Contested discourses : national identity and architecture
Architecture has historically been an important part of a cultural repertoire used by states
to construct the nation code. In modernity authoritative state definitions of the nation were
possible due to the clearly demarcated cultural boundaries that existed between states, and
although states seldom had total control over the nation code they were for the most part
able to construct dominant, cultural symbols of the nation. In this age of nation-building
distinct national styles of architecture, which emerged through the modification of
universal styles to particular contexts, provided a significant space for nation codification.
Victorian Britain provides a clear illustration of these general trends. At this time many
prominent British architects accepted state commissions to design public buildings in a
quintessentially British style. Styles reliant on historical reference such as Gothic and neo-
Classical were used by the British state to legitimate their imperialistic, colonial aims. In
the twentieth century the emergence of the modem code of architecture, with its more
universalised aesthetic, challenged boundaries between national styles. However, many
states did attempt to modify this style, as modernism's progressive logic and utopian ideals
were ideas with which governments wanted to align 'their' nations.
The cultural boundaries of the state have become more porous due to processes associated
with globalization. In most European societies the nation is increasingly a fragmented,
diverse concept, and the relatively stable relationship between nation and state in
modernity has frequently become unstable under globalized conditions. Post-national
identities that pay little heed to geographical and political boundaries have emerged, with
new forms of citizenship association threatening the ability of the state to provide the
stable national identities that were to a large extent possible in modernity.
This dissertation argues that the ambiguous relationship between the nation, the state and
post-national identities fmds a tangible form in some contemporary state-led architecture
projects. The Millennium Dome, the Jewish Museum, and the Reichstag all express many
of the tensions inherent in contemporary state-led architectural projects. The dominant
discourses around these buildings are of transparency, openness, and democracy, reflecting
themes in contemporary European politics. As the wider political and cultural discourses in
which buildings are situated can often shape their interpretation, the architects responsible
for these buildings have attempted to control the symbolic meanings attached to their work
as far as is possible. States still have a continued interest in architecture that expresses
national identities, but vitally not with the same degree of mastery they once had.
In short architecture is a discursive medium, and as such harbours the potential to codify
collective identities. The state-led architectural projects assessed here reflect some of the
dominant discourses in the construction of post-national identities. Resultantly these
buildings have also provided a focus for contestation about contemporary identity projects.
The dissertation makes two significant contributions to existing knowledge: firstly by
bridging the gap that currently exists between sociology and architectural theory and
secondly by developing this framework with reference to three specific illustrative
examples in contemporary European architecture.