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Beyond Global vs. Local: Tipping the Scales of Architectural Historiography

Ayala Levin

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  • 1 James Ferguson, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order, Durham, NC; London: Duke Univ (...)
  • 2 Renato Rosaldo, “Imperialist Nostalgia,” Representations, vol. 26, 1989, p. 107-8.
  • 3 James Ferguson, op. cit. (note 1), p. 19.

1In the introduction to his book Global Shadows anthropologist James Ferguson describes an encounter with a certain Mr. Labona from a village in Lesotho, who built his house in the “European style.”1 Coming from contemporary Western appreciation of local cultures (akin to what Renato Rosaldo has identified as imperialist nostalgia: “mourning for what one has destroyed”),2 Ferguson admired the vernacular architecture for its environmental sustainability, traditional craftsmanship, and aesthetic relationship with the landscape. For these reasons, he was perplexed at Mr. Labona’s preference for a rectangular cement house, roofed with galvanized steel, over the vernacular round houses, made out of mud, stone, and thatched grass roofs. When asked about this choice, Mr. Labona turned the conversation away from style and cultural identity to material facts, asking his interlocutor how many rooms there were in his father’s house. Following this conversation it occurred to Ferguson that this preference was not simply a mere act of mimicry, made by an uncritical consumer of Western culture. Rather, he explains, the desire for a “European” house was “a powerful claim to a chance for transformed conditions of life—a place-in-the-world, a standard of living.” Or, as Mr. Labona put it, a step taken in “the direction we would like to move in.”3

  • 4 Duanfang Lu (ed.), Third World Modernism: Architecture, Development and Identity, New York, NY; Lon (...)
  • 5 Mamadou Diouf, “Modernity: Africa,” in Maryanne Cline Horowitz (ed.), New Dictionary of the History (...)

2In a sense, this was also the function of the representative public buildings built to mark postcolonial independence in Africa and elsewhere. As recent scholarship on third world modernism and exhibition catalogues dedicated to African modern architecture have demonstrated, the International Style was the preferred style of postcolonial governments.4 Rather than a break in representation, these buildings suggest continuity with late colonial development plans and their accompanying aesthetic language. Similarly to the anthropologist, where we look for original expressions of postcolonial identities, we find late modern iconicity. Where we look for authentic indigenous authors, we find expatriate architects, who arrived on the scene either via lingering colonial affiliations, or in the context of the Cold War race over development aid. If, according to historian Mamadou Diouf, the emblems of colonialism were roads, commerce, and sanitation, then with independence the emblems of African governments were schools, community clinics, and electricity.5 The stronger emphasis put on welfare and social mobility was to be achieved by continuing the focus on infrastructure and services that had begun during the latter years of the colonial era. Giving concrete form to the economic and social processes described in dry technical terms in the national development plans, the architecture of independence was future oriented, as in Mr. Labona’s new home; it staked a claim for participation in an international community, and for enjoying the fruits of its modernity as an equal partner.

  • 6 A selection of various voices in this debate includes Salah M. Hassan, “African Modernism: Beyond A (...)
  • 7 For comparable histories of art production in Senegal and Nigeria during the periods of decolonizat (...)
  • 8 Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Princeton, NJ (...)
  • 9 Andreas Huyssen, “Geographies of Modernism in a Globalizing World”, New German Critique, vol. 34, n (...)

3This history of African architectural modernity does not fit easily within discourses on alternative modernities (or their kindred “multiple modernities” and “cosmopolitan modernisms”) since its main protagonists were often foreign, and its economic and political institutional settings were too complex and transnational to pinpoint African agency.6 Unlike in the realms of art and literature, where local actors and their place in the relations of production and circulation are relatively easier to detect, the production of public architectural projects depended heavily on external funding, foreign technology, and the importation of machinery and skilled manpower.7 This utter dependence on external resources, which often dictated the choice of foreign architects even in cases where local professionals were available, set architecture apart from other art forms. In this sense, it belonged to the “material” domain of colonial imposition, which Partha Chatterjee juxtaposes in his seminal study of Indian and Bengali nationalism with the “spiritual” domain that the local elite developed as a mode of anticolonial resistance, and which he identifies mainly in literature and drama, as well as in the domestic realm.8 The project of anti-colonial nationalism depended on the separation of the two domains, so that the material domain would be utilized only to the degree that it preserved the “spiritual” one. With independence and the taking over of the apparatuses of colonial governance, it became far less feasible to maintain this separation. Focusing on the period of decolonization and post-colonial state formation, our challenge is to trace how the two realms—the “material” and the “spiritual”—were imbricated in and affected by each other. In African states, the high involvement of foreign “technique” and “technicians” did not attenuate the force of public buildings as products of independence. Nor did their use of International Style, which depended on foreign design and execution, make it any less their own. If we fail to acknowledge this, we face the risk of separating culture from economic and technological change, with the consequent danger of locking non-Western societies in timeless traditions.9 By doing so we not only divest African governments from any agency in designing their independence, but also rob African societies from their modernity and the hopes that accompanied it.

