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Identity, Culture and the City: Cusco, Peru

Part 1 Dissertation 2010
Ben Watson
University of Edinburgh Edinburgh | UK
Amid fears of the homogenizing forces of globalization the study of cultures and their interactions with one another has particular significance. The way that these interactions relate to cities and the buildings that form them is both fascinating and instructive. On the one hand architecture is central to the formation of culture, whilst on the other it is a manifestation of it. A study of these manifestations, which exist in the city as evidence of past cultures, can inform a better understanding of the relationship between identity, culture and the city.

The aim of this dissertation is to explore the nature of culture and identity and their relationship to architecture and to use this basis as a means to investigate the city. To manage this ambitious task this investigation focuses on a specific case study: the city of Cusco in Peru.

Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire, is Ultrabaroque, a palimpsest of ancient, colonial and modern, that betrays a rich cultural history. The disjointed fabric of the city is a manifestation of continuously evolving identities, where past and present cultures transfigure one another according to the complex mechanisms of transculturation. Defined by difference, these cultural identities are threatened by the homogenizing potential of globalization. Futile attempts to grasp an authentic strand of the past fail to insulate Cusqueño culture from foreign conquest. Is this revered past any different to the present?

The relationships between identities, the cultures they represent and the cities they form are inherently intricate. In an attempt to understand these intricacies, this dissertation embarks on a philosophical discussion that is based around the intrinsically relevant concepts of authenticity and alterity, and grounded within the specific context of Cusco, Peru. Drawing on multiple disciplines, this study explores the cultural history of Cusco and reveals its influence on the fabric of the city. Ultimately, this informs a refined approach to identity and culture in contemporary Cusco that has widely applicable implications.

Ben Watson

This dissertation successfully interweaves critical accounts of philosophical, historical and cultural issues pertinent to an understanding of the city of Cusco in Peru.

The dissertation makes very good use of both fieldwork and bibliographic research. The careful indexing of maps and charts, artefacts and personal photographs helps provide a material understanding of the contemporary and historical context. The images are beautifully presented in a carefully crafted narrative.

The dissertation is very clearly structured providing a three-pronged probe into how attitudes towards identity and culture affect the contemporary architecture of Cusco. The first prong provides a serious but impressively deft appraisal of the philosophy of authenticity using Adorno to critique Heidegger and then, in turn, Critchley to critique Adorno and re-appraise Heidegger. Outlining the tension between phenomenology and critical theory provides a sound basis for how to think constructively the difficulties between conservation and intervention. Taking impetus from Hal Foster, Hayden White and Mary Pratt, and without leaving behind the more dynamic understanding of authenticity provided previously, the second prong gently prods the evident tendency by the contemporary cultural forces in Cusco to privilege one historical or ethnographic account over others. It elaborates, and therefore forewarns, how architectural practice (as one type of artistic practice) is implicated in ethnographic representation. Resisting temptations either to romanticize one cultural epoch over any other or the general effect of cultural palimpsest as an aesthetics of overwriting, the third prong successfully peels back four epochal layers: pre-Inca, Inca, Spanish /South American Baroque and Modern. This third prong neatly works with the previous two prongs by holding together what we have learned of Critchley’s “originary inauthentic,” Mabel Moraña’s iarchitectural “UltraBaroque” and Pratt’s notion of “transculturation.” Therefore, rather than follow the more usual historical account of epochal shift, erasure and/or negation, the dissertation closes on two rather interesting propositions: first, what can be learned from Cusco can inform commentary on the effects of globalisation in any historical context; and second, it is possible to intervene positively in Cusco, and perhaps any historical context, by permitting narrative seepage from one set of cultural values into another.

Mr Dorian Wiszniewski
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