Architecture has emerged in the public's consciousness in recent years, with architects portrayed by the media as cultural shapers and movers in society. American architect Elizabeth Diller, partner of New York practice Diller+Scofidio Renfro was listed as one of Times magazine's 100 most influential personalities of 2018 while the globe-trotting Danish architect Bjarke Ingels is regularly featured on CNN expounding his design ideas and projects. On the other hand, cities are hastily organizing architecture biennials and triennials with the hope of projecting their cultural capital to an international audience. There are a total of 34 biennials and triennials globally, with 22 being hosted in different cities concurrently the same year. The Venice Biennial, the oldest and most renowned among the biennials saw over 60,000 visitors in just the first three weeks alone in 2016. The final total number of visitors was 260,000, which was a record for the biennial. Politicians, policymakers and brand consultants are quick to seize on the promotion of culture in enhancing liveability, to attract global talent, tourists and increase economic competitiveness, It is a narrow yet alluring definition of culture that is perceived to boost a city's spot in the annual global city ranking exercise. This is not surprising. As cultural artifacts, buildings carry strong cultural currents in our built environment. They reflect the values, beliefs, and customs of a society at a particular point in time.
The word culture has its origin from the Latin word cultura, which means 'to grow,' to 'cultivate.' In Biology, culture refers to the growth of bacteria and cells by providing the right mix of nutrients and conditions. Whether it is the growth of bacteria in a petri dish or the cultivation of culture in society, time, patience, care, commitment, attention, and nourishment are needed to allow something to come into existence. It is an emplaced process, bounded loosely in a locale or within the glass confines of a petri dish. In his 1958 essay, Culture is Ordinary, Raymond Williams bemoaned the association of culture only with the high culture of the arts like literature, painting, dance, and theatre. To be cultured means having a taste for the finer things as opposed to a low culture, which belongs to the masses. Williams argued that both high and low cultures coexist in our lives, and we should instead be looking at culture as a 'whole way of life.' In other words, our everyday existence, in which we engage in myriad forms of daily activities, interact with people from different walks of life and in spaces that are both ordinary and exquisite. Although written in 1958, it still serves an important reminder to architects and architecture students. As spatial designers who can influence behaviors and actions, and modulate perceptions through our design, we, too, must be mindful of the manifold and sometimes competing cultures commingling amongst us. It is especially critical at a time when increasing socio-economic inequality frustrates, excludes and divides society, and the rising voices of underrepresented communities who demand to be heard.