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Editorial

Editorial

Johan Lagae

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  • 1 Bernard Toulier and Marc Pabois (eds.), Architecture coloniale et patrimoine. L’expérience français (...)
  • 2 One can think here of the work of Zeynep Çelik on Algiers, or Nezar Alsayyad early edited volume Fo (...)

1In 2003, at the initiative of Bernard Toulier and Marc Pabois, the French Institut national du patrimoine (INP) organized a round table on the theme of “Architecture coloniale et patrimoine” within the French context, followed two years later, in 2005, by a round table during which the topic was discussed from a broader, European perspective. Both encounters brought together a wide array of contributors coming from different backgrounds and disciplines and opened the floor to a myriad of opinions, approaches, policies and practices on the topic. As such, the two round tables and the publications that resulted from them testify of a more general, international attention for colonial built heritage, both in circles of architectural historians and in the milieu of architectural preservation, conservation and restoration.1 In the last decades, colonial architecture indeed has become one of the key areas of research in architectural history, not in the least because of the introduction of postcolonial theory in the writing of the history of 19th and 20th century architecture and urbanism since the early 1990s.2 This rediscovery of an architectural production that for a long time was ignored, runs parallel with an emerging debate on the conservation of the colonial built legacy, which is also partly triggered by the often radical urban developments that quite a number of former colonial cities are witnessing today and that are threatening their historical edifices and streetscapes.

  • 3 Of these, the most well-known is Edward Denison, Guang Yu Ren and Naigzy Gebremedhin (eds.), Asmara (...)
  • 4 The submission was introduced on 25 March 2005, see http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/2024/. (...)
  • 5 Zoe Strother, Riggio Professor of African Art, Columbia University, in her review of the film, post (...)

2The city of Asmara, Eritrea, is a case in point to illustrate such process of rediscovery and its consequent instrumentalization for the elaboration of a heritage policy. Celebrated in 2003 as “one of the most important and exciting architectural ‘discoveries’ of recent years”, Asmara has been the topic of several, lavishly illustrated publications documenting an urban landscape that, too a large extent, was designed in the 1930s by Italian architects.3 In response to the real estate pressure on the historical city center, books like Asmara, Africa’s secret modernist city (2003) have helped prepare the stage for submitting a demand to Unesco in order to put Asmara on the tentative list of World Heritage, as, in the opinion of those initiating the submission, the city “represents perhaps the most concentrated and intact assemblage of Modernist architecture anywhere in the world.”4 The 2007 film and website project Asmara, Eritrea, produced by Italian film director Caterina Borelli in collaboration with architectural historian Mia Fuller, a specialist on Italian colonial architecture, presents an alternative reading of Asmara’s urban landscape that unpacks “a particularly complex 20th century history, which awakens viewers to complex geopolitical forces sparring over the horn of Africa even as it traces the development of a gracious and liveable city”.5

  • 6 I have discussed elsewhere the problematic nature of this concept, in particular because it is an i (...)
  • 7 Sabine Marschall, “The Heritage of Post-colonial Societies”, in Brian Graham and Peter Howard (eds. (...)
  • 8 Galila El Kadi, Anne Ouallet and Dominique Couret (eds.), “Inventer le patrimoine moderne dans les (...)

3As such, the case of Asmara provides us with a powerful case to highlight some of the tensions underlying all discussions on colonial built heritage, as indeed different and even divergent perspectives on the topic are possible. Can heritage concepts and practices from the West be applied in postcolonial contexts or are new models to be developed? What kind of knowledge should be produced in order to elaborate a meaningful policy, and who should be in charge of that production? And perhaps most importantly, whose heritage is this anyway, or, put differently, who should take responsibility for deciding upon its future? Given the dissonant nature of the historical context in which this heritage came into being, institutional bodies such as Unesco and especially Icomos has been struggling with such questions for quite some time now. Icomos even went as far as avoiding the word “colonial” organizing its discussions on the topic under the allegedly more neutral notion of “shared built heritage”, which suggests that any initiative on the topic should be based on a dialogue between former colonized and colonizers.6 But as several academic scholars working on colonial and postcolonial heritage have long argued, it is crucial to acknowledge that every form of heritage is socially constructed and closely linked to the making and shaping of identities and subjectivities.7 Or, as the editors of an issue of the French journal Autrepart dedicated to the theme of colonial built heritage in the south have phrased it, heritage is always “invented”.8

  • 9 See a.o. Brenda S.A. Yeoh, Contesting space: power relations and the urban built environment in col (...)
  • 10 Robert Bevan, The Destruction of Memory. Architecture at War, London: Reaktion Books, 2006.
  • 11 Abidin Kusno, The appearances of memory. Mnemonic Practices of Architecture and Urban Form in Indon (...)
  • 12 Adrian Forty and Susanne Küchler (eds.), The Art of Forgetting, Oxford; New York: Berg Publishers, (...)

