Architecture and Society: The Major Linkages

Ismail Seragelclin 

The Most Social of the Arts? There is no art form that is as completely intertwined with a particular society as its architectural expression: for it is art that is physically rooted in the geographic location of that society. For the members of that society — and this is to no way deny that the society may be far from an integrated entity — it reflects both their aspirations, their artistic sensibility, and their economic wealth; the level of advancement of their technology; the elements of climate and topogra­ phy, and the structure of their social organisation. Not only does the architecture of any people physically express all this, being the net result of all the contradictions that society embodies, but is also helps shape the vision of the society of itself. It is both a mirror of that society's activities and an instrument shaping its identity.

Within this context, however, it is not clear to what extent the architectural profession, per se, is responsible for moulding taste, or merely for carrying it out. As Allsopp has stated: "The failure of modem architecture in recent years is only partly the fault of architects. The main burden of blame for inhumane architecture must rest upon clients who have failed to educate themselves for the great responsibilities they undertake" 1. It is for this reason that the AKAA has consciously underlined the collective responsibility of all involved in the proccess of creating a building which is deserv­ing of recognition.

It is undeniable that the taste of the governing elite is likely to dominate the pattern of buildings that give an area its easily identifiable character and that serve as landmarks and as exemplars of what the state's dominant elite promotes. As Oleg Grabar has noted, the form of the cities in the Muslim world was defined by the middle class, while the monuments were defined by the elite.2 This is not to say that artistic expression is totally constrained by societal reality. Without question artists — be they architects, painters or sculptors — play a role in defining, articulating and improving society's perception of itself and its perception of its aesthetic reality. As Hamilton once put it: "The artist, whether his medium is verbal, pictorial, plastic, or musical, is the man equipped with radar to penetrate the cultural fogs of the age."3

However, architects are more constrained than other artists. They have to contend with clients and financing, and they have to contend with the need for their creations to function properly and to meet a rigorous set of codes and restric­ tions. They interact with society much more than other artists, and they cannot function in isolation. Hence, architecture is by far the most closely linked of the arts to the reality of society in its multiplicity of dimensions, be they economic, social, cultural, political, institutional or religious.

Architecture and the "Image of Progress". In the context of the architecture of the Muslim world, I would like to emphasise that a central part of the problem which we confront in our Muslim culture today is that most of the ruling elites of our societies have gone through a process of disassociation from their cultural roots. This has led to the dichotomisation of cultural perception, where the historic heritage — cultural, religious, spiritual — is identified with the past, backwardness and poverty, while the image of "progress" is borrowed from elsewhere, namely the West.

Unless and until architects and intellectuals generally succeed in providing the ruling elites of Muslim societies with an alternative image of progress, they will continue to pay lip service to the need for cultural authenticity while their actions will speak more loudly than their words as they hurry to adopt the most superficial aspects of Western culture.

Architecture and Changing Cultural Identity. As we have seen, the architect is responsible, by the variety of activities that he or she undertakes, for the definition or "image of progress" that a society, or at least its elite, holds of itself. The physical expression of that society today in most Third World countries is closely identified with the Manhattan skyline, and leaves little room for a more articulated and sensitive response that is more respectful of cultural continuity and more responsive to climatic and site requirements. Unless architects can successfully convince the elites of their societies to replace their imported image of progress with a more coherent and effective one, there is going to be little chance to reverse that widespread degradation of the urbanistic character and architectural expression that is so prevalent throughout the Muslim world and more generally the Third World. The task of defining such an alternative reality for a contemporary image of progress in the Third World, of which the Muslim world is a part, is not an easy one. The designers who will cope with that task have to convince the "disassociated" de- cision-makers and the commercial elite of their societies of the superiority of the al­ternative that they present, to the imported model. Only if this task can be done will the secondary effects of this new indigenous alternative reality be achieved. Namely, that the architectural expression of the whole society will be gradually affected. The lower middle classes aspire to have residences and to work in places that are comparable to those of the upper middle classes, and the upper middle classes to have residences and to work in places that are comparable to those of the prevailing elite. By changing the architecture of the elite, architects can indeed change the perception of large segments of society as to what is desirable as an expression of modernity and of social status.

It is unlikely that architects will be able to do this alone. A wide variety of disciplines have to interact in order to ensure that the visionary efforts of imagina­tive, sensitive architects are not left in isolation, but that the intellectual underpin­nings that deal with abstractions and ideas, as well as with the social, economic and institutional realities of any societal system, are coherent and pull in the same direction. Without that, inherent tension is likely to continue and ruptures of a cultural and intellectual kind, at the very least, are bound to continue. 4 Architec­ture and urban planning will suffer in their inability to fulfill their assigned and noble mission of being the agents of progress rather than the servants of an elite. 

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