A ridiculously long essay on architecture

A/N: Yeeeeah, this is long. Read at your peril. Also, I haven’t provided any citations because in my portfolio this essay goes with a set of photos I took in different countries and draws from them, rather than from publications or anything like that.


I have to admit, although I love to travel and am quite a seasoned traveller, I pretty much fit all the tourist stereotypes. I’m constantly snapping unprofessional photos (with a Nokia phone, no less), always manage to visit the most tourist-infested areas at the most tourist-infested times of the year, and am a sucker for cheap souvenirs. But although my travels followed the Lonely Planet guide trail rather than the trail of indigenous tribes’ footprints, the photos I took while travelling in various regions still give us a considerable amount to be analysed: they provide a sample of historical and modern architecture, they show us the parts of a certain country which are considered significant or notable, and they show us the impressions of a country which leaders and tourism agencies want foreigners to have.

So, what conclusions can be drawn from this little pictorial comparison? The first thing I noticed was that I had taken quite a few photos of nature. Originally I only intended to include basic information (region classification as per the UN system, population) and socioeconomic metrics (gross domestic product per head, human development index) on each page and relate the pictures to those. But a fair few of my photos turned out to feature trees or foliage or the sky, and as well as being pretty to look at and quite difficult to photograph well (the angle of the camera has to be perfect, the sun has to hit the right place and there must be enough chromatic contrast to keep the picture interesting), the ubiquity of attractive natural phenomena to photograph has some implications. Although there is obviously a lot of natural variation across the world, which is why I added each country’s climate classification to show the huge amounts of variation in terms of conditions, the similitude at base was striking. Natural phenomena are the common denominator of the world. If one can’t find mountains in a country, perhaps one can find beaches, or failing that, dense woodlands or vast expanses of desert. There is something intensely comforting about the fact that, even as I do a project which is examining the differences between cultures and the ways in which they relate to one another, I can always find this “base” provided by the natural world, which exists everywhere despite how much humans have eroded – or think that they have eroded – it.

Ironically, there is one other area in which the fundamental similarity between all of the world’s cultures can be seen: modern, urban architecture. The skyscrapers in Shanghai and Hong Kong could easily have been in Alexanderplatz (or Kurfürstendamm) or the City of London or Gulberg in Lahore, save for some signature East Asian neon, less interspersion of modern and traditional architecture than in Europe, and fewer broken windows than in Pakistan. In shamelessly Hegelian terms, this demonstrates a sort of architectural negation of the negation. When human society first came about, the entire world was carpeted with the fabric of nature: a fabric which could take the form of rainforests or savannah or ocean or any other biome, but was still uniformly nature. As humans spread around the world, snatching new territory from Nature’s grasp and making their mark on it, this homogeneity began to disappear: the structures built in Yayoi Japan were dramatically different from those built in Mesopotamia, which were dramatically different from those built in Pazyryk Siberia.

This difference persisted through rapidly proliferating trade and globalisation, right up until the advent of modernism, which emerged in France as a development of romanticism and was the first European artistic style to spread out of Europe and the Anglosphere. Nowadays, however, neo-futurist or neo-futurist-inspired architecture is overwhelmingly prevalent across the world, with new steel and glass, high-rise and eccentrically-shaped buildings springing up everywhere, most notably in Asia. Globalisation, cosmopolitanism and our increased and still-increasing ability to share information with people across the world in a flash have meant that ideas can be shared and cultures can merge more than ever. But on the other hand, they have also given rise to a new era of global homogeneity; innovative homogeneity, but nonetheless homogeneity. Dialectically, this is a “higher form” of the uniformity which existed across the world in early human societies, marking a return to the uniform state of nature which has been achieved through the partial sublation of borders and geocultural boundaries. Another way to look at this would be to link it to the ostensible ideological homogeneity of the post-Cold War period, after the triumph of liberalism; one set of ideas is governing global discourse to a greater and greater extent, and this is reflected in architecture.

