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  • Writer's pictureElena Breeze

Global V Local - Architectural Globalisation and its Effect on Local Cultural Identity (P4)

1. Cultural Hegemony: Marxist philosophers coined the term “cultural hegemony”, meaning; “the domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class who manipulate the culture of that society”

(Alsop, W., Bratton, D., et al., 2016:71). As stated previously, because of the modernist movement originating in the West, the Western world is often viewed as more advanced and powerful than the rest of the world – this reputation of power and wealth is then reinforced by the knowledge that in the past Europeans colonialised other countries. This hierarchy of culture has – and continues to – infiltrate the design world, causing cultural identities to be enveloped by Western ideals; “whoever controls the media – the images – controls the culture” (Ginsberg, A., cited by Roberts, N., 2016:4). Cultural Hegemony and globalisation have affected many different aspects of life in countries all around the world. Using the example of colonialism: in 1896 France declared Madagascar a French colony. During the French Colonial Era multiple species of trees were imported from France and planted in the country, meanwhile the French government was ordering deforestation to make room for sugar, cotton and coffee plantations – replacing the ‘unprofitable’ native wildlife with their own and reaping the rewards of the rich local materials. This disregarded any cultural or religious importance that the Malagasy people held in their land and natural resources. The same can be said for when the French (or any colonialising country) started building on their possessed land, they built in their style completely ignoring the fact that the native people had more knowledge of the environment and natural resources, disregarding any tradition and culture: colonial architecture is “an insignia of colonial authority and a signifier of colonial desire and discipline” (Bhabha, H., cited by Bernad, M.M., 2017:online). Perhaps because these Western powers once dominated the world, the idea that they know best has stuck and continues to influence society and design.

As a result of this cultural hegemony, it seems countries are no longer building and designing for themselves but to fit a mould created for them by the Western world. For example: glass skyscrapers. These buildings grew in popularity in the late 1950s with the completion of German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building (Perez, A., 2010:online). Widely considered symbols of Modernism (Vidler, A., 2013:online) skyscrapers have also become symbols of wealth and power (Kim, S.D., 2010). Cities that experience high temperatures all year round are building these structures knowing that the use of glass for such large-scale projects makes it very difficult to control glare and temperature. Often the materials and building methods being used have no cultural relevance and seem drastically out of character for the place. So why are these buildings being constructed all around the world when in reality they are impractical in a lot of environments? It could be argued that the world’s population is increasing at such a rate that high-rises are necessary to house people. Although this is an undeniable factor in the increased construction of skyscrapers and the rate at which they are being built, there are countries such as the United Arab Emirates, 80% of which was desert in 2006 (MEOW, 2006, cited in FAO, 2008), who clearly have the space to house people without building vertically yet still chose to use skyscrapers which are inconvenient in their climate and do not nod in any way towards their culture. On the other hand, it could be argued that skyscrapers can form a place’s culture and identity. Take Dubai for example, a city known for its skyline and multicultural design and population. This aspect of Dubai contributed to the city receiving 15.8 million visitors in 2017 alone, (Visit Dubai, 2019), so obviously there is an impressive financial gain through this unique identity, however, there are also many negative effects. In 1999 Dubai was predominantly desert, yet by 2016 25% of the world’s cranes were in use in the city (Travel for Difference, 2016). In the

space of 30 years Dubai’s population has increased by roughly 2.4 million (World Population Review, 2019) with only around 11% of Dubai’s total population being Emiratis. Most of the local Emiratis are incredibly wealthy, they are considered the “elite” class in the city. They use this power and money to bring more wealth to Dubai, bringing in expatriate employees from the West to globalise the city for financial gain and employing sub-continental manual workers in the construction of the city. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum said: “Dubai will never settle for anything less than first place” (Rashid Al Maktoum, M., 2015:4) perhaps this attitude has meant that choices are often made for the city without considering the cultural impact. Such a drastic and rapid change of culture and identity has led to Dubai becoming a city of contradictions. “The palm tree-dotted beaches would be swamped with sun-dried British expats getting sozzled beside a Muslim woman in a burqini lathering her five-year-old with SPF 50” (Anand, S., 2017). Islam values modesty yet glass towers showcasing everything going on inside are being built left, right and centre. It would be naïve to assume that the traditionally Muslim Emiratis are happy about the lack of privacy, skimpily clad tourists, expats, prostitutes and alcohol culture that has been brought into their city. It would also be unrealistic to expect the foreigners coming to Dubai to feel comfortable with the disapproving glares and sexual objectification they receive due to their attire and ways of life (see fig.2)

