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Proceedings of the panel “Still on the Margin: Reflections on the Perspective of the Canon in Architectural History” (1st Conference of the European Architectural History Network, Guimaraes, Portugal, 17-20 June 2010)
Reasons for the persistence of the canon

Ambiguities in Terminology and Taxonomy as Factors in the Marginalization of Architectural Styles

The Case of Orientalism
De l’ambiguïté des terminologies et taxinomies comme facteur de marginalisation des styles architecturaux : le cas de l’orientalisme
Davy Depelchin

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1Although the architectural canon has a reputation as a conservative monolithic corpus, its alleged hostility to novel approaches and readings cannot be regarded as the only factor responsible for the difficulties concerning its extension. Due to inherent complexities, myriad interpretations, and a lack of uniformity in the different research areas, certain architectural styles are in part responsible themselves for their exclusion. Taking the architectural practice of orientalism as an example, one is amazed at the multiplicity of delineations and uses of terminology relating to the matter.

2Defining orientalism has proved to be a highly subjective endeavor. First, the mechanisms operating behind the movement must somehow be determined. Next, the group of so-called “Oriental cultures” reflected in this quintessentially Western art must somehow be delineated. Are we looking for strictly stylistic evidence proving the exotic influence? Or do we rather aim for a more contextualized approach where motives and contemporary analysis are embedded? Although the importance and impact of these theoretical reflections and the resulting decisions should not be minimized, a total impasse on the research level is not desirable either. Compared to fine arts orientalism, where similar questions are tackled, the lack of coherency in architectural studies is striking.

3Until quite recently, labeling exotic architecture was idiomatic or even author related. “Oriental,” “orientalist,” “Moorish,” and “neo-Moorish” as well as “neo-Arabic” were accepted as legitimate terms to cover one and the same building style. Even if in the last couple of years the appellation “orientalist” has succeeded in establishing a certain uniformity in the nomenclature, there is still much confusion about the theme among architectural historians—not to mention the general public. Despite the attempts to promote “orientalism” as a preferable term, “Moorish” and its derivational compound are still used in academic teaching, architectural inventories, and canonical publications. Orientalism is frequently considered to be a submovement of eclecticism or one of the many 19th-century neo-styles. Especially in combination with the prefix “neo,” one gets the impression that the trend is simply based on regenerating architecture from the past. Somehow this is correct; however, the implicit reduction of meaning is undesirable. Despite the possible stylistic resemblances, orientalist structures in the West have nothing to do with genuine Moorish constructions in the Mediterranean area. “Moorish” is also disputable on the etymological level. The term strictly refers to the cultures of the Maghreb and the former inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula. If it is used in a more general sense, regarding all Muslim cultures, it feels somewhat archaic (not only in modern English, but in most of the European languages). Moreover, there is some question as to whether applying the word “Moorish” to two different concepts is advantageous. In our opinion, rather the opposite seems to be case.

4Of course, adopting multiple approaches to excavate a complex phenomenon is something that should be promoted. Nevertheless, in the absence of coherency in terminology, global comprehension is not facilitated. The inherent multidisciplinary character of the trend makes it essential to unify the discourse. “Orientalism” may be a flexible concept subject to the agenda of the person who uses it, but it refers in an unambiguous way to the interest that the West developed for all things oriental. Moreover, it is already used in the disciplines of fine arts, literature, music and theatre. It creates a supranational frame, which not only holds a multiplicity of art forms, but also absorbs linguistic differences and connotations. Implementing the term “orientalism” (in contrast with “Moorish” for instance) should also help to incorporate buildings and interiors that do not comply with rigid stylistics, since the term does not focus on superficial, confusing issues of style alone. Instead, it expresses something belonging to the essence of the movement. And despite the Said controversy of the last three decades, it can be judged quite neutral. (Thirty years later, Said’s general thesis, linking orientalism to political and cultural supremacy, has lost its credibility. The stigma that ensued on the label “orientalism” is disappearing.)

5Even with a consistent and well-founded vocabulary, it will not be easy to introduce orientalism into architectural historiography. The canon is structured mainly by innovations (in style, materials, techniques, etc.) and mutual opposition. As a result, the insertion of orientalism, interwoven with European history for ages and lacking clear starting and ending dates, will engender difficulties. It can hardly be seen as a reactionary movement with well-defined objectives, and rather than being driven by technical innovation, it is a sort of exoticized traditionalism. The fact that many scholars still have the impression that orientalist examples are follies, rather than the representatives of a prolific style (one could argue, style group), certainly does not help give them the place they deserve in the architectural canon.

6One of the problems is the silliness with which orientalism is associated. Most people are not thinking in terms of architecture when they look at oriental scenery in present-day theme parks. This triviality connected with exotic architecture can lead to prejudices in a historical perspective as well. In architecture, orientalism did belong to popular culture in the first place. In the 19th century, it was a preferred design for variety theatres, casinos, bandstands, and pavilions. Even though 19th-century entertainment architecture was not the only typology to which orientalism was applied, its status and central position that niche could be an excellent approach for introducing the movement in global architectural history. In its heyday, the orientalist building fulfilled the wishes of the so-called nouveaux riches. That cultural relevance is precisely what could be presented as the key that unlocks the canon, with its unwritten rules.

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Davy Depelchin, « Ambiguities in Terminology and Taxonomy as Factors in the Marginalization of Architectural Styles »ABE Journal [En ligne], 1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 02 février 2012, consulté le 20 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Davy Depelchin

PhD Candidate, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, Belgium

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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