This essay will deal with a very specific subject on to what extent does architecture and urbanism of a newly built national capital contribute to solidification of a newly established nation. To understand this, a definition of a nation and conditions needed for its consolidation are needed. Secondly there needs to be established just how much (if at all) Architecture and Urbanism could help to strengthen the concept of belonging which is a precondition to notion that particular nation. Furthermore I will try to substantiate this reasoning on examples of planned capital cities, namely Washington D.C. (USA), Ottawa (Canada) and Canberra (Australia).
2. Definition of Operating Terms
Firstly we have to understand the concept that we are trying to enrich through architectural means – concept of a nation and national identity. Only then it is possible to actually see where architecture and urbanism can come into play as two constitutive parts.
Before defining national identity, a short definition of identity as such is necessary: In the broadest sense, “Identity is whatever makes an entity definable and recognizable, in terms of possessing a set of qualities or characteristics that distinguish it from entities of a different type”(1). Identity refers to affiliation and sense of belonging to a certain concept or set of concepts. It is a quality of an entity that distinguishes it from another thus it is a quality of difference. In terms of people, we could define identity as “…source of meaning for the actors themselves, constructed through a process of individuation.”(2)
2.2. National Identity
When talking of national identity we are willingly or unwillingly addressing concepts of a nation and nationalism. Furthermore, we find ourselves much too quickly affiliating nationalism with extreme leftism; xenophobic and racist movements that (indeed proven in history) do not bring anything good. I am not arguing for that kind of nationalism but for a concept based on a group of people gaining purpose, common goals, affiliations and ideas. A concept that enables people to come together and do something positive. I am arguing for an identity of difference as opposed to identity of homogenised equilibrium. A thought of Guattari could help to illustrate this better: “The search for an existential Territory or homeland doesn’t necessarily involve searching for one’s country of birth or a distant country of origin, although too often, nationalistic movements (like the Irish or the Basque) have turned in on themselves […]. All sorts of deterritorialized ‘nationalities’ are conceivable, such as music and poetry.”(3) Furthermore, I will try to argue that nationalism and nation-state in contemporary globalized world can stand for something completely different than it did in the history; that their definition ought to be constituted on basis of protection of social rights and common citizen.
When defining national identity we must understand that it concerns an identity of a group or a collective of people with common affiliations and sense of belonging to very specific notions. Another important fact is that these affiliations and sense of belonging do not come naturally, in fact, they are completely artificial, fabricated and have to be constantly nurtured. Nationalism and nation as such are man-made socio-political constructs with strong economical agendas. Identity of a nation takes time and generations to establish itself through constant care and renewal and it is implemented by the ruling regime. National identity therefore emerges as a complex mixture of affiliations to specific (propagated) notions. Not every notion is understood and represented in the same capacity and same manner in all of the people, thus we are talking about modalities of the notions.
Constitution of a nation and subsequent “invention” of national identity has close connections with acquiring economical and political power or better yet, shifting the people in power through utilization of common public.(4) This is also true for constitution of nations of former European colonies. As the conquered colonial territories cut across cultural linguistic and ethnical boundaries the main unifying principles were not those of common cultural, ethnical or linguistic legacy (as it was the case in Europe) but of difference to natives as opposed to colonial rulers. A difference, which was presented as: Europeans being the oppressors, being of different colour, having different habits … With no previous common cultural and linguistic denominators these nations had to literally invent themselves. USA were a divergent mix of ex-European settlers from all over Europe with an addition of Jews. India was a multicultural area of Central Asia with diverse languages and no common history (other than colonial).
In Europe the accumulation of linguistic and cultural material over time brought gradual formation of unification instruments as opposed to abrupt act of necessity in colonies constituted a need for definition of these instruments. This also shows that constitution of a nation does not rely necessarily on continuity of cultural or religious material but that divergent groups could be unified on a basis of a different aspect.(5)
Unification of colonial territories into nation-states is of the main interest of this essay whereas the act of attainment of independence brings about necessity of a state apparatus thus construction of national capitol. In many occasions this meant designing a new city as mechanisms and institutions needed to govern newly established state were not yet in place.
