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Kathleen James-Chakraborty, Architecture Since 1400

Minneapolis, London: Minnesota University Press, 2014
Murray Fraser

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1Ever since Vasari, if not before, there has been a yearning to tell some kind of story around art and architecture. All those different (indeed often contradictory) cultural conditions, intellectual ideas, craft traditions and building forms surely had to mean something. It couldn’t just be confusion, could it? Even if one wasn’t seeking a teleological explanation, there was a need to show a direction in the architectural changes that were plain to observers. Various architects and writers from the eighteenth century onwards took up the challenge, in their diverse ways, whether it was Quatremere de Quincy, James Fergusson, Banister Fletcher Senior and son, or a line of scholars through to Mumford, Giedion, Pevsner, Kostof and Frampton. Latterly have come the giant synthetic histories such as those by Christopher Tadgell or by the Jarzombek-Prakash-Ching and Fazio-Moffett-Woodhouse teams.

2Now entering the fray is Kathleen James-Chakraborty, whose global survey of architecture since 1400 offers us another scintillating overview. The big claim on the book cover is that it is the first global account to give “equal” attention to non-western as to western architecture. It might be slightly churlish to point out, however, that the claim is not strictly true. The actual balance is broadly two-thirds about western architecture and one-third on the rest. Given the population mass and the cultural diversity of countries/regions in the non-western camp, this is no doubt a higher proportion than in typical previous accounts, but it cannot actually be described as equal. Furthermore, the books written by Mark Jarzombek and others have already done much to reduce the western bias. Their contribution ought to have been acknowledged.

3That said, this book is a joy to read. As a scholar, James-Chakraborty has researched in depth, is able to condense her source material superbly, and offers intriguing insights into the buildings/projects under discussion. As (to my knowledge) the first female scholar to write a global history of architecture on her own, there is an underlying and praiseworthy goal throughout of trying to put the role of women back into the story. Yet as with all such previous surveys, the sheer ambition of telling an entire story of architecture also makes apparent the strengths and limitations of James-Chakraborty’s approach.

4In terms of plus points, the book is a prime example of cultural generosity. It derives very much out of the concerns that arose especially in US art history/architectural schools in the 1980s about the western-centric focus of the discourse, which had meant that the architectures of other civilisations—China, India, South-East Asia, Africa, South/Central America, Iran and the Stans, the Middle East, and such like—were either omitted from the canon, or else were introduced so instrumentally as to distort their real importance. So what was the solution proposed in liberal US colleges? Simple: just add in these other stories into the mix, alongside the “normal” teleological western story that runs from Egypt to Greece to Rome to Byzantine/Romanesque to northern Gothic to Renaissance and through to modernism (even to postmodernism if wished). Then one was able to let the cultural parallels begin.

5And where was the best place to display this new feeling of architectural ecumenicalism? Again the answer was devastatingly simple, for where better than the First Year survey course, known colloquially as “Architecture 101”. Tell it to them young and tell it to them clear. So indeed this book comes of the exposure to a broader cultural view of architectural history that James-Chakraborty received herself as a student at the University of Pennsylvania in the late-1980s, with particular homage paid to Renata Holod, as well as to a survey course that James-Chakraborty then taught with Dell Upton and others at Berkeley (where else?) in the 1990s. That module’s title was apt: “Architecture 170B”.

6This return to the youthful hopes of James-Chakraborty for “Architecture 170B” provides her also with a chance to incorporate subsequent influences upon her life and scholarship. James-Chakraborty is an American, but her husband is Indian, which as she notes, has introduced her to an interest in south-east Asian architecture that is more than evident in this book. This was added onto her existing fascination, no doubt deriving from her country of origin, with pre-Columbian architecture and the subsequent diverse architectural histories across both the Americas following European colonisation. In her own career, James-Chakraborty has written insightfully about Erich Mendelsohn and German modernism generally. She now heads the art history department at University College Dublin, which also provides her with good insight into Ireland’s role as a colonial locus where architectural innovations could be spun out of British fashions like neo-palladianism and the Picturesque.

7If James-Chakraborty’s vision demonstrates a commendable allegiance to the network of ideas and influences we refer to today as globalization, her sense of all-embracing passion comes across superbly in the book. This, indeed, is the First Year survey course we wish we had been given. James-Chakraborty is an engaging guide through often complex cultural terrain, clearly enjoying for instance the deeper history of Chinese temples and Japanese palaces, or the astonishing fusion pot of Mughal architecture in India that created inter alia the Taj Mahal, just as much as Brazilian mid-century modernism or the rapid changes taking place now in cities like Beijing or Shanghai.

