Culture and its Expression in Design

Architecture Dated:  Nov. 25, 2015
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Jharokas of Rajasthan

The very essence of every built form or built up environments is the manifestation of culture masked behind its layers of abstraction. The manifestation may be royal and imposing like those of the mighty empires, or may be simple and yet powerful to create an identity for those who adhere to it. It’s similar to an artist who paints his canvas and there by builds a sanctuary in the hearts of people and lives forever through his work.

Elaborating the expression of culture on the built form is usually the unconscious effort of every designer. In fact, culture plays a dominant role at the very out set of any design process. This is because, any design when conceptualized to perform a desired function, is directly or indirectly derived from or synchronized with the cultural identity of the user. It is what frames our thought processes. It defines individual identity and helps to recollect past memories.

PyramidsFigure 1: Pyramids

There has been several examples of culture expressed extensively in design and architecture. Dating back to the era of the Egyptian civilization, the culture back then demanded its followers to believe in life after death. This belief directly translated into their architecture in the form of mortuary temples and the great pyramids. In Rome, cultural belief in polytheism was expressed in its true form in the Pantheon. The Greek concept of the Agora which is nothing but a gathering space also evolved out of their cultural practise of congregation. In the words of Bernard Tshumi, “Architecture becomes a frame for constructed situations”. Culture on the other hand, is a way of life for a group of individuals. Thus, in a nutshell, culture and architecture are two sides of the same coin. Architecture never deviates from culture, it adapts and merges with the layers of abstraction and sometimes exist in transition when there are dramatic paradigm shifts in the way people live.

Pantheon, RomeFigure 2: Pantheon, Rome

Over the years cultural influences have moulded the way spaces have been designed in India. Not only in areas of ritualistic and religious importance such as temples and mosques, but also the design of residences have been a direct result of the cultural practises prevalent during the time. One such example is the blue city of Jodhpur in Rajasthan. The entire town developed about five hundred years ago on a hill next to the Mehrangarh fort. The town was occupied by the Brahmins who served the royal class and performed ritualistic chores. The basic cultural principle that lead to the development of this town was the belief in unity. All the dwellings share a common foundation and common walls between each other.

Brahmapur Settlements, JodhpurFigure 3: Brahmapur Settlements, Jodhpur

The appearance of the settlement of Brahmapuri is uniform and characteristically similar at all points. All buildings are of the same height, with similar architectural ornamentation and placed in close proximity. The very principle of unity is reflected in every part of their culture and their architecture even today. However, this belief is not just one that has evolved without scientific reason. Geographically, the area of Brahmapuri is prone to earthquakes. Thus, sharing a common foundation over vast stretches of land increases the ability to withstand tectonic shocks. Moreover, the close proximity of the buildings reduces the urban heat island effect and creates comfortable thermal conditions even outdoors through mutual shading.

Jharokas of RajasthanFigure 4: Jharokas of Rajasthana

The blue colour of the settlement is just not because of any cultural or religious belief alone but is also an effective solution for insects. All this is of course an evolution of the cultural practices over the years, but its effects have directly influenced the architectural development of the area. Another instance of culture playing a vital role in design is seen in the caves of Badami in Karnataka. Badami, being the abode for the early Chalukyans, have a distinct mark of their culture imprinted in the form of bas reliefs and carvings on the old red rocks. Nine kings of the Chalukyan Dynasty reined this place from the 6 th to the 8 th century AD. During this period they decorated their capital with architectural wonders. In order to elevate the social status of Badami, the Chalukyan kings took advantage of the rocky terrain surrounding the Badami area and excavated four cave temples out of the rock mass. Later, the relief work in the caves became one of the most important sources to trace and identify the cultural patterns and social constitution prevalent during the Chalukyan rule. Thus, architecture in this case, became the sanctuary for culture and tradition of an entire era.

Carving in the Caves of BadamiFigure 5: Carving in the Caves of Badami

There are several other examples that validate the presence of culture in every form of architecture, and vice versa. Even in the modern day, culture plays a vital role. Despite the strong impact of westernization in architecture in India, local culture continues to inspire architects to design by adopting and merging the elements of both worlds together. There is no architecture without culture, and culture always establishes itself in design, regardless of time and space.

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