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Connecting the Dots

Global Idea, Local Agency, and the Burden of Evidence-Based Architectural History
Vimalin Rujivacharakul

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In this essay, I purposely define both “global architectural history” and “world architectural history” in the same way as the writing of architectural history across regions and across time-periods. In terms of disciplinary historiographies, I am aware of Eurocentric imperialist connotations embedded in world architectural history, and I am also aware of the difficulty historians of global history encounter in both re-defining global history differently from world history and in relation to contemporary globalized contexts. My decision not to distinguish the differences between the two terms in this particular essay is due to the essay’s length and the need to outline what I consider a more crucial subject here: the burden of evidence-based architectural history, which thus far has not gained sufficient attention from scholars writing about global/world architectural history. As for the most recent debates about differences and similarities between “world” and “global” in various historical fields, I invite my readers to observe debates on H-World listserv during the month of March and April 2015.

  • 1 Sibel Zandi-Sayek, “The Unsung of the Canon: Does a Global Architectural History Need New Landmark (...)

1Does “global” mean “local”? This question immediately sprang to mind as I read Sibel Sandi-Zayek’s “The Unsung of the Canon.” 1 Inspiring arguments, her three points designed to unveil the blind spots in global architectural history take me from the macro level of global-scale history to the particularism of historical evidence. The local dots shown in regional architectural history are connected cross-continentally via closer examinations of architects and patronage. The examples she drew show that it is possible to show how Victorian England was connected with the Ottoman Empire through inter-regional contacts, connections which subsequently brought about modernism across national borders. Forget the old formats of comparative histories or textbooks that only compile information as a stack of entries. What Sandi-Zayek suggests is an actual web of connections in which local design activities both inspired and were inspired by global changes. Thus, by unpacking local histories we end up dissecting mainstream global architectural history. Brilliant!

  • 2 Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, New York, NY; Oxfo (...)
  • 3 As a work written to critique mainstream sociology, Latour’s Reassembling the Social has provocati (...)

2And yet, as excited as I was, I soon came to recognize a crucial challenge. As someone whose research spans both modern and pre-modern periods, I developed concerns about the practicality of the proposed approach, less with Sandi-Zayek’s insightful suggestions, but more precisely with Bruno Latour’s “psychology of association,” which she refers to. Central to Latour’s definition of “association” are two intertwined factors: the agency which/who carries out the acts, and the belief in both the connected-ness of the acts and in the likelihood that those acts are there to be found.2 Accordingly, although the “psychology of association” stemmed from Latour’s thesis that things of variable categories (people, environments, objects) are established and deployed to sustain a society and propel social acts, this concept also operates on the presumption that those acts are discoverable. As many critics noted, however, agencies are not always easy to find and the unknown is more common than the known in identifying human-thing associations.3

3The most recognizable merit of Latour’s argument lies in the redefinition of “society,” from a fixed form of politico-sociocultural body defined by Durkheim to a fluid network of agencies. But to what degree can we extend this fluidity to cover a global-scale history, in which we write not only across regions, but also across time-periods? Locating agents and evidence of their existence is often a critical test, not only to architectural historians of pre-modern periods but also to archaeologists, art historians, and all scholars of pre-modern material culture. We have dug into the ground, combed sites, and climbed mountains to study ruined and extant structures, and thanks to updated research technology and new evidence, a great deal of information about what happened at Persepolis, Anyang, Sanchi, the Angkor complex, Troy, Mesa Verde, Dunhuang, Edo, Mount Wutai, or Deir el Medina’s workers village has now been identified. But for each of those sites, as well as in many others, puzzles remain, particularly when it comes to the lives of those who lived there. And even when we are able to uncover traces of connections, whether diplomatic exchanges or trades between the sites we study and those in other regions, there are limits to what clay tablets or wall engravings allow us to glean from the past. Specificity about the role each agent played in relation to the macro history tends to be obscured and, sometimes, nonexistent. Making connections between particular loci and those faraway is often not possible. How can we discuss the actors or actants who performed and the things they associated with, when individual agents cannot even be verified?

  • 4 There is a significant amount of information about the archaeological data found at Erlitou as wel (...)

