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Culture, context and design

The investigation of identity provides powerful opportunities for designers to capture a project’s place on the face of the earth. This is an endless adventure, an incomplete conversation concerning the physical, historical and social footprint made by the human species as it continues to diagnose its own existence.

But there is also a pragmatic reason why clients should be fascinated by identity. Capturing identity through design also makes commercial sense in a competitive world. Projects with an authentic ‘identity source’ are more compelling for users, visitors and tenants. These projects are more successful; they are durable commercially and are more likely to be endorsed as indispensable and inseparable from the fabric of the cities in which they exist. This is important – it really matters – because the best clients want it all; lasting relevance, continued commercial attractiveness and recognised beauty, all at the same time and place.


Sydney Opera House.

The value of architectural ID is easily tested. The Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House and the Empire State Building are three of the most visited buildings in the world, together attracting over 20 million paying visitors each year. Do they define the identity of Paris, Sydney and New York? Yes, they do. They are now cultural ambassadors for France, Australia and the USA. Their value is inestimable and their original cost – sometimes famously out of whack with original mathematics – is now accepted as irrelevant to their current real value. And commercial value cannot fully account for the cultural cohesion and civic pride that they inject into the millions of people that they affect over decades. It is not stretching things to say that Paris, Sydney and New York would not be as French, Australian or American without them. 

Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre. © ADCK-Centre Culturel Tjibaou/ RPBW, Renzo Piano Building Workshop architects, photograph by John Gollings

A similar discussion survives other levels of analysis. For example, within the world of tertiary education. Identity matters to universities. Universities compete for teaching and student talent, research grants and global recognition. Having great facilities is necessary for competitiveness. But having great facilities that provide unique experiences, that provide the stage set for memories and stories – that is the institutional Holy Grail. Examples are easy to locate. Top universities have great buildings, designed by innovative architects capturing the essence of institutional identity. Mid 20th Century buildings such as Harvard’s Carpenter Centre for the Visual Arts by le Corbusier and MIT’s Beinecke Rare Book Library by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill have their contemporary equivalents in projects such as Brown University’s Granoff Centre by Diller, Scofidio and Renfro and Cornell’s Milstein Hall by OMA. The alignment between great design and high value marches on, and with good reason; Vice Chancellors understand that reputation and recognition are the twin engines of revenue. 

Institute du Monde Arabe. Image Credit: shutterstock.com

Transformative projects change the rules of engagement between the use and the user, reformatting existing ideas of identity and in doing so they become ‘famous’ brand ambassadors for the institutions they represent. After all, universities are about changing the future and it’s hard to achieve that with timidity. Future-changing architecture takes on a massive dual responsibility – to be both authentically relevant to the identity of physical and social context while also challenging assumptions on how buildings should ‘behave’ relative to their users. Jean Nouvel’s Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris is both quintessentially Islamic in detail but decisively technical in delivery. It is at once a challenging paradox and a literal translation. The project quite literally takes on the responsibility of rendering ancient identity in new materials. And that’s what makes it confronting, beautiful, sensational thirty years after completion.

New Zealand International Convention Centre

Identity as a platform for architecture and design is nothing new. Renzo Piano perfected this in exquisite miniature in New Caledonia’s Jean-Marie Tijibaou Cultural Centre and Cesar Pelli knocked it out of the park at skyscraper scale with his Petronas Towers. But maybe looking at the subject from an Australasian perspective provides a new vantage point. Over the last twenty years, northern European architects have delivered exciting new perspectives and projects globally from studios in Copenhagen, Rotterdam and Oslo. The studios of 3XN, Snøhetta, and Schmidt Hammer Lassen, for example, are now carrying out major projects in Australasia. Now, looking through the lens of studios in Auckland, Sydney and Melbourne it will be interesting to see what we find from the southern end of the architectural telescope. It is quite possible that we are able to offer a fresh and exciting interpretation by seeing identity through a new lens, with sensibilities derived from a Pacific edge position.

Commercial Bay Auckland
This story first appeared on Warren and Mahoney’s blog.
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