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John M. MacKenzie, The British Empire Through its Buildings: Structure, Function and Meaning

G. A. Bremner
Référence(s) :

John M. MacKenzie, The British Empire Through its Buildings: Structure, Function and Meaning, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020

Entrées d’index

Indice de palabras clave:

Imperio Británico, arquitectura colonial

Index chronologique :

XXe siècle
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1For some years now the rise of “new” imperial history has enriched substantially our understanding of the British Empire. The one area that has lagged in this endeavour somewhat is the history of the built environment. Although colonial architecture and urbanism have fared better, the buildings of the metropolis (i.e., Britain) have been comparatively neglected. More and more work is being done in this area, but there is still a long way to go. Any new work in this field is therefore welcome. The latest addition is John MacKenzie’s The British Empire Through its Buildings: Structure, Function and Meaning. Professor MacKenzie is better known as a historian of British imperialism, and especially for his work on the impact of empire on public consciousness at “home”, in Britain. Perhaps his most famous publication in this regard is Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960 (1985). He is also general editor of the long-running and influential book series “Studies in Imperialism”, produced by Manchester University Press. With this in mind, the book under examination here is largely a synthesis of existing work leavened with the author’s own insights on what he considers important to a discussion on the relationship between empire and the built environment. It is important to highlight to potential readers, however, that this should not be confused with a new or original history of British colonial architecture. Indeed, and to be fair to Professor MacKenzie, nothing more is claimed for it than an overview; and, perhaps wary of “expert” censure, he has shied away from detailed analysis of buildings. Thus, as he himself stresses, the book should not be understood as an “architectural history” in the conventional sense.

  • 1 Thomas R. Metcalf, An Imperial Vision: Indian Architecture and Britain’s Raj, London: Faber & Fabe (...)

2Be this as it may, the book’s principal subject remains buildings. If this appears somewhat baffling, that’s because it is. The author’s timidity towards robust analysis of buildings results in a study that lies rather uncomfortably between architectural history and what might be called, for lack of a better term, mainstream history, thus satisfying the demands of neither. In this respect, the book falls short of a proper interdisciplinary form of scholarship, which it might well have aspired to, if not achieved. After all, there is no reason why “historians” cannot tackle detailed analysis of the built environment, as the work of Thomas Metcalf so ably demonstrates.1 This raises some fundamental questions about who the beneficiaries and intended audience of Professor MacKenzie’s book are supposed to be. Its prime objective, according to the author, “is to examine the imperial built environment and analyse the importance of its function and meaning to the history of the British Empire”. As for the audience, it is “intended to be a readable introduction for the student and general reader, designed to confirm that the transformation of the environment into its built formations can be interpreted as a central aspect of imperial cultural relationships” (p. 6). This is all good and well, but who will actually use it, and why? Will students of architecture and art/architectural history use it? Perhaps. Will students of modern history use it, and, if so, what will they gain from it that more in-depth reading on the history of the built environment will not provide, especially at university level? This leaves the “general” reader, to whom it will undoubtedly provide a useful primer on the subject.

  • 2 For instance, see my comments in “Introduction: Architecture, Urbanism, and British Imperial Studi (...)

3Despite this, I believe The British Empire Through its Buildings has a contribution to make. What the author’s statements above essentially amount to is the suggestion that the history proper of the British Empire cannot be fully understood without looking at its spatial and formal manifestations in the shape of buildings. In this respect the book might be described as an attempt at a material history of British imperialism. This is a worthy approach, and one that I wholeheartedly endorse. Moreover, it is an important statement coming from a known and distinguished historian of empire, for one of my own bugbears over the years has been that such historians (apart from a few rare and well-known exceptions, including MacKenzie himself) have largely ignored the built environment as key evidence in their assessments of the phenomenon of British imperialism.2 Regardless of what specialists may think of it, if this book can make a new generation of students of empire attentive to the centrality of the built environment in understanding the function of imperialism, then it will have achieved something laudable. Its lucid and entertaining prose, along with the strategic overview approach, will certainly facilitate this ambition.

4This brings me to the book’s content. Its structure largely follows a typological framework, divided loosely by chapter, dealing with such categories as “militarisation, mobility and residencies of power”, “domestic residences and city improvement”, “buildings of ritual” (i.e., churches and masonic halls), and larger constructs, including “cities, towns, civic buildings and hill stations”. It has to be said that specialists of the British colonial built environment will not learn much from the book that they did not already know in one form or another. Even for those architectural specialists who are not particularly familiar with certain areas of Britain’s former empire, the analysis of actual buildings is so superficial that they will come away hardly any the wiser from a building history perspective. Nevertheless, there is a lot of information packed into this book, and it is very informative in its way. Nothing less would be expected for a master of imperial history such as Mackenzie. Indeed, one can readily see how, for the uninitiated at least, the journalistic approach taken by MacKenzie will bring a whole and most conspicuous aspect of Britain’s imperial enterprise to life (formerly hidden in plain sight), connecting it usefully to the broader currents of imperial history.

5The major drawback of this approach, however, even for general readers, or imperial specialists wishing to “bone up” on matters architectural, is that the overview is too thin. This is because, as the book’s title suggests, it attempts to cover the entire British empire in what is probably no more than about 80,000 words. As mentioned, the text is well written and engaging, but, owing to the sheer extent of its subject, aiming to cover most building types, across virtually all geographical regions, it is too slight, and thereby does not do justice to its principal subject: buildings. We move between examples, and from region to region, at breakneck speed, whizzing past structures, and moving though entire cities, without ever really stopping to consider them as objects. It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that many of the 60 black and white pictures that illustrate the book are in fact reproductions of historic postcards, rather giving the impression of a touristic passage through Britain’s imperial past.

