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Koen Coenders

Published Apr 14, 2021


The term identity originates from the Latin word identitas, which is a contraction of idem et idem, meaning “same and same.”  The first known use of the English word identity dates from 1545.  At that time, identity was defined as “the sameness of essential or generic characters in different instances.” (Merriam-Webster, 2018).  A more recent definition comes from the Oxford Dictionary (2018) in which identity is “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.”  The Cambridge Dictionary (2018) adds that identity is about “the qualities of a person or group that make them different from others.”


Since that first known usage of identity in 1545, the concept of identity has been an important subject for a still on-going discussion among philosophers.  The concept of identification, however, was discussed between philosophers even before 1545.  According to Aristotle, what makes an object the kind of object that it is, is what it gives its identity.  It is about what the object does – its ergon – its purpose, function, or characteristic activity (Aristotle and Ross 1981).  According to Korsgaard (2009) there is, however, a difference between objects and living objects: “A living thing is a thing so designed as to maintain and reproduce itself: that is, to maintain and reproduce its own form. It has what we might call a self-maintaining form. So it is its own end; its ergon or function is just to be – and to continue being – what it is.” Korsgaard adds that artifacts, which are not living objects, cannot perform their activities all by themselves; they need a living object in order to perform their functions.


Reflecting on these thoughts about identity, one could argue that architecture does not have an identity by itself, but that the identity is given by living objects – that is, human beings.  The question is: In what way do these living objects (human beings) attach identity to architecture?  Despite this proposition that architecture cannot have an identity itself, the term “identity” does play a major role within the architectural field. One could even argue that architecture is a reflection of culture materialized in buildings.  However, the way in which this culture plays a role in architecture can differ from building to building.  It is even possible to say that culture can play different roles within one single building.  The following paragraphs show four approaches of how identity is attached to architecture.

3.1 Architecture as a Part of Your Identity

Apart from the built environment, there are a lot of other aspects besides architecture that give individuals a specific identity.  However, simple questions like “Where do you come from?” and “Where do you live?” can, for example, be answered with “I come from the Netherlands and live in a private family house near the city of Venlo.” Although the Netherlands, Venlo or a private family house do not explain a complete identity, they are an important part of that person’s identity.  According to Norberg-Schulz (1980), the relation of man to place is a deep process of identification, by which he means “to become friends with a particular environment.”

3.2  Representation of a (desired) Identity with Architecture

Like clothes and hairstyle, architecture is able to represent a part of someone’s identity.  Figure 1 shows a collection of pictures made by Versluis and Uyttenbroek (2002).  All men in this collection wear black clothes and have long black hair.  According to the creators of the collection, these men represent rockers.  A similar process is possible with architecture.  Large train stations, for example, often represent the identity of a city, or “tiny houses” can represent minimalism (figure 2).  It is also possible to represent a desired identity with architecture.  The design of buildings belonging to banks are, for instance, often very distinctive in order to show a certain power or security.

3.3  The Creation and Change of Identity by Architecture

Especially in the area of the dwelling, it is possible to interact in a very personal way with architecture. According to Abel (1997) the dwelling can “give proper expression to the personalities and social status of the occupants.” An open-ended design, like the ‘Solids’ in Amsterdam (figure 3), gives users the possibility to design an effective part of their own house.  On the other hand, by moving from one place to another, someone’s identity can partly change due to architecture.  If someone, for example, moves from a very big house to a very small one, he or she has to adapt to the new situation and probably changes from a big consumer to a more minimalist type of person.

3.4  Identification with Architecture

Identity is closely connected to memory and, according to Taiye Selasi (2014), identity can even be defined as “a set of experiences.”  Architecture has the ability to retrieve these experiences, and thereby make it possible for someone to identify with it.  In this respect, Norberg-Schulz (1980) writes the following about 1970s Prague: "from the new residential neighborhoods people go to old Prague to get a confirmation of their identity. Without the old centre, Prague would today be sterile and the inhabitants would be reduced to alienated ghosts.”  Furthermore, architecture also makes it possible to identify yourself with a group.  By saying “every Sunday morning I go to church,” in a way, you also say that you are a Christian.  In this way, a building makes it possible to connect people with each other and thereby make it possible to identify themselves with a specific group.


The previous four paragraphs about identity in architecture have shown that, although architecture does not have an identity itself, it is extensively and in various ways incorporated within the architectural field.  Based on this, I would argue that we do not simply have architecture, but rather, that architecture is an important part of us – part of our identity.


Abel, C. (1997) Architecture and identity. Oxford: Architectural Press.

Aristotle and Ross, W. D. (1981) Aristotle's Metaphysics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Cambridge dictionary, ”definition of identity",, 2018. [Online]. Available: https:// [Accessed: 25- Oct- 2018].

Korsgaard, C. (2009) Self-constitution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Merriam-Webster, “definition of identity",, 2018. [Online]. Available: https:// [Accessed: 25- Oct- 2018].

Oxford dictionaries, ”definition of identity",, 2018. [Online]. Available: https:// [Accessed: 25- Oct- 2018].

Norberg-Schulz, C. (1980) Genius loci. New York: Rizzoli.

Selasi, T. (2014) Don't ask me where I come from, ask where I'm a local. TED.

Versluis, A. and Uyttenbroek, E. (2002) Exactitudes. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.

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