MIRRORS OF GLASS & STEEL

We all know that architects are the designers of civilisations, and that obviously they are also products of their time and culture. As such they are the ultimate mirrors. Throughout history mankind has built dwellings and constructions which reflect the state  of its collective psyche.

Integral to but less conceptually obvious than design are the materials they use. Yet building materials dictate design,  and can be more revealing about a society than the final forms. While the philosophy of an architect’s design may elude many on the street, the (gut) response they feel towards building materials doesn’t require a tertiary education. It’s a palpable, primordially tactile part of their living culture.

Many Asian villagers have grown up with bamboo and know its strength and flexibility well. Oak had  a special connotation of strength for ye olde Englishman. Adobe for American Natives of the southwest was an expression of their oneness with the earth. Early cathedrals made of rock were as self-explanatory as  St Peter’s name.

In these and other traditional cultures of the past, most people would have had some kind of personal experience of the procurement or preparation of these materials. Bamboo or oak grew in the backyard, rock was everywhere. Builders crafted materials which in most cases probably didn’t come any further than a hundred miles away. Building sites weren’t  closed in by hoardings, and many in the community were directly involved in the construction.

Over the last 2 decades, from Bali to Chiang Mai, from the depths of Xinjiang to the backwaters of Kerala, Asians have been falling over themselves to build in concrete, glass and steel. Once the exclusive domain of booming oriental cities with powerful financial centers (think Shanghai, Singapore, Mumbai, Jakarta), hardly any village in the East is now impervious to scaled down versions of ‘practical modern architecture’. Southeast Asia for one is becoming more and more homogenized. At times, driving through parts of Thailand for example, it seems the only way to tell which country you are in along the seamless rows of shop houses is the script on sign boards and the smell of cooking food.

The disconnect that rural villagers may feel amongst the towers of a big city is actually more universal to all of us than many would admit. Mostly we have simply learnt to tolerate the hardness of glass and steel, occasionally pushing ourselves to appreciate an elusive esthetic which we are told is inherent in the more abstract forms of design. We don’t bond with these structures, they don’t speak to us from our cultural roots and values. They simply speak of power and our communal alienation from the process of creation.

In Asia, at the more “ordinary” urban and rural level, it will require something of a revolution to stem the tide of concrete, glass and steel that have become the materials of choice for the average home builder. Here it is more a question of practicality, economics, and keeping up with the “Jones”. In an ironic reversal of order, natural materials such as bamboo and thatched rooves have become the domain of the elite who can afford to live in hand crafted houses. For the masses, concrete, steel and glass it is. It reflects not only  a deeper disconnect with our roots and a growing social divide, but also a new hardness in our mutating cultures.

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