Venue: Department of Architecture, SDE, National University of Singapore (map)
Convenors: Dr. Chang Jiat Hwee, Dr. Imran bin Tajudeen and Dr. Lee Kah Wee
- Prof. Hilde Heynen, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven
- Prof. William Logan, Deakin University
- Prof. Mark Crinson, The University of Manchester
What is Southeast Asia architecture? Does the construction of Southeast Asia architecture depend on the validity of Southeast Asia as a geographic unit of analysis? In Southeast Asia studies, the cogency and usefulness of Southeast Asia as a geographic unit of analysis has been much discussed and debated. Scholars have wondered if a diverse region divided by different cultures, languages, ethnicities and religions has sufficient commonality to be productively considered as a single region. With the end of the Cold War and the crisis of Area Studies, the relevance and validity of Southeast Asia as a geographic unit has been subjected to further interrogation in the past two decades or so.
While there are scholars who question the relevance of a geographic unit of analysis that was only invented recently and by external observers for a post-Cold-War era, there are others who are keeping faith with Southeast Asia as a unit of analysis. Some argue that, as a geographic unit, Southeast Asia serves as a useful conceptual tool for framing meaningful analysis. Others contend that the polyvalency and fluidity of Southeast Asia as a geographic unit can be an analytical strength, allowing them to explore networks, flows and connections – the new emphases of globalisation studies. We share the optimism of these scholars who have kept faith with Southeast Asia. We further believe that the scholarship on Southeast Asia’s architecture need not just draw on but can also contribute to the understanding of Southeast Asia as a geo-historical unit. Architecture is after all a spatial art and it should productively shape our conception of Southeast Asia as a region.
How have or can scholars of architecture and urbanism in Southeast Asia contribute to this broader discourse of space and history in this region? This symposium invites scholars to submit papers that explore the multifarious relationships between architecture in Southeast Asia and issues surrounding its use as a geographic unit of analysis. We are especially interested in papers that address the following themes –
A. Surveying Architectural Histories in Southeast Asia
The scholars working in and on Southeast Asia are divided by the different languages and academic cultures of the region. The diverse academic cultures and, in the words of Thongchai Winichakul, “political economy of scholarship” mean that much of the scholarship on Southeast Asia architecture is written in vernacular languages and inaccessible to scholars working in other languages. While English is arguably the main lingua franca of contemporary academic scholarship, the mainstream English language architectural history is largely silent on Southeast Asia’s architecture. This symposium seeks to address and, hopefully, rectify the lack of communication between the scholarships in different languages and the silence on architecture in Southeast Asia in English language scholarship.
We see this symposium as an opportune moment for a stocktaking of the research in architecture and urbanism in Southeast Asia. We invite scholars working on the different aspects of Southeast Asia’s architecture to submit papers in English that explore, survey and review the state of research in their respective fields or sub-fields of Southeast Asia architecture. Through this gathering of scholars from otherwise linguistically disconnected research circles, we hope to promote dialogues and exchanges on some of the common historiographical, theoretical and methodological issues in researching Southeast Asian architecture. We also hope the presence of scholars working on diverse locations and different time periods will stimulate comparative and connective discussion, linking the historiographical and methodological issues of one field or sub-field to the broader – extra-local, transnational and interdisciplinary – issues.
B. The Epistemology of Architectural Classifications
In the writing of architectural histories, particularly the general survey genre, scholars typically employ a classification rubric that assumes certain epistemological bases and methods of analysis. These fall into two types. The first type of classification originates in Western scholarship and architectural historiography and is encapsulated by a triad of categories at the very heart of how “architecture” is defined as a discipline: “modern”, the pre-modern “classical” whether of Europe or of other “Great Traditions” and various forms of “revivalist” styles, and finally the “vernacular”. The latter two categories in Southeast Asia translate into the “(European) colonial” and “(native) traditional”. A second type of architectural classification employs cultural geographic categories that are extraneous to architecture but are employed to name specific building traditions, including but not restricted to such generic religious and ethnic labels as “Hindu”, Buddhist”, Islamic”, “Chinese”, “Thai” and other cultural labels. In most cases, there is an assumption of timelessness to these traditions.