8Chronologically ordered, and sweeping across the globe, the chapters follow a similar format. In each, a small but key selection of buildings is placed under the microscope to represent the culture in that country/region in that particular period. At the end of each chapter, a short list is offered for further reading on the topic. After all, this book is probably best regarded as a stimulating primer for undergraduate students, with notable emphasis being given, for instance, to explaining the role of building patrons as part of the wider cultural context. Hence the introduction presents a fascinating comparison between the brick-built tomb (c.1404) commissioned in Samarkand by Emperor Timur/Tamerlane, seen as a jewel of Persian Timurid architecture, and the celebrated “glass house” (1950) on stilts in Sao Paulo designed by Lina Bo Bardi for herself and her husband, which helped them become assimilated into the post-war Brazilian arts elite (an escape from Italy was necessary as her husband was previously a prominent supporter of Mussolini).

9In the chapters that follow, the contents come thick and fast, meaning that important topics often whizz past. There is much to digest, as well as obvious gaps and omissions. When it comes to Mughal architecture, James-Chakraborty writes beautifully about Fatephur Sikri, the short-lived capital built from 1571 by Emperor Akbar on a hill outside Agra, in order to augment a major new mosque and religious shrine. There, the carved stone buildings, and even the inhabitants, were conceived as if exquisite pieces on a giant chessboard. Water supply remained problematic, as did unrest in the Mughal empire, and within 15 years the royal contingent had decamped elsewhere. But where is the corresponding analysis of the epic hill forts of the period, especially the glorious Amber Fort, just north of Jaipur? As a superb Hindu/Muslim fusion, in what must be one of the most stunning locations imaginable, it is a treasure of world architecture. Yet here it rates only a token mention. Likewise, James-Chakraborty tells us about the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, but says nothing, surprisingly, about Peterhof or Tsarskoye Selo. And so on. However, this problem of omission is not a particular fault on James-Chakraborty’s part, since any condensed global history would have the same dilemma, no matter who writes it.

10More puzzling is the decision by James-Chakraborty to select a starting date of 1400 AD. Clearly trying to avoid the implication that this date was chosen because it corresponds to the genesis of the Italian Renaissance—Masaccio’s and Brunelleschi’s innovations were but a few years away—or to the first signs of “modern” architecture in wake of early colonial forays by Portuguese explorers, James-Chakraborty instead claims that around 1400 AD there arose an interest in many countries/regions in their more ancient forms of architecture. This she says was in parallel to increased geographical interaction through trade, which in turn created a corresponding surge in the mobility of building artisans able to transfer architectural influences. For this choice of time-frame, James-Chakraborty draws obvious support from John Darwin’s book After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire (2008), which is cited in the “further reading” for the introductory chapter.

11Many however dispute the view of John Darwin, not least because if one is truly interested in finding historical examples of proto-globalisation, then beginning the story in 1400 AD seems perverse. The ancient Silk Road, for instance, dated back to the first century BCE, being stimulated by the great dynasties in China, Persia and elsewhere along the way. A few centuries later arose the multicultural glories of Constantinople. Nor can one possibly explain the medieval rise of Venice without understanding its extensive trading links to the east. In architectural terms it also seems especially strange to use 1400 AD as the cut-off, for it means that James-Chakraborty dispenses with the need to discuss the Gothic, one of the most international of architectural styles, and still very much alive after 1400 AD in many European countries. And what about the impact of the great Mongol leaders on Asia and Europe? Marco Polo clearly travelled in vain. Further back in architectural history, what could have been more profuse than the Greek and Phoenician temples erected from Asia Minor to Spain to north Africa, or the Roman architecture that spread up to Britain and northern Europe, while also consolidating classical architecture in Africa? Cistercian monasteries offered a model of how to disseminate the Benedictine value system through Romanesque (and later Gothic) architecture, and indeed the Islamic influence on the language of European Gothic, after the Crusades, has long been acknowledged.

12But again, none of this is a problem that James-Chakraborty has created herself. The question of the origins of architecture, as we know, is so difficult and contested. We ought to salute her for having written such a fascinating account, sufficiently distinct from previous overviews by single authors or by small scholarly teams.

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Referencia electrónica

Murray Fraser, « Kathleen James-Chakraborty, Architecture Since 1400  », ABE Journal [En línea], 9-10 | 2016, Publicado el 19 diciembre 2016, consultado el 25 septiembre 2017. URL :

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Murray Fraser

Professor, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, London, United Kingdom

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La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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