ESR 3 Blog August 2021: Maria Mkrtycheva

What’s wrong with multiculturalism? And how did the values of “equal opportunity, coupled with cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance”[1] lead to segregation and division?

As I continue to explore the notion of access with regard to institutional policy through my several case studies, I came across the shared understanding of accessibility as multiculturalism.

The overarching inquiry for the co-existence of diverse cultures and their means of representation has been a European value for quite a while. This is how British architect Sunand Prasad describes this idea embodied on a daily basis: “A Londoner might wake up on a futon, tie on a sarong, put on a CD by Toumani Djabete and then have an Ulster fry for breakfast. She might spend the day in a school that honours five religions, teaches 56 languages and contains a yet greater variety of ethnic origin. At lunch she might have falafel and pitta, after work go to a yoga class before meeting friends for a Vietnamese meal and then, perhaps, an Iranian film”[2]. As an architect, he is concerned, however, with the fact that “the city fabric contains hardly any trace of belonging to a multicultural, postcolonial metropolis”[3].

I’m interested in how theoretical implications can be put into practice, and although I do not study architecture, I’ve been interested in the radical attempts (by architects and educators included) to make the philosophy – and sometimes even ideology – embodied and alive.

One of the examples is the Matrix Architects Ltd. Feminist Co-operative, who in the 1980s tried to cater for multiculturalism, which was at that time understood as a respect for human rights, democracy, tolerance of the foreign, and openness to other cultures. Deriving from a socialist perspective, they pioneered a participatory architectural practice: for example, a building of the Jagonari center in London was designed in close collaboration with the local Indo-Islamic women’s community[4]. A little later, in 1992, they took part in the commission to develop a guide, ‘Accommodating Diversity. Housing for minority ethnic social and religious groups.’ I saw this guide at the exhibition ‘How We Live Now’, at the Barbican, and was impressed with how carefully the authors list the minority ethnic groups and how distinctive their considerations are regarding the geometry of space, certain shapes and colours to be used by the developers. For example, the brochure says: “Some groups have preferences for certain colours. … Reds are especially popular amongst Chinese and Vietnamese people, being associated with good fortune, and green is often favoured by Muslims”[5].

As simplistic as it may sound, it was, however, a radical practice that was aiming at social change, and the authors were reflecting on their role accordingly.

So how did multiculturalism become wrong?

At the symposium entitled ‘What is Wrong with Multiculturalism’ held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2016, artist and founder of the journal Third Text, Rasheed Araeen, aimed at distinguishing the dominant modernist culture from the idea of the mosaic of cultural diversity: “Multiculturalism… is what has been created, sponsored, promoted, and funded … and imposed upon those who are defined and treated as minorities … in order to keep them outside or marginal to mainstream modernism. If they were allowed in, then they would confront and disturb the whole basis of Eurocentrism”[6].

Multiculturalism has been dividing people by race, ethnicity, and national origin, without allowing any flexibility in terms of questions of identity and choice[7]. Ethnic groups are mapped and measured as data, serving to segregate them into minorities and separate them as alien from the majority. Philosopher Boris Groys draws upon the controversy between those who bear the European values by default and those who do not and are thus considered to be inhuman, antidemocratic, intolerant, and so on: “The others, the aliens, are correspondingly identified primarily as those who necessarily lack respect for human rights and the capability for democracy and tolerance if only because these values are con­sidered specifically European by definition”[8].

I’ve been thinking about this array of questions as I’m preparing for my trip to Tensta Konsthall in Stockholm, which is located in a multicultural neighborhood; and generates a lot of input into supporting local communities. I’m looking forward to learning from them in order to practice nuanced and flexible means of collaborating with different people, without labeling and measuring them.


[1] Roy Jenkins, Essays and Speeches, 1970 // Anne Phillips, Multiculturalism without Culture, 2009. P. 4

[2] Sunand Prasad,’ Architectural Hints of a Postcolonial London’, 2003.

[3] Ibid

[4] Janie Grote, Matrix, ‘A Radical Approach to Architecture’, 1992.

[5] Cited from the photograph of the guidebook I took at the exhibition.

[6] Rasheed Araeen, ‘What is Wrong with Multiculturalism?’ Transcript of the talk at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, September 23, 2016.

[7] Anne Phillips, Multiculturalism without Culture, 2009

[8] Boris Groys, Europe and Its Others, 2008.

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