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In place: in cherishing the particular against a corrosive tide of globalization, architects can make the world a better place.

The once rare and exotic have become commonplace. We no longer 'for lust of knowing what should not be known' take Flecker's Golden Road to Samarkand, (1) but arrive by 747 and find the city equipped with efficient trolleybuses; Machu Picchu is overrun by parties of well drilled hikers and littered with Kodak packaging; the sands of the empty quarter of Arabia are woven into ruts by the tracks of four-wheel-drive Toyotas. Only a very few places are obscure enough to avoid the influence of international travel, or rich enough to be able to resist being made into a one-night stop on the relentless tourist itinerary.


Almost all children (at least in the more prosperous areas of the world) play with the same toys, styled in North America or Europe and made by serf-like labour in the least well-off countries. Only a child of very poor parents (or very rich ones) can hope to escape from the scum of sentimental plastic washed up by the tide of the global economy. In entertainment, Hollywood rules, changes history and reduces the well-loved original characters of children's stories--Mowgli, Pooh Bear, Snow White, Dr Dolittle and the rest--into anodyne Californian suburbanites.

Food used to be one of the most distinguishing characteristics of a civilization. A range of hills or a river could divide radically different cuisines. Now, fast food throughout the world is tasteless American or over-spiced Asian. Fusion food in which elements of different cuisines are amalgamated (a potentially exciting idea) too often ends up as muddy mush, enlivened with the odd curl of ginger, or horseradish or a rocket leaf. Such ingredients are often grown in poor countries: out of season vegetables in Africa; poultry in South-East Asia, often taking land and resources from production of staple crops, and causing scarcity for local people.

The effects of anomie

In urban terms, this almost universal condition of anomie and indifference to the fate of others has resulted in the awful dreariness of North American cities. That culture has been exported wonderfully successfully. Planning by civil engineers concerned with little other than automobile convenience has resulted in the fractured fabrics of cities as different as Cairo, Cape Town, Seattle and Shanghai (though not much yet, thank goodness, in the ancient cities of Europe). Even when the road engineers have been caused to try to make a semblance of urbanity, as they have in places like Moscow and Peking, their contributions are just as divisive of traditional urban texture, but are decorated by floral central traffic reservations and kitsch balustrades.

If motorways carve apart the body of the city, car parks form a deadening rash over much that remains--atrophied and often expanding areas in which selfishness, litter and crime rule. Public urban space tends toward this condition of auto-desert, populated by the poor and dispossessed. Private space is increasingly defined by walls, armed guards and electronic surveillance. Here, power and money reside, girdled by steel and armed guards.

The ethos of such special areas is spreading. Increasingly, types of space that were traditionally parts of the public realm--markets, streets, squares, places of congregation and worship--are becoming private territories, ruled arbitrarily by private corporations with their own rules which, while not absolutely in contradiction to common law, erode individual freedom and enforce the rule of mediocrity.

Such enclaves, set in a septic sea of civil engineering, are intended to provide the sense of place, of settled values and safety that is psychologically necessary for all of us. They work very well (in a way) for the reasonably well off, but they have nothing to offer to society as a whole: they are places of exclusion rather than inclusion; they seem to be safe in a world of increasing uncertainty and threatening squalor. More and more, the world seems to be tending towards the futures anticipated at the beginning of last century by writers like H.G. Wells and E.M. Forster (2) who suggested that the well off would live in places cosseted and protected by technology against nature, and against the horrifying working classes who turn into a separate, savage and violent race, waiting always for the collapse of the protective machines. Which happens with dire results.

Leading by example

Wells and Forster were of course reflecting on the chasmic class divisions of the society of Edwardian London, then the richest in the world. But today, the collapse of civil society (and the civic fabric) into adversely opposed factions seems almost as immanent in most developed countries. Bladerunner is just over the horizon.

Can architecture do anything to counteract the erosion of social and civic consciousness that the market seems to be driving so hard? Not much perhaps. But as Billie Tsien urged at the conference celebrating this cycle of Aga Khan awards (p62), your canoe tied to a tanker can make a difference to the big ship's course, if only you keep on paddling as hard as you can. The works of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have, like those of the best of their contemporaries, shown how architecture can generously and gently suggest directions into which the massive tanker of the market can be turned. (It will not resist, as long as the good can be shown to be profitable.)

Architecture has to lead by example. Our profession is one of the few capable of imagining better physical futures for humanity. Too often, we become dull servants of big business or big bureaucracy. Too often, the most famous members of the profession become preoccupied by their own personalities, generating flashy images and huckstering iconic trademarks. Too often, architects lack understanding of the liberating opportunities offered by technology, and tend to choose its restrictive potential.

Architecture is not, nor ever has been, an autonomous art, as some claim. It is generated by the human need for shelter, for places in which we can engage with others and for places of celebration. The best architects, from the people who made Stonehenge to the most sensitive designers today, have always understood that we can call down divine fire, focus community, make a place for home.


The responsibility of helping to make the world generously appropriate for civilized human conduct is awesome, but it is, I suspect, the reason that drove almost all of us to become architects. It is up to us to rediscover (and in many ways reinvent) the particularness of the world and humanity's relationships to it: to help give everyone in society a physical sense of place, to find a locus for every individual in relation to the world. Aldo van Eyck urged many years ago that we must make places, not spaces. He was right.

1 The Golden Journey to Samarkand by James Elroy Flecker (1913).

2 The Time Machine, H. G. Wells (1895); The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster (1909).
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Title Annotation:comment
Author:Davey, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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