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Let’s keep notions of ‘cultural appropriation’ out of architecture

Paul Finch

How long will it be before we are told that only architects with a particular ethnicity should design buildings in certain places? asks Paul Finch

This has been a mind-numbing summer politically and culturally. Every day we have listened to news reports which might have been dismissed as jokes or surreal fantasies not too long ago, but now have assumed a high degree of seriousness. The idea of the leader of the Labour Party having to defend his apologias for terrorists of various persuasions only makes sense in the context of entryist head-bangers from Momentum, ripping up social democracy before our eyes.

Nothing very architectural about this, except that in the universe of identity politics, where Planet Corbyn sputters for the moment, who you are (or claim to be) has assumed massive significance, backed up by the nutty proposition that definitions of your identity should determine what you are entitled to say, think or do. Or not.

If, therefore, it is ‘inappropriate’ for a non-Latino person, let alone a non-Puerto Rican, to take a singing role in West Side Story, how long will it be before we are told that only architects with a particular nationality, or better still ethnicity, should design buildings in certain places? A foretaste of possible debate to come appeared in The Guardian recently, where Christine Murray speculated as to whether cities would be better if they were designed by mothers. Not just women, but women with children.

Since there is no way of knowing, this won’t be happening any time soon, but it does raise a general question about the extent to which architects and clients ignore the wishes and experiences of customers in the course of their design work.

For example, the wife of one of France’s leading developers, at a shopping centre conference two decades ago, excoriated people like her husband, Jean-Louis Solal, and their architects, for failing to take into account how women (and yes, women with children) had to cope with the myriad inconveniences designed into the glittering temples of consumerism. Madame Solal’s point was that design fails if it pays no attention to the requirements of a building’s users in the round.

There are all too may example of this, where architecture is commissioned to satisfy one particular group, possibly or sometimes inevitably at the expense of others. Thus, shopping centre design is skewed towards retailers not shoppers; hospitals are designed for doctors, not patients and visitors; and office design focuses on corporate tenants, not office workers.

This happens where clients are mentally lazy and/or their architects are not up to the job. It is about quality of thought and little else. That is why it is a meaningless question to ask whether cities would be better if mothers designed them: it would depend not on their being mothers, but on being good designers

The idea that an intimate connection to place or activity is essential to achieve good architecture is highly suspect. Was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo a failure because he wasn’t Japanese? Understanding of local culture and history may be useful and, in some cases, essential, but that doesn’t mean unknowable to outsiders. Moreover, it is another step entirely to say that that intimate connection automatically means anything you design will be good.

Shutterstock imperialhotel lloydwright

Shutterstock imperialhotel lloydwright

Source: Shutterstock

Imperial Hotel, Tokyo

Was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo a failure because he wasn’t Japanese?

Hence the problem about cultural appropriation. If it is wrong for a straight man to play a gay one because a gay actor would be ‘appropriate’, does that mean that it would be inappropriate for gay actors to play straight people? And do we really have to take seriously the idea that only someone with serious deformities would be appropriate to play the Elephant Man?

A plague on the houses of the cultural appropriation brigade, with their increasingly shrill and unpleasant zealotry. In the world of architecture, borrowing, stealing, inspiration and design miscegenation have been an essential part of its evolution for millennia. Long may this continue.


Readers' comments (5)

  • Industry Professional

    This piece does so well in hack-handedly arguing absolutely nothing.

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  • Bruce Buckland

    Paul Finch is absolutely right. The arguments behind 'cultural appropriation' are so intellectually weak that they fall apart in seconds if properly challenged. Architecture as a profession, and I'm sorry to say architectural journalism in particular, are both in danger of falling into the same traps of the mainstream media in pandering to such idolatry. Paul Finch is - so far as I can see - the sole representative of the silent majority within the profession who do not fall for this rubbish. If the AJ knows what is good for it it will invite many more writers and contributors from all parts of the spectrum of opinion, not just the little bubble it lives within.

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  • So refreshing to learn that common sense has not entirely vanished from the design profession.

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  • This article deliberately misconstrues what is meant by 'cultural appropriation' (no, it's not just any time people take inspiration from other cultures) and also makes a straw man argument (are there any actual examples of when accusations of cultural appropriation have been made against architects/architecture?) Just another lazy 'PC gone mad' article without basis in what is actually happening.

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  • I didn’t say it is happening, I said I hope it doesn’t.

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