What’s more, the developing countries (represented here by China and Pakistan) are scrambling to design buildings and urban spaces which fit this new, global neo-futurist model, often with disregard for their traditional cultures and architectural styles. In the societies of the Old World, architecture evolved organically to its current stage, and as a result the historical monuments of London, Berlin and other European cities are interspersed to a great extent with the rest of the city and are seen not as tourist magnets or old, forgotten relics, but as integral parts of the urban landscape. The story in other parts of the world is rather different. As America – culturally an outpost of the UK, and by extension of Europe – became the global power (outside of the Second World, which has since mostly adapted to American cultural hegemony) and globalisation accelerated during the 20th century, countries increasingly began to conform to a collection of artistic standards set by America and the West. Even in China, ever-patriotic and resistant to “Westernisation”, the idea of building tall towers to showcase power and innovation quickly took hold.

The result of this is that, contrary to pro-patria rhetoric, traditional buildings are being sidelined. Nowhere was this more evident than in Pakistan. This country is pretty undiscovered, so while I was there I got to see some breathtaking examples of classic Mughal architecture with only a smattering of tourists; but unfortunately, this meant that no one took care of the sites. They were sectioned off from the rest of the city, for the most part, extremely empty compared with the heaving streets, and it was assumed (probably accurately) that we would be more interested in shopping and other “modern” pursuits than seeing the architecture. If some of the sites had not been on UNESCO lists and the like, they may never have been preserved. For Lahore’s rising urban elite, it’s all about glossy shopping malls and Western-inspired glass structures. Pakistan is one of the “Next 11” countries marked out by the World Bank as the future of economic development, and if their attitude towards traditional architecture is indeed the attitude of the future, there is reason to worry.

China, also a developing economy which opened up only recently to the West, had a similar problem. It is a far more advanced country than Pakistan, and since it is the third most visited country in the world, it has a financial incentive to preserve its historical buildings and sites. However, they still did not feel integrated into their surrounding cities, and there was still an assumption that tourists would be more interested in the flashy new buildings. Yet although I think emerging countries need to preserve their historical architecture more and take more pride in it – because it is undeniably beautiful and fascinating – I am not taking a puritanical stance here. “Flashy new buildings” arguably epitomise what it is to be living almost anywhere in today’s globalised world: a cosmopolitan outlook, technological progress, aspiration. And these features are part of the modern cultural characters of Britain, Germany, China and Pakistan just as much as the countries’ older, more divergent architecture.

Now, what of such architecture? Happily, there was a considerable amount of variation in each country’s traditional architecture. As would be expected, Germany and the UK are quite similar. Both are wealthy, European, Germanic nations (though the UK is incredibly diverse, with Latin, Norman and Celtic influences), both were considerably affected by the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and both share a Protestant work ethic and cool, systematic, linear-active culture. They also have similar climates and social histories, which they share with France and Benelux. Correspondingly, many signature features of the two countries’ buildings are held in common: wooden houses and Tudor arches, cathedrals, palaces and buildings with Gothic, Romanesque and most notably Baroque influences (such as St Paul’s Cathedral and the buildings in Gendarmenmarkt), and a seamless fusion of old and modern. In fact, visiting Germany and comparing it with Britain, one wonders whether the sociocultural and aesthetic differences between Britain and the continent – at least, the North-Western portion of the continent – are being overstated a little. The main difference between the two relates to urban planning and use of space: the layout of Berlin is noticeably based more around squares than that of London, which (apart from Trafalgar Square) only has the leafy private squares of the Kensington area. Squares seem to be an exclusively continental feature, lending themselves well to the café culture of the continent but not quite as well to traditional British pub culture. But of course, a slight difference in culinary habits and habits en rencontrant between British people and some of their continental neighbours does not mean that the Channel represents the cultural gulf postulated by some people. Particularly when it comes to Britain’s Germanic relatives.

The traditional architecture of Pakistan and China, naturally, differed notably; but there were still some similarities with traditional European architecture. Courtyards – which I tend to consider a Grecian/Mediterranean feature which then spread into Northern Europe – were a central part of both Chinese and Pakistani architecture, and in both countries the symbolism of the courtyard was of an entrance into an inner space. The influence of Grecian motifs was a recurring theme, particularly in Pakistan, the vast majority of whose grand structures are religion-related (as one would expect of a theocracy) and therefore heavily influenced by Arabian, Persian and Mughal artistic style. The ancient Mediterranean societies (Athens, Rome, Constantinople) were viewed almost universally by those in and around Europe in the Middle Ages as the pinnacle of civilisation, and the Muslim societies of West Asia were no exception, even if they had religious differences. Hence the ubiquity of domes and minarets in Pakistan, which were noticeably borrowed from Byzantium and adapted by Muslims (which is why there is such similarity between the more extravagant Russian Orthodox churches, influenced by the Byzantine breed of Christianity, and mosques).