4Approaches to colonial heritage can be informed by a myriad of agendas, from those underscoring “politics of colonial nostalgia” to, on the other side of the spectrum, ones linked to acerbic postcolonial critiques of the colonial project. In this respect, colonial built heritage holds a position that is perhaps more ambivalent than other forms of colonial legacy. Indeed, while colonial monuments or toponyms of colonial times have often been erased from urban landscapes in the aftermath of independence,9 the attitude towards the colonial built legacy has seldom been one of destructing edifices in order to obliterate culture, as has been the case in other contexts.10 The urban landscape of many former colonial cities is in fact to a large extent still defined by buildings erected under colonial role, some of which, even in a dilapidated state, still perform the function for which they were originally designed, while others have been radically transformed or cleverly re-appropriated to accommodate new uses. Even those most symbolic icons of colonial power, such as governor’s residences or palaces of justice, have often survived albeit having been inscribed with new meanings over time, the memories of their origins often having faded completely. As Abidin Kusno claims in his stimulating study of the mnemonic practices of architecture and urban form in Indonesia, even if “memory and architecture mutually constitute each other”, they do so “in a most problematic way”, because “memory’s demand for representation form buildings (among others)” always clashes with “the impossibility of memory being adequately represented”.11 Drawing on ideas advanced by Adrian Forty, architecture might actually be more accurately described as an “art of forgetting”, rather than one of remembering, a characteristic that becomes particularly relevant for any reflection on the topic in postcolonial contexts.12

  • 13 The Annual Workshop, entitled “Dissonant architectural heritage in the postcolonial age. On the cha (...)
  • 14 Recent historical research on colonial architecture has started to question a building’s capacity o (...)
  • 15 Johan Lagae (ed.), “Ambivalent Positions on Modern Heritage. A Dialogue between Réjean Legault and (...)

5This theme issue, which partly results from an Annual Conference that was held in the context of the COST-Action IS0904 “European Architecture beyond Europe”13, explicitly seeks to address some of these ambivalences surrounding the position of colonial architecture as heritage in the present-day. It questions the common assumption that architecture produced under colonial rule constitutes, by definition, a “dissonant heritage” as it was at the time often designed as a “form a dominance”.14 Presenting cases that highlight the myriad ways in which colonial architecture can be pragmatically re-used, as well as ideologically re-appropriated, nostalgically embraced or, on the contrary, fiercely contested, this compilation of contributions makes first and foremost a plea for the important role sound architectural history research has to play in ongoing debates on colonial built heritage. Uncovering the “inventions” at work in discourses on colonial built heritage, several of the contributors define the role of the architectural historian as that of raising the difficult and unsettling questions that need to be addressed in defining policies for the future of this legacy. Referring to a distinction once made by Réjean Legaultin a discussion of shifting perspectives on modern (architectural) heritage, what comes also through in this issue is that architectural historians, when dealing with heritage, should engage less in producing a discourse of action aimed at the preservation of a building but rather remain occupied with what Manfredo Tafuri once called “historical criticism” that aims at “explaining or elucidating architecture or the built environment in light of its historical context of production”.15

6Four main articles and two fieldwork reports, covering discussions on 19th and 20th century colonial built heritage in a broad geographical range, from Egypt to Central and South Africa, and from India to Indonesia and Vietnam, make up the body of this issue. While discussing local debates on specific forms of colonial built heritage, each of these contributions also raises issues and questions that go beyond the individual case studies presented.

7In his discussion of the “tales of the tangible city of Kinshasa”, a title that forms a clin d’oeil to Filip de Boeck’s by now classic book on the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Johan Lagae takes up a number of concepts and notions briefly touched upon in this editorial. Focusing on a number of structuring urban elements that can be discerned in the palimpsestuous urban fabric of the city, and unraveling the way they have structured the city’s development and fabric over time, he brings to the fore ruptures and continuities between the pre- and post-1960 era. The cases presented—a street, a hospital complex and a neighborhood—illustrate that architecture provides a powerful tool to mediate between colonial history and postcolonial memory. As such, his contribution not only draws attention on the need to unravel the particular histories underlying the production and development of particular buildings and sites over time, but also the need to engage in memory work. But the discussion of his own involvement in projects concerning Kinshasa’s colonial built heritage, also addresses directly the ambiguous “positionality” of the external—i.e.western—researcher in a postcolonial context.

