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 Architecture and Identity

Exploring Architecture in Islamic Cultures – Proceedings of the Regional Seminar in the series Exploring Architecture in Islamic Cultures sponsored by The Aga Khan Award for Architecture,


What is identity?

Firstly, it is a process, and not ‘found’ object. It may be likened to the trail left by civilisation it moves through history.

The trail is the culture, or identity, of that civilisation Secondly, being a process, identity cannot be fabri- cated. We develop our identity by tackling what we perceive to be our real problems. For instance, Europeans pioneered the industrial revolution, without worrying about their identity.

They came out of it all the richer for their efforts, while remaining French, English or German.

Thirdly, identity is not a self-conscious thing We may talk about French logic, but the French are not trying be French-logical. They’re simply trying to be logical; it’s we who watch them and say “That’s very French”.

We find our identity by understanding ourselves, and our environment. Any attempt to short circuit this process of understanding, or to fabricate an identity, would be dangerous to us all. It would be manipulation, a kind of signalling.

A signal is quite distinct from a symbol, for it implies a Pavlovian reaction, a manipulated response

In other words, one person waves a flag whereupon everyone else jumps up and salutes If an architect, after travelling around the world, were to return to India, and attempt to repro- duce there a glass building he saw in New York, he would simply be transmitting signals.

But if, on the other hand, he were to take the principles of architecture, and apply them to a completely different set of materials, customs, climate and traditions, he might put up a contemporary building which isn’t all glass but which is very relevant to its locale and to identity. Climate is a crucial determinant in this process.

 For instance, the question of whether a church should be an enclosed box, or a mosque have a courtyard, would depend on where they were being built.

Places like India, Malaysia and Indonesia require through- ventilation, because of their hot humid climates. So how do we take the principles of Islam and Christian on at a city and integrate them with these environments?

I find that climate helps determine form two different levels: One, it is an immediate determinant, finding expression in courtyards (hot, dry) or in through-ventilation (hot, humid).

Two, much deeper level, climate helps determine the patterns of culture and rituals. And in that deeper sense, since it is a primary determinant of ritual, it also determines built form.

 So this search for identity could give much a greater sensitivity not only to our environment, but to ourselves and to the society in which we live.

 It is a by-product of looking at our real problems, rather than self-consciously trying to find identity as end in itself, without worrying about the issues we face.

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