LWL | The Critical Relationship between Architecture and Cultural Identity and its Role to Preserve the Cultural Landscape

By Leah R. Rodríguez

Abstract

This thesis seeks to emphasize the importance of architecture related to culture. It reaches its goal by giving historical examples in which architecture has been heavily tied to cultural structures and how past civilizations achieved that cultural landscape by giving themselves a place where they belonged, shaping their surroundings according to their cultural identity. At the same time it explains how this landscape is being lost due to modernity and urbanization techniques that prioritize consumption and convenience over cultural heritage. Due to this cultural landscape which is at risk, processes powered by architecture help preserve and revitalize landscapes that had lost their cultural identity.

Keywords: heritage, identity, modernity, sustainable development, history.


Introduction

Cultural identity and architecture are terms that go hand in hand. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary (2024) defines architecture as the science or art of construction. However, architecture is much more than that. A more thorough definition of architecture describes it as a science and an art that designs spaces according to user needs and conceptual ideas for that space (Walls & Walls, 2021). With a deeper understanding of this concept, cultural identity takes place. Different types of users have different needs for their modeled space, and these differences can define a particular group of people. Essentially, these specific characteristics are what identify a certain group, consequently identifying them culturally. As more of these people settle in an area, they change it over time, adapting their surroundings based on their culture. These changes to an area are what often end up creating a unique landscape based on a group’s culture.

The often overlooked relationship between architecture and cultural identity is crucial for addressing issues like the loss of cultural landscapes by fostering preservation and cultural continuity.

Literary Review

For this research paper, various online sources were used to research sources that predominated in relation to architecture. Some of the sources focused on environmental issues, while others documented cultural heritage. 

Throughout the research there were three themes: heritage, loss, and restoration. The sources found related to heritage were focused on ancient heritage that has endured to the present day. Primarily, historical and architectural magazines were referenced. Architectural magazines were highly versatile throughout the whole investigation process. They were a key to understanding various perspectives when addressing the problem. 

While investigating the loss of heritage and landscape, I came across various organizations that are actively trying to stop this. Organizations such as UNESCO, International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA) and other architecture associations. I also found the issue written by Schlitz, M. especially helpful since her perspective encouraged me to investigate threats to the landscape that I had not even considered.

For the last part of the research I relied on research papers from other scholars that emphasized the relation of architecture and cultural heritage. Those papers helped me bridge that connection of cultural heritage to the importance of the cultural landscape and active solutions to resolve the problem.

However, during the investigation into the direct relationship between architecture and cultural landscapes, only a few sources were discovered. Some references discussed architecture's role in conserving the natural landscape (Cultural Landscapes: The Challenges of Conservation; World Heritage Series: Papers; Vol.:7; 2003 - 132988eng.pdf, n.d.) or its contribution to preserving cultural heritage (Baldwin, 2024). However, very few sources directly tackle the issue of architecture concerning the decline of cultural landscapes. This research paper aims to fill this gap and delve deeper into this issue.

Cultural Heritage

As previously mentioned, changes made to an area by a characterized group of people often make a cultural landscape. These cultural landscapes are part of the heritage left by the people who preceded us, and much of this heritage is heavily tied to architecture and its effort to mold the landscape. 

Many of the ancient structures left by our ancestors had a motive for being built, whether that be to portray religion, social structure, or to assimilate the natural environment. Plenty of the most famous monuments of the ancient world were tied to religion, However, since not all of them belonged to the same culture or region, their design and purpose were not the same for all. The Pyramids of Giza, which were built around 2575–2465 BCE, had a different purpose of being erected in comparison to the Mayan Pyramids which were built roughly a thousand years later. The purpose of the construction of the Egyptian pyramids was to commemorate and give a proper resting place to the diseased pharaohs and to carry out other smaller tasks such as veneration of their gods. Just as the Great Pyramid of Giza, other smaller mausoleums in the form of pyramids were built.  This is how the Egyptians of the ancient world shaped their desert-like landscape into a vast area of pyramid mausoleums and temples.

The Mayans also built pyramids, but theirs differed greatly from the Egyptian pyramids. Firstly, the most apparent difference is their structure, since both cultures used different techniques. The difference in building techniques is due to various reasons, mainly the purpose and the difference in the environment of these two cultures. The purposes of the Mayan pyramids were different since their purpose was mainly for rituals and ceremonies to worship their gods. Mayan pyramids were much smaller in comparison, which made it easier for them to greatly decorate their pyramids with symbols and writings.  The Mayans also shaped their jungle-like landscape with their beautiful structures. However different they were to the Egyptians, the outcome of these two cultures that came from building their pyramids was to give themselves a sense of belonging in their environment. Due to their effort, their history was captured in the landscape in tangible objects like structures that we can analyze and admire to this day.

In this way, the cultural heritage left by our ancestors through their buildings and monuments is important because of the things that can be learned from their past and even the influence that they still have over us to this day. They influence architectural trends, tourism, national pride, and even capture that sense of belonging that was once the start of their cultural landscape (The Connection Between Architecture and Culture, n.d.). However, even though these cultures’ monuments still have influence on us, we as a species cannot really grasp or try to replicate the magnitude of that ancient cultural landscape. In fact, we are losing the ancient landscape and at the same time losing the opportunity to create a new cultural landscape.



The Loss of Cultural Landscape

From the countless landscapes our ancestors left and infused with their culture, many of them are disappearing today. Not only are these cultural landscapes disappearing, the common natural landscape is at risk too, since the natural environment also takes part in a cultural landscape. 

