower vs. La Defense. Big Ben vs. 30 St Mary Axe. Places with rich histories are having them overshadowed, and places still developing their full identity are being guided in an unhealthy direction. One of the root issues here is economics taking priority over the human scale and experience. We’re reaching a critical breaking point where people are trying to reorient priorities. In Turkey, the people are protesting to save their public spaces. In Brazil, people want their needs filled instead of being pushed aside for World Cup and Olympic glory. Globalization has had its tremendous benefits, but maybe it’s time we pull back and self-reflect so that our rich history as a human race doesn’t fade into a soulless architectural and urban monotony.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      Local Architecture has always sensitively responded to Nature- Climatic conditions and suitable, climate responsive local materials taking into consideration the socio-economic and cultural factors.
      Todays ego of Designers combined with the material manufacturers and their only focus on their profit hardly gives any consideration to these human and Nature’s aspects.

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