  • 10 Walter D. Mignolo, “Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and De-Colonial Freedom,” Theory, C (...)

4The question at stake in the debate on alternative modernities, and to which a history of the architecture of independence can make an instructive contribution, is the extent to which the post-colonial as an historical moment also entailed decolonization, not only in the formal political sense, but at the epistemological level as well.10 To be sure, cultural, technological, and economic dependency continued and in some respects even intensified after independence. The pressures of entering the international economic and political system, while still carrying the legacies of colonial rule, shaped many of these states’ institutions in their formative years. The various crises African states have since experienced, followed by the critique of development and modernization theories and a general spirit of Afro-pessimism, all colored the study of modern African history. Yet this retrospective critique of African governments’ complicity with neocolonialism comes at a grave historical cost. Reducing them to mere kleptocracies downplays the constraints in which they operated when they negotiated between international politics, global economy, and nationalist, pan-African, or internationalist aspirations. The study of architectural production can contribute to the unpacking of this short chapter in the history of African states particularly because of architecture’s deep embeddedness within these systems. As fossils of a now-bygone era, these objects offer a unique material archive by which to analyze the fleeting yet pregnant moment of independence, before its rapid disillusionment.

5In order to do so, we need to ask what the conditions of possibility of architectural projects were, including the decision-making process that led to their initiative, the actors involved in the process, the national and international institutions responsible for their financing, and how all of the above dictated the choice of architects and contractors. My point here is simple: without understanding these projects in their transnational settings, and the material and ideological constraints these posed for local actors, we cannot account for the latter’s agency, however limited it was. Without accounting for this local agency and understanding it in the context of its institutional constraints, our discussions would be limited to tracing the local in tired formulas of adaptation to putatively immutable “local conditions” such as climate and customs, or the incorporation of local forms and craftsmanship; so long as these remain divorced from their concrete historical conditions of production, their analysis will be formal and descriptive at best.

  • 11 These thoughts were partly spurred by the discussion held at a researchers’ workshop with Tom Averm (...)
  • 12 This “in-between” professional subject positioning was used to claim new forms of expertise in an e (...)
  • 13 This case of Ajit Singh is documented in Garth Andrew Myers, Verandahs of Power: Colonialism and Sp (...)

6The historical entanglement of decolonization and neocolonialism opens up the field to the multiple actors involved, both local and foreign. But we first need to qualify our use of these terms. Too often, we associate “foreign” with a global expert, usually a Euro-American white male, and the local with the figure of the “user,” whose agency is limited to the transformation of architecture after the fact, or under the “benevolent” conditions of “participation.”11 This reductive binary excludes the agency of the local governments as clients and commissioners, and an entire class of highly qualified local agents and powerful political brokers involved in the various stages of the projects’ conceptualization and implementation. These include governmental officials, academics, and professionals, who were educated in the metropole or in elite colonial institutions. Among them we find a cadre of local architects, who cannot be discounted as passive mediators or “native informants.” Some, as we learn in passing from various accounts, were instrumental in the process of selection of international architects, and, we can assume, played a bigger role in the design process than we usually credit them for. Similarly, the category of the “foreign” demands further scrutiny, since the opening of the development market to various new players involved actors who positioned themselves between the developed and the developing worlds, on both sides of the Cold War divide and the Non-Aligned movement.12 In rare cases, we can also account for such intermediary subject positions within the colonial system itself, as for example in the case of an Indian architect working in the Public Works Department in Zanzibar.13

  • 14 Patrick I. Wakely, “The Development of a School: An Account of the Department of Development and Tr (...)
  • 15 Mark Crinson, Modern Architecture and the End of Empire, Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003; Hannah Le R (...)
  • 16 Patrick I. Wakely, op. cit. (note 14), p. 338, 342.

