What should be the appropriate relationship between architecture and ethnicity?
One option is for it to be so closely tied to each other that “only certain races can build beautiful architecture.”
Another option is for it to be universally homogenous, such that you see the same big shiny glass and steel skyscrapers popping up everywhere.
The third option, which I will defend, is that architecture should be related to ethnicity in the same way that Italian cuisine is tied to being Italian. Below, I will examine each of these three options in more depth, along with their pros and cons.
The Racial Essentialist View
Many on architecture twitter seem to support racial essentialism. (From WrathofGnon, from another account, and then something more exonerating of his). The idea here is not that people with mutual taste build buildings. The idea is that people are connected by their common blood and land. Their forefathers lived and died on this land, and they will do the same.
This is a reaction to the globalism which dampens global diversity. It sounds to me like a form of nationalism. Here’s what they’d say: western architecture is the best architecture. It was built by white Europeans. Therefore, white Europeans are probably the best race around. Only they should build architectural marvels, and only they deserve it.
Let us acknowledge a grain of truth in the position from above. An immense source of meaning comes from the passing on of culture, and of a cultural legacy. For many people who perhaps may not know of the horrors of tribal and ethnic politics, they believe that this knowledge comes only through being related to your forefathers. Architecture should then come to reflect this.
My disagreement with it
I disagree with this position. The first reason is because many of the beautiful works of architecture which this view upholds as the best are actually designed according to universal ideals. The Ancient Greeks and then the Catholic Church both believed that their ideas were universal and applied to all people and cultures. Their buildings came to reflect this fact too! The universalism of many great works of architecture cannot be reconciled with the parochialism and tribalism of the racial essentialist view from above. In effect, the view above does not recognize buildings built for a common humanity or universal purpose as beautiful. This view is wrong, and thus I disagree with it.
The second reason for why I disagree with this position is because it is tribalistic. The solution it poses to the ugliness of globalized architecture is a return to a tribal view of beauty – one where each group has their own code to follow. There can be no cross-pollination of ideas and perceptions and preferences, because that would be tainting the purity of the architecture. This makes it tribalistic, because then you can never create architecture which doesn’t reflect your tribe’s ethnicity. Tribalism is bad because it leads to violence. And perhaps on a lighter end, tribalism leads to the exclusion of members from other tribes. A black architect would not be accepted in a white architectural guild. This, I think, is unnecessarily exclusive and ugly.
The Globalist View
The second position is that of globalism. Architecture should have no bounds – it should serve utility alone. Anything else, like ornamentation, should be eradicated. But in effect, what ends up happening is that all of the buildings look the same. Not only do they look the same, they look ugly. The original concrete buildings designed by people like Le Corbusier were ugly. And now the housing apartments that he designed are urban wastelands. They’re hotbeds of graffiti, garbage, and crime. Ironically, much of classical architecture also looks similar to each other. So it is ironic that those who criticize globalist architecture for looking the same do not also see how classical western architecture is also so similar.
My Critique of It
My criticism of this position is first that big skyscrapers are ugly. They’re bland. They don’t have character. They aren’t necessarily adapted to the local environment. Glass buildings are not good for when you’re trying to preserve heat in the winter, for example, or AC in the winter. Plus, you tend to feel horrible when you walk around them and work inside of them.
The Best View: That of Cuisine
Italian Cuisine is local, it’s unique, it’s special, it’s tasty. But you don’t need to be Italian to cook authentic Italian food. The knowledge can be shared.
The same should go for architecture. Sure, traditional architecture came from Greece and Rome and developed over centuries in Europe. But you do not need to be Greek or Roman or white to build it. Furthermore, this prevents synergies from occurring – interesting crosses in architecture between different cultures. Just as you get cool fusions between Italian and Greek food, or Korean and Indian.