4Karl Marx famously stated that men make their own history. In reality, in some of the sites that we study, historians and archaeologists are not even certain about the identities of the people who once lived there. Multiple architectural sites are enveloped in this conundrum, and here I present a few of them to illustrate this troubling fact. The identity of the early Bronze Age Erlitou site near Luoyang, Henan, China, for example, has remained an unending battlefield in Chinese archaeology since its discovery in 1959. Archaeological excavations unearthed bronze objects as well as traces of palatial complexes and other ruins showing multiple constructions repeated over a span of nearly five hundred years. Erlitou has the potential to be the much-rumoured site of the elusive Xia dynasty (2700-1600 bce), but the lack of concrete evidence weakens this claim. Still, archaeologists frequently bring up its significance on the intra-regional scale because of its proximity to two other famous Bronze Age sites. Three hundred kilometers to the north of Erlitou is Anyang, whose extensive findings (bronzes, jades, ivories, and inscriptions on oracle bones) identified it as a royal capital of the late Bronze Shang dynasty (1600-1046 bce). Then about one thousand kilometers south of Erlitou is another late Bronze site, Sanxingdui, first unearthed in 1986. Unlike the Erlitou and Anyang sites, which contain traces of built environments with rammed-earth platforms and building foundations, the Sanxingdui site consists of only two sacrificial pits in which broken or disfigured bronze statues and objects had been deposited. Still, archaeologists and art historians have endeavored to draw connections; several posited that, as the Sanxingdui site postdates Erlitou, there must be some form of cultural continuity between the two sites given the similarities in the relics found in each. Others pushed the argument further by stating that the enigmatic site at Erlitou might be of the primitive Shang culture, which later prospered to a higher level in Anyang. For decades, debates have continued and evolved in different directions. And while the stake is clear that there is a need to prove the existence of China’s oldest legendary ancient dynasty (Xia dynasty), the fundamental conundrum is also obvious: neither the identity of the Erlitou site nor its intra-regional association with other sites can be firmly identified without incurring disputes.4

5If even intra-regional history is impossible to map with clarity in ancient periods, what are our chances of finding ancient cross-regional associations on a global scale? Does this mean a global architectural history could best be written when we deal with more recent time-periods, when evidence is there for us to identify the connections, and when this evidence passes a certain threshold? I present the above case not to burden readers with archaeology-related architectural history or with its extreme difficulty, but to call into question the underlying problem of evidence in writing global architectural history. It is important to recognize and to admit that the possibility of researching global history diminishes as historians move away from more recent time periods. Medieval trails tend to be more difficult to trace than the invigorated Spanish trades in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Similarly, a search for transfers of architectural forms in Renaissance Venice has to be carried out through studies of records from trade and the circulation of pattern books, whereas those of us working on late nineteenth- and twentieth-century periods can begin our work by going straight to blueprints deposited in archives in New York, Shanghai, Tokyo, and London.

6Speaking critically, however, the encumbering dependency on evidence proving cross-regional associations is an omnipresent dilemma in all historical fields. In pre-modern architectural studies, the difficulties are more pronounced because they are frequently rendered visible by the insufficiencies of materials. Methodologically, such hitches stem from the incompatibility between modern and pre-modern studies on one hand, and between what I term “evidence-based architectural history” and “interpretive history of architecture,” on the other. These should not be misinterpreted as fixed categories, for I do not argue that evidence-based architectural history lacks interpretive quality, nor would I ever dare to imply that those presenting interpretive history do so without evidential historical references. Rather, both approaches refer to each other, but their differences lie mainly in the primary research tool that dominates their respective bodies of research. As the former approach relies on social and cultural evidence to discuss building designs in order to present the big picture, the latter introduces designs (or the interpretation of them) as the means to configure the missing puzzles.

  • 5 Dell Upton, “Starting from Baalbek: Noah, Solomon, Saladin, and the Fluidity of Architectural Hist (...)
  • 6 Ibid., p. 465.