7Born out of the interstices of empire, much study is still required to trace the routes that shaped the experiences of these local or “intermediary” architects, many of whom were educated within the colonial system or its postcolonial transmutations. Most famous among the latter is the Department of Tropical Architecture at the Architectural Association in London. Although much has been written in recent years on the department and its founders, namely Maxwell Fry, Jane Drew and Otto Koenigsberger, there is very little, if any, mention of its students. This omission seems surprising, since if it were not for a Nigerian student at the Manchester School of Architecture, Adedokun Adeyemi, who initiated the 1953 conference on Tropical Architecture—arguing for the need of a revised curriculum that would better suit the experience and needs of overseas colonial students like himself—the school would probably not have come into existence.14 Established as part of the British Empire’s decolonization anxieties in an attempt to prolong its hegemony in a post-colonial world,15 the department prepared British architects to work in an expanding global market, while attracting overseas students from mainly post-colonial countries for a six-month postgraduate course. This body of foreign students increased steadily until it constituted the overwhelming majority of the department.16

  • 17 A Conversation with Stuart Hall”, The Journal of the International Institute, vol. 7, no. 1, 1999, (...)
  • 18 Jiat-Hwee Chang, Anthony D. King, “Toward a Genealogy of Tropical Architecture: Historical Fragment (...)
  • 19 Hannah Le Roux’s discussion on the building’s boundary in Fry and Drew’s tropical architecture and (...)

8As certified architects with varying degrees of practical experience, the overseas students arrived at the department with specific objectives in mind that derived from their experience working at home, often in the public sector. It is therefore important to examine the disciplinary knowledge they acquired at the Architectural Association in respect to their expectations and previous experiences. In order to do so, I propose to shift the emphasis from “knowledge” as codified by discipline to “embodied expertise,” which includes a range of experiences beyond disciplinary and institutional boundaries. Unlike the category of professional knowledge that is encoded and sealed by technical “universal” language, expertise opens up a broad interpretive horizon for a fine-tuned analysis of architectural practice. Expertise can be explained by professional as well as personal biographies to include the effect of socio-corporeal experiences on the construction of professional knowledge. By emphasizing experience over essentialist characteristics of identity (similarly to Stuart Hall’s call to supplant roots with routes when analyzing diaspora identity formations),17 the field can open to question how “othered experiences”—of race and gender for example—affected the discipline and contributed to its knowledge production. This is especially pertinent in cases where, as in the body of knowledge of “tropical architecture,” pseudo-scientific claims masked the racial and cultural hierarchies that undergirded it.18 Our responsibility is to uncover these very postulates by questioning the universal applicability of climatic “comfort,” hygiene, and other European derived standards to non-Western locales and actors. If “tropical architecture” grew out of European experience in the colonies and the desire to protect the colonizers from the “degenerating” effects of the environment, the question is how postcolonial subjects perceived and reworked this body of knowledge vis-à-vis their colonial experience and post-colonial desires, for example in re-envisioning the relationship between post-colonial subjects and their environments.19

  • 20 Vikramaditya Prakash, “Epilogue: Third World Modernism, or Just Modernism: Toward a Cosmopolitan Re (...)
  • 21 Walter D. Mignolo, op. cit. (note 10), p. 2, 9.
  • 22 Denise Scott Brown, “Invention and Tradition,” MAS Context: Ownership, 2012, p. 13. URL: http://www (...)

