On Nationalism and Contextualism

On Nationalism and Contextualism

Courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects

The word most often heard when architects describe their work is context. Every architect—even the ones whose buildings look like UFOs—claims to have been profoundly influenced by context. It doesn’t help that academics and journalists make claims about architects’ approach to context that strain credibility. The


Not everyone thinks such a massive stadium makes sense for Tokyo. Protesters have noted that Hadid’s stadium would require the felling of precious trees, in one of the most park-starved cities in the world. For that reason and others, Pritzker Prize winners Toyo Ito and Fumihiko Maki have been calling for the renovation of the existing stadium. And in an open letter to the Japan Sports Council, the 83-year-old Arata Isozaki called the project a “monumental mistake” and warned it will be a “disgrace to future generations.” He described the stadium as “a dull, slow form, like a turtle waiting for Japan to sink so that it can swim away.” Maki described it as a “white elephant.”

In response to those complaints, as well as concern about the cost of the new stadium (estimated at more than $2 billion), Hadid modified the design, producing a scheme that is duller and yet no more contextual. She also accused the Japanese architects of jealousy, telling an interviewer, “They don’t want a foreigner.”

The critics—Ito, Isozaki, and others—have not suggested that the job go to a Japanese architect. To do so would violate the apparent consensus that nationality should have no bearing on how architects are chosen—that borders and even oceans should mean nothing. Rogers and Foster, like their peers, see themselves as citizens of the world. So, too, do their Japanese competitors. Maki, for example, is one of architecture’s most frequent flyers; he may be best known for his World Trade Center tower in New York.

But Maki is also responsible for the building on Astor Place that ignores its context. Would he have done better if he were a New Yorker? Conversely, would a Japanese architect have designed a stadium so at odds with its context as Hadid’s turtle? Another of the stadium finalists was SANAA, working with the giant firm Nikken Sekkei. SANAA’s entry might be a little less dynamic than Hadid’s, and therefore a bit less photogenic, but it would suit the city better in the long run.

Hadid is busy in more than a dozen other countries, with 40 active projects that include a stadium in Qatar, for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Still, context can be learned. According to a statement issued by her firm, Hadid has been working in Japan for 30 years, and has “researched its architecture and urbanism extensively.”

But what would happen if the Japan Sports Council put its thumb on the scale in favor of a Japanese architect, for reasons of contextualism, or national pride, or both? Would that induce other countries to retaliate, in a kind of architectural trade war?

As the New York–based architect Joshua Prince-Ramus noted, “It becomes a slippery slope into nationalism. Push Zaha out after she wins a major, juried, international competition, and SANAA, Ito, Fujimoto, Ban, Kuma, etc., had better be prepared to relinquish or forgo important foreign commissions.”

The question has engaged academics. Hashim Sarkis, the newly appointed dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, noted, “Nationalism in architecture usually means a particular style, one that is supported and promoted by national authorities. I hope that we will never again have to judge the quality of architecture by the degree to which it promotes a nationalist project.” Ana Miljacki, an MIT professor and co-curator of the US pavilion at the 2014 Venice architecture biennale, which focused on American “architectural exports,” said she finds it useful to “juxtapose two ideas against each other: ‘is it ever okay for countries to give preference to their own architects when awarding public commissions?’ versus ‘Is it ever okay for governments to give preference to foreign architects when awarding public commissions?’ I think the answer, in this day and age, should be yes to both.”

Perhaps countries should get a little leeway when a project is a direct reflection
of national aspirations. In this case, Japan is preparing to spend billions of dollars to burnish its image. Why can’t its achievements in architecture be part of that initiative? Projects that are meant to showcase national achievements might be reserved for local architects.

Architecture, done right, can create bridges between cultures, and cross-pollination is important. But unlike the usual products of trade wars, understanding of context isn’t fungible. With homegrown architects designing major public buildings, more of those buildings might be truly contextual. And isn’t that what everybody says they want?