It’s little things that count

Imperceptible shifts and cultural exchange are the true marks of globalisation

In this age of Masdar and McDonalds, cross-border collaboration and CCTV, WebEx and Westfield, globalisation can be portrayed as rampant. But the jetsetting, capitalist view of it, which ultimately serves corporate interests, strips the term of any broader validity and reduces it to its most utilitarian tendencies. Cultural globalisation is by far the most vital component in the whole process. 

Nor is this phenomenon new. In 18th century Britain it was seen as important to visit and study a Palladian villa. Think of many cath­edrals and it’s clear: they were a northern ­European project, there were lots of cross flowing ideas. But that isn’t about  smoothing everything out and creating a single world order. In actuality it is constantly creating new kinds of difference and heterogeneity, and in ways that will never be uniform or consistent. 

Pattern of dominance

But there is a caveat. The most high profile manifestation of internationalism in architecture is starchitecture but even here homogenisation and imperial tendencies are visible. It is part of a far older pattern of dominance where a few countries held cultural sway over what were regarded as relatively undeveloped places. So take the Chinese Central TV headquarters in Beijing designed by Koolhaas/OMA or Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. It is notable that neither of these buildings picked up anything from engagement with its context that went on to change the subsequent designs of their respective architects in any meaningful way. But if we remember that what Koolhaas and Gehry are up to has relatively little to do with globalisation as such, there can be another way forward.

Organic change

We need a far more dynamic and nuanced understanding: there is genuine globalisation, but it is quite organic. At a low key level it has been reported that around a third of staff in UK architecture offices are not UK-born. The effect on individuals of such exchanges can be profound: Norman Foster and Richard Rogers went to the US to discover themselves and, mixed with their British education, they started to reinterpret materials and services. US architects did not see those strands in their works – high tech could not have happened in America. The most creative phases of architecture involve cross cultural exchange. Established cultural blocks, with entrenched power structures, bleed life out of architecture.

The most creative phases of architecture involve cross cultural exchange. Established cultural blocks, with entrenched power structures, bleed life out of architecture

Organic change

We need a far more dynamic and nuanced understanding: there is genuine globalisation, but it is quite organic. At a low key level it has been reported that around a third of staff in UK architecture offices are not UK-born. The effect on individuals of such exchanges can be profound: Norman Foster and Richard Rogers went to the US to discover themselves and, mixed with their British education, they started to reinterpret materials and services. US architects did not see those strands in their works – high tech could not have happened in America. The most creative phases of architecture involve cross cultural exchange. Established cultural blocks, with entrenched power structures, bleed life out of architecture.

If, as it seems, British architecture can be seen as healthier than ever, this is to a large extent a product of those who were not born British. One only has to look at Zaha Hadid (Iraq), David Adjaye (Tanzania/Ghana) or Niall McLaughlin (Ireland), and so on, or at buildings by the likes of Herzog & de Meuron (Switzerland), designer of Tate Modern, to realise just how vital non-Brits are in energising the scene. The impetus for it doesn’t seem to matter – whether it is political (as with the modernists fleeing Nazi Germany) or economic as with Spain – there are many Spanish tutors now at the Bartlett. This gives us a bigger gene pool, more ideas and different cultural differences. Innovation and change can’t just be dismissed because  ‘we don’t do it this way’.

And over the years there have been visible waves of cross cultural exchange. Japan of course was very big over here in the 1980s and 90s, with a surge of cultural interest in all things  Japanese from Nintendo to the work of Fumihiko Maki. Now I feel that interest has shifted to the Far East and South America. The malls of China and Singapore, for example, have been the subject of one of my students’ theses. 

It showed how commerce, never mind architecture, spreads ideas. You can see the effects in the two UK Westfield shopping centres which are nothing like the US out-of-town malls. And while we might export master­planning to South America, I would argue that much of the influence has been in the other direction in the explorations of urban form. In Brazil, Curitiba’s Bus Rapid Transit system and other initiatives pushed forward by architect and Mayor Jaime Lerner during the 1970s and 80s have been incredibly influential. Then there are the lessons from informal communities in Rio and Columbia. 

 

The radicalisation of the local to generate new readings of the global is transforming the neighborhood into the urban laboratory of the 21st century

Local and global

Urban theorists like Doreen Massey have long argued that there is always a complex inter­linking, and indeed a wrapping together, of local and global in every city. My great hero is Guatamala-born architect Teddy Cruz. Based in San Diego, he studies the flow of materials across Mexico/US border along with their reappropriation on the poorer Mexican side – whole US bungalows erected on stilts in some instances. Cruz’s projects are themselves deeply ambivalent and fertile in their reading of scale. But in the other direction the Mexican presence in suburban America is resetting whole neighbourhoods as garages, and multi-generation extensions pop up around standard family homes. ‘The radicalisation of the local to generate new readings of the global is transforming neighborhood – not the city – into the urban laboratory of the 21st century,’ writes Cruz.

That is an interesting proposition. In the context of globalisation it suggests a different site of change and a very different scale. Architectural globalisation is at its most unsavoury in the mega blocks of the CCTV building in Beijing, and the problem is articulated by its architect Rem Koolhaas. He told Der Speigel: ‘There is less time available for research, so a tendency toward imitation develops. One of our theories is that one can offset this excessive compulsion toward the spectacular with a return to simplicity. That’s one effect of speed.’ 

Small is nimble

I think lots of architects would feel uneasy about that and would do all they could to understand a local culture. Studying this theme in the Persian Gulf it has been clear how the smaller the scale of the detail (and often the project) the more nimble and effective its reflection of cross-cultural fertilisation. Moving away from cultural symbols (say of non-functioning windcatchers on a tower) to a culture’s spatial meanings and relationships is also a richer way of bringing new forms into being, as shown by George Katodrytis through his Sharjah students, and his practice, StudioNova.

Globalisation does not have to be about the mega-project, the ostentatious, or the shallowly symbolic. It is certainly not the preserve of profit-hungry multinational corporations, or would-be powerful states, nor is it a vast nebulous entity that is out of control and trying to control us. Rather its essence lies at mutable scales, in the fluid, the unfinished, the fissured and the everyday, as opposed to the generalised. Or to borrow a maxim, globalisation is in the details. 


Murray Fraser is professor of architecture and global culture at the Bartlett. His essay Architecture and Globalisation in the Persian Gulf Regime is published in December


 

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