A predominant view in current globalized society is that this same globalization is tearing apart the very fabric of ideas and ideals that nation identities are built upon. If we leave out continuity of history, culture and constitution of national identity for the sake of itself, I would like to argue that nation-states and nationalism have another very important role to play in the contemporary world. As Guattari states: “While there no longer appears to be a cause-and-effect relationship between the growth in techno-scientific resources and the development of social and cultural progress, it seems clear that we are witnessing an irreversible erosion of the traditional mechanism of social regulation.”(6) With this passage he is arguing that the social structures that are in place nowadays are slowly giving in to ever more predominant capitalistic structures of post-industrial era. Structures like multinational companies and concerns that are part of what he calls “Integrated World Capitalism” or IWC.(7) The main attribute that speak in favour of nation-states (as opposed to IWC) is their need to promote. This uniqueness is the basis of their constitution and existence.
Just by upholding the difference we do not necessarily uphold social justice which is another very relevant concept that IWC is not happy to promote. Guattari in The Three Ecologies argues that nation-state is not able to counteract the power of IWC in this aspect and that new 3rd sector institutions should take that burden. Not being able to do so, does not necessarily mean not doing anything at all. It is to be argued that in history there are a great number of examples where a nation-state is the key element of upholding social values for the widest spectrum of citizens possible. If we just look at the communistic countries, despite their flaws and delusions of grandeur, they did have a strong social agenda – free health care, free education. Perhaps it is a matter of culture and cultural memory through which it is possible to slowly constitute a sense of socially just society.(8)
Currently the nation-states are one of the few guardians of social righteousness (9) (at least more developed ones in Europe). They counteract the global economies and their hyper-capitalistic attitude. Therefore the properties that nation-states add to the mix of contemporary globalized world are even more important that they seem to be on the first glance.
3. Mechanisms for Upholding the National Identity
After defining national identity and nation-state we have to define what are the main mechanisms that enable notion of national identity. Furthermore we have to identify how these mechanisms permeate into architectural form. This is very difficult as we are trying to appropriate notions as abstract as Nation and Identity onto a physical form.
Through definition of ever smaller elements that constitute national identity we are getting closer to material world and are leaving the realm of metaphysical ideology. With this we are getting closer to elements of urbanism and architecture and see how they contribute to the constitution of a nation.
3.1. National Capital
Amalgamation of nation is usually a slow process, nevertheless in a decisive moment in time it happens as a great leap which coincides with foundation of a national capital. In countries based upon gradual constitution through means of cultural and ethnical continuity the mechanisms and architectural artefacts necessary for formation of national capital were already in place as they evolved through time.(10) On the other hand (as already argued), the process of solidification of a nation was much faster in colonial countries, thus, the newly established nations needed an identity and a national capital. Furthermore, there were no common grounds of continuity on which to constitute the national identity, hence it had to be created. One of the means to deliver it is trough design of a national capital.
To understand the national capital we have to recognize and evaluate just what kind of an urban form it is and what kind of role it plays within nation-state. Here I would like to argue that in order to formalize the nation; the national capital has to work as a Central Place Hierarchy defined by Hobenger and Lees in The Making of Urban Europe. De Landa quotes: “On one level, the Central Place System serves a homogeneous people well settled in its historical lands. The national capital destills and formalizes the common folk culture and reinjects the civilized product back into local life.” (11) Although the newly established colonies tend not to be homogeneous in terms of history and culture, the principle of destilling local cultures and reinjecting them as national concepts is applicable. Through this concept local culture(s) are reconstituted into traditions. National capital is therefore closely and intimately connected to its hinterland and has strong ties to cities under its rule. In terms of geography this translates into a location that can control as much territory as possible. This was the case in Australia and Canada when deciding upon a location for the national capital. As Wikipedia states for Ottawa: “In fact, the Queen's advisers had her pick Ottawa for many important reasons: first, it was the only settlement of any significant size located right on the border of Canada East and Canada West (Quebec/Ontario border today), making it a compromise between the two colonies and their French and English populations.” (12) In the case of Canberra it is evident as well, that it is placed between Sidney and Melbourne. The “land locked” character of the capital can be seen as an intention of connecting and homogenizing the nation. It brings about another characteristic that being that the capital has a smaller international significance as other cities in the country as it does not aspire to be an economical centre. In this aspect Toronto in Canada or Sydney in Australia are much better known than Ottawa or Canberra respectively. State capital is therefore concerned with local issues and policy of the state. Another fact that shows predominant local importance over the global are the transport connections. There are much more international flights to Toronto than there are to Ottawa. In case of Australia the “international” airport in Canberra does not have any direct international connections at all; all of them go through other Australian cities such as Sidney, Brisbane and Melbourne. It is clear that in terms of connections the national are preferential over international.
