‘Urban’ and ‘modern’ are terms that go hand in hand — it’s difficult to imagine a city without thinking of sleek skyscrapers with shiny glass facades. But no matter how modern today’s urban centers seem, they are all built on ancient foundations, strong enough to withstand the passage of time. This could refer to anything from a particular cultural philosophy that has lasted through the decades or physical components of ancient cities seamlessly integrated into the urban landscapes of today.
While at first glance, tradition and progress seem to be paradoxical thoughts, in reality, modernity must be backed by history in order to exist. You need to look back to move forward — effective urban planning needs to take into account the historical context of the region, both physical and cultural. This context is vital because ancient traditions often offer the clearest picture of what architectural style and method works best in a particular area. In some instances, this helps keep the city aesthetically in line with its surroundings, in others it helps keep ancient practices, stories, and beliefs alive. Above all, being aware of the past even while forging ahead allows a city to keep its character and soul even as it changes. These cities take the best of the old days and make them even better for today’s time.
A lot of cities around the world are built on the bones of the towns that came before them. In some cases, cities integrate entire structures from years gone by. In others, a few elements are used to evoke the character of times past. In India, for example, simply walking through a city allows you to see the influence of past eras, from colonial bungalows nestled between skyscrapers to Mughal-inspired embellishments on newly-built apartment buildings.
Case Study: Barcelona
If asked to visualize Barcelona, most people would think immediately of quaint whitewashed buildings and warm red roofs. Barcelona retains an old-world charm thanks to the preservation of traditional architecture — what better way to keep the city’s history alive than to live in it every day.
But Barcelona doesn’t sacrifice practicality in favour of preserving history. Look at any map of the city from above and you’ll see it segregated into perfect squares. This grid system is a relatively recent addition, one of the city’s steps into modernity. Urban planners organised the sprawling, maze-like streets of the old town into a layout that could better support its booming population. In this way, Barcelona perfectly encapsulates how modern cities can balance tradition and progress without compromising its character or the benefits of modernisation.
The historical influences on a city can stretch beyond the buildings — cultural values and philosophies leave just as strong of a mark. In many countries, ancient beliefs have been preserved even as construction methods and architectural styles have marched onwards. Look at the concept of vastu — an ancient technique that still influences the way buildings are constructed and decorated in India today.
Case Study: Hong Kong
Hong Kong is a quintessential example of the modern city, with its distinctive skyline and neon sign boards. Yet, its architecture is still subtly influenced by Chinese culture. In Hong Kong, feng shui experts play a large part in the design and construction of new buildings. Feng shui (translating to ‘wind-water’) is the ancient Chinese practice of aligning buildings and objects to attract good luck and ward off misfortune. The practice can be seen prominently in many cities in mainland China, in both old and new structures.
Many iconic buildings in Hong Kong have been influenced by feng shui in their construction, including the Hopewell Centre. The building, which opened in 1980, was the tallest in Hong Kong until the Bank of China tower was built. It is instantly recognisable — a towering white cylinder topped with a perfectly round swimming pool. That pool is more than an aesthetic choice, in fact, it is a vital part of the building’s design. According to feng shui, the cylindrical shape of the building is reminiscent of a candle or a burning cigarette, which links back to fire and death in Chinese culture. The swimming pool is a preventative measure, to ‘cap’ the building with the opposing element of fire. Even in the modern landscape of Hong Kong city, ancient traditions still have a strong foothold in the psyche of the population.
Every modern city is inspired and influenced in some way by its own past. A discerning eye can trace a rich history through clues built into the city itself. Whether they’re found in historic districts and converted buildings incorporated into the way the cities themselves are built, it is clear that neither a city nor its people will forget its roots even as they embrace a more modern way of life.