Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Fine Grain of Cultural Diversity

Architecture often mirrors the culture or cultures that give rise to it. The variety of beliefs, customs, and arts found in our community and others across the country is increasingly diverse; accordingly, it’s reasonable to assume our buildings and cities should likewise reflect a growing multiplicity of influences. Cultural diversity countervails forces that threaten to render our places, neighborhoods, and cities placeless. Cultural diversity can be a force to humanize our built environments. 

My own experience growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia serves as a case in point. Vancouver, naturally at a crossroads between Canada and the world beyond, was then and remains today a montage of distinct neighborhoods. Many of the neighborhoods familiar to me reflected the makeup of their population. My family’s home was within an enclave largely populated by Italian families and businesses.(1) Other neighborhoods were variously identified as Chinese, Greek, Ukrainian, WASP, etc. Each featured its own distinct sights, sounds, and smells. Businesses serving these communities were overwhelmingly owner-operated, small, and clustered along streets that came to characterize the presence of the dominant population. My childhood was shaped by this exposure to a rich juxtaposition of cultures and the distinct sense of place within the city that each fostered. 

Today, Vancouver remains very much (if not more so) a city of immigrants. By far the principal groups are now of Chinese and south Asian (primarily Indian) origin, though recent arrivals from Iran, the Philippines, and Korea are contributing to the wealth of backgrounds. 

Sociologists often point to Canada as an example of a cultural “mosaic,” contrasting that with the U.S. ideal of a “melting pot.” Proponents of multiculturalism believe a societal structure that encourages immigrants to keep their cultural identity benefits everyone by cultivating an appreciation of and tolerance for different belief systems and customs. On the other hand, multiculturalism and the changing face of America have served as points of contention for those who firmly believe in the value of assimilation and its necessity to ensure a common interpretation of and fealty to the principles of the country’s constitutional democracy. The past election cycle revealed a very real, populist backlash against the change that multiculturalism portends. 

Chinese Lion Dancers at the 2017 Asian Kite Festival in Eugene (my photos)
Despite its discomforting aspects, the trend toward multiculturalism will not be abated. Our communities will adjust and thrive. It might seem counterintuitive to some people, but cultural diversity does not mean our built places will become prejudiced by the traditions of the predominant socioethnic population that has moved in. Other forces, such as topography, climate, land use zoning, solar access, local transportation options, and the native ecology should prevail in the majority of instances. Cultural diversity is an overlay, merely another—albeit powerful and fertile—consideration for architects. 

We can attribute the physical blandness of many of our cities in some measure to the universal application of corporate branding at the expense of what might make the architecture of a specific city or neighborhood unique. Large companies have too often valued homogenization over heterogeneity. Conversely, great cities and neighborhoods are in part that way because they value diversity in all its forms. Embracing cultural diversity encourages us to celebrate what makes us different, which in turn inspires unique architectural responses. 

Cultural diversity also contributes to the emergent properties that distinguish a place. The gestalt of a great city or neighborhood arises from the interactions of many smaller entities, which include every single person and the unique backgrounds and the stories each brings. Rather than suppress that individuality, it behooves us to build upon it. Building upon what makes us different leverages the complexity of our interactions to generate discernable communities. The more fine-grained developments are in reflecting the cultural values, community economics, and the natural setting of a place, the better adapted and coherent they will be. By their nature, large master plans and developments too often lack this fine-grained quality and thus fail to adequately support complex patterns and behaviors. 

Eugene may never achieve the critical mass amongst its minority groups to nurture a mosaic of ethnic enclaves of the sorts that I experienced during my youth in Vancouver. Regardless, Eugene’s prospects may hinge in part upon whether it is supportive of enough diversity and cultural activity to remain vital and attractive to the creative class and industries crucial for success in our post-timber economy. If Eugene remains inclusive and welcoming, it will always have a puncher’s chance to thrive in the competition to attract the best and brightest workers, as well as desirable industries and companies and the family-wage jobs they bring with them. 

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The 32nd annual Asian Kite Festival, which took place this past Saturday in Eugene, prompted this reflection upon the meaning and value of cultural diversity. I originally intended to simply draw a correlation between the culture and artistry of kite-making and architecture, much as I’d done previously between architecture and automobiles, or architecture and my taiko drumming. Instead, I had an epiphany: the diversity of peoples and cultures the Kite Festival represented was indicative of how incredibly complex, kaleidoscopic, and spiritually satisfying our world can be. I was struck by how humbling this realization was, even though I previously embraced this notion. I was amazed by how much a small cultural event in a small community could symbolize for me everything that is remarkable about human beings. For architects, the lesson to be heeded is to always view our buildings as contributions to a legacy that is incomprehensibly vast and consequential.
(1)  The Japanese-Canadian diaspora returning to Vancouver after World War II never cohered again into an identifiably “Japanese” neighborhood or ghetto.   


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