Art and Architecture

Catherine Swaniker

The Effects of Globalization on the Built Environment: An Introductory Essay

“There will never be an end for Paris and the memory of those who have lived differ the ones from the others. We always ended by going back to Paris, whoever we were, however it had changed or whatever the difficulties or the easiness to reach it could be. Paris was always worth and whatever gift you brought it, you would always receive in return…”

Ernest Hemingway, Moveable Feast, 1964.

It is possible to live in a modern metropolis and discover that what makes it livable is its inherent make-up of several urban villages, where a microcosm of small retail shops, mixed-use buildings with offices and apartments are gathered around a small square as seen in Paris. We can live in such a city in the age of globalization and at the same time enjoy the privileges of both the accessibility of an international metropolis and the conviviality of a provincial village.

The Paris model presents itself as a valuable system of development. This city is characterized by stretches of small villas or by barns of European-totalitarian origin inter-linked by highways to business centers or huge mega-stores, both of which may be surrounded by mega-parking. At the same time, within the same economic system, millions live and experience the pleasantness of the traditional city’s system of streets, square and blocks. Not only does this occur in Paris, but also London, Madrid, Rome, Lisbon and Munich.

These character-strewn European cities present the casual pedestrian or passer-by with a backdrop of historic buildings, neighborhoods and communities that have melded and been shaped over centuries by an assimilating blend of culture, site, climate and historical events. The rich histories of these cities provide us with appealing traditional architectural palettes that are easily identified as locally distinct.

Yet, depending on which side of the fence one sits, the integrity of such unique places is at risk at being diminished by the rise of standardized “global” cities. The fear of the mundane is not without precedence. In some areas, entire locations are constructed with buildings that could practically belong anywhere.

Clearly, the effects of globalization on the built environment are challenged by two opposing forces; those that seek to preserve architectural traditions to the fullest extent versus the advocates, who promote innovative ideas and new forms using new technologies and materials that respond to changing functional needs and sensibilities. It may be naïve to suggest that for the latter group, innovative architecture transcends local conventions, or that for the former indigenous architecture cannot be innovative. The building industry is shaped by several forces that by their very nature are set up to ensure that ‘traditional’ or ‘non-traditional’ buildings are subject to the same rules of zoning, local codes and restrictions as well as the concerns of neighborhood groups and political organizations.

Political groups and processes have always shaped the built environment. The history of architecture is rife with movements in embrace of or in opposition to cultural and aesthetic diversity. At the height of its reign, the empire forming strategies of Rome established the first known examples of global architectural hegemony as this ancient civilization spread their ideas across their territorial holdings. Because of the far-reaching extent of autocratic government, their institutions and culture resulted in a lasting influence on the development of architecture via European expansionism.

Leading 20C prophets such as Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius eschewed in the “International Style”, when several European and American architects rebelled against classicism and neoclassicism and demanded a new response to emerging technologies, industry, and social and political orders. The International Style was also synonymous with systemization and standardization, mass produced materials and prototypes within aesthetic compositions and for several decades after WW11, as with the influence of the Roman Empire, the design of civic buildings and multi-family housing was greatly influenced by these precepts.

Today pressures to globalize architecture primarily rise from two sources: the culture of commerce and the culture of design. Evolving consumer expectations, politics, market-driven opportunities and business agendas drives the global culture of commerce, while architects and designers eager for innovation support the global culture of design. In addition, constant travel and flows of trade, goods, and information render it impossible to ignore the transfer of knowledge that becomes shared and accepted. At any given time, cultural diversity within architectural studios across the globe result in environments where knowledge and experiences are shared. Architectural periodicals, books, lectures, conventions etc, provide immediate access to new technologies and materials as well as the work of architects from across the globe. Glass (curtain wall systems), aluminum, stainless steel, copper, titanium and natural stone are readily available. The industry of curtain wall systems is at an all time high in the modern metropolis, with companies in Germany and China leading the course of innovation. In most cases, if materials or technology cannot be locally acquired, they are imported.

The tension between globalization and the opposition to it is likely to continue, and most likely, the admirable qualities of the cities mentioned at the beginning of this narrative will retain their unique qualities a hundred years. Of course, some buildings erode the sense of place, but architects of super modernity are highly gifted individuals with intellectual know-how and most follow the cardinal rules of architectural education: context, form follows function, program etc. Although their buildings eschew architectural prowess and personal style, they also relate to the physical and political constraints of the sites within which they ground themselves. It is the assimilation of surrounding elements that give such buildings the right to exist.

The challenge lies in the wherewithal to create the physical conditions for the development of a world where cities express local realities and enrich the experience of the era through the plurality of visual and morphological experiences. It means offering a model where culture, economics and local traits are moving forces of an organic and intelligent growth, which is respectful of nature and its diversities. Salient regional qualities such as construction techniques, materials and cultural idioms need not vanish. They can be re-imagined and redefined. Local climate, geography, topology, sociology and psychology all have an important role to play. The question of choice and the arrangement of new systems within urban environments is the true challenge set by globalization to the contemporary environmental culture

  • "The fabulous world of Amelie: Urban Architecture and the Development Pattern for the European City" Gabriele Tagliaventi, Architecture in the age of globalization, A&C Documents N.2, Alinea, Firenze 2003
  • "The Politics of Place". Short courses in Urbanism and Architecture, The Prince's Foundation
  • "Moveable Feast". Ernest Hemingway, 1964
  • Ancient Rome. Wikepedia

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