Figure 5: Karim Shahib’s ‘Two Veiled Emirati Women Stare at a Foreigner Wearing a Revealing Dress’ (2016) The image above symbolises an adverse dynamic which I also experienced (despite being more modestly dressed) when visiting Dubai a few years ago. Walking through malls in Dubai, it was easy to imagine I was not in a Middle Eastern country. The global design used seemed to subconsciously suggest that I could act exactly how I do in the United Kingdom, when in fact I should have been considering the values and beliefs of those from the country in which I was a guest. Contrast Dubai to the city of Muscat in Oman. The Sultan of Oman decreed that buildings cannot be over 10 stories high, and when owners buy or construct houses, they have a choice of painting them 5 colours ranging from white to beige. The Sultan also has to approve the designs of all major public buildings being constructed. These regulations are to ensure the city’s cultural identity is maintained and to make sure the remarkably diverse natural landscape remains a focus in a time of rapid development. In the 1970s the city had one road and the population was 41,000, today they have many multiple lane highways and expressways and the population has risen to 1.5 million. A large percentage of Muscat’s

population are expats and immigrants (about 50%, so lower than Dubai’s 89%), yet the country has managed to maintain its culture, identity and landscape (see figs.3 and 4).

Figure 6: no name ‘Muscat’ (no date)

Figure 7: Dmitry Birin’s ‘Dubai Skyline’ (2019) As you can see from figure 3, in comparison to Dubai in figure 4 Muscat has done a much better job at maintaining its cultural identity despite its largely expatriate population. My family and I lived in Muscat for six years. Over this time I witnessed the city grow in population and become a popular tourist destination. The chain hotels and tourist facilities that were being built when I lived there paid close attention to the country’s culture and nodded to the nature and traditions of Oman as much as possible. This meant that people visiting the

country were made aware of the cultural differences and therefore put more consideration into how they acted to avoid offending others. One of the hotels that went up while I lived in Muscat was The W, owned by Marriott International. Before I left the country, I was fortunate to get a tour of this recently opened building. The project, designed by P49Deesign in collaboration with Rockwell Group and LMS Dubai, was – like all major tourist projects in Muscat – closely overlooked by OMRAN (Oman Tourism Development Company) whose priority is “to ensure a positive physical, social, economic contribution to both the environment and people’s lives while respecting the traditional culture and environmental values of Oman” (OMRAN, 2005). Due to OMRAN’s involvement the architects and designers involved in the project have considered Oman’s history, culture and nature in every step of the process.

Figure 8: ‘W Muscat’ (2019)

The image above shows the lobby area in the W in Muscat. The lobby features two LED ceiling installations, the one in the foreground is based on the waves that can be seen from the north face of the hotel whilst the background instillation is a small-scale replica of the Omani mountain ranges that can be seen to the south. The space uses Arabic majlis-style seating, geometric patterns and when you arrive at the hotel you are greeted by a 10-meter-tall frankincense tree sculpture – in Omani culture frankincense was used to welcome weary travellers. The rooms have sloping ceilings that are reminiscent of tents and small lights on the ceiling give the illusion that you are under a starry night sky. The whole hotel has “a design narrative that explores the journey of a nomadic Bedouin traveller” (Commercial Interior Design, 2019:online), it is a perfect example of a design that uses modern techniques and materials in a way that showcases the local culture. Not all hotels in Muscat showcase the Omani culture to the same extent as The W. Chain hotels such as The Intercontinental and The Crowne Plaza – often used for business – present a more global design – appropriate for those visiting the country for work who don’t want distractions.

Figure 9: Crowne Plaza ‘Lobby Lounge’ (2019) The image above shows the lobby lounge in the Crowne Plaza in Muscat. Whilst the materials and colours are kept simple to avoid distraction there are still hints of Omani culture such as the Arabic pots on the left-hand side, majlis-style seating, the Mashrabiya inspired room divider and, of course, the representation of the Arabian oryx. This example shows that it is possible to create a non-distracting working environment for businessmen without disregarding culture in the design completely. Oman’s success at maintaining its cultural identity through a time of vast change is an impressive feat that could possibly offer an example of how others can remain true to their culture and values without avoiding globalisation and modernization completely. The Sultan’s love of culture and his pride in the country has spread to the people and resulted in organisations such as OMRAN being created. These organisations mean that designers coming from other countries do not disregard Oman’s culture so will have to consider this and other values when designing, meaning that all designs are

created with Oman and the people of Oman in mind. The result is that most designs are related to the country in some way.

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