Cultural practices and architecture are undistinguishable endeavors of mankind just like two threads of the same fabric twined together– where one entity ends, the principal foundations of the other just begin. The very essence of any building arrives from the abstraction of the culture prevailing around its surroundings. And this works the other way around as well – built forms and surroundings dictate the culture and ways of living for communities. 

Primarily, architecture meant to create spaces for shelter against climatic conditions and these conditions directed civilizations on various levels – they dressed aptly in adjustment to said climatic conditions and consumed dietary resources supported by that specific climate. This in turn along with political and economic conditions creates distinctive patterns across regions thus forming the basis of a specific culture of that region. 

Apart from the need to meet the requirements of shelter, spaces were built to accommodate cultural practices. For example, Agoras were designed as gathering halls to recognize their customary social and political congregations. The funerary temples in Egypt provide for the worship of deceased pharaohs and such structures reflect their cultural belief in ‘life after death’.

Having addressed the interdependence of culture and architecture, we come to know of 2 major senses of culture – the kind that purposely built structures and the other that is a result of the built environment. To conveniently quote the former president of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill:

 – “We shape buildings and buildings shape us thereafter”

With regard to modernist principles in architecture, it may well be argued that modernism is a culture in itself. High rise buildings and glass edifices housed institutional demands of the ever-evolving corporate world. Modern structures embodied minimalism and excluded ornamentation. So in actuality does modern architecture take culture into consideration? The answer lies in the extent of cultural adaptability implied by modern structures and in the acceptance of cultural presence as an indispensable part of human society. 

Let’s look at a few modern structures that sample the concept of innovative cultural expression with ease 

1. Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre, New Caledonia 

Designed by the famed Italian architect, Renzo Piano, the cultural centre is a contemporary reflection of the history, environment and beliefs of the indigenous community, Kanak. The structure was commissioned by the New Caledonian government to recognize the disruptive history shared between the Kanak people and European colonizers in the nineteenth century.

The structure was a result of a virtuous attempt to acknowledge existing resource exploitation, cultural oppression, and long periods of Kanak enslavement. The project gained momentum and much recognition for its elegant and efficient design that integrated modern elements such as glass and steel along with the earthy tones of the island.

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The design draws inspiration from Kanak houses traditionally built from locally sourced wood. ©Arch20

2. The British Council, Delhi

Built-in 1992, the design includes a library, auditorium, art gallery and functions as the headquarters of the British Council. Charles Correa designed spaces and elements in a series of layers such that it reiterates the 300-year-old colonial relationship between India and Britain.

With three expressive courtyards, Correa’s design associates cosmic elements across Hinduism, Islam and the European Enlightenment – the inclusion of a spiral symbolizing Bindu – the energy centre of the Cosmos and implementing the traditional Islamic Char Bagh to a European icon, connoting the Age of Reason.

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An exceptional amalgamation of cultures that symbolize the colonial past of India. ©Architectural Digest India

3. Jawahar Kala Kendra, Rajasthan 

A multi-arts centre located in Jaipur to preserve the handicrafts and art forms native to the Rajasthani community. The complex consists of eight blocks accommodating museums, one amphitheater, a closed auditorium, library, art studios, cafeterias and hostel spaces. The complex is carefully designed by Charles Correa adapting principles of Vastu Vidya and imitates the cultural context of Jaipur with its stepwells like courtyards and fortified structures. The layout of the Kendra is inspired by the city’s immaculate town planning resembling the nine square Yantra.

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Jawahar Kala Kendra ©Archeyes

4. Tammany Hall, New York City

Built-in 1928, Tammany Hall, a socialist hub that played a major role in dictating the political climate of New York City. The restoration and refurbishment of the complex included preservation of its two brick facades and even an addition of a contemporary three-storey-glass and steel dome. The dome draws inspiration from a turtle’s shell and is meant to symbolize the legacy of an indigenous group, namely Lenape.

This structure is yet another prime example of how architecture and design revolve around ideas of cultural relevance.BKSK Architects after holding discussions with the Lenape Centre sought a design that upholds the legacy and culture of the community.

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Tammany Hall ©BKSK Architects