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The impact of global culture on architecture

Robert Adam

Two principles underlie the study of history: that the primary drivers of change are social, political and economic; and that culture ­follows power. Changes in architecture and urban design will be secondary and to be properly understood must be seen in this context. 

Most recent architectural histories focus on technology, philosophy and aesthetics. I set out to analyse the effect of social, political and economic events.

To be valid, this research had to be free from any preconceptions of what architecture or urban design should be. Some commentators assumed that I intended it to promote traditional architecture and urban design. It does not; it is simply for the advancement of knowledge. It is possible for a practising architect to view recent design history outside any style preference. 

‘Recent’ refers to the period that began around 1992 and ended with the 2008 bank crash. Initiated by the end of the Cold War and the entry of Russia, China and India into the global market economy, this is often referred to as the Global Era. Consequently, I gave my research and subsequent book the title: The Globalisation of Modern Architecture. 

It was also necessary to describe the longer history of globalisation and key issues affecting recent political and cultural thinking. For example, it is not possible to understand US foreign policy without understanding the Enlightenment, current architecture without knowledge of the birth of modernism, or the foundations of the Global Era without knowledge of events post World War Two. So the study stretched from the earliest period of human interaction to the 1980s. It is ­extended from 2008 by a postscript into the present and speculation into the near future. However, globalisation is treated only as a fact that has consequences. 

As expected, the political and social impact of the expansion of the global economy and communication has influenced architecture and urban design. Some of this is obvious, such as the rise of the international star architect and the iconic building, digital technical advances and improved communication, and global practice. Less well understood are underlying drivers such as the mobility of capital, inter-city competition for global investment, the relationship between branding, corporate symbolism and global consumerism, cultural display and tourism, and the emergence of a global professional elite. 

The increase in homogenisation of people and places is paralleled by the emergence of identity politics. Localisation is itself a ­response to global uniformity. 

The new localism can be found in the break-up of nation states, the assertion of ­indigenous and cultural rights and the unfortunately-named ‘glocalisation’ of marketing. There has been a varied response: the development of critical regionalism beyond a rebuttal of post-modernism, visual eccentricity as an identity signal, environmentalism, and the heritage movement. Traditional design fits here. Possibly the most universally accepted design response is contextual urbanism. 

This period has seen a shift in the global axis from North-Atlantic economies to the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) or major emerging economies. The 2008 bank crisis dramatically revealed the new global political and economic condition. This will affect architecture and urban design. 

When the history of architecture and urban design are viewed from this perspective the partisan nature of current architectural debate seems trivial. Any phenomenon that exists in a period must do so because it is one of the characteristics of that period. Individual preference or disapproval of a design type will not change this. An understanding of how all aspects of design fit into a wider picture reveals the relationship between them, the underlying forces that drive them and emphasises the importance of diversity in a changing world. 

The Globalisation of Modern Architecture: the impact of politics, economics and social change on architecture and urban design since 1990 was commended in the President’s Awards for Research 


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