9This is just one humble step we can take in the decolonization of architectural historiography. It is not enough to claim that modernism was always cosmopolitan and situated.20 Asking how this situatedness affected disciplinary procedures of knowledge production should immediately follow. Facing the uneven power relations embedded in the production of disciplinary knowledge, our task is to resist the archival temptations of the hegemonic centers, whose plentiful array of publications, laboratories, exhibitions, and seductive images have tended to present the Global South as a rich albeit passive repository of data and creative stimuli. The distinction made by Walter Mignolo between the production and generation of knowledge offers a way out of this historical imbalance, as it directs attention to the actors and locales that, despite having been deprived of the means of knowledge production (i.e. the privileges of research grants, advanced laboratories, venues of publications and mechanisms of distributions, and sophisticated modes of visualization), still nonetheless were able to participate in it actively.21 Conversely, this tipping of scales may help defamiliarize established canons, for example by asking whether Kenneth Frampton’s Critical Regionalism somehow derived from Tropical Architecture, or how Learning from Las Vegas was affected by Denise Scott Brown’s “African view.”22 Although these examples could not seem more removed from each other, this analogy is not far–fetched, as the two were among the first cohort of students who graduated from the Department of Tropical Architecture.

10Finally, the methodological steps outlined above need to be tested at the level of building analysis. As pointed out early in this essay, the architecture of independence challenges architectural history since the majority of these works were based on similarity, not iconic difference. At best, they presented a range of virtuosic repetition that did not present an outright rejection or challenge to Western modernity’s technological, economic, or cultural premises. Examining the institutional settings and actors involved in their production, our task is to trace where in these acts of repetition difference emerged. In other words, we should pose the question, how did these International Style projects embody the specific conditions and aspirations of African independence? The answer to this question can be traced at the various levels of architectural production, from its design postulates to the choice of materials and labour construction techniques, the hierarchy and composition of work relations on site, the relationship between the production of architecture and the construction of infrastructure, the role these projects played in determining urban and rural growth, and, ultimately, in envisioning African states’ post-colonial subjectivities.

11All these can redirect analysis away from tracing the “local” in formal attributes alone. Instead, the “local” should be found in its negotiation with the constraints of the global, and the traces this negotiation left in the coming into being of the architectural objects. This redirection, in turn, can open up a new horizon to reconsider the relationships between architecture’s various components, and the subject and object relationship they entail. If there is anything “alternative” in one experience of modernity or another, it will be found not in sharp epistemological oppositions, but in subtle propositions. One such proposition, for example, would be to rethink our deeply engrained disciplinary bias that privileges structure over ornament, function over symbolism, and technology over culture. Only when we emancipate the objects of our historical inquiry from these structures of thought will we be able to recognize the work of culture in technology, and the “other” in ourselves.

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Notes

1 James Ferguson, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order, Durham, NC; London: Duke University Press, 2006, p. 18.

2 Renato Rosaldo, “Imperialist Nostalgia,” Representations, vol. 26, 1989, p. 107-8.

3 James Ferguson, op. cit. (note 1), p. 19.

4 Duanfang Lu (ed.), Third World Modernism: Architecture, Development and Identity, New York, NY; London: Routledge, 2011; Benno Albrecht (ed.), Africa: Big Change Big Chance, Exhibition Catalogue (Triennale di Milano, 2014), Bologna: Compositori, 2014; Manuel Herz with Ingrid Schröder, Hans Focketyn, Julia Jamrozik (eds.), African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence: Ghana, Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, Zambia, Exhibition Catalogue (Weil am Rhein, Vitra Design Museum, 20 Feb-31 May, 2015), Zurich: Park Books, 2015.

5 Mamadou Diouf, “Modernity: Africa,” in Maryanne Cline Horowitz (ed.), New Dictionary of the History of Ideas 4, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005, p. 1478.

6 A selection of various voices in this debate includes Salah M. Hassan, “African Modernism: Beyond Alternative Modernities Discourse,” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 109, no. 3, 2010, p. 451-73; Kobena Mercer (ed.), Cosmopolitan Modernisms, London: Institute of International Visual Arts; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005; Laura Doyle, Laura Winkiel (eds.), Geomodernisms: Race, Modernism, Modernity, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005; Timothy Brennan, At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

7 For comparable histories of art production in Senegal and Nigeria during the periods of decolonization and independence see Elizabeth Harney, In Senghor’s Shadow: Art, Politics, and the Avant-Garde in Senegal, 1960-1995, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004, and Chika Okeke-Agulu, Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.

8 Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993, p. 3-13.

