Differentiate Architecture, Don’t Diversify It

MARTIN MAN (M.Arch I 2019)

Earlier this month, Dean Berke updated students on the ongoing process of YSoA’s strategic planning. Presenting the general agenda set for the school in the coming years, she highlighted diversity as a prime focus. But forthcoming efforts to bring in diverse faculty and students must also be coupled with a critical assessment of the idea of architecture itself as it stands for this school.

        That does not mean posing specific questions surrounding the status of renderings as representation or craft, for example, but requires  interrogating the fundamental Eurocentrism of the conception of architecture which underlies globalized (globallatinized, as Jacques Derrida coined) contemporary architectural design in general, including at this school.

This is not merely a call to ‘expand the canon’ to include non-Western buildings and architects. When we address the issue of inclusion and exclusion from the architectural ‘canon,’ non-Western architectural traditions are inevitably labelled as ‘Chinese Architecture,’ ‘Japanese Architecture,’ or ‘Islamic Architecture,’ etc. without acknowledgment that ‘Architecture,’ without any modifier, is de facto taken to be the specific constructed intellectual lineage traced from Vitruvius to Brunelleschi to High Modernists like Mies van der Rohe.

Simply ‘making room’ for non-Western buildings in the existing discourse belies the operation of their inscription into the Euro-American tradition of interpreting built space as Architecture, and thus attempts to translate what may in fact be incommensurable spatial conceptions into one framework. Furthering inclusion within the model of ‘cultural diversity’ emerges from Enlightenment logics which presume the ability to categorize and compare different cultures of building and space within the same (Western, universalist) frame of reference to Architecture.

An analogous motion would be to subsume Buddhist metaphysics under Kant’s a priori structures, something for which the latter is not equipped, and if attempted, does no justice to the former. Indeed, applying words such as ‘metaphysics’ or ‘philosophy’ to a Buddhist ‘worldview’ is already using concepts originating in a European context foreign to Buddhism.

In his 1988 essay ‘The Commitment to Theory,’ postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha introduces the idea of ‘cultural difference,’ in contrast to ‘cultural diversity.’ Bhabha notes how the rhetoric of diversity leads to an obfuscation of incommensurable differences and problems of comparability between cultures.

Cultural diversity is the recognition of pre-given cultural ‘contents’ and customs, held in a time-frame of relativism; it gives rise to anodyne liberal notions of multiculturalism, cultural exchange, or the culture of humanity. Cultural diversity is also the representation of…totalized cultures that live…safe in the Utopianism of a mythic memory of a unique collective identity.[1]

An acknowledgement of cultural difference, however, leaves room for certain impossibilities of comparison or smooth translation. Bhabha draws focus to the process of enunciation of culture—which perhaps can be expanded to include its performance through architecture. Cultural identification is reconstructed anew at each enunciation, freeing it from ‘the homogenising effects of cultural symbols and icons’ which may essentialize cultures as pre-given, static, and bounded entities.[2]

Thus, we should reframe our attitudes toward what constitutes ‘Architecture’ from the view of cultural difference, allowing architectural and spatial conceptions to contest and collide, without being subsumed into the dominant Western frame of interpretation.

On a practical level, failing to do this means confronting the fact that a more varied student body will still be presented with Euro-American architecture as what ‘officially’ constitutes Architecture. Meanwhile, architectural conceptions and histories relevant to their own community or background remain set aside as special interests in elective seminars, if not completely erased from institutional acknowledgement and legitimation.

Simply bringing more voices to the table won’t guarantee that the agenda changes, or that they won’t be subsumed by the existing conversation. Ultimately, it is disingenuous to invite ‘diversity’ without efforts to fundamentally de-center Euro-American architecture from our education and move to a model based on recognizing difference.


[1] Bhabha, Homi K., ‘The Commitment to Theory,’ New Formations 5, (1988): 18.

[2] Ibid., 19.