3.2. Capitol Complex
If the national capital is the centre of nation-state than capitol complex is the centre of national capital.
Nation state and therefore their leaders renew and constitute sense of a nation constantly. This is done through means of advertising statements of collective national identity that tie individuals to the state and give them a sense of belonging. We are talking about advertisement of complex and abstract notions that personify activities and ideology of the state. Notions that are not easily translatable into architectural form. There is no direct way to reach broad public with these notions therefore the leaders have to employ associative means as vessels for these notions. Tying the concepts of notions to simpler everyday elements is the only way to get the meaning across. This is done through the means of symbols.
Symbols are objects, characters, or other concrete representations of ideas, concepts or abstractions. Symbols as carriers of national ideas can take many different forms from very obvious ones as constitution, public speeches to more subtle ones such as national symbols and design of money. In this aspect Vale quotes Geertz: “The images, metaphors, and rhetorical turns from which national ideologies are build are essentially devices, cultural devices designed to render one or another aspect of broad process of collective self-redefinition explicit, to cast essentialist pride or epochalist hope into specific symbolic form, where more dimly felt, they can be described, developed, celebrated and used.” (13)
Inside of this definition we can also find room for employment of architecture and urbanism as constitutive tools of nation building. Architecture and urbanism employed as national symbols and understood specifically as monuments with ideological value can contribute to consolidation of national identity. This statement argues quite clearly that the act of building an architectural artefact or planning an urbanism per se does not bring about association and identity of a nation, rather it is more in the ways that politicians employ the visual form and graft the concepts of unity onto it thus giving them ability of being instrumental in the manner argued.
Architectural object is therefore a physical symbol that bridges the gap between an idea and the reality. It delivers the idea into physical realm. Therefore, if the notion of national identity could be rooted and given physical location, capitol complex would be the most ideal. The accumulation of all its institutions and buildings such as Parliament House and Court of Justice can be seen as the personification of the nation and ideals that constitute it. The physical form and urban design of the area (including national emblems and flags) are perfect carriers of symbolic meaning. These symbols have to get “branded” with national notions and transmitted. That is done through media and through other means such as engravings of Parliament House on the coins or graphical representations of Court of Justice on bank notes.
Let us try to outline how different nation-states through design of their capitol complex and urban design of the state’s capital itself attempted to utilize architecture and urbanism as tools for building and upholding of national identity. I will focus on architectural and urbanistic design that tries to address directly and in a new way (being applied for the first time in that specific city) propagation of political and ideological notions through architectural and urbanistical means. In other words I will forgo obvious possibilities of tying national identity to vernacular or local architectural traditions – I will not, for example, discuss usage of local materials or paraphrase of vernacular roof structures. The following will also be forgone: • historical and political description and characterization of each city, • architect’s personal ambitions and agendas, • specific political agendas of ruling regime over the period of design and over the period of building and, • moral and ideological concerns regarding usage of architecture for political agendas.
The stated aspects are very important when it comes to building representations and symbols of national proportions nevertheless, I would like to focus solely on aspect of what does architecture as a medium on itself bring to the propagation of national ideas, and how this medium as such is employed.
4.1. Washington D.C. (see images 1 and 2)
First idea of governmental setup was to have two capitals with shared legislative power, one favoured by leaders on the North and one on the South. Instead of building upon existing urban rivals it was decided to build a completely new city.
Washington D.C. is the first postcolonial purposely designed capital. Furthermore, USA was the first nation built on the principles of contemporary constitutional democracy (and capitalism). It would be almost expected that the design of national capital that represents new political system would be revolutionary as well. Instead the urban plan by Pierre Charles L’Enfant is very traditionalistic in a sense that it applies “standard baroque principles”. (14) Nevertheless employing historicism could be viewed in different light. By introducing historically inspired design in key governmental buildings such as United States Congress we can see generation of delicate connection to a notion of history as such. By bringing in this concept (at least visually) it is easier to generate common history.
