SEAARC Symposium Abstract 25: “Beyond Southeast Asia: Repositioning National and Regional Identities through Architectural Discourse”

by Assoc. Prof. Anoma Pieris, University of Melbourne

The study of Southeast Asian architecture suffers two limitations. It has and always will be constrained by a legacy of area studies foci that governs empirical research on Asia. Despite the regional definitions and trans-national connections that saw its emergence as a postcolonial political category, the pull of other distinctions that are climatic, cultural and historical construct it as bounded and nationally inscribed. As China and India rise as economic giants the fear of being marginalized will provoke further self-definition. Regionalism, in this context is both a burden and a defense. Southeast Asian architecture is also driven by insular national agendas that foreground urban, technocratic development goals. The uneven terrain of identity politics, of Indigenous, gendered and laboring bodies is subsumed by the aspiration for intellectual location within global, metropolitan and multi-cultural discourses. The industries that give visibility to Southeast Asian architectural practice – urban, government and tourism led projects suppress and subsume marginal economies. Agrarian environments, disaster ecologies and urban poverty become the polemical counterparts to mainstream discourse. Discourses on modernism, sustainability and urbanization dominate, stifling the critical and poetic potential of architectural practice.

This paper examines some of the dominant discourses in Southeast Asian Architecture during the past decade, thematically, with a view to identifying gaps and omissions that may strengthen future scholarship. It studies these in the context of essential inter-Asian connections that might cross national boundaries and forge new regional relationships based on methodological innovations. The proposal is that methodology rather than historiography will guide future spatial research. In making this argument, this paper revisits Kuan-Hsing Chen’s three deconstructive strategies of de-imperialisation, de-colonisation and de-Cold War and takes to heart his proposal of Asia as Method.  What would methodological innovation demand of architectural studies? How would it force us to reposition our material theoretically? How might we deconstruct the national limits of our curricula and our subjective imagination?

The paper is organized by the following themes: beyond the nation; new spatial theories; alternative subjectivities and against urbanization.


Anoma Pieris is an associate professor at the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne.  Her most recent publications include, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes: A Penal History of Singapore’s Plural Society (2009) and Architecture and Nationalism in Sri Lanka: the Trouser under the Cloth (2012).

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