Of the many different ideas implied by the phrase “New World Order,” a central theme is the paradoxical breaking down of individual political and economic barriers, on the one hand, and the formation of “blocks” of several independent nations on the other. In Europe this paradox is particularly visible since the media focuses much of its attention on both the internal implications of European unification as well as on Unified Europe’s relationships with the other major economic markets of North America and Asia. While these issues have been mostly and correctly discussed in political and economic terms, they nevertheless have implications for the design professions, which have traditionally been assigned the task of place-making but which are increasingly becoming internationally exported services. Where, in the paradoxical terrain of the “New World Order,” will architecture find a place and what kind of place will it be?
Tearing down “curtains” and diminishing the importance of borders results in increased movement of people, goods and services, education, and media. The mobility of all these phenomena will certainly change our understanding of culture as place-specific and will force architecture to direct its attention toward giving shape to an increasingly kinetic society. As difficult as this challenge may be, even more problematic is the question of what kinds of issues will replace place-specificity as a basic determinant of design. As borders between countries disintegrate economically and politically, many fear that cultural expression will be determined by economic and political strength. Will Unified Europe’s cultural landscape be mapped by a kind of primitive accounting system, where the culture of the less powerful countries, such as Denmark, are simply overshadowed by the cultures of economically strong countries, such as Germany?
Since the unification of Europe is inevitable, it is imperative to answer these questions, and in attempting to do so one finds both pitfalls and possibilities. It is possible that the elimination of factors rooted in traditional ideas of place will free design from the burden of representing such ideas and enable designers to find inspiration in the new transience of people and things. By turning away from the appurtenances of representation, architecture may enable other less recognized and potentially less adulterated aspects of culture to emerge. At the same time, nostalgia for conventional ideas of cultural identity may reinforce the desire to represent historical traditions. One result of such desire could be the “theme-ing” of political identity and the transformation of the whole of Europe into a kind of EuroDisney with cultural distinctiveness simply a series of fantastic themes. Yet another possibility might be that architects will respond to the influx of cross-border integration by designing universal places for universal people using universal goods. Such a response may certainly facilitate social mobility, but it could also produce cultural liquefication and a oneworld, “place-less” architecture.
If the emergence of a “New World Order” is to be stopped from leading inevitably to either an architecture of universal sameness or an architecture of nationalistic kitsch, and if the designer is to be stopped from feeling overwhelmed by and powerless in the face of such global trends, two things must be kept in mind. First, it must be recognized that political and economic factors are indeed the principal mechanisms generating these transformations and design must confront rather than shy away from that fact. One might think of the film Brazil in which the scale and spaces of architecture were used to suggest both the futility of individual endeavors within the system as well as to prove the inescapable power of the bureaucratic machine that drove the system. But the relationship between individuals and the systems to which they belong is no longer so black and white. On a political level, individual nation-hood is certainly being de-emphasized, but identification with newly forming “blocks” is increasing. Perhaps this developing complexity in relationships between individuals and nations and between nations and “New Worlds” can suggest some avenues that might lead architecture away from simplistic economic and political determinism.
A second question that could be raised in this context is whether or not it is useful to continue thinking about architecture in terms of being “placeless” or “place-full.” Place, whether absent or present, is not conceived of universally in the same terms. For example, if one asks an American where they come from, there is often a slight pause before they answer as they choose which “place” to call home. On the other hand, if one asks a European where they come from, their answer will usually be as specific as a certain neighborhood or even street in a specified city or town. The differences between these answers may not only be explained by referring to the greater transience of American life in contrast to the greater power of collective memory in Europe. Instead, they can also be understood by thinking about the concept of “place” as a potentially enormously elastic notion, the very flexibility of which could be of tremendous significance to architecture.
While political and economic goals are the star actors in the “New World Order,” the design profession nevertheless has an important role to play. As architects from all over the world build increasingly all over the world, they have the unique opportunity not just to be emissaries of culture as traditionally defined, but the designers and definers of new forms of culture. By considering these issues, they may find ways of satisfying Renzo Piano’s credo-“architecture is art realized by life “-rather than succumbing to an architecture that is non-art realized by economics.
Dana Webber is an architect currently living and working in the Netherlands.