Who are we? And who are we among 7 billion others like us?
There is an undeniable romanticism about the idea of identity and the feeling of being unique. It adds purpose and value to each person’s existence – it builds a narrative over the sequence of events that unroll on a daily basis.
In the age of the Internet, the ephemerality of digital information elevated the notion of individuality to an even more mercurial state. As content could be written and rewritten every second, identity could be transformed accordingly, presenting the opportunity for people to reinvent themselves at the speed of a click.
In this new digital environment, identity is built around avatars – the virtual entity of a user. Beyond the constraints of physical shape, an avatar isn’t bound to the user’s face and appearance. It is ever-changing, a fluid face that permits someone to always have a mask that better portrays their individuality.
In this environment, people were given the possibility to take their singularity to a higher level. They could become whatever they wanted, be whoever they desired without any limitation. For every particular situation that every person goes through on a daily routine, for every facet that people reveal in those settings, a different avatar can be used.
The avatar allowed us to become who we pretend to be.
Nevertheless, the convergence of society towards a single space, also meant that the Internet could motivate the loss of personal identity. As people share a single set of values and ideals, it is inevitable that they begin to conform to the majority, an average, although here at a global scale.
For the entire planet, there is a set of accepted generic thinking and behaviour patterns. Tastes and preferences are steadily streamlined across social media and other platforms as well, marginalizing anything that escapes their norms.
There have always been regional identities – a series of beliefs and patterns that define groups – but through the Internet, they have been superseded by a planetary one. What it means for the individual is an extreme internal duality between a limitless possibility of reshaping their own identity and the colossal standardizing pull of the vast majority of the society, where it needs to fit in.
Who can we be in the age of the Internet?
The things that make each person who they are change constantly. As people react and adapt to their environment, their personalities are shaped by what surrounds them – their identities are always a work in progress – as such, every time the context changes, people follow accordingly.
Personal spaces are usually built from personal objects. There is an intrinsyc intimacy to them, for they achieve a level of personal meaning through time, unlike any other element that does not belong or is unable to be appropriated.
At the same time, there is a certain “placelessness” to them, as they don’t require a certain site to exist. Their value can be moved, the order in which they appear can be altered, even their appearance can be decided by the person. Personal objects are as malleable as identity itself and, for that reason, they can easily create a private world, embodied with meaning.
In that personalized environment, the user is free to exist and motivated to reinvent itself time and time again. The process is relentless, with time adding layer upon layer of content to what the person is.
Architecture nevertheless is still bound to the timelessness of its materiality. More and more, it has become outdated by any standard of the XXI century. Regardless of the socio-technological state of society, its practice remains unchanged in the last decades, with the concepts of solidity and permanence at the base of its action.
Consequently, collective housing is developed in similar fashion, with design following modularity and typology as an efficient repetition of a strategy. There is no individuality involved in the process, only a generic categorization of society into quantities of habitants per household. For the common dweller, architecture is merely a background that is forced upon their daily lives – an obsolete one – as it bears no relation to them or their actions.
Considering that the house is the foundation of every person in this world, the inability to make it a personal object has a striking negative impact on an individual and collective scale. Through its copy-paste design, people’s uniqueness is neglected. Through its rigidity, there is no room for adaptation or transformation. Every person is just formatted to a box and their identity is restricted to the available changes that can be operated within the domestic space.
In the age of the Internet, of the endless possibilities of the digital, architecture is losing its importance as a shaper of space. As people shift their attention towards the screens and what lies through them, everything outside is beginning to fade – all the shapes that build the physical world are only memories and referentials of the new virtual world society is moving to.
Where and how do our identities live?
For architecture to accommodate identity, it must change as fast as the context, it must become as malleable as the stream of characteristics that define a person’s flow.
Walls have an indubitable role in the creation of reality, considering that they frame the action within a space. In a private environment, these elements absorb all the personal objects, materializing memories and expressing the personality of the user.
Walls have to become spaces in constant transformation, so that their presence acquires an active part in their daily lives. Instead of a wallpaper to society’s routines, they could establish a dialogue with the user, manifesting their needs and preferences and influencing who they are.
According to Le Corbusier, architecture is Man’s first manifestation of the creation of its own Universe.
Each person must become a part of the architectural process – the fundamental element without which the design cannot work. They should take control of what defines their world, being able to organize their space, decide what is visible and rearrange it however and whenever they want it. They should be responsible for their own reality, both digital and physical. Their personal space must be an extension of their psyche, a membrane that expands their body, a second skin that grows and changes as they do.
What would architecture be in the digital age?
As a process, it would be without ending. As continuous as every psychological transformation, architecture would never have a finished state – it would be a constant revolution. Embedded with every person’s singular characteristics, it would be something unique at every point in time. Identity would be on the screen, in the walls and in everything that establishes reality for society.
Architecture would be the space of identity – the temporary manifestation of our space in the world.
Words by Barbara and Francisco