Listen and respond to the unique rhythms and melodies of a place to create structures that are in sync with the local culture
In the world of architecture, the interplay between local culture and design is akin to a dance. Each movement is choreographed to create a harmonious expression of the community's identity, values, and traditions. Like a symphony, the buildings and structures within a city or town work together to create a unique melody that represents the soul of a place. But this dance is not always easy, for as with any performance, mistakes can be made. A designer may attempt to impose their own style, disregarding the local culture, resulting in a building that is like a discordant note, out of tune with its surroundings.
Architecture is a reflection of the culture and identity of a place, and no two regions are alike in this regard. Local architecture is shaped by the environment, resources, traditions, and values of a community. From the thatched-roofed homes of rural villages to the towering skyscrapers of modern cities, each region's architecture and design elements tell a unique story about its people and their way of life. It is this connection between locality and architecture that gives buildings their soul and a sense of belonging.
Kenya Hara, the popular Japanese curator who is known for his design philosophies that wrap around Japanese values believes that the purpose of design is to explore the essential quality in things and that without locality, global culture doesn’t exist because the local culture (a country's language) is the main contributor to the global context (the universal language).
"In my opinion, the soul of architecture is composed of various elements: the perceived identity of the inhabitants and the culture of the society, and the geographical condition of the place. This means that architecture is fluid and can evolve in its appearance (form) and function over time if any of these elements were to change," said Jessie Er, a designer based in Singapore.
Er highlighted an example that can be seen in the British colonial houses in Singapore (affectionately called ‘black and white bungalows’ by the locals), which were built in the early 1900s to house British officials and military personnel when Singapore was still a colony.
"The design of the houses was influenced by the black-and-white Tudorbethan style," said Er, "to make its British dwellers feel more at home in a far-off foreign environment. What is interesting is that the architects went a step further by incorporating indigenous culture such as parts of its structure raised above ground - similar to how the locals built their houses on stilts to keep interiors cool and floods at bay. Spacious verandahs and windows on almost every facing of the house ensured good cross-ventilation which was necessary for such a hot, tropical climate. These days in post-colonial Singapore, around 500 of these colonial houses have been preserved and are used mainly for entertainment and businesses such as restaurants and bars."
Each era has its architectural style, from the grandeur of the Renaissance to the simplicity of the Bauhaus movement. From Gothic arches pointing to the heavens above, to the wooden temples blending in with nature's grove. In Japan, traditional structures are designed to blend, with nature, creating harmony, and a Zen-like trend. While in Brazil, colonial architecture paints the towns with colors, like a carnival of bright wonders. Russia's onion domes are distinctive, a bit like a fancy cake, topped with colorful finery. And in South Africa, circular huts made of mud and grass, maybe not a five-star hotel, but you can still have a blast.
These examples show how the soul of a place is expressed through its architecture and design. Local culture, traditions, and values influence the choice of materials, construction techniques, and decorative elements, creating buildings and structures that reflect the unique identity of the community. It is this connection between locality and architecture that makes each place in the world special and worth preserving.
"I think a house should offer a welcoming environment that evokes a sense of ‘home’ – a sanctuary where the soul of a person resides,” said Jose Roberto Brito, a Brazilian painter artist currently based in Warsaw. “In my view, a successful building project must take into account the surrounding landscape, harnessing its beauty to create a natural haven that exudes a profound sense of security, warmth, and wholeness. To get to this point, it is necessary to take into account the history of cities and communities. Natural elements help people feel at peace with themselves and the world."
According to Racha Doughman, a Lebanese architect, deep qualities leave a psychological trace by celebrating essential attributes such as light, color, materials, smell, sound, and sometimes historical remnants.
“A layer of mysticism unveils and creates layers that rethink the essence of a space beyond its functionality and operation," said Doughman.
The soul of architecture is connected to local inventions, such as building materials, techniques, and styles. Traditional building techniques also play a vital role in creating the soul of a building, as they are often passed down through generations and are imbued with cultural significance. For example, the timber framing of traditional Japanese buildings is a technique that has been perfected over centuries, and it reflects the culture's values of simplicity, respect for nature, and craftsmanship.
However, globalization and the advent of modern technologies have led to the homogenization of architecture, the fading of the soul of places with architecture and design looking almost identical in different parts of the world. There is a risk of losing the unique character of a place if architects and designers do not respect the local culture and instead impose their own vision. This is why it is essential to understand and honor the connection between locality and architecture.
The soul of a place is like a treasure trove, a precious inheritance that should be cherished and preserved. It is a legacy to be passed down from generation to generation, a reminder of where we come from, and a beacon for where we might be going. Therefore, it is crucial that we preserve the local identity and embrace the local culture to create architecture that reflects the soul of a place. We must understand the connection between the people, the land, and the buildings, and how they work together to create a harmonious and sustainable community.
Locality is significant in architecture," said Doughman, "because it can generate buildings and experiences that are more inclusive. This encourages local communities to support, protect, and maintain not only the building itself but also the context surrounding it. Therefore, it adopts a contextual method by considering topography, climate, choice of local materials, and construction methods. A good example in Lebanon is the emergence of 'biosphere reserves'. It is an extension of the natural reserve that creates an all-encompassing ecology and a comprehensive interaction between the landscape and the human settlements. It also appears as a form of resistance to the fragmentation and perforation of the landscape as a result of haphazard construction and lack of planning. This interdisciplinary approach creates buildings that are more responsive to the people’s needs and to the social and ecological systems where the user experiences a sense of ownership to the space and its surroundings."
Arwa Ali, co-Founder of Doha-based ANAR Architects thinks that the global nowadays is becoming a small village.
"I think the only philosophy left in modern architecture is within the architect and their identity: the architect's creativity and the architecture that they have been raised around or have explored," said Ali.
The soul of a place can also be found in furniture. According to Nada Debs, an esteemed Lebanese designer with a unique perspective on the power of design, it's not just about aesthetics; it's about creating an emotional resonance that can be achieved through repetition.
"Islamic geometry, for instance, is derived from polygons that originate from a circle, repeated to create the arabesque patterns," said Debs, "which reminds me of the Japanese Enso circle, the edge-less pure form: the origin is the same. I believe that repetition has a universal appeal that makes us feel safe and elated, as it does in natural settings in its various contexts and multiple scales."
Debs grew up in Japan, which has left an indelible mark on her work. She believes that Japanese designers have a knack for bringing things down to their essence, a philosophy that resonates with her deeply. She also thinks that form should be quiet, allowing the design to speak for itself without being overly ornate or showy.
"In my work, forms are quiet. I'm drawn to geometrical patterns because they hold a deeper significance that marks my Middle Eastern identity. I believe that we have an innate need to belong that is marked since birth when an umbilical cord attached us to our mothers. I saw that geometrical patterns held that deeper significance which marked my Middle Eastern identity that helped me exist and kept me rooted. My mission became to elevate that craft and make it relevant to our modern lifestyle," Debs told ADF.
Architects and designers must listen and respond to the unique rhythms and melodies of a place to create structures that are in sync with the local culture. This way, we can ensure that the city remains in tune. Human beings aren’t the only ones with souls. Architectural spaces and their elements, too, have a soul, a strong pulse that marks their presence, intangible, yet palpable, unique, and irreplaceable. Memory dances with the experiences and the emotions withheld and manifests an identity that reverberates with the place. But there lies a responsibility on those observers and capturers of that pulse so that they can maintain it: architects and designers. Today’s generation stands on the shoulder of all past thought and innovation, regarding the built environment and other fields, and has the responsibility to further build upon it.