This intricate aboriginal art pattern may seem very inspiring, as a planting design, as an urban grid layout, as a fabric pattern for a dress… would it be harmful to incorporate it in a design without necessarily connecting it to its origin? Image: CC0 Public Domain

Cultural appropriation is the imbalanced adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of a dominant culture – an exchange where an aesthetic, a cultural practice, or even sensorial cues may be adopted or adapted without the input and context of its originating culture.

Simply wearing traditional clothing with intentions other than those of the culture of origin may result offensive for most people. The Victoria Secret Fashion Show in 2012 case is a great example, when a top model used a Native American-style feathered headdress to complement her lingerie outfit. Photo: CC0 Public Domain

While musicians, singers, models, restaurant chains, make-up artists, hair stylists and fashion designers have all been among those charged with cultural appropriation recently, the professions of architecture and landscape architecture have mostly remained on the sidelines in this charged discussion. At least so far.

Part of this is due the normalization of the cyclical adoption and renewal of geographically specific architectural currents. Meaning, people already got used to appropriation in some form in architecture since times of antiquity. This does not mean there haven’t been debates at all about cultural appropriation in our field of design – it just means these debates took place a long time ago, and under different social conditions.

Good reflections stem out of this controversy, however. The following lists arguments that resonate:

  • The mass production of items inspired in a minority culture may present a threat for those communities immediately adjacent in the local market, since they would have a lower production rate of the similar item. Most of the time this dynamic is unregulated because the intellectual properties are used by those versed in industry operations.
  • Unless a “justified” statement about such a move is made, the industry may not properly credit and celebrate the origin of the ideas – which could be taken as artistic plagiarism and a violation of a community’s intellectual property rights. However, this is tricky, since some communities are so small, dispersed, or even abstract it becomes difficult difficult for them to count with some sort of protection (e.g. patents, copyrights, trademarks, trade dress, indigenous intellectual property or geographic indications). The new legal concept of “collective intellectual property rights” may represent a solution for this issue.
  • A symbol or pattern may represent something within the community of its origin, but once appropriated and marketed, it can be abused in such a way it would normalize, defile, or even oppose its original meaning. For example, the symbol of an indigenous Caribbean tribe once representing purity was appropriated by a fashion designer and used to style scandalous swimsuits for vacationers. Another famous case involving a celebrity and an aboriginal group reveals how even respectful intent born of admiration can be perceived as a desecration.

However, some critics of cultural appropriation, like myself, look with suspicion upon some of the accusations associated with it. I have personally identified two factors fueling negative reactions towards borrowing industries: a great deal of anti-Western sentiment is wrongly intertwined with anti-imperialism (which I think everyone agrees is wrong), which is often tied with anti-corporatism sentiment.

Cases of cultural appropriation vary widely, but it is hard to classify them by nature, since the things carrying more weight are the potential damage and the public reactions. But I believe this ethical conversation offers an opportunity for designers to reflect upon how to navigate decisions related to our our inspirations in relation and response to culture.

In future follow-up posts I plan to lay out a valid criticism from a design and philosophical stance pertinent to our field about cultural appropriation, followed by a prediction of why the debate in architecture and landscape architecture may not have a strong of an impact in comparison to other industries.

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