The famed Muslim arches share this origin too. These arches mark out sacred spaces as separate from everywhere else, dividing space in a similar way to the purposeful spatial planning of Chinese courtyard houses. They were originally descendants of Roman and Byzantine rounded arches, before evolving into the more distinct horseshoe-shaped and transverse arches, and the latter then became a staple of Gothic architecture (at Canterbury Cathedral, for example). Colonial architecture has also left its mark on Pakistan; the Punjab region, near the Indian border, was once home to the Indian residences of some of the British Raj’s elite, and the suburbs are dotted with peaceful whitewashed manors which would not have looked out of place in the Somerset countryside, but for the palm trees. The Lahore Museum, designed by celebrated architect Sir Ganga Ram, is perhaps the best example of stylistic fusion which I saw in Pakistan, merging the Sikh, Mughal and colonial styles which have all exerted considerable influence on the country in its history.

Interestingly, as well as sharing some Grecian influence, Islamic and Chinese architecture share a fundamental principle. At base, both types of architecture are simple and unassuming. The exteriors of mosques are traditionally plain apart from around the entrance, and built using basic materials. Only inside can any sort of extravagance be seen, and this generally takes the form of colourful murals and floral patterns, to celebrate God’s creations without distracting worshippers. Chinese architecture is similarly simple on the outside, with a wooden frame, sloping roofs and a basic structure formed by connecting rectangular units of space, but characteristic pagoda-style curves and eaves and sundry colour paintings add vibrancy to the basic architecture. This contrast doesn’t symbolise the divide between a spiritual space and the outside world, as in Islamic architecture, but the ideal of moderation which is prized in Buddhist and other eastern cultures.

Moderation is not the only Chinese ideal to which homage is paid through traditional architecture. It’s safe to say that China has a culture driven by ideals; even in modern China, the government is churning out new additions to its official ideology at an alarming rate, giving them philosophically-toned names like “The Three Represents” and “Four Comprehensives.” This is evidenced by the country’s buildings, whose every feature represents an ideal, from the ample use of wood representing life to high platforms representing power and prosperity to coloured lacquers in accordance with feng shui, which appear extravagant but actually represent harmony with nature.

And here is the artistic epitome of the fundamental difference between Eastern and Western theology. You may have noticed that most of the traditional structures discussed here have been religious: churches, mosques, temples. After all, man has “made God in his image”, as Feuerbach put it, for thousands of years. But while Western religious structures (well, originally Middle Eastern) are focused around building a place to praise and worship an anthropomorphic deity, all Chinese structures are focused around worshipping ideals, and this extends beyond structures with expressly religious purposes. This is very much aligned with Taoism, which – as is characteristic of Eastern religions – does not worship a deity, but a lifestyle, a path, and can thus be conceptualised as a sort of pantheism. Perhaps, then, man also makes art in his image. Just as religion was seen as projection of human desire by Feuerbach, Freud and others, art is also a form of wish fulfillment, an expression of what is through what should be. To no art form is this more applicable than to architecture, which quite simply consists of humans playing at being nature, and creating their own world to interpret and transcend their surroundings.

This little pictorial experiment has been fascinating, illuminating and pleasantly dialectical. Above all, it really does demonstrate how much art can tell us about societies and cultures, and how imperative it is that we preserve the art of the past and continue to tell stories, whose subtlety could not otherwise be conveyed, through art. There is a tendency, in this age of strict divisions and subject stratification and the dominance of “core subjects”, to view art as a discipline which exists in an altogether different dimension from the natural or social sciences. But using art as a lens through which to observe and analyse society, as I have tried to do, shows that such a division is quite demonstrably fantastical. And the adeptness of art at providing a lens is precisely the reason I love it so much.