Falsely accused to be a direct by-product of contemporary globalization, Architecture as a physical manifestation of cross-cultural exchange has existed for centuries before. Its genesis began with trade, in which intercultural absorption became intertwined with imports, exports, explorations, and expansions- the spread of nations and physical goods became connected with the spread of ideas and ideologies, and, by extension, art and architecture. However, it cannot be denied that intercultural absorption has been further aggravated by the rapid exchanges of globalization, and even more so because of different digital proceedings: “Global processes, fast flow and exchange of information, ease of movement and extensive experience related to them allow crossing borders and breaking barriers of culture, politics, and in architecture, losing regional features and changing aesthetics” (Pałubicka, 2020, 1). And so, to explore the rich tapestry of architecture and urbanism, the centuries of human interconnectedness, trade, and travel must be considered, and explored- and none other an ideal example than The Renaissance.

This architectural syncretism can be noted when analyzing the period of The Renaissance, or “rebirth”. For many, The Renaissance was, in its size and scale, the origin point of contemporary globalization. The Renaissance period, lasting from the fourteenth to seventeenth century, marked a pivotal time in history when the revival of classical ideals and a flourishing of art and culture took place in Europe- and, primarily in Italy. However, the Renaissance must not be reduced to a Euro-centric ideal; through different trade routes and international relations, Italian artists and architects adopted many elements from The East, most notably from the Byzantine Empire. For example, the Byzantine Hagia Sophia and its numerous architectural elements, notably its monumental dome and intricate mosaics, left a lasting imprint on Renaissance architects; the concept of the dome, along with its structural innovations, was integrated into designs like Brunelleschi’s dome for the Florence Cathedral. In turn, the Byzantines were also influenced by external sources in their art and architecture; for example, the renowned “Iznik Plate” drew inspiration from Chinese and Persian motifs and patterns. This intercultural exchange is evidently due to different trade routes: “In the 15th century, blue-and-white Chinese porcelain did not come directly to Italy from China, but through Persia” (Clark, 2019).

Architectural Evolution through Cultural Lenses: Exploring the Influence of Global Traditions - Sheet1
A conceptual collage highlighting cross-cultural exchanges during the Renaissance. Image generated by MidJourney AI_©Elham Al Dweik

Furthermore, Islamic architectural elements, such as the use of the horseshoe arch and intricate geometric patterns, were also cross-referenced. These influences can be seen in structures like the renowned Alhambra in Spain, where Islamic architectural techniques intersected with Renaissance design principles. Renaissance Europe’s exploration of the world brought contact with distant civilizations, leading to the incorporation of Oriental influences. European voyages to Asia introduced novel materials like silk, porcelain, and spices, which, in turn, fueled cross-cultural art and architecture. The use of intricate patterns, inspired by Asian textiles, found their way into European architectural decoration, reflecting a fusion of cultures. The application of textiles was also a recurrent theme in Renaissance art. The most notorious reference to this includes the famous painting dated from 1480: “Portrait of Mehmet II” by Italian artist Gentile Bellini. Commissioned by an Ottoman sultan, the piece is a testament to the cultural interconnectedness of the era (Clark, 2019). And so, The Renaissance was a period of cross-cultural ferment, where the convergence of diverse influences shaped architectural styles. The revival of classical ideals, combined with inspiration drawn from Byzantine, Islamic, and Asian sources, created a melting pot of architectural innovation. This convergence is evident in the harmonious blending of elements in structures like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The global city: A monolithic entity amidst different high-rises_©Office for Metropolitan Architecture

While the Renaissance was a testament to the power of cross-cultural absorption of art and architecture, current-age issues relating to this still prevail. A point of constant tension in the contemporary era is issues related to cross-cultural exchanges, including, but not limited to, accelerationism due to extreme globalization, modernization, and the digital age. And so, central to this debate is the increased influence of globalization on architecture and urbanism: the import thus becomes a Ford-T model of homogenous, commodified, and standard design. And so, the absolute anti-thesis of cultural consideration becomes actualized through this standardized model of design- whether on an architectural, neighborhood, or urban scale, in which it has been heavily stated that “cultural diversity needs to be better understood and more systematically outlined by urban planners” (NatureNews). And so, a key issue relevant to the aforementioned is the decomposition of cultural heritage and socio-historical attachments: “Architectural design takes on a new expression resulting from the cultural mix as well as the detachment from the context, tradition and often cultural roots” (Pałubicka, 2020, 1). This is particularly notable when analyzing the spread of the International Style, which “has become arbitrary and exchangeable” (Nicolai, 2017). Thus, the building as an international icon becomes the defining feature of the contemporary metropolis- the post-global city. Another clear-cut example of this recurring issue, but on a larger, more urban scale, is fully manifested in what Gulf expert Yasser ElSheshtawy calls “Dubaization”, in which the picturesque model of excessive developments, high-rises, and starchitecture that characterize the city of Dubai are imported into different cities and countries- often with no context or background. This can be seen in cities such as Cairo, Amman, and Ankara. This form of cultural superimposition has far-reaching consequences: “At the urban scale, the clustering formed by high-rises spatially segregate upper-middle income group users socially and economically, thereby creating a new system of spatial value(s)” (Gültekin, 2017, 9).

And so, while cross-cultural interconnectedness in art and architecture is not a novel topic, there must be a clear distinction between the international ideological flourishing that took place during the Renaissance, and current age accelerationism due to globalization. And so, considering this multidimensionality of cross-cultural influences in architecture, as well as the aforementioned duality of importing elements of design, it is often ideal to take a dialectical approach in defining what may be an alternative approach to architecture that does not narcissistically superimpose itself. A relevant term, in this case, is Kenneth Frampton’s “critical regionalism”, “used by Frampton to define an attitude of resistance against a globalized, generic architecture”. (Cutieru, 2021). And so, in considering cross-cultural approaches in architecture, design, and urbanism, it is relevant to note that, while the importing and exporting of ideas, ideologies, and spaces is an essential humanism, it should also be approached with caution in the modern age. 

References:

(No date) Nature news. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/d42473-022-00370-0 (Accessed: 15 August 2023). 

Cutieru, A. (2021) Re-evaluating critical regionalism: An architecture of the place, ArchDaily. Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/966401/re-evaluating-critical-regionalism-an-architecture-of-the-place (Accessed: 15 August 2023). 

Elsheshtawy, Y. (no date) Tumblr. Available at: https://sheshtawy.org/ (Accessed: 15 August 2023). 

Majerska-Pałubicka, B. (2020) ‘Architecture vs. globalization’, IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering, 960(2), p. 022078. doi:10.1088/1757-899x/960/2/022078. 

Nicolai, B. et al. (no date) Architectural history after globalization, History/Theory – Bernd Nicolai. Available at: https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/history-theory/159238/architectural-history-after-globalization/ (Accessed: 15 August 2023). 

Tanju Gültekin, A. (2017) ‘Globalisation reflected onto architecture: Tall buildings of ankara-turkey’, IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering, 245, p. 072035. doi:10.1088/1757-899x/245/7/072035. 

Author

Elham Al Dweik is a Jordanian-Palestinian architect based in the United Arab Emirates. Alongside an architectural background, she maintains a keen interest in reading, writing, and literary reflection.