One of my greatest inspirations is the architect Alvar Aalto. He once said: The ultimate goal of the architect…is to create a paradise. Every house, every product of architecture… should be a fruit of our endeavor to build an earthly paradise for people. This is why culture is so central to the architectural process. People are at the center.

From the days of the Greek Parthenon and of Rome’s Colosseum, architectural design has contributed to cultures around the world. Modern civilization has united the world beyond cultural ties more than ever before, blurring lines in the architectural sphere. However, even in the most modern of countries, architecture and culture continue to be intertwined.  

Historical Impact of Culture on Architecture

Before it became so easy to travel between different countries and architectural divides between cultures began to disappear, counties around the world had very unique architectural styles representing their cultures. Looking at the traditional design of buildings from a culture’s history, it would be impossible to get one confused for another. We know that those strong, sturdy columns belong to Greece or Rome. A pagoda makes us think of China and the other Asian countries it has influenced. And the Federal-style architectural is unmistakably an American look. 

A Chinese pagoda with a traditional green roof

While architectural styles have frequently expanded across countries and surpassed cultural borders, architectural design has always been an immediately recognizable staple of a culture. Some have tied into a culture so strongly that they’ve become landmarks. Particularly unique designs of various cultures have become iconic and must-see attractions for tourists of the countries. This includes ruins of Greece, Rome, Egypt, and the Aztecs, which take us back to ancient cultures and an imagining of the lives they must have lived. From the accidental but beautiful look of the leaning tower of Pisa in Italy, the absolutely breath-taking Taj Mahal of India, England’s traditional Westminster Abbey, the iconic French Notre Dame, Spain’s historic Mosque de Córdoba, and the very colorful and immediately recognizable St. Basil’s Cathedral in Russia, to America’s own signature building, The White House, architectural designs have long shown their significance as part of a culture. 

Current Worldwide Architectural Trends

As globalization has created massive changes around the world, individual cultures have created less of an impression on architecture. Instead, a more contemporary look is the goal in new designs across the world, which has caused a uniformity to develop in worldwide architecture. The BMW Welt in Germany, China’s Guangzhou Opera House, and the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain are all absolutely impressive, but they also all seem to be of the same architectural style, despite existing in different countries with widely different cultures. 

Starting in the 20th century, we see much less variation between the design of buildings across the globe. The new contemporary style isn’t held back by location, and instead makes its mark in designs of various countries. As a result, buildings are no longer as unique to their individual countries. 

Cultural Inspiration in Contemporary Designs

Current design trends aren’t enough to stop culture from playing its part in the design of architecture. Where it’s important enough, aspects of a country’s culture are showcased in unique architectural designs. Examples of culture’s continued impact can be found all around the world. 

The Coliseum in Rome on a cloudy day

In Italy and Norway, we find references to the locations themselves. Buildings in Mexico and Japan reference their more historical buildings and old styles of architecture. And in China and Russia, specific icons of cultural significance are used as designs. These are only a few examples, and in just about every country, there is a connection between culture and architecture. 

Inspired by Unique Location

One way to design a building that is very unique to its location is to make that location part of the design itself. In Italy, the architectural design of Vulcano Buono makes itself right at home, nestling into nature while referencing a more destructive aspect of the Italian landscape at the same time. Not too far from Italy’s famous Mt. Vesuvius, this structure is designed to look like a volcano itself. It easily brings to mind a unique part of Italy. 

A unique feature of Norway is being able to see the northern lights. One building, the The cathedral of northern lights and a modern hotel, was specifically designed to call attention to this. The building still shows contemporary touches, but the special form that calls attention to the northern lights allows this design to fit right into Norweigean culture. 

Inspired by Historic Architecture

There are also cases where contemporary buildings take direct inspiration from the historic architecture of the culture. An example can be found in Mexico with a holiday home in Zicatela, Oaxaca. Even though it has a modern design, it also draws inspiration from the Aztec temples. The various elements that bring to mind those cultural artifacts make this design unique to the Mexican culture. 

Japan’s famous world’s tallest tower, the Skytree in Tokyo, also takes inspiration from an older piece of cultural architecture. Horyuji Pagoda in Nara has continued to stand through earthquakes for 1,400 years. With such an impressive design, it makes sense that they would want to return to it for the newer, more contemporary structure. 

Egyptian architecture contrasted with a modern coliseum

Inspired by Cultural Icons

In other cases, important icons from the culture are themselves used as the design. The Tianzi hotel in China is built to look like three gods, Shou, Fu, and Lu, standing side by side. The entire building consists of the bodies of these figures from Chinese history and culture. 

A large part of Russia’s history and culture is the ornately-decorated Easter eggs called Fabergé eggs. This icon is used as the architectural design for one house in Moscow. The interesting look draws a lot of attention but is the perfect fit with its references to the cultural history in Russia. 

Culture’s Continued Impact on Architectural Design

Culture has always played a role in architectural design. Even though modern-day designs can seem homogeneous (consider today’s skyscraper), culture’s impact can still be found around the world. Contemporary buildings may take inspiration from the architecture of the past, showcase a unique aspect of the location, or reference specific icons of cultural importance. However it shows up in current architecture, culture will continue to make its impact on designs.