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Architecture Has Its Own Cultural Appropriation Problem

It is no longer shocking to accuse an act or actor of “cultural appropriation.” The consensus is that the dominant American culture—Caucasian, Western, male—has used a prejudiced perception of the rest of the world that damages others, often to turn a profit. Architecture has long had a cultural appropriation problem as well, but not in the ways the rest of society defines it.

“The key to success is sincerity,” the comedian George Burns once said. “Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Faking sincerity is design appropriation. We’ve all seen buildings that use bald-faced imitations designed to trigger certain responses. But the rush to mimic “cool” is particularly onerous in architecture, as huge sums of money are spent, creating a carbon footprint that impacts our world. Like all fine arts, architecture has an elite that defines itself as the cutting edge. The self-congratulatory series of “innovative” gestures that pop up on our screens are as shallow as any other cultural appropriation, but their impact is arguably greater. 

Faked sincerity is easy to spot. Right now, the “blanket” skin that wraps around a child’s gable on numerous homes and small buildings has become an instant cliche. For a decade after Zaha Hadid designed the MAXXI Museum in Italy, extreme and gratuitous cantilevers became the architectural statement of the moment. The last few years have seen the “Jenga” stacking trope for high-rises. This aesthetic group-think is no different than any applied historicist style in its outcome, but is deeply cynical in its motivation. 

The use of historicist styles to convey cultural value has long been a knee-jerk response in many situations. In America, thousands of Greek temples serve as our courthouses, museums, and libraries. At Yale, two colleges were built a decade ago that were full-blown replications of College Gothic architecture that, in turn, strove to imitate 19th century European Gothic Revival Architecture that, in turn, copied what was built in Cambridge and Oxford 500 years earlier.  

However, there is a difference between applying aesthetic wallpaper and the appropriation of the affect of innovation found in the current moment. Unlike indigenous people watching Caucasians wear cosmetics and clothing to simulate their culture, all those Greek, Roman, and Gothic cultures (and all the other historicist affects) have long passed into history, and into “style.” No one is trivialized, demeaned, or used when “style” is arbitrary window dressing derived from long-dead cultures.  

In architecture, the process of simulating creativity can be absurdly regressive, where innovation becomes pandering, mimicking what is perceived to be creative. But this century, that hypocrisy has new impetus. The internet has made design culture appropriation easily accessible. New ideas are now instantly accessible on every screen. 

The choir of designers is often found singing to other designers from the hymnal composed by yet other designers. The value of creation is found in innovation, not appropriation. Listening is not imitating. Listening to all the idiosyncrasies of each design can make beauty, rather than use imagery to trigger a response. The act of simulation betrays our humanity. Fay Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel could easily have been a Gothic conceit in the woods; the Sydney Opera House, by Jorn Utzon, a massive Greek Temple; Maya Lin’s Vietnam Wall, a Classical memorial. None of these outcomes would have been bad, but would our humanity have been served? 

You could argue that artificial intelligence will explode the application of style, with the act of appropriation a mindless recombinant replication of all previous outcomes, crammed into a universal database. Consumers may simply order from the menu of options the world gives them. In some measure this is because creators, those who should find the unique beauty in any situation, often run away from the innovative creativity they should be obligated to provide. Rather, they leap to the blanket, cantilever, or Jenga tower for safe hipness. 

Designers should not serve as catalogs of what exists to appropriate the imagery created by others. Editors, competition jurists, and academicians have even less excuse when they celebrate aesthetic appropriation instead of lauding the riskier choice of rejecting “aesthetically correct” answers to idiosyncratic problems. 

Mindless application of defendable aesthetics can doom buildings beyond simply short selling their potential. Think of Lincoln Center: three perfect Modernist boxes (by Philip Johnson, Gordon Bunshaft, and Wallace Harrison) had their shape and function completely subverted to create a modern cultural Acropolis. Since they were built, their interiors have been endlessly gutted and redone.

Architecture is created, not applied. Each site is a unique opportunity, with an idiosyncratic user, a specific culture of its creation. Buildings are expensive, can last a long time, and are part of many lives. Aesthetic appropriation ignores the responsibility of architects to live up to each project’s unique opportunities. 

When designers opt for aesthetically safe and defendable outcomes, the lowest common denominator of lazy fear wins the day. What we see in architecture often tries hard to justify the cost of the designer’s fee and the inherently greater costs of idiosyncratic design by appropriating the cliches of the moment. Popular culture lives in that moment, but designers should not. 

There will always be “paint by number” stock building plans—and AI will accelerate that easy way out. Architects will only have value if we can do what the robots and algorithms cannot do: pay attention to the distinctive realities of each scenario. Unless designers have the courage to go beyond replication, there will be no reason to take the time and money to invent anything.

Featured image via Design Boom.


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