This is the report on Session 4: Modernisms and Modernities, written by the session chair Lawrence Chua, Syracuse University.
The papers in this session grappled with where to locate Southeast Asian architecture within histories of multiple modernities and modernisms. They encountered three limitations related to the discourse of multiple modernities. The first of these was the problem of addressing the fundamental conceptualization of modernity itself. While allowing for the possibility of culturally different ways of being modern, the discourse of multiple modernities doesn’t critically address the relationship between economic and technological modernization and aesthetic modernism. It has been a limited discursive tool for understanding what happened in places like Kemalist Turkey, Thailand of the People’s Party, post-Merdeka Malaysia, 20th-century China and any other number of places outside of the so-called “West” where modernism was a “top-down” phenomenon and was not accompanied or produced by an industrial revolution, an autonomous bourgeoisie, or democratization. The second limitation these papers confronted was the ways that multiple modernities are often tied to an essentializing nationalist historiography that allows architects at the peripheries to “localize” universal forms that were authored in the modern “West,” adapting them to the moods of various national regimes. Such narratives fail to account for either the lack of a unified “local” vocabulary or the complex forms of agency and imagination that are produced through the global circulation of ideas, forms, capital, and labor in the 20th century. For example, there can be a Thai modernity, and a Chinese modernity but there have been few attempts to question how these two events informed and underwrote one another. The third problem of this plural approach to the fashioning of one’s own modernity that is different from a Eurocentric modernity overlooks one of the foundational meanings of modernity: the integration of diverse parts of the world into the global capitalist system through uneven geographical development. How does one argue for the production of modernism in Southeast Asian contexts while acknowledging that modern concepts like democracy have been unfulfilled. The presentations in this session used very different methodologies in pointing out some of the risks and rewards in using a pluralist historiographical approach to writing the history of Southeast Asia’s modern architecture.
Pirasri Povatong’s paper decoupled modernization and westernization by asserting the critical role that Siamese architects and patrons played in their collaborations with a group of Turinese architects in Bangkok at the turn of the 20th century. His paper rejected the conventionally held view that modernizing Bangkok looked “European” because of their contributions and critiques the equation of the process of modernization with Westernization. Two questions that I posed in relation to his paper were: How did this relationship shape the emergence of the architectural profession and the very definition of architecture in a Thai context during this period? How do the official building projects that Pirasri examined relate to what is happening in the city of Bangkok at large: a polyglot, cosmopolitan treaty port that is grappling with its own identity as a national capital?
Mark Hinchman’s paper attempted to recuperate the term “International Style” by reading the work of a group of architects working in post-Merdeka Malaysia against contemporary developments in Europe and the United States. Why is style still an appropriate lens to look at what is happening in Malaya during this period? How are art historical categories like “style” related to economic and social changes in Southeast Asia? How might a reading of Malayan architecture change our understanding of the import of the International Style and the 1932 exhibition to which it was attached?
Chomchon Fusinpaiboon’s paper surveyed the history of the modern in Thai architecture to excavate a new approach to modern architecture that critically examines the development of a modern sensibility in Thailand that is not an adaptation of Western principles. He suggested comparing post-World War II Thai architecture to that of its neighbors, writing local histories, and looking at border areas as ways of escaping this trap. How does one incorporate the larger global influences of the period in a way that speaks to the complex circulation of ideas, forms, materials, and labor beyond a simple import/export model? How does one frame the local in a way that doesn’t simply position it as one diverse element of a nation-state? Is there a way of deconstructing capital cities as showcases for nationalism and pointing to the complex interactions of migrant, corvée, refugee, and slave communities that built cities like Bangkok? By attending to these neglected players in the history of the modern, indeed whose very backs Thai modernity has been built on, a different picture might emerge.
Xiao Jing looked to Singapore as a new locus of modernity in the neoliberal era of global capitalism and Singaporean architects as a primary engine of modernism in the People’s Republic of China. What do Singaporean architects and planners bring to the image of a new China that global starchitects do not? Finally, how do you place the contributions of Singaporean architects within the discourse of China’s 山寨的建築/copycat architecture or 奇奇怪怪的建築/weird architecture? I would like to push Professor Xiao to step back from the minutiae of the paper and more broadly historicize this event. I am not quite sure why Professor Xiao claims that “Singapore’s architectural influences stood as part of China’s first wave of introduction of foreign designs,” since the Chinese architectural profession was open to “foreign” influences from its inception. I would like to ask Professor Xiao to consider the ways that Chinese nationalism has historically depended on its peripheries and overseas communities in the Nanyang for a model of what modernity looked like. The Nanyang has been a sort of utopia, not only as a profitable destination for generations of traders and laborers from the Chinese mainland, but also as the place where ideas about modernity and nationalism could be synthesized and rehearsed.
These papers pointed to the importance of these peripheral locations for writing a history of the modern. The periphery is the vantage point from which historians might understand the ways that the Enlightenment was underwritten by the Atlantic slave trade, or the ways that the project of modernity was made possible by imperialism and the uneven development of the globe. It would be a shame to lose the clarity of that position in order to simply replace one hegemony or centric model with another (replacing Eurocentrism with Thai- or Sino-centrism, for example). How might a critical history of the region excavate the ways that the universal and utopian project of modernity has been both enabled and obstructed by uneven geographical development. What is needed are not multiple modernities motivated by nationalist politics, but alternatives to the modernity that global capitalism has created, that re-imagine the global future and global pasts as resources not for parochial identities but in the cause of a humanity become self-conscious of itself despite, or because of, all its differences.