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National identity and architecture, by Milica Madanovic & Aleksandar Radakovic

The process of the creation of nations is characterized by the goal of liberation from a political oppressor, but also by the establishment of internal national homogeneity i.e. national identity.

With respect to this, one commonly finds the categorization between the political/civic and cultural/ethnic idea of nationhood; namely, the nation as a purely political and voluntaristic collective grounded on democratic norms and values, and the collective which is ‘naturally bound’ through language, religion, customs, race, etc. In modern democratic nation-states, the Parliament represents the center where the principles of self-governance and individual equality are affirmed. It has been well noted that, apart from simply housing its major governing institutions, important public buildings materialize society’s self-perception. Sponsored by the state, they are, undeniably, carriers of political agenda. In this regard, parliament buildings could be considered as architectural pieces of great socio-political significance. This paper examines the dynamics of national identity and architecture, focusing on the tension between: 1) the political goal related to an establishment of strong (civic or cultural) national identity and 2) the presence of cultural diversity in modern states, especially in post-colonial context.

Two separate buildings, situated in Wellington and used by the New Zealand Parliament, will serve as a case study. The first one is the Parliament House, built in 1922. The second building – the Executive Wing, popularly named the Beehive – was built 1969-1981, after it became obvious that the older edifice was no longer adequate for the everyday functioning of the Parliament. Both buildings are taken for iconic representations of the New Zealand history and its national sentiment.

Prior to European colonization and settlement, New Zealand was populated by the indigenous Polynesian people collectively referred to as the Māori. In 1840, the British Crown and various Māori chiefs signed the treaty by which today’s territory of the country became part of the British Empire. Although Māori people were formally given the same rights as British citizens, their collective identity, built around various socio-cultural norms/practices, was subjected to the dominant British-European one. During the 19th and the early 20th centuries, European military conquests were morally justified by identifying imperialism with the spread of moral/cultural values and civilizational achievements of the respective ‘mother-nation’. Soon after the ending of the World War II, perception of ‘national’ and ‘non-national people’ on the basis of British-European and Māori cultural membership was considered politically unacceptable. Since that time, there has been a shift in political focus to create a more inclusive socio-political environment where all individuals and collectives are able to identify themselves as the members of the New Zealand nation.

Turbulent 20th century socio-political transformations have been expressed through the forms of the concurrent public architecture. The first parliament building – the Parliament House – reflected a socio-cultural dichotomy of the emerging New Zealand’s national identity. Built shortly after the country gained the status of a Dominion within the British Empire, it mirrored the rising national sentiment. New Zealanders became increasingly concerned with construction of new, prestigious government edifices, ones that would be ‘worthy of the Dominion’. Interestingly, the style chosen was the Edwardian/Imperialist Baroque. Inspired by the 17th and early 18th century British architecture, Edwardian style was deemed a modern and distinctly British architectural style, expressive of the country’s status as an imperial power. In contrast, the second parliament building – the Executive Wing ‘Beehive’ – was built in a manner devoid of any direct socio-historical references, either British or Māori. Avoiding quotations of traditional architectural forms, the building’s modernist design employs bold geometries to symbolically imbue national connotations.

Examining the concepts of both national identity and public architecture – more specifically, of parliament buildings – we will consider in what manner did architecture reflect the nation-building process in New Zealand. Is it possible to discern how did these buildings translate the structures and functions of a nation? How did, in return, public architecture contribute to political legitimacy and collective – national – identity? Furthermore, the paper will discuss which cultural groups within a plural society considered themselves represented through architectural design of their national institutions. Lastly, the paper will examine whether the efforts to architecturally shape an iconic symbol of New Zealand national identity were successful.

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