Crosstalks: East and West

Article originally published online as part of Archinect's Crosstalks series' 6th edition, comparing contemporary notions of the East and West in the context of design and spatio-societal understanding, curator Anthony Morey, 2018

I remember when I closed my eyes  as the afternoon breeze lashed my face. The sound of waves smashed against rocks in a gulley far below and rustling field of reeds filled the air with a symphony of accidental decadence. The air was temperate but rich in humidity in the thickness where one no longer distinguishes each breath. I didn’t know it at the time, but somehow the roar of thundering symphony played faintly in the wind that summer afternoon. As I looked ahead, I saw the English countryside collide with the sea. I saw a small seaside town, which only moments before I had haplessly wandered through, cradle itself between the cliff and the sea. Before me, the immensity of the British Isles disintegrated one grain of sand at a time. These gargantuan rocks slowly wore away into dust, returning to the nebulous nothingness from which they long ago emerged.

I was rendered insignificant not only by their material immensity – these unliftable heaps of stone which held me just above the horizon – but by the meaninglessness of my existence in the human story that unfurled before me. How many thousands had also walked these cliffs? How many generations of families had come and gone in the town below? How many countless lives had unfolded, a million tiny constituent parts of the historical machine that works constantly to uproot the present painfully from its immediate past? I felt as if sitting at helm of a certain history, whose push uncontrollably jammed me forward.

The horrors, triumphs and banal wonders of everyday life thickened the air but did not choke me. I resided at the center of a perfectly tuned pendulum, witnessing the constancy of time roll onwards despite any intervention. In these few moments, I encountered the irresolute force of a state of being in its most absolute form. The distinctness of time’s ongoing march came to a crescendo on those cliffs just outside Brighton that summer afternoon. This feeling I encountered was a kind of cultural essence which epitomizes a place, a form of totalizing belonging where the sensory experience of a place perfectly mirrors the cultural pathology expected of it. In this reflection of rawness and expectation, the two tune one another out, leaving behind only the deafening hiss of an unfiltered experience.

This distinctness of identity is what we provoke when discussing broad cultural categories, such as the “West” or the “East”. In speaking of their supposed dichotomy, we enact a particular teleology to describe how things got to where they are. We engage a mythic origin story which shelves the intricacy of human experience for the convenience of narrative. Both profound and unfathomably massive, these cultures represent historical swaths thousands of years in diameter. What exactly do we intend when we describe something as Western? When critics identify a contemporary building’s aesthetic as Eastern, what do we presuppose in so far as we fortify a particular relationship between the building and our perception of it, a harsh binary between belonging and inauthenticity?

“Culture” is at once totalizing and irrelevant, a blunt instrument with which we attempt to strike at identity. This intersection between the individual and the collection of selves which we assume comprises the fabric of a society presents a target that is by its very nature persistently beyond grasp. Cultures are massive and messy, contradictory and in-your-face while remaining so subtle as to obscure the innumerable behaviors they choreograph regarding our experience of the world. We nevertheless rely on these constructions to provide us with a world that is digestible, approachable and, in a very real sense, conquerable to the extent that we might intellectualize it, comprehend it and therefore situate ourselves in it. When, as designers, we implicate ourselves in this dichotomy between Western or Eastern, what do we mean on a fundamental level? Which things do we sacrifice for such distinctions, and what poignancy do we gain from cultural approximations of such sheer breadth? If this interrogation seems to pose more questions than provide answers, it is because our terminology has not reconciled our experience. What we consider to be the East or the West is centuries-old notion that finds itself thoroughly outpaced by the dizzying speed of cultural exchange that occurs between societies on every corner of our globe. The Our world is too sprawling and self-entangled to be salvaged, conceptually speaking, by catch-all adages.

Ideas of cultural belonging naturally define our identities as humans, and thus too in great part how we function as designers. Ideological encampment to either side is somewhat inevitable. It feels good “to belong”, carrying on a cultural heritage which stretches with such prominence over human history. How we orient our own identities to our self-perceptions of East and West matters immensely. Though these categorical distinctions help us to find belonging, should we not be cautious about the degree to which we invest our own identity (or expression) in them? We have in turn begun to encounter the boundaries which these terms stipulate. Living in a cultural moment so intensely aware of cultural appropriation and authenticity, is there not another way to encompass a meaningful sense of belonging which is both universal in its poignancy towards the human experience yet situationally specific enough to honor the local conditions which illicit value in a society’s endemic expressions of culture? How might we re-engage the multitudinous forms of belonging which compromise our collective selfhood?

This remains uniquely dire to architectural discipline, where one might argue that the complexity of life in the 21st century has invalidated cultural meta-narratives as meaningful or productive. If we consider the creation of a building to be the formation of a material presence in a particular site – in so far as it exists on a site it inherently relates to the site, even if by intentional indifference – then we must always remind ourselves that architecture is realized in this deeply problematic territory. The narratives of the East and West begin to loose grounds where they fail to adequately surmount the intersectionality of contemporary existence.

Do these categories provide us with a framework for architecture, or do they presuppose a series of values which limit us to the unique emotive capacities of placehood? For my own part, I often encounter a belief that Western architecture is austere, rational, symmetrical in its form and ideology. But is it not also true that Western architecture can be gentle, soft and docile in its built countenance?

The ruins of abbeys which dot the English landscape no longer retain their opulence, yet they speak precisely for the history and condition of a place in a way only architecture can. Theirs is a power greater than words or concepts, more significant than universalizing allegories. In these and so many other traditional buildings – those with which we most prominently invest the supposed capacity to represent our cultures – what emanates from the experience of the architecture is not a quality purely specific to an endemic culture but something with a larger sense of permanency. In this condition, architecture entices a specific form of belonging which transcends cultural tropes and speaks to something more innate to the human condition. When for example we encounter Western architecture from this vantage, we approach something not mighty and symmetrical but subtle and mundane, something with belies its own expectations. Stones in a field or the tactility of an old village, its perimeter smoothed into the forest around it such that meandering ground and stony cellars alike become one singular landscape, pronounce more sharply the virtues of a culture than a critical analysis taken from a basal dichotomy might hope to approach. What is more, in their gentle existence, they wield more capacity to bridge cultures than demarcative ideologies.

Beneath broad labels, many cultures and places do provide a stark capacity to be special, to be wholly unique. There is an extent to which a place can be assessed for its emotive resonance, but one might execute caution when ascribing such observations to a broader cultural narrative. We approach this presence in a way that transcends cultural differences and speaks a certain fundamental "truth in place". While this truth may not deliver the kind of critical fodder as the grander concepts of East or West, careful engagement with place offers a powerful sense of validation independent from heritage or nationality, beyond the confines of simplistic binaries. It is in this resounding mundanity that architecture might find the most rewarding aspects of identity such that the encounter enables us as cultural participants to propose the alternative forms of belonging most appropriate for our ever more intricate world.