Published Jul 14, 2020
1. Identity in the Dictionary
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.”
2. Identity in Philosophy
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.
3. Identity in Architecture
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", dictionary.cambridge.org, 2018. [Online]. Available: https:// dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/identity. [Accessed: 25- Oct- 2018].
Korsgaard, C. (2009) Self-constitution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Merriam-Webster, “deﬁnition of identity", merriam-webster.com, 2018. [Online]. Available: https:// [Accessed: 25- Oct- 2018].
Oxford dictionaries, ”deﬁnition of identity", oxforddictionaries.com, 2018. [Online]. Available: https:// en.oxforddictionaries.com/deﬁnition/identity. [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.
Figure 1: photo-collection of ‘rockers’ (Versluis, A and Uyttenbroek, E, 2001, Exactitudes, 010 Publishers, Rotterdam.)
Figure 2: central train stations of Amsterdam and Rotterdam (Amsterdam central station, n.d. photograph, viewed 25 October 2018, < amsterdam-centraal>.; Rotterdam central station, n.d. photograph, viewed 25 October 2018, <https:// rotterdam.info/locaties/centraal-station-rotterdam/>. )
Figure 3: Solid Amsterdam (Solid Amsterdam, n.d. photograph, viewed 25 October 2018, < media_item/media_item/8/52/P31_Evaluatie_Solids-1371030821.pdf>.)