9 Andreas Huyssen, “Geographies of Modernism in a Globalizing World”, New German Critique, vol. 34, no. 1 100, 2007, p. 193, 196-97; Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, [First published in 1996] Minneapolis, MN; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

10 Walter D. Mignolo, “Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and De-Colonial Freedom,” Theory, Culture and Society, vol. 26, no. 7-8, 2009, p. 1-23; Jennifer Wenzel, “Decolonization,” in Imre Szeman, Sarah Blacker, Justin Sully (eds.), A Companion to Critical and Cultural Theory (forthcoming), URL: https://www.academia.edu/12230254/Decolonization. Accessed December 1, 2015. I am grateful to Louise Bethlehem for directing my attention to these valuable references.

11 These thoughts were partly spurred by the discussion held at a researchers’ workshop with Tom Avermaete at the Technion, organized by Rachel Kallus and Neta Feniger on November 25, 2015.

12 This “in-between” professional subject positioning was used to claim new forms of expertise in an expanding development market. See for example how Hungarian Charles Polónyi positioned his East European expertise as valuable to the West African context in Ákos Moravánsky, “Peripheral Modernism: Charles Polónyi and the Lessons of the Village,” The Journal of Architecture, vol. 17, no. 3, 2012, p. 333-59. Constantine Doxiadis, whose projects were heavily funded by American aid, positioned his Greek origins as an “in-between” position that enabled him to mediate between Europe, African and the Middle East. See Viviana d’Auria, “From Tropical Transitions to Ekistic Experimentation: Doxiadis Associates in Tema, Ghana,” Positions, no. 1, 2010, p. 42.

13 This case of Ajit Singh is documented in Garth Andrew Myers, Verandahs of Power: Colonialism and Space in Urban Africa, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003, p. 23-7.

14 Patrick I. Wakely, “The Development of a School: An Account of the Department of Development and Tropical Studies of the Architectural Association,” Habitat International 7, no. 5-6, 1983, p. 337; Hannah Le Roux, “The Networks of Tropical Architecture,” The Journal of Architecture, vol. 8, 2003, p. 343. See also Hannah Le Roux’s recent discussion on the Kumasi School in Ghana: Hannah Le Roux, “Architecture after Independence,” in Manuel Herz with Ingrid Schröder, Hans Focketyn, Julia Jamrozik (eds.), op. cit. (note 4), p. 138-9.

15 Mark Crinson, Modern Architecture and the End of Empire, Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003; Hannah Le Roux, “The Networks of Tropical Architecture,” op. cit (note 14); Jiat-Hwee Chang, “Building a Colonial Technoscientific Network: Tropical Architecture, Building Science and the Politics of Decolonization,” in Duanfang Lu (ed.), op. cit. (note 4), p. 211-235.

16 Patrick I. Wakely, op. cit. (note 14), p. 338, 342.

17 A Conversation with Stuart Hall”, The Journal of the International Institute, vol. 7, no. 1, 1999, URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.4750978.0007.107. Accessed December 1, 2015.

18 Jiat-Hwee Chang, Anthony D. King, “Toward a Genealogy of Tropical Architecture: Historical Fragments of Power-Knowledge, Built Environment and Climate in the British Colonial Territories,” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, vol. 32, no. 2011, p. 283-300.

19 Hannah Le Roux’s discussion on the building’s boundary in Fry and Drew’s tropical architecture and Oluwole Olumuyiwa’s Crusader House is the first step taken in this direction. See Hannah Le Roux, “Building on the Boundary – Modern Architecture in the Tropics,” Social Identities, vol. 10, no. 4, 2004, p. 439-53.

20 Vikramaditya Prakash, “Epilogue: Third World Modernism, or Just Modernism: Toward a Cosmopolitan Reading of Modernism,” in Duanfang Lu (ed.), op. cit. (note 4), p. 255-70.

21 Walter D. Mignolo, op. cit. (note 10), p. 2, 9.

22 Denise Scott Brown, “Invention and Tradition,” MAS Context: Ownership, 2012, p. 13. URL: http://www.mascontext.com/issues/13-ownership-spring-12/invention-and-tradition/. Accessed December 1, 2015.

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Ayala Levin, « Beyond Global vs. Local: Tipping the Scales of Architectural Historiography  », ABE Journal [En ligne], 8 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2015, consulté le 22 août 2017. URL : http://abe.revues.org/2751 ; DOI : 10.4000/abe.2751

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Ayala Levin

Postdoctoral Researcher, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel

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