Symposium 2017

2nd SEAARC (Southeast Asia Architecture Research Collaborative) Symposium

Modernity’s ‘Other’ – Disclosing Southeast Asia’s built environment across the colonial and postcolonial worlds  

Dates: 5-7 January 2017

Venue: Department of Architecture, SDE, National University of Singapore

Convenors: Dr. Lee Kah-Wee, Dr. Imran Tajudeen, Dr. Chang Jiat-Hwee

Abstract Submission Deadline: 5 July 2016


Confirmed Keynote Speakers:
Abidin Kusno, York University
Carl Trocki, Fellow, Australian Academy of the Humanities


Across various disciplines, attention on the category of the “Other” has shone light on women, minorities, the poor, profane, criminal and mundane. But what and where is the category of “Others” in architectural studies? Is it to be attached to the spaces and buildings associated with these marginalized social categories? Or are there intrinsically architectural “Others” – subjects within the discipline that undergird its internal discourse through contrast and opposition – that should be opened up to interdisciplinary scrutiny? Finally, what can Southeast Asia offer to the larger intellectual debates in which the category of the “Other” has played a critical role in the last few decades?

This series of questions forms the intellectual agenda of the Southeast Asia Architecture Research Collaborative (SEAARC) Symposium 2017. Twenty speakers will engage with these questions across four themes:

Challenges of the Archive

In his latest edited volume, historian Gyanendra Pandey (2013) challenges us to think of two types of ‘Others’ – those excluded from the archive (the mad), and those exiled within it (the trifling). In architectural studies, both historical and contemporary, what constitutes our “archive” and how might one locate its silences? This fundamental question pertains to scholars who rely on, as their source of primary evidence, institutionalized archives, physical buildings, archaeological ruins, oral histories, ephemera and cultural media. The fact that architecture exists in many different forms and engages us in multiple ways – as environment, image, artefact and discourse – adds layers of complexity to this challenge.

We should also ask if our conventional methodologies serve us well in this endeavor. Can one employ the art-historical method of formal analysis on a monument the same way one might an insignificant hut? How about space syntax for an architectural idea that has no ichnographic representation? Or semiotic analysis on material fragments? This panel invites papers that reflect on the challenges of tracing the internal and external ‘Others’ of the archive and the promises of such projects.

Teleology fractured and abandoned

Of all the master concepts that run across the humanities and social sciences, none is perhaps as vexing and contested as “modernity”. Rather than trying to pin down foundational definitions of what constitutes “modernity” in order to qualify Late or Post or Asian versions, this panel invites scholars who grapple with the situatedness of modernity, its embedded teleology and the forms of architectural imagination and production. While many scholars have shown how the teleology of progress is exhibited in or constitutive of the built environment, we are interested here in what happens when this teleology is fractured or abandoned, and how one might trace this through the built environment. This counter-pastoral dimension of modernity poses theoretical and empirical challenges and SE Asia, with its complex geopolitics and diversity of cultures and histories, provides a rich site to ponder on this question. Possible topics include, at the grand scale, architectural and urban projects associated with the failure of political unification and economic development, the ruins of war, monuments toppled and defaced, to something as mundane as the everyday environments of neglect, despair and vice.

Architecture and Violence

From the occupation of Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok to the street violence of post-1998 Indonesia, from the military geometries of cannon fire in British Malaya to the spatial tactics of urban guerillas in Cambodia, historical and recent events point to the continuing importance of architecture and the built environment as both theaters and catalysts of violence. A steady stream of scholarship in recent years continues to push this direction of investigation taking events like the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Arab Spring to argue that the built environment both shapes violence and conditions the possibilities of recovery and resistance (AlSayyad, 1992; Kusno, 2003; Smith, 2006, to name a few). Another area of inquiry asks how architecture serves as witness and evidence in the courts of law, thus transforming abstract concepts of legality and illegality into concrete durable form (Herscher and Wiezman, 2011). We seek papers that continue this rich area of research in the context of SE Asia, explicating both the different modes of violence – physical, symbolic, epistemic and embodied – in relation to the built environment as well as broader theoretical questions about space and power.

Types, minor types and non-types

In architectural history and studies, “type” remains an important analytic and classificatory device with which to cut deeply into the sociocultural, spatial, economic and political forces of a given moment in time (Rossi 1966; Pevsner 1976; Markus 1993 for example). Forty’s short critical review of the use of the concept of “type” in architectural discourse argues that the concept of type has been used for different purposes by different scholars and that “its appeal has in practice been less from an inherent strength of content of its own than from its value as a means of resistance to a variety of other ideas” (2000: 311). Thus, types exist in and produce certain hierarchies and oppositions, and certain types in turn become privileged as analogues of modernity – the shopping mall, the house, the skyscraper, the museum, the cinema and the library are amongst those that have received the most attention. This panel critically reflects on the category of “type” in architectural history and studies. At the epistemological level, it asks: how is the concept of ‘type’ used and how do certain types become more valid or significant than others in writing about architecture and cities? What assumptions do we bring into historiography through the category of “type”? It also seeks papers that empirically expand the field of privileged types of SE Asia by studying architectures that deviate from or are occluded by the typological group they are placed in (minor types) or architectures that defy any kind of typological classification (non-types).