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From post-colonialism to post-disaster or conflict: Issues of cultural agency for architects as ‘outsiders’

Part 1 Dissertation 2008
Sophia Ceneda
London Metropolitan University London UK
Architects have long questioned the impact of their design in the world, and in some cases claim they have the ability to promote social change. But recent decades have witnessed the emergence of sharp criticisms of architects’ interventions questioning their positions within specific socio-political environments. Ghirardo denounces the profession for being concerned only with formal elements thus evading condemnation of ‘existing power structures’. This attitude, she contends, raises issues of racism, white flight and exploitation. Looking back, Gossé also explains how modernists promoted a ‘universalising view of THE culture, which was in fact European-centric, [denying] the legitimacy of cultural diversity in the world’. Concurrent Findley argues that European colonialism, through space appropriation, has resulted in people being robbed of ‘their ability to act on their own behalf ’ and thus made invisible, excluded politically, culturally, and spatially. With the continuation of this process today, the danger is a homogeny of models leading to the eradication of cultural diversity. Findley raises a central query concerning the role of architects in restoring diversity of what she calls ‘cultural agencies’. Serageldin agrees, architects should become ‘enablers of the poor’ to help stop communities becoming disenfranchised, with consequences potentially ranging from social tensions to genocide.

In parallel to the expression of such positions – or may be as a result? – the last few decades have seen the emergence of a ‘humanitarian’ architecture dedicated to the ‘poor’. Yet again it is only legitimate to question the adequacy of such a movement and the validity of architecture projects conceived by ‘outsiders’. First, design is indeed a strong medium for cultural agency as demonstrated by early building forms or vernacular architecture. Second, in order to avoid the misappropriate application of one’s cultural agency, with sometimes dire consequences, one needs to consider the skills and processes required to fulfil the needs of people belonging to different/differing socio-economical and/or cultural spheres. Thirdly, this can only be achieved through a real understanding of what constitutes ‘participation’ and ‘users’ empowerment’ so that to facilitate the formulation of a design project with valid cultural meanings for end-users, not culturally alienating. Even if still sparse, examples of a perceptive approach exist and need referring to until

Sophia Ceneda

This paper makes a passionate and compelling case for a more democratic and participatory approach to architecture. It asks the question of architecture as an agent and catalyst of cultural change and social transformation - a particularly difficult topic to explore sensitively, requiring an inclusive and balanced perspective on a discipline embedded in a complex field of historical, economic and political forces.

Drawing on first-hand experience working in places of social crisis and conflict, it makes a strong argument for an interdisciplinary approach to architecture - the inclusion of, for example, work in the field of ethnology, anthropology and economics in architectural processes - and implicitly proposes a new outlook in the way we perceive architecture as a discipline and area of knowledge in general.

To illustrate democratic and interdisciplinary processes in architecture within the limit of an extended dissertation is difficult if it is not to be at the expense of thorough critical analysis; but it is also particularly difficult to find examples that can penetrate into a plane of architectural representation of a certain scale, and be part of a more traditional discourse concerned with a 'monumental' canon. This desire seems to have been key in the student's choice to focus on one, large-scale example. Even though a number of smaller projects might have been easier to treat more exhaustively, the choice ultimately seems the most productive in achieving this goal.

The style of writing is fluent, thoroughly analytical and convincing and the depth of research presented in this essay is impressive. It draws on some key references, but also presents lesser known sources which it brings together with imagination and to great effect even for the more experienced reader.

Joseph Kohlmaier
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