Goal celebrations are brilliant expressions of national identity (but not you, Clint Dempsey). How does architecture reflect where a nation has come from and where it’s going, asks Amanda Levete
Being in the midst of World Cup fever has made me reflect on pride and identity. Like much else, football is so global these days that there are few ways in which national identity can be expressed. Football attire is pretty standard, the style of play comes from the individuals who make up the team - who themselves play for teams around the world - and their managers, who are often from another country. But there is one thing that gets to the heart of it and that is the style in which the teams celebrate a goal: Cameroon are masters of exuberance and shimmying, England are very blokey and Japan are literally over the top. There is a brilliant ad for Coca-Cola that puts together a montage of celebrations and you really feel it.
It would be fascinating to explore national identity through design - to ask an architect from each country to design something in the manner of another country
The whole World Cup razzmatazz makes me a bit teary. Watching the players mouth the words of their national anthems with looks of real pride, the demonstrable affection between adversaries just minutes before they play out possibly the most crucial 90 minutes of their lives and the joie de vivre of the South African hosts - whose mosquito-like droning vuvuzelas have become the audio icon of the 2010 tournament - is both touching and exhilarating. For 28 days, the world appears at peace with itself.
All this has made me think about identity.
If national identities can be captured so perfectly in a few exquisite moves, what are the parallels in architecture? To pick an obvious example, Gaudí came to symbolize Spanish architecture yet he was a complete one-off. Perhaps now Spanish architecture is more defined by the work of Calatrava, or is it a virtuous circle where the work and national identity feed off each other and you can’t separate the two?
The buildings of Foster and Rogers give the most easily digested view of British architecture abroad, closely followed by Chipperfield. But Zaha does something different. In a way her work is borderless because of her Iraqi heritage and British nationality, yet maybe it is she who is defining a new architectural view of this country. Zaha is the most recognised and applauded architect of the increasing number who are based here but not from here and who are reshaping British identity through a more multicultural view of the world.
Take even the media centre at Lord’s – it gives a global view of what is a quintessentially national game. It wasn’t a conscious thing at the time but, once Jan understood the rules of cricket and why you have to bowl from both ends, the Anglo-Czech production came to symbolize something very English indeed.
If national identities can be captured so perfectly in a few exquisite moves, what are the parallels in architecture? do the work and identity feed off each other?
It is an interesting moment. I had an idea a while back that, given the forthcoming Olympics, perhaps has a bit of currency. I think it would be fascinating to explore the issue of national identity through design - not through buildings because they take too long to realise but to ask an architect or designer from each participating country to design something in the manner of another country’s identity. The brief would be to keep hold of the essence of your own language but manipulate it in a way that interprets the identity of another’s. So a British designer could design in the African idiom, a Japanese architect in the manner of the Spanish and so on. Viewing a nation in an object conceived through the eyes of another could be as revealing as it might be humorous, and it might make a great exhibition. In the unlikely event that someone is keen to sponsor such an idea, do get in touch.
Identity is a broad subject and it touches on much of what we do as architects. Corporate identity is an issue we are grappling with in the office. In a large global corporation, how do you express a sense of common endeavour and at the same time express the fiercely protected identities of separate entities? It’s a design challenge that is as much intellectual as physical. It reminds us that the intangible is as valuable as the real, if not more so.
Another debate we are having is about identity in speculative buildings. Take buildings in the City, for example, where there is a homogeneity and where the corporate world is defined by grandiose lobbies and expensive finishes. Is that as valid now as it was 20 years ago? Have things not changed a bit and does that not give us an opportunity to design slightly differently? In a building that will potentially house several organisations, how do you create a sense of place and belonging that can be interpreted by each entity in a way that accords with its own identity?
Anyway, back to the World Cup. I offered to screen at the office every game that featured the nation of any member of the team. I forgot the English were a minority nation in our office so I’m not sure how much work will get done over the next few weeks.
Amanda Levete is principal of Amanda Levete Architects