Monday, May 12, 2008

Identity Crisis

I sleep with the radio on. I've found that having the news on quietly helps me wind down at the end of the day, and if it's quiet enough and the story isn't deeply compelling, I'll fall asleep in no time.

So this morning I woke up for some reason around 2:30, and the BBC World Service was doing a story about discrimination against African immigrants to Italy. Now that Berlusconi is back as Prime Minister, the newly-resurgent Right has fired up a big wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. It's couched in terms of threats to Italy's cultural identity — the shared language, religion, clothing, foods and other elements of daily life that let people say "We are this way, and these things help define who we are."

In psychology, identity is an individual concept, the idea and definition of oneself. And that identity can be surprisingly fragile. We all have periods in our lives where identity is ruptured, where the old story no longer holds. Adolescence, graduations, "mid-life crisis," illnesses, divorces, menopause, retirement. At those points or transitions, we are no longer who we were, but we've yet to figure out who we are now.

I think that cultural identity is equally fragile in our Modern age. We are highly mobile, pursuing work around the world and blending our habits with those of people from everywhere. Americans are increasingly non-European, and the country is soon to be majority non-white. Ideas and entertainment and material products come from everywhere, and belong nowhere.

I think we find this normal now. But imagine living in 1850. Born and raised in one town. Living your whole life in the same region. Inheriting the family farm or learning the family trade. Member of the same church as your great-grandparents, and headed one day for the same cemetery. Eating what comes out of your garden. Waiting weeks for a letter, and rarely seeing a newspaper. Now that's an identity-rich environment; you'd never have any question about who you were, or wonder what you might become. It's also extraordinarily constraining when seen through our modern eyes. But for most of human history, this was completely the norm. (For much of the world, it still is... except that the ubiquity of television brings Western life to even the most remote places.)

One quick response is that we might have had greater security in who we were (as individuals and as a community), but we also had pretty horrific gender repression, regularly died of malnutrition or tuberculosis or childbirth, and lived lives that, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, were "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." For most of us, it's a pretty easy tradeoff to choose modern conditions.

But I think that those two poles represent an artificial choice. We get to choose (if we want to) what kinds of world-awareness we embrace, what kinds we accept, and what kinds we refuse. I read quite a lot, listen to music from multiple continents (and centuries), get my news from NPR and the BBC, drive a tiny little Korean car, and appreciate having access to all of that. I also don't watch television or listen to pop music or go to many movies, because I find them a) tedious, b) embarrassing, or c) uncomfortably violent. These are my choices, based on my own identity issues. And I like living in places that look like they belong where they are, that have a meaningful local vocabulary that's endured over a long, long time.

As architects, we get to make that choice on behalf of lots of people — do we reinforce the local sense of cultural identity and place, or do we challenge it? It might be polite if we asked first. I mean, if you were going to order pizza for a group of friends, you'd ask how many were vegetarians and whether someone had allergies and if you should leave off the anchovies on part of it. Think how much more substantive, enduring, and deeply personal our relationships with places are — why should we presume that we can place the order for all of our neighbors?

Disclaimer: I have a BA and a PhD in Architecture, but I am not licensed to practice the profession, and thus cannot appropriately use the term "architect" to describe myself. So when I use the term "we" when describing what architects do, I include myself only in the community of those who are academically trained in, and have a deep interest in, the built environment (and who feel a strong responsibility for it). I offer no architectural services. Do not call me to design buildings, interiors or landscapes at any scale. If swelling or redness occurs, contact your physician.

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