SEAARC Session Report 1

We will be publishing a series of session reports in separate blog posts in the next few weeks. Following these session reports will be an overall reflection piece on the issues raised at the first SEAARC symposium and perhaps another piece on which direction should SEAARC be heading. This is the first report on Session 6: Architectural Networks, Circulations and Translations, written by the session chair Lee Kah Wee, NUS. 

One locus of debate during the conference centres on the pluralization of modernity and what that means for scholarship on Southeast Asian architecture. Sir Bannister Fletcher’s “Tree of Architecture” was mentioned during the conference as a teleological picture of world architecture where only the West experienced historical progress while other civilizations were cast as timeless or static. A similar picture created by Modernization Theory has been attacked since the 1970s in favor of Dependency Theory or more South-South dialogue or other trajectories that do not conform to a standard core-periphery structure. Collected as part of the “mobility turn” in the social sciences, these debates remind us that theory production has a geography, and it is important to recognize that certain cities or buildings continue to serve unchallenged as “truth spots”, in the words of Thomas Gieryn, that overdetermine the ways historical materials are interpreted and what count as significant evidence in the first place. Foregrounding mobility as an analytic rather than a given seeks to problematize these invisible canons and replace origin-stories with networks of contingency. In this critical endeavor, the mobility turn in the social sciences has thrown up new concepts and methodologies, some of which feature prominently in the papers of this conference.

Though this session attempted to bracket out ‘networks’, ‘circulations’ and ‘translations’ for analysis, it is clear that many papers in earlier sessions had already touched on related issues. Lawrence Chua’s paper on the “mistranslation” of the dome in Bangkok or Xiao Jing’s paper on Singaporean architecture in China or Hazel Hahn’s paper on the connection between urban planning and tourism in Saigon are clear examples of how central an analytic of mobility has become in attempting to grapple with the messy geographies of architectural development in Southeast Asia. At the same time, the papers within this session do not have a coherent framework that set themselves apart from the others. They do not propose a specific empiric (what should we follow?) or theory (how does movement change the picture of Eurocentrism embedded in architectural historiography?) Yet, they do offer us insights into the difficulties and promises of studying the movement of forms, ideas, humans and capital in crafting a new landscape of architectural history in and of Southeast Asia. To draw a larger arc, it seems that the papers collected in the session provocatively frame Southeast Asia as an open-ended site whose internal and external boundaries are palimpsests of the larger processes of colonialism, labor migration, state formation and urbanization.

What should we follow? Ian Tan’s paper looks at the circulation of ironmongery between colonial Singapore and Europe. By tracing a single construction material and technology through trade catalogues, he reveals a hitherto invisible network of agents – Crown agents and Chinese compradors, for example, who facilitated and monopolized this transnational industry by situating themselves between the producers of iron and the colonial administration. He also shows how this transfer of ironmongery spawned a local industry, but the lack of sophisticated equipment and raw material as well as European domination meant that local blacksmiths largely produced simpler items such as boat anchors, ornamental gates and staircases. Though Tan does not elaborate on why such a technology and material was taken up for specific projects and the kinds of symbolic or political agendas furthered by ironmongery, his project prompts us to think about how the building of empire can be traced by following a modern construction technology.

Peter Scriver and Amit Srivastava are interested broadly in the dynamics of transnational transfers and networks of expertise in the recent architectural history of the Australasian/Southeast Asian region. Taking up the ideas of vertical and horizontal dimensions of the vernacular, as discussed in Mark Crinson’s paper, they unravel the networks of patronage, international tourism and architectural culture that intersected in and gave rise to a distinct “Bali-Style” from the 1960s onwards. Their nuanced argument is built on multiple trajectories – from the earlier wave of Australian expatriate architects who used “quasi-ethnographic research” to produce a regionalist (but also replicable) aesthetic to the political patronage of a new Indonesian government eager to marry international tourism with nation-building. What unfolded in their presentation is a persistent tension between the universal and the particular, not as some abstract historical force or architectural type, but as a series of struggles animated by the transfer of expertise within the geopolitics of Southeast Asia.

Indah Widiastuti’s paper focuses on the vernacular architecture of Kerala in South India as a way to question current paradigms of what constitutes Southeast Asian architecture. Through comparative formal-spatial analysis, she juxtaposes her case with the vernacular architecture of Minangkabau (Sumatra) and Baliaga (Bali) and tries to understand the significance of their convergence and divergence. Her close reading of these buildings bears the fruit of many years of field work. Methodologically, the choice of these types reflects an implicit boundary – Kerala as outside the “agreed (modern) boundary of Southeast Asia” and Indonesia as inside it. Widiastuti’s contribution is precisely to problematize this “agreed (modern) boundary”, arguing that one should focus on “processes of becoming”, rather than work within, and reproduce, fixed architectural types or geographical boundaries. In my view, though her work does not foreground mobility, it emphasizes how formal-spatial analysis – a distinctly architectural mode of analysis – can provide important hints about the movement of people, cultures and empires that other visual or textual materials cannot. It can be further developed to map out the lines of trans-regional urbanization, one that is connected to the historical flux of maritime trade and colonialism.

Lorelei D.C. de Viana’s paper discusses the emergence of an architectural type in Manila, Philippines, in the 19th century – the accesoria, or the urban apartment. Originally defined as a structure attached to a principal building that is leased out to tenants, the accesoria grew and subdivided into tenement-type formations, usually with mixed residential and retail uses and sharing communal facilities such as kitchens and toilets. de Viana attributes this development to the increasing importance of Manila as a trading post, the need to shelter a growing population of migrant laborers from China and other parts of the Philippines, and the desire of the landowning class to profit from their properties. Like Widiastuti, de Viana’s discussion does not foreground mobility as an analytic, but her morphological analysis offers insight into an aspect of working class urbanism that is both domiciled in a specific site and dispersed across the colonial empire.

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