Some more interesting thoughts from the book ‘Identity by Design’ by Georgia Butina Watson and Ian Bentley, Elseivier, 2007
— “Identity” is a notoriously loose concept. As James Donald points out, “Identity’ is one of the most overused but least considered terms in the lexicon of contemporary humanities and social sciences”. This looseness is not, in our view, a weakness: rather, it is a key reason why the term is valuable. As Paul Gilroy puts it,
“(t)he sheer variety of ideas condensed into the concept of identity, and the wide range of issues to which it can be made to refer, foster creative links between themes and perspectives that are not conventionally associated.”
The concept of identity enables design issues to be debated in social and political terms, in ways which people seem to recognize as relevant to their own everyday lives. We have found that when we get beneath the surface of what users say when they talk about a place’s identity, they usually have in mind some sort of meaning the place has in terms of their own identity: how the place affects the way they conceive of themselves, or how they imagine it will affect the way other people will conceive of them.
– The first concerns the town of Mostar, in Bosnia- Herzegovina, site of the world-famous Old Bridge across the Neretva River (Figure 0.2). The bridge was destroyed during civil war between Croats and Bosniak Muslims in 1993. The subsequent testimony of local Bosniaks12 shows how the sudden destruction of the bridge highlighted the important role it had played in forming their own personal and social identities, to the extent that it had become seen literally as part of themselves: “I felt like any true Mostarian…. I felt like a part of my body had been torn off” said Bernaid,13 a local man who had lived in Mostar all his life.
Bernaid’s identification of himself as a “true Mostarian” is clearly linked to a positive evaluation of Mostar, and of the Old Bridge in particular, which he shared with other Mostarians: the bridge was “like a person with an exceptional soul with all the nice qualities a man should have”, in the words of Enisa, a local woman. From our own work in the very different context of run-down British social housing, however, we know that even places which are definitely not loved often exert powerful influences on the ways people feel about their own identities.
— In the case of English national identity, for example, Stuart Hall points out that:
“National identities are not things that we are born with but are formed and transformed within and in relation to representation. We only know what it is to be English because of the way “Englishness” has come to be represented, as a set of meanings, by English culture.”
The same necessarily holds true for imagined membership of any community. The importance of meaning here, however, should not be thought of only in terms of what a place represents to people, as the sociologist Scott Lash explains:
“The city signifies not as representations signify as we sit in the cinema, reading a book, listening to a concert or watching television. The city only signifies as we move through it, along its paths and thoroughfares, it is not a representation but total environment. In the city and the spatial field we are more active than the “active audience”, more interactive than World Wide Web and CD-ROM users. Beyond and more interactive than interactivity is inhabiting. And we inhabit or “live” the fields of urban space.”
This process of inhabiting – Lash describes it as “beyond representation, or better well prior to representation” – involves the whole body with all its senses, and generates meanings arising from patterns of human use as well as from the sensory associations of places themselves.
— To summarize, the multi-sensory process of inhabiting a place’s structures and open spaces – those landscapes modified by human intervention which geographers call “cultural landscapes” – generates a complex of meanings in which patterns of use and form are both involved. If we want to understand why place-identity matters to so many people, then, we have to focus on the links between the meanings of cultural landscapes on the one hand, and human identities on the other.
For us, place-identity is the set of meanings associated with any particular cultural landscape which any particular person or group of people draws on in the construction of their own personal or social identities.
…(From the Angell Town story,) we can see that the residents wanted to be able to call on the place’s cultural landscape in dynamic ways: they wanted to use the re-design of the estate partly as an aid to constructing renewed, more empowered identities.
The Angell Town residents are not alone here: the use of cultural landscapes as key sources of meaning in a dynamic identity-construction process seems to be a central issue in many people’s lives today.
- MAMTA MANTRI