Architecture is a tool for disseminating the paradigms of the society it represents. Its evolution will be closely related to the prevailing discourse of power at the time. To imagine a world where architecture does not exist is to think of a world without ideology or without the implementation of the social values of the culture of its time. However, we must ask ourselves what happens when different cultures collide and how architecture unfolds in this scenario. And even more, how this discipline will evolve, coming into contact with places where Western had not reached before.
Evolution in architecture
In 1492 Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean. In 1835 Charles Darwin arrived at the Galapagos Islands. In 1868 Commodore Matthew Perry sailed the Sea of Japan. In the 1930s, Margaret Mead studied Samoan culture and social behaviours. What do these four facts have in common? In all of them, the Western world encountered societies or ecosystems outside its influence. In neither case were these navigators or scientists the first to arrive at these locations. Today we know that sailors from different places arrived in America before Columbus. A group of lost adventurers from Pizarro’s expedition arrived at the Galapagos in 1546 and named them the Enchanted Islands. Yet, in all cases, for very different reasons, these sites were able to keep themselves isolated from both the creative and destructive arms of the West. And from this, they were able to study how evolution (animal, cultural or social) developed in those places. The clash of asymmetric cultures does not usually end in a satisfactory way for both parties. And the conclusions are almost always wrong or questionable.
The current historiography of architecture explains the evolution of the discipline as a linear and ascending process, from its Mesopotamian and Egyptian mystical origins to the conceptual and technical development in Greece and Rome. With Christianity, local tastes and religious values were adapted, translated, and adjusted, leading to several stages of the Renaissance. After ambivalence, crises, and reconversions, the modern movement broke out and dominated the world scene. During European colonization in various parts of the world, Western culture encountered both peoples with vast and developed vernacular architectural styles and others without this rich history.
It would be fair to ask, however, what would have happened to the evolution of the meanings and aesthetics of architecture not influenced by imperialism and Western identity suppression. What would Precolumbian architecture and urbanism be like today without the arrival of the Spanish? What would architecture in Asia be like without the influence of Christian ideology? These questions, at first glance, are counterfactual and empirically unprovable. They can only lead us to wrong conclusions. Or, in the best scenario, to subjective responses, idealizing and tinged with a fallacious ideological nuance. However, we can know how architecture developed in these places when the cultural shock occurred and draw some conclusions from there.
Ley de Indias
From the 16th century onwards, there was a succession of legislation that was intended to order social, cultural, political, and economic life in America. All this normative body was compiled in 1681 by order of King Carlos II under the title of Recopilación de Leyes de Los Reynoso de las Indias, commonly, as Laws of the Indies. There, the distribution of land, territorial organization, urban planning, and public works to be carried out in the conquered territories are established synthetically. However, like all regulations, the idealizing and purely theoretical precepts contrast with the reality where they are based. Urban conceptions in Europe were based on a combination of still medieval cities, with a Renaissance conceptual logic submerged in utopian thinking.
With the discovery of America, a flowering of this utopian thought and the real possibilities of its implementation will be unleashed. This is due to the clash of the dreams, ideals, and thoughts of a Europe submerged in the Renaissance, with the New World both in its exuberance and in the myths of the original inhabitants. In this way, America was constituted as a mechanism for the objectification of utopia, allowing a symbiotic process between the real object -America- and the imagining subject -the utopian genre- (Ainsa, 1992). Rama (1998) in La Ciudad Letra da raises the distinction between an imaginary American space, linked both to an imperial project and to the visions and desires projected in an idealized territory and a real one.
The latter is the one that only exists in history and is limited to the transformations of society. However, it is worth asking ourselves if the utopias and the modelling character inherent in them have an implicit vision of the evolution of the vices and uncertainties of the European world in American lands or if it will become a tool of domination, conquest, and translation of said ailments. That is, if utopias as self-fulfilling prophecies, they will imply a rigid and authoritarian universe, as Karl Popper (1957) points out, taking as true the assertion that utopia and ideology have as a crucial point the problem of power (Ricoeur, 1991).
Architecture and urban planning are strategies to materialize the aspirations, dreams, and ways of life of nations and their people. When the discipline consciously or unconsciously tries to escape from this reality, it usually leads to a failed evolutionary path. The Law of the Indies proposes an urban schematization of territories of different geological compositions. The layout will be the same, whether it is implanted on the plain, the mountains, rivers, or cliffs. And little did it care about the very varied and openly different social characteristics of the original natives.
Thus, architecture and European humanist thought find themselves in a world without (western) architecture and without unified thought. From this cultural shock, an unprogrammed, non-linear, and not necessarily ascending evolution is generated, as is often suggested in architectural historiography.
For example, during the post-colonial period, Mexico adopted and developed the Baroque style, closer to the aesthetics and feelings of the natives of those lands. In Argentina, on the other hand, a more Italianate, stripped-down, and synthetic style was adopted as a rejection of Spain and its colonial domination. That is, taking the previous generalization and understanding that there are multiple exceptions to what has been said, European styles are emptied of their original symbolic content and adapted to the discursive needs of the ruling powers and their thought in this period. In short, we can’t speculate with any degree of empirical certainty how societies would evolve without what we call Western architecture. But we can speculate that -from the cultural clash of worlds that did not possess it with those that created and re-adapted it over time- a new evolutionary form of it, unprecedented and innovative.
Ainsa, F. (1984) Presentimiento, descubrimiento e invención de América. Alicante: Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, 2010. At Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos. Nº. 411
Gutiérrez, R. (1985) Arquitectura y urbanismo en Iberoamérica. Buenos Aires: Ed. Arte Cátedra
Popper, K. (1947) Conjeturas y refutaciones. Madrid: Ed. Paidós.
Ricoeur, P. (1986) Ideología y utopía. Madrid: Ed. Gedisa. 1986.
Rama, A. (1998) La ciudad letrada. Cali: Ed. Del Norte. 1998