7To illustrate my point, I bring to my readers’ attention the essay by Dell Upton, “Starting from Baalbek: Noah, Solomon, Saladin, and the Fluidity of Architectural History,” which Sandi-Zayek also cites in her article. But while she presents a quoted sentence from this essay as an encouragement for architectural historians to move beyond their comfort zones, I wish to view it from another angle: as a springboard to discuss a new approach in considering connections in global architectural history. Published in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians in 2009, and subsequently cited in The New York Times, Upton’s essay is known for juxtaposing different narratives of Baalbek to present variable perceptions of an architectural site that no longer physically exists.5 English, French, and German visitors and writers, among many others, Upton explains, have developed their own readings of Baalbek and connected them to their own respective interests and interpretations. The site was thus repeatedly re-recreated, and the stories we learned turned out to be extensions of the backgrounds of those who interpreted it. Toward the end, he writes, “This tension between the particular and the general leads me to believe a large-scale architectural history—that elusive goal I mentioned at the beginning—should be grounded in the new world historians’ portrait of human history as a story of webs and flows. It would have to be more than a compendium of regional histories or a collection of self-contained stories compiled from monographs.”6

8But what exactly is a “portrait of human history”? Is it a history of humans’ interactions, or a representation of the archaeology of mankind?

9Reading Upton’s essay for the first time, one could have fallen prey to the thought that human actions constitute the most crucial evidence in the method of writing new world history. But read it twice, three times, or more, then it becomes evident that what Upton presents as portraits of human history across time periods are actually grounded in the varying representations of Baalbek, of those writers’ portrayals of Baalbek’s architecture. Thus, the noted “web and flow,” I argue, is associated not with the direct acts of human deeds, let alone architectural constructions, but with the constructs of ideas manifested through representations of interpreted stories. Accordingly, the fluidity that he highlighted essentially springs from the flow of ideas between the storytellers and their listeners, between the informants and their readers, establishing a chain of thoughts and thinking that have continued successively from eighteenth-century English writers and nineteenth-century Euro-American travelers (plus a German Kaiser) well into twentieth-century scholarship. This is Arthur Lovejoy’s Great Chain of Being disguised in perpetuated tales of bricks, stones, and Trilithons.

10Now that I interpret the proposed new mode of global architectural history as another form of intellectual history, it must appear to some of my colleagues that I have committed to an approach conventionally considered heretical: I define architecture beyond tangible evidence and I turn away from the sacredness of built environments to embrace what seems like mere profundity of discourse. Let me clarify my stance: I do not propose changing our field to English or Comparative Literature; instead, I insist on opening up a new possibility for us to see that, at the junction between forms and ideas, a revised definition of evidence in architectural history can enable historians of architecture to liberate themselves from the burdening dependency on the intertwined empirical evidence and human agency. Without eliminating the role of humans from architectural history, accepting representations of ideas as legitimate evidential material grants architectural historians the needed flexibility to avoid inferentialism (in which the perceived reality produces concepts) while simultaneously empowering us to recognize our own discipline’s condition, in which the arguments we—the architectural historians—generate often end up being taken as facts and subsequently granting a reality to the “architecture” we initially hypothesized about. Furthermore, referencing ideas as the base factor from which acts and deeds develop not only explodes our otherwise limited range of evidence in architectural history but simultaneously bridges between evidence-based history and interpretive history. In doing so, the parameters of what we define as evidence will expand from empirical substances (buildings, ruins, tangible constructions) to include representations in all forms, from tall tales to legends and oral history, for they are all associated with human ideas in variable formats. This is not a mere effort to encompass interdisciplinarity, but a methodological strategy to revise our definition of “architecture” from within.

11As I invite architectural historians to consider representations of ideas as primary evidence in connecting the dots—from human history to architectural history, and from local stories to global-scale associations—I should also note here that I am fully aware of Michel Foucault’s critique of the problematic of representation. No forms of representation can ever present a subject without deforming it, I concur. But a study of representations of ideas aims not at presenting a conventional history; instead, it is the archaeology of ideas (that is, variable concepts of architecture) manifested in the records of men’s thinking. What I propose above is thus a way for architectural historians to stop taking architecture as a represented form, and to delve into the study of architecture as a representation of the archaeology of ideas, not only from one generation to the next, but also from one place to the other.

