The conceit of the Global South as a discursive social geography pervades questions of how and where to begin writing a history of architecture that is connective rather than autonomous in its outlook. From its antecedents in the 1950s and 1960s economic modeling of a “third world,” the term Global South has assumed the mantle of an expansive yet ill-defined arena in which the circulation of ideas concerning statehood, or at least self-determination, is at odds with the power structures that inform those ideas. Today we might understand the Global South as a concept that embodies the overlooked, the marginalized, and the contemptuous desires of governments to forestall equanimity in and of space.
In its most recent incarnation as a discrete realm of inquiry at the intersection of national and individual identities, the Global South, as articulated in the preface and introduction of this book, might also include networks of urban and domestic topologies. Mrinalini Rajagopalan and Madhuri Desai’s edited collection of ten essays articulates a circuit of architecture as cultural capital against a backdrop of imperialism providing the foundation for modernity. At the heart of this engaging volume is a rich source of archival and graphic materials as well as locations that the authors seek to reconfigure by those “frames” or vexing relations through which we understand the limits of colonial and imperial missions.
The contributions interrogate strategies of deferral and progress primarily within colonial South, Southeast, and East Asia through emergent relationships among architecture, building typologies, and urban planning and the means by which their representations were undone by conflicting approaches to design. Divided into three thematic sections, the book’s loosely interrelated essays converge at a series of inquiries: What are the continuities and discontinuities made present by overlaps found in representation during periods of colonialism? By extension, what are the “frames” through which we can now read the architecture and urbanism of imperial regimes? How do claims to national identity mask neocolonial modifications to modern vernaculars for a (postcolonial) state?
Scaled by a diachronic observation of colonial architecture and urbanism, the sections commence with a broad rendering of visual and spatial instabilities within colonial India, progressively fragmented through incongruent articulations of the self and “Other” and finally mobilized in urban spaces of conflict. Among these associations, one finds a slight weakness in the ambitions of the volume. Had the editors perhaps focused on one geographic context, such as South and Southeast Asia, readers may have begun to understand far more precarious and destabilizing trends among imperial projects. With the addition of essays examining other politically charged contexts, such as Hawaii in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Georgian London, and contemporary museum capacities, the book disperses rather than concentrates issues of architecture as a method for reifying colonial order. Race is one such subject that dovetails with the examples above yet falls outside the scope of the book.
Analogous to Freud’s situating the fragment at the center of an unconscious symbolic, in this volume the fragment is a spatial signifier that foreshadows the dissolution of those forms that construct subjectivities. William Glover explores the role of an architect-engineer working in India and present-day Pakistan in the book’s initial essay. By valorizing local tradition, Glover proposes, architects may be able to define “culture” as situated distinct from yet coeval with the political and economic regimes of colonial power. What follows are two essays by the volume’s editors in which the (re)production of the colonial urban landscape of India is intimately tied to formations of temporal and social perception. For Rajagopalan and Desai, what constitutes colonial knowledge follows the representation of sacred and monumental vernaculars. In both essays, how architecture is conceived through various media elicits how the monumental landscape of colonial India was reordered, historicized, and sublimated.
The translation from memorial to monument as evidenced by Rajagopalan’s essay is also expressed across varying settings in this volume. That is, how does the reuse of architecture—as media and technique—prompt architecture’s rehabilitation into something else, a conflation of image and signifier? In the second thematic section, the “nation’s fragments” are those fundaments by which alterity is reconfigured, identity is mapped within interiors, and deterritorialized landscapes are quantified during three different periods. These heterotopic qualities did not remain external to imperial strategy.
C. Greig Crysler’s examination of what constitutes the native as a function of the primitive highlights a continuing problem for historians of both art and architecture: within representation, how do we assemble histories that constitute the imagination of a particular society or culture? Echoing Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Crysler’s portrayal of two nations and their national museums, including the Musée du Quai Branly and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, reveals strikingly confrontational approaches to the assimilation of peoples and their ephemera. Beyond asking “What are we?” or “Who are we?” in light of the (colonial) museum, can we as historians begin to articulate how culture is rewritten at the point of violent incursion?
Like such museums, the commercial and private quarters of Georgian London and the projective island state of Hawaii were in part generated by the dispersal of peoples and their objects into (state) collections. Similarly, the West African diaspora was demonstrated by the imagistic and material culture of slavery during the “Black Atlantic” of the nineteenth century. A harbinger of scopic appeal within urban and domestic spaces, Richard W. Hayes proposes, blackness and its imaging occurred within society itself while also finding dimension in the design of coffeehouses. Hayes articulates episodic adaptations of interior and exterior in which representation can be wholly indivisible yet disjointed. Akin to the preceding contributors, Kelema Lee Moses observes how buildings in Hawaii embodied the uncertainties of both local and national sovereignty within the governance of the American Pacific. Commencing with President Obama’s 2009 realignment of the United States as a Pacific Nation, Moses establishes a case for observing the contentious architecture of Honolulu as embedded in discourses of opposition and subjugation.
The third section of the book provides a riposte to the dilemmas posed in the previous two sections by setting the stage for defining precarious boundaries within charged urban contexts. Anyone who has visited Singapore recently will note that, with renovation, colonial-era shophouses have taken on new meaning as sites for market-driven gentrification. Anoma Pieris’s characterization of a pluralized “graduated sovereignty” in the city-state extends to Singapore’s planning and zoning. Expanding a polemical trajectory for contemporary cities, the conflicts between a colonial past and a rigorous yet hyperbolic present are centered on the demands of control, statehood, and modernity via an architectural optics once contained by geography and now enforced by foreign construed markers.
Such tensions augment Imran bin Tajudeen’s analysis of the design of kampung houses found in Malacca and Singapore. In addition to featuring visual components that speak to an aesthetic mobility found across the tropics, these buildings connote a hybridity within competing notions of local and regional vernaculars. What Tajudeen determines to be the longue durée of a racialized imperial present is also captured in other cities, including Hong Kong and Shanghai, discussed in the last two essays of the book. Housing typologies described by Cecilia Chu, such as the tong lau of Hong Kong, parallel those built forms seen in previous sections in which the inscription of boundaries governed by identity haunts divided cityscapes. In Shanghai, by contrast, the presence of the past registers a cultural nadir for an outward-looking Chinese middle class and elite while also harboring the remains of a staunch historicity strategized within colonial dictates. For Andrew Law, and significantly for this volume, “the colonial … has become an important symbol within a new political rhetoric of individual aspiration” (302).
In each of the chapters, how the past is conveyed is not so much another litmus for appraising the imperial mission but rather the upshot of a new territory in which the forces of global markets and political motives result in spatial disjunctions. One might describe Rajagopalan and Desai’s volume as an exegesis of a landscape of spatial events—even when occasionally foregrounded by elephants or nameless servants—inculcated by visual and spatial tactics of representation. For the contributors and those concerned by the ambiguous states of Being prior to and following a pivot toward a global modern architecture and urbanism, the inscription of affronts amid most urban spaces ultimately discloses colonial desire.