There are various reasons for why landscapes are disappearing, in particular, modernity and the need for convenience. Modernity has brought countless progress to our society, but in exchange, it claims our natural environment and cultural landscapes that have been built and preserved throughout decades. Instead of using these new technologies to further preserve these landscapes, they have been used to promote a  civilization based purely on consumption. Countless practices that are being used to modernize our society harm the natural and cultural landscape; techniques such as urban sprawl, deforestation,  land abandonment, desertification,  mono-cultivation, etc.(Cultural Landscapes: The Challenges of Conservation; World Heritage Series: Papers; Vol.:7; 2003 - 132988eng.pdf, n.d.) These practices promote having a behavior that only focuses on convenience without taking into account the appreciation the past can have in the future. Over time, we can see how many urban spaces have turned into lifeless, culture-less spaces where people don’t get to experience that sense of belonging. These spaces turn into a norm that later standardizes the landscape and suppresses any cultural diversity that was left. We can see how these areas have been turned into gray neutral areas where cultural identity is lacking. In this way, cultural continuity is lost along with the heritage that was left. If we lose our heritage due to these practices instead of urbanizing and constructing buildings that reinforce and encourage the practices of traditions, we will lose the history that has been made throughout centuries.

The importance of restructuring this broken system of urbanization through architecture is key to preserving both the cultural and natural landscape. We often forget that many ancient civilizations had a heavily tied bond with nature, but we cast it aside as if it was irrelevant to culture. Nature in itself is a necessary pillar in our society, yet a few years ago it was not given the importance it is starting to gain today. If we can raise awareness to preserve nature, we can do the same to try and preserve the cultural landscape which can also be considered a pillar in our society. Many sciences today are focused on the cultural landscape and it would be detrimental to these sciences if the landscape were to disappear, not to mention that many areas rely on these landscapes such as the economy. 

Countries all over the globe take advantage and use their cultural landscape to promote tourism, but often don't take the necessary precautions to do it in a way that is not harmful. If the raw material for this business is lost, many countries would suffer economically. And along the way, we lose a method that could also be used safely to promote the importance of the cultural landscape. 

As we can see, our culture has been harmed through many aspects that sadly are not seen as a problem but a solution to further modernize our society. Due to this, we are losing key pillars to our identity and history as humans.

 

Rebuilding The Lost Landscape

Once the causes of lost landscape have been identified, it is time to address it. That is where architecture comes in. There are two main ways architecture can solve this problem:  restoration or revitalization of heritage and building structures where cultural identity is lacking (Walls & Walls, 2021). 

To restore a cultural area, certain steps need to be taken to carry out the process correctly. First, it is essential to comprehend the culture that is being restored. Proper research has to be taken to understand the purpose of the buildings, the customs and how that culture conveyed it to their constructions. As stated previously, architecture is a science and an art that constructs spaces based on the needs of the user. Hence why it is so important to understand the needs of the user to restore their culture. The next step is the process of restoring the cultural landscape itself. For this step, modern and sustainable techniques are used to preserve the historical features and significance of the area. After these two things can happen, either the restored area is purely for historical purposes or it is being restored and adapted to be reused for contemporary use. If it is being reused, further steps need to be taken, such as retrofitting, adapting it to a modern standard, construction safety guidelines, etc. (Okoli et al., 2023)

However, if it’s not a restorative approach that is being taken but instead one that adds culture to lacking space, the steps are different. As a basis, the necessary research will always be carried out to understand the culture in which one is working. Note that it is important to know that when adding culture through architecture to a space that is lacking, simply adding random monuments is not the solution. To create a cultural landscape, sustainable development is necessary. For example, the work done by Burton Studio in Qatar in 2010. In 2010, Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nassar of Qatar extended an invitation to Burton Studio to take part in an international competition as a means of addressing the pressing need to preserve the country's architectural and cultural legacy (Public Relations, 2019). What happened is that Qatar prioritized developing and modernizing its country while setting aside the nation’s culture. However, Burton studio solved this problem by taking in the culture and building the area by giving it an artisanal feel, also taking into account that Qatar is one of the most influential countries in the Middle East. They also built thinking about future development while still integrating cultural identity. Although to reach this solution there might be setbacks if it's not executed correctly. Problems such as lack of expertise or proper documentation for these types of projects might endanger the cultural heritage that is trying to be portrayed. The heritage might not only be endangered if the structural planning is not well planned. (Cultural Landscapes: The Challenges of Conservation; World Heritage Series: Papers; Vol.:7; 2003 - 132988eng.pdf, n.d.)

This detail is the most important, adding culture to a landscape without stopping its development progress. Culture might be seen as something from the past, but when introduced properly in urbanization projects, it can even add more development than previously thought. This is where landscaping architects come in, They take in the full picture and mold the landscape to bring out the most benefits possible. They preserve and create natural landscapes while still practicing sustainable development, while they still research better ways to undertake their projects. 

Conclusion

To conclude this research paper, it is important to acknowledge that there are other methods besides architecture to prevent and preserve cultural landscape. Like any other solution, there are downsides to employing architecture as an answer to the loss of cultural heritage. However these stepbacks are small obstacles that can be easily overcome by a competent team to achieve an even greater goal that is preserving and building future urban projects that convey the culture and history of a group of people. To reinforce the statement that architecture is an excellent solution it is essential to emphasize that it achieves its goal by implementing modern building techniques while also doing it in a sustainable way in which the natural environment is also accounted for. And most important by far when one of these projects is done correctly it prioritizes the cultural identity of the culture being worked on. It properly conveys their history and modernizes it to fit the constant changing landscape while still preserving and respecting its essence. 

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