Furthermore in terms of urbanism, the symmetric concept of Capitol Hill and diagonal connections of the urban fabric had another virtue. In words of Vale: “The diagonals and axes may be redolent of the cities and gardens of imperial Europe, but Washington is a more democratically engendered product. In the choice of its site and in the nature and juxtaposition of its monumental buildings, Washington marks a first partial attempt to free capital design from its association with autocratic control.” (15) He also notes that L’Enfant’s design technique served to enhance distant views of governmental buildings thus making the Capitol physically and conceptually a focal point of the urban composition. By making visual connection to the country’s symbol of democracy one could (at least figuratively) connect to a belief of “living in a free country” so praised by the “free” citizens of USA.
4.2. Ottawa (see images 3 and 4)
In Canada we again face a problem of cultural diversity and strong polarization of interests crystallized by ethnic groups of predominant French and English descendants. Thus (as already mentioned) location of Ottawa was purposely chosen on the border between Upper and Lower Canada – between Quebec and Ontario, which are the “cultural” centres of French and English speaking population respectively. Ottawa was a small logger’s town on the English side of Ottawa River. As all of the main institutional buildings (Parliament, Supreme Court) were built on the English side, it was quite natural that French political movements were not so happy with the arrangement. To politically uphold the notion of common identity and to connect the two communities, planners promoted a sense of national capital Region thus connecting the Ottawa with Hull – town on the French side of the river.
To further strengthen this political statement thus tying it to a notion of national identity, official Ceremonial Route was planned. This route, now called Confederal Boulevard, connects national political symbols, museums and other national institutions built around it into a loop. The circular route stretches from one bank to the other thus connecting Ottawa and Hull and in essence connecting Ontario and Quebec. To borrow a quotation from Vale: “The two cultures will be symbolically linked, the chief governmental buildings will look in on themselves, their backs to their two vernacular cities of Ottawa and Hull.” (16)
Although the Ottawa being a compromise for both ethnical groups it is in this compromise that a possibility of unification resides. The urbanistic gesture of the boulevard (with its adjacent buildings and symbols) is a really great example of architecture and urbanism as symbolic representations of national identity.
4.3. Canberra (see images 5 and 6)
Canberra was always perceived as “Australian Washington” and actually in terms of urban design there are quite a few similarities. Griffin worked with topological qualities to define main characteristics of the plan. Main urbanistic feature consists of a grand ceremonial axis (visually attached and aligned with major mountain peaks) and perpendicularly transversed water axis. With spatial design principles of the ceremonial axis (like central simetricity of main open space and governmental buildings) he is giving a symbolic character to the whole capitol complex. Grandiose baroque character is further emphasized with two converging diagonal avenues that meet on Capital Hill. The baroque idea of grand open vistas and big symmetrical organisation could be understood in very specific terms.
By creating a space that is out of scale or, it is not of human scale, could be (metaphorically) understood as something that is bigger than an individual. In terms of capitol complex that could be understood as imposition of an idea that has a bigger meaning and should therefore be understood as national. Indeed the “out of scale” principle is usually used as imposition of power over its subjects but as argued before – it is in the ways a visual form is advertised that meaning emerges. This is even truer in the case of Canberra as Griffin made a real ideological twist. The focal point of the whole composition – the Parliament Hill, symbolically most prominent spot of the whole urban plan, was intended to be an open public park for people; a ceremonial meeting area and not a place of the House of Parliament as it would be most common. This gesture could be interpreted as symbolism for democracy, where the main focus is the citizen and not the state. The main governmental buildings were to be built just under the hill toward the water axis in a triangular pattern. Because of this and other reasons, Australia had a provisional parliament house for quite some time.
In 1977 a competition for a Parliament House was launched which placed the new Parliament House on location of the Parliament Hill. It seemed like the symbolic depiction of democracy in Griffin’s plan was gone. But again, design of the building ensured to uphold this very idea. The building was carved into the hill thus having a grassed roof. Furthermore in terms of style it was a contemporary structure with postmodern ideas. This gesture was a real deviation from usual design for a national capitol. It exercised symbolic acknowledgment of common people’s role and furthermore an idea that national symbols are not necessarily built on historicisms and are not necessary to unite people on the idea of a history but on an idea of future. Or as Vale quotes: “Griffin’s desire to allow the People access to the highest point could be realised and at the same time allay fears that Parliament had retreated to a remote and dominant position.” (17)
Building and upholding a sense of a nation is a complex and a long process that is never finished. National ideas have to be sustained and cherished constantly otherwise the sense of a nation dissipates and seizes to be. Reason for this is in the nature of the concept itself; it is an artificial construct. Upholding of the concept of nations is necessary as an antipode towards pervasive global culture, fabricated and driven by mega corporations and capitalistic economy. In this aspect, nations stand for creative difference, social justice and idealism.
