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The Importance of Culture and Environment in a Modernist Era of Architecture

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In this essay, I will be discussing the importance of culture and environment in a modernist era of architecture; the importance of retaining an identity whilst adapting a growing movement.­ In my opinion, one should always seek to create the most efficient and effective design, however keeping the culture of where it is you are designing for is equally as important. I will use Geoffrey Bawa, a Sri Lankan architect who was a pioneer to tropical modernism (as one of the first to use the application of modernism with the cultural connotations of the environment he was designing for), as my primary source of case studies to discuss this topic in depth.    

Firstly, “modernism” is defined as “a style or movement in the arts that aims to depart significantly from classical and traditional forms,” and in architecture, this has been applied to the design of cities, houses, industrial buildings etc. The movement sought out to deny the use of ornaments and made use of minimalist design; ‘function over form’ as it were. Modernism had a much more analytical approach to the design of architecture, with a use of modern materials as well as the innovation of structure.                   

Pioneers of modernism included Le Corbusier, who had a significant impact on public housing schemes in Britain. His work: “Ville Radieuse”, an unrealised project depicting his ideas for the ideal city, inspired a movement of methodical, and (in my opinion) unflattering design. It is at this point where the issue surfaces. As an architecture student, I truly appreciate the analytical modernist approach to architecture, however I believe that if one does not try to make the design beautiful or stand out, then the repetitiveness of the landscape creates a dull environment. What is worse is that as modernism becomes more of a global phenomenon, cities begin to look like one another and the identity of a unique culture gets lost in the architecture. Examples of this include Hong Kong, Tokyo and Shanghai. In each of these examples, the cities have very few differentiating qualities such as natural land features e.g. Rivers. On the other hand, the functional approach to design brings about the most efficient methods for housing, commercial spaces etc. Modernism also allows there to be a lack of discrimination between the classes in terms of housing due to the similarities of the design.    

Furthermore, the introduction of tropical modernism, which used the methods of sustainable construction and passive cooling that had been already developed by other countries’ architects, with the advantageous elements of the natural warm, humid temperatures of the tropics, allowed for the functional advantages of modernism to be infused with the cultural integrity of the area. Tropical modernism used the methods of sustainable construction and passive cooling that had been already developed by other countries’ architects, with the advantageous elements of the natural warm, humid temperatures of the tropics.    

Geoffrey Bawa, as I have previously mentioned, was a pioneer to this movement, he integrated a sense of structural innovation successfully with an understanding of the area. Bawa claimed : “good Sri Lankan architecture’ is not determined by styles of periods of history, but through the architecture’s response to the place it is situated; light, views, topography, materiality and especially climate.” The Kandalama Hotel, Dambulla, Sri Lanka, was designed by Bawa through reinterpreting the vernacular models of the region, as well as his sensitive approach to the site. The hotel has 162 rooms and is located at the edge of a reservoir beside a rocky ridge near Dambulla. Bawa’s idea was to allow the immediate impressions of the site to stand out; a vast, dense ridge occupied by an old cave, opening to a far-reaching landscape across the Kandalama reservoir to Sigiriya. The dramatism of the view was designed to be enhanced by constricting the entrance through a thin passage, giving an impression of tunnelling through the ridge. Visitors of the hotel would arrive on an upper section of a man-made cliff, which is detached from but still aligned with the reliefs of the rock face. Bawa’s proposal was very aware of the landscape it was to be built upon, hence it responded to the topography of the site whilst hiding the mass of the building along the cliff edge. The building is also covered in vegetation so that it blends with the natural environment around it; thus, again responding to the site and not obstructing the cultural and environmental aesthetics of the area. After visiting the Kandalama Hotel, myself in the summer of 2019, I developed an understanding of how the natural environment being so closely fused with the architecture of the hotel would affect the experience of staying there. When roaming the corridors, the left side would be completely open, with only a short fence separating the interior from the exterior cliff face. Wild life such as Toque macaque monkeys would enter the hotel from the left side and roam the corridors for a time. In my opinion, this made the hotel feel like it was not obstructing the course of nature, and instead just aligning itself with it.    

In addition to the Kandalama Hotel, another example of Bawa’s innovative approach to achieve a balance between modernism and a culturally responsive piece of architecture, is the house he designed for Osmund and Ena De Silva (Colombo, 1960 – 1962). The main issue that Bawa had to overcome with this project was the compactness of the site along with the demands to integrate Kandyan features of a home with a modern house: “she demanded a house that would incorporate Kandyan features – an enclosing wall, open-sided rooms, verandahs, courtyards, a shrine room – ­but she also wanted a modern house with an office for her husband, a studio for her son.” 

As well as the issues above, another problem Bawa had to overcome was that of materials. At the time, there were shortages and import restrictions, materials such as steel and glass were expensive and modern fittings were very hard to obtain. Therefore, Bawa used materials that were made locally, and in being restricted by this had learned new methods of innovation. The choice of materials as well as the “overpowering tiled roof” gave the house a vernacular feel to it. However, the open plan that the house has is modern in its effect: “space flows from the inside to outside and long vistas range across a series of indoor and outdoor ‘rooms’ to create the illusion of infinite space on a small plot.” The House for Osmund and Ena De Silva is another example of how modernism can be utilised without having to detain from the identity of an area or culture.    

Critical regionalism is an approach to architecture that tackles the lack of identity caused by modernism, whilst rejecting the senseless ornamentation of postmodern architecture. Cultural contexts are tied to modern methods. Tropical modernism considers the climate and overall environment of the area being built upon, whereas regionalism considers the culture, materiality, special techniques of building as well as the climate. As modernism grew, the world was becoming more and more universal. Globalisation meant the sharing of standard materials and methodology from nation to nation. Over time this creates a repetitive landscape of skyscraper cities for example, as the functional approach replaces the aesthetic approach. Paul Ricour, a French theorist in his work ‘History and Truth’, argued that universalisation can help human progress, but also does subtle damages. Creativity and traditions get damaged and the world gets overcome by mediocrity. “How to be modern and continue the tradition, how to revive an old dormant civilisation as a part of a universal civilisation”. In ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture to Resistance’, Kenneth Frampton states that it is important to adopt the universal values of modernism whilst taking into account the geographical context of the building. Therefore, as critical regionalism suggests, a balance between the two ideologies is needed. In Bawa’s work, though not known for following critical regionalism, after analysis, does align well with this ideology and therefore I have used his work to convey my thoughts on modernism and how it can be modified to overcome mediocrity in design.    

In conclusion, when designing a piece of architecture, I believe that one must consider the cultural implications of the area in order to maintain the area’s identity and thus prevent it from appearing identical to other cities e.g. Tokyo and Shanghai. Although, a traditional modernist approach to architecture is indeed more efficient, I believe that it is far more important to create architecture that allows a city to stand out, repetitive architecture is unappealing to me as it seems to lack flare and ambition. Critical regionalism has provided a means to merge the some of the fundamental aspects of modernism with the climate, temperature and culture of the environment in which the architecture will be built. This allows the area to have its own identity and avoid the mediocrity of the modernism aesthetic, without having to compromise the fundamental elements of modernism using local resources etc.    

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