Do You Believe in Cultural DNA?
We recently put on a fun exhibition exploring the idea of the Playful City. This included a game called London Skyline where you could buy a cardboard cut out of an iconic building and place it anywhere you liked in London (taking into account the St. Paul’s viewing corridors of course). As the game progressed and the city skyline became increasingly clogged with towers and monuments from all over the world, two things became increasingly apparent; First that the newly unwrapped Shard is tiny alongside new developments elsewhere in the world and second that the same building could very easily be anywhere else in the world….
This set me thinking about whether architecture and design can still be expressions of specific culture or whether regionalism of any kind is now considered outmoded and limiting. Globalisation is now part of most peoples’ intellectual if not physical landscape and in the world of architecture and design is far from new. But I’m intrigued to think about the implications of new international architecture for designers like us who value context and the intangibles of cultural expression embedded in many of the world’s best buildings.
The unexpectedly heady excitement engendered by the Olympic Games this summer seemed to rely precisely on our need to differentiate between nations and, more particularly, to distinguish who “we” are in the world? I was fascinated by the throw-away comments of the commentators: “The Chinese are the world’s diving supremos” (Why?); “the French have totally lost their touch in the pool” (Great!) and Gary Lineker’s efforts to console us after a disappointingly small haul of medals for team GB: “it might cheer you up to know that the Germans haven’t got any medals at all yet….”
Much of our work in Studio 8 involves capturing part of a culture that has faded, that has given way to new identities, to new drives, to new expressions of our humanity. So the real excitement and challenge of our work is how to give voice to those past lives while at the same time giving voice to our own. The first part of that challenge is perhaps the easier of the two. At Middleport Pottery, at Ditherington Flax Mill, at Bath Abbey, there are unmistakeable physical expressions of local and national culture. Physical culture in the clay, the stone and the timber. Intellectual culture in the commerce, the aristocratic family, the presence of worship…
But what of our voice today? Are we interested in, or even capable of, expressing a unique culture? Or is the idea of Englishness too sensitive and complex to include in a design concept these days? And it always seems to me that other cultures are easier to define than our own. For example, the Louisiana Museum in Copenhagen is currently exploring the relationship between architecture and about Nordic culture (http://www.louisiana.dk/uk/Menu/Exhibitions/New+Nordic). And this textile piece by Yuko Takada seems to me unmistakably Japanese. Its characteristic lightness, delicacy, preoccupation with order and repetition, and strong spiritual presence speaks volumes about the history of Japanese art.
But what of this urn? Ai Wei Wei’s reworking of a piece of precious Han Dynasty art. Is this an expression of Chinese culture? Or rather a global conversation which makes national cultures seem a quaintly distant relic? And in designing new uses for old buildings should we be limited to the culture of that building’s past or should we be engaging in that global dialogue? You can take the Shard out of London…but there’s not much of London to take out of the Shard. Reviving and adapting old buildings makes a bigger demand. We need a more precise and careful engagement with what culture really means and how it changes. And, of course, why it really matters.