6Because of this, we don’t really hear much about what actually went on inside these buildings, how they were made-up spatially and what this tells us about the ”spatial practices” of empire. Surely this is important to how architecture inflects empire. Nor do we get any detail on how they were put together, and what this reveals about class, labour, and race relations within the empire, let alone technology transfer in action. In other words, despite arguing that buildings provide an important source of evidence for understanding the function of empire, they are not used here in a primary sense as a fabricated record of that function (structurally or spatially). Indeed, there is not a single building plan illustrated in the entire book. To have ventured somewhat down this route would not have turned the study into a dry or technical form of ”architectural history”, and would have provided some important insights, even to the casual reader, of what a building (as an assemblage) actually meant as a form of imperial construct. The fact that this opportunity was not taken would appear to be one of practicality, that the author simply did not have space in which to elaborate on such matters.

  • 3 For this in relation to Spanish colonial churches, see Valerie Fraser, The Architecture of Conques (...)

7But there are some innovative elements to Professor MacKenzie’s narrative. Perhaps the most thought-provoking is the idea of destruction as opposed to construction (Chapter 1). For architectural historians, it is all too easy to forget or overlook the processes of destruction often involved in the production of either new buildings or the “restoration” of existing ones. This is a particularly poignant observation with regard to empire, where deliberate and oftentimes violent erasure of the visible signs of past and present indigenous cultures was deemed a necessary part of stamping political authority on the landscape. Such processes have been much discussed in relation to the erection of Spanish colonial churches in the Americas, where they were deliberately built over exiting indigenous sacred sites, but little has been said about such methods in relation to the British Empire.3 In this respect, MacKenzie has highlighted an important dimension in the practice of British imperial rule in certain parts of the empire. The other interesting aspect here is the author’s commentary throughout the book on changing attitudes towards colonial heritage in post-colonial societies, and how the meanings of such heritage have been reclaimed and adapted in various ways for contemporary needs, highlighting, if it needed to be, that buildings rarely have fixed, immutable purposes or meaning.

  • 4 This is a debate concerning the usefulness, or not, of thinking about Britain as an imperial metro (...)

8However, for me, the biggest disappointment of the book is its near total neglect of the metropolis. I found this most perplexing coming from an historian who has staked his academic reputation on the centrality of empire to metropolitan consciousness and identity formation; indeed, someone who has been in a famous and long-running intellectual skirmish with Bernard Porter over such matters.4 Given this, more baffling still is the lack of even so much as a fleeting explanation for why coverage of the metropolis should be omitted. If there is one thing that New British and New Imperial histories have taught us over the past two decades, even going all the way back to the observations of J. G. A. Pocock in the 1970s, is that neither “British” nor British “imperial” history can be adequately understood in isolation; that, in fact, they are indelibly entwined. In such a book, written today, one would reasonably expect significant content on the British Isles, reinforcing the notion that we are not talking either about Britain, or the empire, but a wider British world. This is important, because this is largely how Britons understood their empire, and how they were wont to reflect it to themselves in strategic instances at “home”. Even for conquered indigenes, it may be surmised that they viewed their invaders as hailing from an alien, “imperial” centre. Unfortunately, this part of the picture of the imperial built environment is entirely missing from this account. Again, given that MacKenzie understands this, I suspect that it was an editorial decision, with there being simply no room to include such extended analysis. This is a shame, because imperialism was never simply something “out there”, beyond Britain.

9In many ways this is a good and informative book, and certainly worth the read for those interested in trying to make sense of how empire and the built environment intersected in practice, especially for those new to the subject. I can see its purpose in this regard. But it is one hampered, on the one hand, by over ambition in terms of coverage and, on the other, a confounding neglect of the metropolis. These are considerable limitations, in my view, but any book, especially one by an eminent historian of British imperialism, that highlights the importance of the built environment in understanding the motivations and practices of empire is worthy of notice.

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1 Thomas R. Metcalf, An Imperial Vision: Indian Architecture and Britain’s Raj, London: Faber & Faber, 1989; idem, Imperial Connections: India in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860-1920, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007 (The California World History Library, 4).

2 For instance, see my comments in “Introduction: Architecture, Urbanism, and British Imperial Studies,” in G. A. Bremner (ed.), Architecture and Urbanism in the British Empire, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016 (The Oxford History of British Empire. Companion Series), p. 1-18.

3 For this in relation to Spanish colonial churches, see Valerie Fraser, The Architecture of Conquest: Building in the Viceroyalty of Peru, 1535-1635, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990 (Cambridge Iberian and Latin American Studies); John McAndrew, The Open-Air Churches of Sixteenth-Century Mexico: Atrios, Posas, Open Chapels, and Other Studies, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965, p. 179-86.

4 This is a debate concerning the usefulness, or not, of thinking about Britain as an imperial metropolis, and how far “empire” affected public consciousness in Britain. For an example of this debate, see Bernard Porter, “‘Empire, What Empire?” Or, Why 80% of Early- and Mid-Victorians Were Deliberately Kept in Ignorance of It,” Victorian Studies, vol. 46, no. 2, 2004, p. 256-263; idem, The Absent-Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society, and Culture in Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; and John MacKenzie, “‘Comfort’ and ‘Conviction’: A Response to Bernard Porter,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, vol. 36, no. 4, 2008, p. 659-668.

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G. A. Bremner, « John M. MacKenzie, The British Empire Through its Buildings: Structure, Function and Meaning »ABE Journal [En ligne], 20 | 2022, mis en ligne le 31 octobre 2022, consulté le 23 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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G. A. Bremner

Professor of Architectural History, Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, The University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom Orcid ID: 0000-0001-5639-8431

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