12Certainly, this approach begs us to re-orient our thinking about agency, and to open up our pool of evidence types. This is my enterprise—my campaign to alter our strictures on “evidence” in architectural history. If subjectivity is taken, a priori, as representations of ideas, one must also consider that an idea is not a fixed form, but rather a fluid process of thinking in which each moment of a historical rupture has to be taken as an initiation of new subjectivity. Ruptures of ideas take place where historical breaks emerge, and historical breaks typically occur at the points of contacts between ideas. Here is where our work on global architectural history is a most suitable frontline for honing this new research approach.

13Thus, be it the interaction between human agents operating between empires, the re-interpretation of preexisting records of the long-gone site, or the juxtapositions of archaeologists’ different interpretations of building traces and relics found at prehistoric sites, each case yields different sets of representations of ideas: some are more coherent whereas some are self-contradictory; some can be proven with tangible evidence, and some cannot. The excitement is there. The goal is to understand the way a new idea occurred and how that occurrence informs us of a transformation or rupture in architectural history. This is the way we can connect the dots in global architectural history: through changes, through differences, through representations, and not simply through forms or through similarities. And, yes, we search not only for continuity, but also for interruptions and for points of transformation where we find the emergence of new ideas in architecture.

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1 Sibel Zandi-Sayek, “The Unsung of the Canon: Does a Global Architectural History Need New Landmarks?,” ABE Journal, Łukasz Stanek (ed.), themed issue of Socialist Networks, no. 6, 2014, URL : Accessed 14 August 2015.

2 Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, New York, NY; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007 (Clarendon lectures in management studies).

3 As a work written to critique mainstream sociology, Latour’s Reassembling the Social has provocative points concerning how agency works. The most notable one is when Latour associates agency with both human agents and things (“actants,” or non-social things). For additional arguments, see Stephen Collier, “Review: Reassembling the Social by Bruno Latour,” Contemporary Sociology, vol. 38, no. 1, January 2009, p. 81–83; Wyatt James Galusky, “Review of Reassembling the Social by Bruno Latour and What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology, Agency, and Design by P. Verbeek, R.P. Crease,” Science, Technology & Human Values, vol. 33, no. 1. January 2008, p. 142–150. My concern about evidence in relation to Latour’s proposal is that, despite the emphasis on “non-social things” in what we can call object-oriented sociology, the inseparable connection between human agents and material things remains crucial in the production of knowledge.

4 There is a significant amount of information about the archaeological data found at Erlitou as well as concerning its period. The prevalent view among earlier generations of Chinese archaeologists determined the Erlitou site as a site of the Xia dynasty. For a source in English, see Kwang-chih Chang, Pingfang Xu, Liancheng Lu and Sarah Allen, The Formation of Chinese Civilization: An Archaeological Perspective, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005 (Culture and civilization of China), p. 5, 9, and 145–149. For English sources addressing the ambiguity of the Xia Dynasty’s connections with the Erlitou site, see for example, Robert L. Throp, “Erlitou and the Search for the Xia,” Early China, vol. 16, 1991, p. 1–38, Xiaoneng Yang, The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999, p. 139–141, and Xiaoneng Yang, “Erlitou Site at Yanshi,” Entry 43, Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century: Perspectives on China’s Past, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004. For English sources addressing more polemical views about the Xia-Shang cultural connections see Robert Throp, China in the Early Bronze Age: Shang Civilization, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005 (Encounters with Asia); Sarah Ellan, “Erlitou and the Formation of Chinese Civilization: Toward a New Paradigm,” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 66, no.2, May, 2007, p. 461–496; Li Liu and Hong Xu, “Rethinking Erlitou: Legend, History, and Chinese Archaeology,” Antiquity, vol. 81, 2007, p. 886-901; and Li Liu, “State Emergence in Early China,” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 28, 2009, p. 217–232.

5 Dell Upton, “Starting from Baalbek: Noah, Solomon, Saladin, and the Fluidity of Architectural History,” Journal of the Society of Architectural History, vol. 68, no. 4. December 2009, p. 458–465.

6 Ibid., p. 465.

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Vimalin Rujivacharakul, « Connecting the Dots », ABE Journal [En ligne], 7 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 septembre 2015, consulté le 30 septembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Vimalin Rujivacharakul

Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies, University of Delaware

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