These classifications have their limitations, whereby certain kinds of artefacts that do not fit neatly are omitted, or connections between artefacts that straddle these artificial classificatory boundaries and are ill-defined by their limiting assumptions on forms, agency and processes are glossed over, simply ignored, or are distorted in the analysis to make them fit the existing assumptions. These classifications therefore inflict interpretive violence upon the artefacts that are subjected to their rubric. In many cases they are inextricably bound to legacies of European colonial scholarship or ethno-nationalisms and inherit approaches and biases in the study of architecture of (post-)colonial territories, especially if they are reliant on colonial records and scholarly precedence. We seek papers that trace the origins of the classificatory frameworks mentioned above and provide a critique through a survey of architecture that underscore their inadequacy. Papers should also consider how examples from Southeast Asia contribute to larger discussions about more recent scholarship that have revised the assumptions and challenged the limits of these classifications.
C. On Architectural Networks and Circulation – within and beyond nation and region
Architectural histories in Southeast Asia have tended to focus on architecture within the modern nation-state, as they have mostly been written after the independence of these political entities. . A corollary to the attention to connections across cultural and geographic categories emphasised in Theme B, is the need to acknowledge the ambiguity and fluidity of the territorial boundaries that demarcate the local from the foreign, the internal from the external prior to the emergence of nationalism, the formation of modern nation-states and the attendant construction of their “geo-bodies”. While national histories of architecture might acknowledge and address “foreign”, i.e. extra-national, influences that range from the colonial metropole to the post-colonial global “West”, their focus is primarily on the local and internal conditions of these nations. Nation-states are of course fairly recent construction and have been anachronistically applied to periods before the 20th century.
Furthermore, Southeast Asia is historically situated at crossroad of major maritime networks and the different parts of coastal Southeast Asia have been connected to each other and other regions via these extensive maritime linkages for centuries if not millenia. Connections beyond Southeast Asia – whether across maritime Asia from the Indian Ocean region to the South China Sea littoral, or via overland routes – are thus of relevance to architectural histories of Southeast Asia. How have these historical “transnational” and transregional connections and exchanges shaped the production of the built environment in Southeast Asia and between Southeast Asia and neighbouring regions of Asia? Would these help to expand the architectural historical accounts that are based on modern nation-states? Given that these exchanges were frequently unequal and uneven, how should we understand and theorise the nature of these exchanges? Are the concepts that have been developed by various scholars of transnationalism and postcolonialism to describe these exchanges – such as transfer, translation, transculturation and hybridization – adequate? We invite scholars to explore the above questions and we especially welcome papers that conceptualise these multivalent connections beyond the bipolarity of centre and periphery, east and west, and local and global.
D. Space, Society and Power
It is well-established that architecture and the built environment are not just isolated material artifacts and autonomous aesthetic objects; they are shaped by and they also shape the socio-cultural and political economic conditions of their production, consumption and circulation. In the recent scholarship of architectural history, power has emerged as a key analytical theme in the discussion of architecture’s entanglements with society, culture, politics and economy. However, some of this scholarship is rooted in traditional art historical approaches and relies mainly on formal analysis — the effect of power is at times too easily correlated with formal qualities. The consequent focus on buildings as “visible politics” or on the “aestheticization of politics” might not be adequate in understanding the nuances of space and power-relations.
What are the conceptual frameworks that have been deployed for the exploration of architecture and power in Southeast Asia? To what extent is the above criticism applicable to the scholarship on Southeast Asia architecture history? What can we learn from the seminal texts in Southeast Asia studies by scholars such as Clifford Geertz, James Scott and Benedict Anderson that have shed important insights on power in traditional societies? What other theories could be productively used to shed new insights on the analytical theme of power? Would the Foucauldian conception of disciplinary and biopolitical power in relation to modern governmental rationality be usefully deployed in the understanding of architecture and power in Southeast Asia? What about theories from the studies of postcolonialism, nationalism and globalisation? We invite scholars to submit papers that discuss aspects of the above questions and we especially welcome papers that employ innovative approaches to explore the multifarious connections between power and the built environment.