Major imperialist powers have long created local icons in cities where the holders of economic, political, or cultural power were based. The role of architecture then was to represent power, to be monumental, to have representational sculptural forms, and to speak to the generations to come of the great imperial regime. These later became national icons like the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame in France, Buckingham Palace and Big Ben in England, the Roman Colosseum in Italy, and the Taj Mahal and Gateway of India in India, helping citizens fix their visual and emotional compass. Today, they constitute a nation’s cultural heritage and strive to be the physical manifestations of a citizen’s philosophical identity.
After the formation of nation-states, territorial elites used architecture to uphold national identity and express national ambitions. This can be seen in the symbolic representations of parliament buildings, national libraries, and museums for which the upper echelons of society searched for a form that incorporated indigenous architectural elements to represent the distinctive identities of the citizens. The role of architecture, thus, was to renew and constitute the sense of a nation.
However, many attempts to build new national icons after the 20th century have failed. The failure makes one question not only the role of architecture in this era but also the changing notions of national identity.
Post-1970s, globalization turned the whole world into a global village, shaped by neo-liberal economies and the flow of capital, services, people, and information. In this capitalist era, politicians increasingly adopt a global architectural language as a place-marketing strategy to attract residents, visitors, and investors. Internationally prominent architecture firms are especially sought after by local private and public clients for urban boosterism and nation (re)building.
This can be seen in the case of Spain, where an economically distressed city, Bilbao, was revived after the construction of the Guggenheim Museum by Frank O Gehry. The effect in which flagship architectural projects by starchitects are used as a catalyst to economically revive a place came to be known as the Bilbao effect and became the father of “iconic” architecture and Western cultural imperialism.
However, deeper research into the construction of the Guggenheim Museum illustrates how its construction was not only an economic initiative but also a part of the political maneuver by the ruling party in the Basque region to compete with other oppositional institutions and to enhance its strength within Spain. This offers interesting insights, about how nations and cities are intricately bound with all manner of networks of power and how culture and identity are compromised in such processes.
The paradox of nationalism and the desire to embrace international architects further illustrates the changing methods of nation-building in the era of capitalist globalization, especially in developing countries. The paradox can be elucidated through various examples, like the National Stadium and the China Central Television Headquarters in China, and the proposed Navi Mumbai International Airport in India. In these examples, international contemporary architecture is used to express a new globally-oriented identity of the nation. Thus, nationalism is continually redefined as the pride in seeing one’s nation on the global front.
A negative outcome of this capital-intensive approach is the irresponsibility in the fusion of local traditional forms and modern building techniques by Western architects, as seen in the case of Burj Khalifa. To market itself as a city worthy of investment, Dubai used the symbolism that is loaded in the title of the world’s tallest skyscraper. As an interpretation of the culture of Dubai, the architects used onion domes, ignorant of the fact that onion domes are usually associated with the Persian and Mughal architecture of South Asia rather than Arab Islamic architecture. One could even argue that the claims of reference to Islamic architecture were not a central design ambition but were only a part of an advertising campaign to appeal to the exotic sensibilities of the orientalists.
The examples highlight a transition in the role of architecture, from expressing national identities and being symbolic to its varied citizens, to being a global commodity. This transition leads to a rapid cultural change, from the distinctive cultures and ethnicities of a nation to a homogenized global culture. Would citizens adapt to this rapid cultural change, or would they fall prey to the growing alienation of their vicinities?
Academicians argue that it is the discrete historical events, as well as the historical evolution of cultural norms and values, economic organization, and technologies that help shape places. In the current context, it is the events that unfold throughout history that frame the unique traditional architecture of a place. To neglect that for a global architectural language, and to use it to express national ambitions could have grave impacts on a citizen’s philosophical identity and sense of rootedness. A place does not only exist physically but also in people’s minds as memories.
A possible solution would be to think glocally, a composite term used to unite global and local approaches and to find a balance between them, thus reinforcing a distinct identity while at the same time being open to foreign influences. Under this criterion, the incorporation of an acceptable architectural language drawn from vernacular design aspects, site, architectural forms, material, and symbolism is essential with the technological modernizations.
The article predicts the importance of the ethical responsibility of the architect in the age of capitalist globalization. In the words of Pritzker Laureate Charles Correa,
“In an era dominated by the starchitects and their iconic structures, architecture cannot be mere adjectives and exclamation marks. Cities need grammar.”