Identity is the soul of a being. No art form, religion, culture, tradition, architecture, and language exist without its own identity. To communicate to the public, cities, countries, regions, create art and architecture guided by politics, traditions, and customs to justify its history, the intention of an invention, and culture. 

“Details, including material articulation, are elements that make architecture communicate. Buildings could talk through the details displayed, such as humor, classic, natural, and so on.”
– Eko Prawoto

Now to know how material stands to be an essential element that influences architectural language, three terms come to one’s mind: identity, universality, and locality. The basic human instinct and knowledge to develop something out of the local and regional resources is the universality. It does not depend on style, art, tradition, or culture. It is based on the needs and requirements generally that lead to the invention of an idea and casting it into something tangible. Whereas, identity is dependent on architectural features, elements, styles, culture, and topography. Locality contributes to the concrete, sustainable, and sensorial aspects of the architectural identity and language of a place. The availability of materials becomes the first factor covered in regionalism and material identity. 

“Identity has a permanent nature, permanence is supported by both natural environment and culture, such as the natural topography, material, and culture includes views and habits. All of this is contained in the sustainable criteria. So the nature of sustainability is an important part of recognizing the identity.”
– Hidayatun, Prijotomo, and Rachmawati

As the dimensions collide and the world becomes a global village, universality takes over, causing the identity of a place to be lost or suppressed in the background. We all have been fascinated by the westernization of our simplistic thoughts that we are living in negligence. The most common example is the rising competency of countries to build the next tallest building in the world. Instead of being creative with the gift one holds, the architecture that is preferred to represent a nation is an iconic form or an iconic tower. Indubitably, many of the present-day iconic buildings are a step ahead in technology, engineering, and sustainability, but somewhere in the darkness lies the importance of material identity. 

Universal materials like concrete, steel, glass, etc. are widespread in the construction industry to produce an efficient, speedily, and cheaper solution with little or no craftsmanship. These prefabricated materials are prefabricating our creativity, thinking, and approach towards architecture. The only place you can feel the true essence of a country is indoors. For example, look at the Burj-al-Arab: inspired from the sail of a ship, the iconic 7-star hotel hints towards the cultural background once you take a journey to its heart. 

In contrast, there are projects like the student dormitories in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, UAE, focusing on sustainable features and regionalism, and blending it with modern techniques of construction and lifestyle. They beautifully depict the Arabic origin through the terracotta façade, geometric jali, and the tone of the terracotta panel that is reminiscent of the old traditional way fo Arabic lifestyle.

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Burj-Al-Arab interior ©idesignarch.com
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Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, UAE ©Tafline Laylin
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Burj-Al-Arab exterior ©idesignarch.com

Another example is the Sharjah Art Foundation – Al Mureijah Art Spaces. The building is also an example of adaptive reuse standing in conjunction with the old souk. The revealed construction of the wall shows the use of coral stone and sea-rock fossils embedded in the wall masonry.

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Wall section revealing sea rock fossil masonry ©Syeda Neha Zaidi
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The coral stone corridor of Sharjah Art Foundation ©Syeda Neha Zaidi

Our creativity has been constrained by the assumption that one must cast buildings from new materials to form a striking framework. ‎Not much of the people associated with the field pay attention to regionalism but rather to the easy-to-get industrial materials. Rapid urbanization and globalization suggest the cloning of ideas, technology over human features of architecture, monotony in design, and absence of eugenic architecture. The stigma caused by this paradigm shift in the history of architecture stole the ethical essence of designing. Here are a few recognized examples of trendsetting designs that do not respond to the context, culture, regionalism, history, etc., but only to the attractive and sustainable factors put in the limelight nowadays.

Turning torso, Malmö, Sweden‎

CCTV Headquarters, Beijing, China‎

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Turning torso, Malmö, Sweden ©indiecampers.com
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CCTV Headquarters, Beijing, China ©Jim Gourley
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CCTV Headquarters, Beijing, China ©Jim Gourley
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CCTV Headquarters, Beijing, China ©Iwan Baan

These famous buildings designed by reputable starchitects are the voice of the architect narrative instead of the city or neighbourhood ethnology. It does not complement the context or culture but dominates it. It echoes proudly of its godly and massive appearance to symbolize the power, authority, and economic strength of the region. The point of material identity vs. trendsetting design can be further put to clarity if we look at the skyline of the respective cities. 

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Malmo, Sweden skyline ©Malmö convention bureau

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The skylines may show the diversity of the cities and countries, but the egotistical approach in architecture deafens their cultural and material identities.

However, there are still some firms working on the ingenuity of material identity and individuality to create trendsetting designs. IBUKU, a Canadian firm led by Elona Hardy, successfully represents the iconic bamboo resort in Bali, Indonesia. Using the local material and enhancing the vibe of local culture and environment, the resort is a living example loved by every single visitor.

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Sharma Spring residence ©elitereaders.com
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Moon house at Bambu Indah ©IBUKU
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Interior of the moon house ©Stephen Johnson

REFERENCES

Syeda Neha Zaidi
Author

With an ambitious spirit to explore the world, Neha has embarked upon building her professional journey beginning from UAE, to Egypt, to what future holds next; to uncover the “extraordinary” in the places we see as ordinary keeping one eye ahead of the time and deeper into how architecture influences socio-culture, norms and behavior.

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