8Pauline van Roosmalen provides an informative survey of how positions on Dutch colonial architecture in Indonesia have shifted since the country’s independence in 1949, demonstrating that its rediscovery has not yet resulted in the firm inscription of this particular architectural production in (Dutch) architectural history. Her contribution highlights how the different stances of both the Indonesian and Dutch government vis-à-vis this particular physical legacy were informed by either diplomatic considerations or official efforts to “come into terms” with this specific episode of one’s national past, underlining to what extent heritage can become politicized. But she also draws our attention on the important role played by private initiative on both the Dutch and Indonesian side. Her discussion of the successful locally organized heritage walking and bicycle tours through old city centers of cities like Jakarta, in which Indonesians sometimes even participate dressed up in mock colonial outfits, unsettles all too easy assessments of colonial architecture as “dissonant heritage”. In her contribution, however, the question of how such practices relate, for instance, to forms of “colonial nostalgia” emerging in the former mother country, remains an open one.

9The contributions of Mercedes Volait on the contemporary interest in the “Belle Époque” legacy in Cairo, Egypt, and of Caroline Herbelin on the “New French Style” in Vietnam start to provide an explanation of similarly intriguing forms of re-appropriation of “imported culture”. Remarkable in both accounts is that such a reclaiming in fact occurs well outside of the official mechanisms commonly triggering heritage policies, and find their origin in strategies of branding and of real estate commodification of architectural styles. Indeed, both “Belle Époque” and “New French Style” are actually being “invented” and constructed through narratives that defy historical accuracy. In academic circles the reception of the popular use of the label “Belle Époque” was “chilly” as it stood for a chronological vagueness and created the myth of the “age of hedonism”. Similarly, as Herbelin asks in her work-in-progress paper, one can wonder to what extent the “New French Style” is really “French”, let alone “colonial”. Both contributions, thus, explicitly point out the discrepancies that exist between popularizing and more scholarly perspectives on colonial built heritage, without however discrediting the former in favor of the latter. Indeed, both contributors suggest that architectural historians should take serious the social construction of heritage and in order to do so need to engage with the kind of sources that produce it, from popularizing historical accounts to websites and oral discourse.

  • 16 See several contributions in Maristella Casciato and Emilie d’Orgeix (eds.), Modern Architectures. (...)

10It is precisely such kind of broad “archive” that Noeleen Murray also builds upon in her critical assessment of the ongoing debates on the future of the Werdmuller center in Cape Town, a 1970s commercial edifice built in a brutalist idiom by one of South Africa’s most prominent architects, Roelof Uytenbogaardt. Written at the very moment in which the final decision of whether the building should be demolished or preserved is still intensively debated, Murray’s contribution unpacks the ambiguities that have crept into the discourses of architects seeking to save what they consider a masterpiece of one of South Africa’s leading designers and a building testifying to Le Corbusier’s influence in the country. Engaging as such in the broader discussion on the heritage status of “modernist architecture” as “young monuments” in a (post)colonial context, a topic that has been addressed by Docomomo International since some time,16 Murray’s reconstruction of the building’s history and her explicit discussion of its failure to respond to the requirements of the commission unsettles the current attempts of architects to define the Werdmuller center as a remarkable piece of “democratic architecture” that contested the very apartheid context in which it came into being, a quality, they claim, that legitimizes its preservation.

11Murray’s piece thus brings us back to a question that is central in this theme issue, namely that of “positionality” and the role architectural historians should play in debates on colonial built heritage. Should they engage in producing a discourse of action, or rather stick to a discourse of knowledge to be used by other stakeholders who hold or claim responsibility of a certain colonial built heritage? In one way or the other, all contributions gathered here testify of the tension one encounters as a researcher in this regard, being on the one hand fascinated by buildings and urban sites produced under colonial rule yet not necessarily being convinced on the other that architectural historians should define what needs to be preserved and what not. This ambivalence is addressed eloquently in Rachel Lee’s work-in-progress report of her research into the work of Otto Koenigsberger in India. Providing the reader a rare glimpse on the modus operandi of a scholar who is forced by the specificities of the research topic to puzzle bits and pieces of information together—by collecting various archival sources, documenting still existing edifices through fieldwork and even executing analyses via a creative use of the menu of Photoshop—, her contribution voices adequately what perhaps the role of architectural historians should be in relation to heritage, namely to produce research that, however “messy”, allows to make “walls that mumble, speak”.

