Throughout history, the cultural and symbolic values of every epoch and society have undoubtedly manifested through architecture. These built forms are not only visual translations of the advancement and developments of urban environments but also a transcended means of preserving these socio-cultural identities. Implicit in this process is that architecture can never truly remain neutral, just as the meaning we ascribe to a building is never static. As a result, although in no way an appeal to environmental determinism, architecture has historically and cross-culturally demonstrated the power to embed particular biases and influence people in systematic ways.
In many respects, architecture is a material reflection of the dynamic socio-cultural traditions within every society. However, it is through this public expression, that we see how particular social interactions have been influenced. For example, in her book “Gendered Spaces”, Daphne Spain argues that historically, gender stratification has been attuned to certain spatial arrangements. Nearly one-third of all women work in “open-floor” occupations, a stark contrast to the higher status “man-work” occurring behind closed doors. These spatial conditions ultimately highlight a disconcerting cycle, in which a woman is limited from accessing knowledge that has been used by men to produce and reproduce power; a woman’s lesser status in society is continuously reinforced and normalized.
Furthermore, this expressive power of architecture has consistently been exploited as a means of asserting political supremacy and cultivating a ‘national identity’. Similar to the aforementioned gendered spaces, albeit on a noticeably more recognizable and public scale, political agendas have shown to validate existing systems of dominance and compliance through architecture. Regardless of proclamations of ‘unity’ and ‘progress’, these fabrications simply attempted to disguise thehierarchical rapacity and self-delusion of the elite.
Within the context of an emerging post-colonial world, Chandigarh demonstrates such manipulation of civic space; a capital intended as a symbol of progress under the Nehruvian regime. The ‘non-identarian’ quality of Le Corbusier’s modernist design of the state capital (1951) was intended to legitimize the developing country’s independence from the West, and thereby incite national pride. Ironically, however, by inviting a European architect as Chandigarh’s representative designer, Nehru undoubtedly embraced the notion of ‘modernity’ for its associations with the Western world. Despite Le Corbusier’s claims that Chandigarh would offer “freedom, democracy, emancipation, and progress for all Indian citizens”, the anthropomorphic form of the caput mundi served as an allegorical reference to the Indian caste structure. Furthermore, the location of parliament buildings was a spatial proclamation of political dominance. Consequently, democratic spaces such as the people’s plaza, programmatically designed to represent the citizens, were rendered useless and impractical. Instead, the architecture only reinforced the existing literal divisions that continued to pervade the colonized region. It is this internalized hierarchy which highlights how people were influenced to accept, and align with, a new national identity, one that ultimately remained a legacy to the colonial assimilationist doctrine.
Today, this desire to contextualize place and identity through architecture remains ubiquitous. In an effort to influence individual perceptions of institutions and ideas, aesthetics is perhaps one of the most significant considerations for public architecture. Earlier this year in the U.S, it came to the attention of many that the Trump administration was reportedly considering an executive order under Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again. Whilst the title itself is an eye-rolling provocation, the document has instigated a proliferating outcry, particularly within the architecture community. Perhaps such intense debate is to be expected within a Trumpian era of vehement polarization, yet, it also raises an underlying issue: the subjective but ineffable truth in our political perception of architecture.
Whilst Le Corbusier’s modernist design of Chandigarh attempted to negate former colonial historicism, Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again can at best be summarized as aesthetic time travel on paper. The draft currently reads: “Architectural styles—with special regard for the classical architectural style—that value beauty, respect regional architectural heritage, and command admiration by the public are the preferred styles for applicable Federal buildings”.
By returning to a recognizable aesthetic of former power, the public is influenced to perceive these buildings as symbols of endurance and grounded reliability.
Although there are certainly some valid points to this draft, it ultimately harks back to an era that prioritized monumental and institutional forms – essentially cultural symbols of elitism. Standing behind the guise of democratic aestheticism, this dictating of ‘beauty’ and sanctioning of a state style would only reinforce the self-perception of government officials and their self-assumed prerogative to dominance and power. Whilst government buildings are intended to symbolize the state as a whole, here we are reminded that they are instead often dominated by a clear, individualistic sense of identity. This manipulation of architecture continues to reference a ‘Golden Era’ of political advancement as a means of legitimizing hierarchies and extreme power, and in doing so, is intended to influence how people perceive their political representatives.
Both past and present, the communicative role of architecture has been critical in influencing people to accept and align with particular ideas and institutions. Perhaps it is through our inherent sense of place, that we actively project ourselves as part of our environments. Ultimately, however, it is this way of experiencing, expressing, imagining, and knowing a place that comes to define people.
Vale, Lawrence. “Designed Capitals After World War II: Chandigarh and Brasilia”. In Architecture Power and National Identity, New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 1992.