SEAARC Symposium Abstract 14: “Those Non-native Natives in Malaysia: Framing Southeast Asia’s ‘Colony Architecture’

by Dr. Francis Chia-Hui Lin, Taylor’s University, Malaysia

The theory of Southeast Asia’s architecture, especially with regard to its methods, rationality, scope, and the distinction between justified conviction and attitude, is always contextualised within a fuzzy space in terms of classifications. It follows neither solely Western orthodoxy, which has an established knowledge base, nor independent cultural or geographic cognition that can simply be grouped as ‘non-West’. In other words, Southeast Asia’s diverse and sophisticated cultural-political and historical character has complicated this ‘single’ geographic region by taking it as a unit of analysis. Architecture, as a cultural form and as a representation of historicity, in Southeast Asia therefore is comprised of colourful discourses that come from different perspectives – most of them touch multi-layers in the analyses; some discussions are dualistic such as between modernity and primitive whereas some are heteroglossic that has no clear and definite connection between each other. However, based on this unique character, Southeast Asia’s architecture draws special attention from observers, historians and architectural theorists, and it is contextualised by a series of ‘unorthodox’ discourses – means alternative and non-mainstream in terms of architectural academicism – in recent scholarship. Interestingly, this series of texts and conversations with Southeast Asia’s architecture is largely transdisciplinary, more precisely, methodologically transdisciplinary – amongst all, globalization studies, post-colonial studies and architectural studies bear remarkable witness to this phenomenon. Particularly in architecture, as a sophisticated cultural-political form, it often borrows notions from others such as the mentioned, and this makes it even more complicated. In Southeast Asia’s architectural discourse, more attention has often been paid to the relationship and integration between various exotic forces and existing cultural-political and historical conditions due to Southeast Asia’s hybrid – integrating colonial and local – historicity. This historicity results a new concept that theorises those exotic elements along with Southeast Asia’s regional conditions as an entity of ‘natives’, although they are indeed ‘non-natives’.


Amongst all, Malaysian architecture is one representative case. Its colonial legacies of tropicalising western building forms and contemporary notions of sustainability that implant green technologies into modern vernacular architecture are examples of external elements which are hybridized with Southeast Asia’s local conditions and eventually turned into ‘native’ ones. This paper intends to critically examine different standpoints from recent scholarship of Malaysian architecture, especially ones that suggest potential of theorising Southeast Asia’s architecture, which discuss these ‘non-native natives’ in spatial representations. This intention is underpinned by a proposed argument in this paper that forms ‘colony architecture’ as an explanation of contemporary Southeast Asian architecture. The notion of colony argued in the paper takes a broad definition of colonialism that embraces imperial colonization and globalism. Therefore, colony architecture involves issues of geo-historiography, neo-imperialism and globalisation, which walks across the epistemology of architectural classifications absorbing both synchronic and diachronic features. This paper asks: what is the current delimitation of theorizing Southeast Asia’s architecture, how do the difficult and unclear situations of defining Southeast Asia’s architecture stimulate alternative thinking, and what are those emerging notions that attempt to redefine and push the boundary of existing and dominant theorization? This paper discusses these questions through a critical scrutiny of contemporary Malaysia in terms of its very immediate architectural representation, reception and adaptation.


Francis Chia-Hui Lin is a Lecturer in the School of Architecture, Building & Design at Taylor’s University, Malaysia. His areas of expertise lie in the critical discourse on the practice and profession of Architecture and Urbanism within a wider context of History and Theory. Francis’s research and teaching interests include the Asia Pacific region, Architectural and Urban History, Theory, Art Theory, Architectural and Urban Design, (Post)colonialism, the Humanities and Cultural History. Francis holds a Ph.D. in Architecture from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He also holds a Master in Architecture and a Bachelor of Science in Architecture and Urban Design from Taiwan. He is the author of Heteroglossic Asia: The Transformation of Urban Taiwan that will be published by Routledge in January 2015.

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