Culture and Architecture

June 15, 2017

Current architectural internationalism is at risk of making our cities more generic, and several Auckland landmarks could quite readily be transplanted to many cities in the world. A common contention is that these structures are inhumane and therefore do not reflect our identity - something that every individual, community and country wants to signal. In response, we must take care that architecture does not address this calling by falling prey to empty or simplistic tokenism. Our challenge is to embed stronger and more enduring means of evoking context and culture. Fundamental concepts of shelter, proportion and how the community, client, and local culture relates to spaces can fulfil this role.


In the athletes’ village for the 2015 Pacific Games in Port Moresby, it seemed the only common ground in a country where 4 million people speak 800 different languages was the geographic location. After the games, the village was to become part of the University of Papua New Guinea student accommodation. As most in PNG still live according to customary values, it was important to understand and respect cultural values. Warren and Mahoney chose to use contemporary materials shaped by historical precedents to represent the ideas at the core of what makes this South Pacific university unique. Steel struts that lift canopies for shelter and shade are based on the apex of the traditional ‘haus’. Stained plywood soffits celebrate a triangular geometry, common in the indigenous art of this island state. Form and function prevailed, rather than superficial motifs.

At the same time, design direction came from cutting-edge global educational research and the inherent competition between universities worldwide to rise up the ranks. Key to attracting international students is to create a social culture that they want to be a part of. This meant working with the client to challenge the traditional approach of segregating according to tribal affiliation and gender. The Vice Chancellor of the University and the PNG Government courageously signed off on a design which upset the status quo and promoted inclusivity. Five buildings, all designed with equal legibility, were connected in clusters around communal courtyards emulating the layout of the village. Literally and metaphorically this encourages different languages and dialects to interact - relevant in a country that represents over ten percent of the world’s languages. A post-occupancy review will assess whether this thinking has drawn these distinct domestic groups closer, and acted as a drawcard for overseas students. Greater unification will be a rewarding example of architecture influencing culture.

Architecture can direct us through spaces and rituals, often doing this by drawing on collective cultural rituals and understandings. When communities are more multi-cultural and secular, these paths are not so clear. The imperative, then, is to create architecture that embraces humanist values, such as safety, orientation, exploration and discovery.