Nation-states can uphold national identity through means of symbols that take physical form. Only in this way we can understand architecture and urbanism as being instrumental for building the sense of the nation. No architectural form as pure spatial and visual construct has the ability to express notions of national identity with its (spatial or visual) attributes. Even more, no visual form as such has the power “to address” anyone or anything just by its mere physical presence. Form can only be used as a metaphor for an idea or an ideal, by continuously and consistently using the same form as personification and symbol of specific ideological meaning. With this act, the meaning itself can figuratively cross the boundary between physical and metaphysical and became imbedded in the form.
We can not say that architecture and urbanism on themselves contribute to the constitution of national identity but rather that they can be utilized by ruling regime to graft the notions of nation. They became symbolic carriers of national ideas. Through constant upholding and renewal, these symbols get written into collective sub-consciousness, becoming collective memory thus enabling cultural and historical continuity of a nation.
1. Wikipedia, identity (philosophy), accessed on 9. Jan. 2008
2. CASTELS, Manuel: The Power of Identity, p. 7, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1997
3. GUATTARI, Felix: The Three Ecologies, p. 65, The Athlone Press, London, 2000
4. Concept of a nation is fairly new. If I rephrase and sum up interpretation of Vale: Rise of nationalism is closely connected to development of industrial capitalism in Europe and a battle for economical power. By introducing idea of National identity through means of supposedly common linguistic and cultural history European nation-states came of being thus shifting power from hands of ruling elites to common people (we could argue that with constitution of nationalism contemporary democratic society came to existence). Through time the connection of the people to the newly developed constructs grew stronger, slowly “transforming” them into citizens of a nation-state. De Landa would probably argue that citizens could be seen as a resource of nation-states. Constitution of the nation enabled the ruling regime to tap into reservoirs of manpower and energy that could be focused with greater efficiency towards certain (political and economical) goals.
5. It all depends on the formulation and propagation of national ideas. For example: a nation could be unified even though it is multi-religious. Formulation of common denominator in this case could be acknowledgment of difference (propagation of one of the nation’s virtues being acknowledgment of difference thus constituting ground for multilateral agreement therefore satisfying affiliation to that notion).
6. GUATTARI, Felix: The Three Ecologies, pp. 46-47, The Athlone Press, London, 2000
7. IWC is more and more controlling our ways of life and transforming us into global society of consumers with no respect to any social, cultural and historical values. It works towards dissipation of those crucial differences between us which enable us to grow and better ourselves. In this aspect nation-state offers an identity that is the actual opposition to the IWC.
8. Maybe it is again up to nation-states and their power of constitution of identity to uphold the social justice. The best example of contemporary states that achieved this would be the Nordic countries of Sweden, Norway and Finland. Despite their success, they do have a drawback – their economies are heavily dependent on oil that balances out the external economical pressures and reassures the social prosperity.
9. There are organizations (such as Unicef and Red Cross), that comply with Guattari's definition of social 3rd sector. Although they are not meant as pervasive international social structures they do show beginnings of the concept.
10. Foundation of a capital is therefore more of a political statement than an act of architectural design. Consequently it is safe to assume that also notions of national identity are intricately connected with formation of the capital city and therefore the idea of consciously adding a formal expression to a notion of a nation is not necessary (although that does not dispute the possibility that if a new architectural artefact is formed these notions are not taken into consideration).
11. De LANDA, Manuel: A thousand Years of Nonlinear History, p. 40, Zone Books, New York 1997
12. Wikipedia: Ottawa, accessed on 9. Jan. 2008
13. VALE, Lawrence, J.: Architecture, Power, and National Identity, p. 47, Yale University, 1992
14. Ibid., p. 57
15. Ibid., p. 58
16. Ibid., p. 71
17. Ibid., p. 81
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CASTELS, Manuel: The Power of Identity, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1997
De LANDA, Manuel: A thousand Years of Nonlinear History, p. 40, Zone Books, New York 1997
FISCHER, K., F.: Canberra: myths and models: forces at work in the formation of the Australian capita, Institute of Asian Affairs, 1984
GUATTARI, Felix: The Three Ecologies, The Athlone Press, London, 2000
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