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Notes

1 Bernard Toulier and Marc Pabois (eds.), Architecture coloniale et patrimoine. L’expérience française, Proceedings of the round table (Paris, Institut national du patrimoine, September 17-19th, 2003), Paris: Institut national du patrimoine, 2005; ibid., Architecture coloniale et patrimoine. Expériences européennes, Proceedings of the round table (Paris, Institut national du patrimoine, September 7-9th, 2005), Paris: Institut national du patrimoine, 2006.

2 One can think here of the work of Zeynep Çelik on Algiers, or Nezar Alsayyad early edited volume Forms of Dominance. On the Architecture and Urbanism of the Colonial Enterprise, Aldershot: Avebury, 1992 (Ethnoscapes, 5).

3 Of these, the most well-known is Edward Denison, Guang Yu Ren and Naigzy Gebremedhin (eds.), Asmara. Africa’s Secret Modernist City, London; New York, NY: Merell, 2003. The 2009 book Moderno Tropical. Arquitecturaem Angola and Moçambique 1948-1975, Lisbon: tinta-da-china, with a text by Ana Malghães and powerful photographs of Inês Gonçalves, belongs to the same strand of publications.

4 The submission was introduced on 25 March 2005, see http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/2024/. Accessed March 10, 2013.

5 Zoe Strother, Riggio Professor of African Art, Columbia University, in her review of the film, posted on the project’s website, http://www.anonime.net/asmara/. Film director Caterina Borellli presents the aim of the film as follows: “What is identity in a post-colonial nation? In this film, Asmarinos from different walks of life guide us through their city. Through their narrations—tracing back from colonialism to the present—the city itself becomes the main character, and the embodiment of Eritrea’s history. As the film progresses, it is the chorus of all the different experiences, rather than false notions of race and religion, that emerges as the collective place of identity, in which lies the concept of ‘nation’”.

6 I have discussed elsewhere the problematic nature of this concept, in particular because it is an implicit binary concept that starts from the assumption that colonizer and colonized are homogeneous categories, an assumption that since long has been undermined by historical research on colonialism, see Johan Lagae, “From ‘Patrimoine partagé’ to ‘Whose Heritage’? Critical reflections on colonial built heritage in the city of Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo”, Afrika Focus, vol. 21, no. 1, 2008, p. 11-30

7 Sabine Marschall, “The Heritage of Post-colonial Societies”, in Brian Graham and Peter Howard (eds.), The Ashgate Research Companion to Heritage and Identity, Burlington: Ashgate, 2008 (Ashgate research companion), p. 347-364.

8 Galila El Kadi, Anne Ouallet and Dominique Couret (eds.), “Inventer le patrimoine moderne dans les villes du Sud”, Autrepart, no. 33, 2005.

9 See a.o. Brenda S.A. Yeoh, Contesting space: power relations and the urban built environment in colonial Singapore, Singapore, 2003 (South-East Asian social science monographs). Liora Bigon is currently preparing an edited volume under the title Urban Toponymies in sub-Saharan Africa: Shedding the Egg Shells, to be published in 2014.

10 Robert Bevan, The Destruction of Memory. Architecture at War, London: Reaktion Books, 2006.

11 Abidin Kusno, The appearances of memory. Mnemonic Practices of Architecture and Urban Form in Indonesia, Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2010 (Asia-Pacific), p. 10. See also the review of this book further in this issue.

12 Adrian Forty and Susanne Küchler (eds.), The Art of Forgetting, Oxford; New York: Berg Publishers, 1999 (Materializing culture).

13 The Annual Workshop, entitled “Dissonant architectural heritage in the postcolonial age. On the changing perceptions of “colonial” architecture in recent decades”, was held from Februay 18th till 20th 2013 in Lisbon.

14 Recent historical research on colonial architecture has started to question a building’s capacity of constituting a direct instrument of “dominance”, in order to allow for more nuanced readings of how colonial power operates through the built environment and how the making and shaping of buildings and urban form also is influenced by acts of resistance and contestation.

15 Johan Lagae (ed.), “Ambivalent Positions on Modern Heritage. A Dialogue between Réjean Legault and Wessel de Jonge”, OASE, no. 69, 2006, p. 46-58.

16 See several contributions in Maristella Casciato and Emilie d’Orgeix (eds.), Modern Architectures. The Rise of a Heritage, Wavre: Mardaga, 2012.

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Johan Lagae, « Editorial », ABE Journal [En ligne], 3 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2013, consulté le 20 octobre 2017. URL : http://abe.revues.org/642

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Johan Lagae

Senior Lecturer, Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, Ghent University, Belgium

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