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Dossier : Paradoxical Southeast Asia

Editorial: Paradoxical Southeast Asia

Caroline Herbelin
Traduction(s) :
Éditorial: au-delà des paradoxes de l'Asie du Sud-Est [fr]

Texte intégral

I thank Hazel Hahn and Vimalin Rujivacharakul who suggested the theme of this special issue and who initiated these conversations on the local and the global in colonial and postcolonial Southeast Asia.

  • 1 The term Southeast Asia appeared before World War II but it remained very imprecise and little use (...)
  • 2 Johannes Widodo, “Morphogenesis and Hybridity of Southeast Asian Coastal Cities,” in Rahil Ismail, (...)

1Southeast Asia is a space characterized by its extreme diversity. This region for a long time ill-defined and whose name itself was not popularize until World War II, has been distinguished not by its cultural unity like its large neighbors of the Chinese and Indian world, but by its position at the crossroads of the main commercial routes since at least the beginning of the first millennium of the common era.1 This corner of Asia is culturally perceived as a melting pot, a space open to intense hybridization but that has nevertheless known how to keep across time its intrinsic characteristics, a paradox summed up by Johannes Widodo as follows: “For more than two millenniums of urban history, cities in this region have been demonstrating their ability to preserve primary elements and basic morphological patterns. Never ending processes of layering, transformations, hybridization, is probably the best way to describe its dynamic and sustainable characters.”2 Architectural history in Southeast Asia has thus been described as a paradoxical and constant oscillatory movement between the local and the global.

  • 3 Very schematically, those cultures were: Chinese, Arab, Persian, Indian for the older exchanges an (...)
  • 4 Kelly Shannon, “Beyond Tropical Regionalism : The Architecture of Southeast Asia,” in Elie G. Hadd (...)
  • 5 Rem Khoolaas and Bruce Mau, “Singapore Songlines: Thirty Years of Tabula Rasa: Reconstruction,” in(...)
  • 6 Philippe Goad, “New Directions in Tropical Asian Architecture,” in Philip Goad, Patrick Bingham-Ha (...)

2The morphology of the built environment in Southeast Asia is often presented as the result of successive influences exercised by the cultures that have entered into contact with this region.3 “Layered” is the word that comes up most often to qualify the architecture of Southeast Asian cities. If this term is useful for thinking about the diversity of the built environment and gives a historic depth to the landscapes of the large cities of this region, it nevertheless maintains an epistemological ambiguity. It implies a linear and teleological progression towards a hybridization that intensifies as the integration of this space increases with globalization. This term also pairs with a vertical vision of these hybridizations: a “local” substrate modified by waves of exogenous and cumulative influences that risks in the end to be buried or lost by the most contemporary developments of the landscapes of the large Southeast Asian cities. This ambiguity leaves, willfully or not, a space for partial, even superficial, interpretations, particularly widespread in popular understanding. These interpretations present the development of Southeast Asian metropoles as an ineluctable transformation into “generic” towns that, in order to join the club of large global cities are hiring foreign architectural firms to compete with the international “corporate architecture,” in losing thus all authenticity.4 From this perspective, an exemplar is the well-known essay by architect Rem Khoolaas that presents the engagement of Singapore in the global landscape as condemned to be perpetually modern after having erased its past.5 In other words, from their openness to foreign influences, in the large cities of Southeast Asia, the “global” finishes by incorporating the local. From this viewpoint, even the attempts to develop the local are suspected of positioning themselves in relation to a world market dominated by Western norms. Thus, for example, Philip Goad, lamented that the diversity of tropical regionalism in these territories were too often reduced to an architecture of touristic resorts destined for foreign tourists and expatriates.6

3The texts assembled here propose a different approach by deconstructing the apparent tension between the local and the global that is generally associated with architectural history of Southeast Asia. These four articles thwart the methodological imprecision that surrounds the study of hybridization (that one often notes the formal remains without really analyzing the process in depth) by precisely concentrating on the context of production. Rather than thinking in terms of influences (which connotes a unilateral movement), the authors are interested in interactions and in contact situations that generated these syncretic forms. This meticulous attention to the terrain that produced these architectures displaces the analytical focus, not with a myopic look that, in a vain attempt, searches to find in the hybrid the roots of the “local,” but instead with the intention of articulating all the dimensions of exchange (political, cultural, economic, social, aesthetic, and technical) that are at play in these hybrid architectures. In following precisely the threads that constitute these hybridizations, these nuanced analyses reveal multiscalar and nested circulations. In effect, the dynamics of contact at work in the buildings studied are inscribed in varied spaces that cannot be reduced to just two levels, the local and the global. Their circles of references vary, and in this way may even sometimes differ within one building according to the elements considered without being contradictory. Moreover, these dynamics have their own temporalities and cannot be fit within usual chronological breaks (notably between the colonial and the postcolonial). This approach has the advantage of not presupposing Western-centric causality, which too systematically invites teleological interpretations of the history of architectural hybridizations in the terrain that, as in Southeast Asia, has known colonial domination in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

  • 7 Anthony King, The Bungalow: The Production of a Global Culture, New York, NY: Oxford University Pr (...)

4In the first article of this thematic section, Imran bin Tajudeen focuses on colonial-vernacular houses in the nineteenth century in British Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore) and in Java (Indonesia), at that time under Dutch domination. The studies consecrated to this region are generally dedicated to either vernacular architecture or colonial architecture, but rarely cross the two domains, and in this last category, the architecture of the English colony and that of the Dutch colony are studied separately. By moving beyond the habitual divisions of historiography and in tracing the typological evolution of these houses and the history of their nomenclature, the author unveils a complex regional network of exchanges and shows that these houses cannot be reduced to simple mimicry of European architecture. This article can be read as adopting an approach that mirrors that of Anthony King in his work on bungalows that analyzes the appropriation of vernacular forms by the English.7 Here, the author is interested in the reception of colonial forms at the local level and shows that the vernacular interacted very early with the colonial. This permits him moreover to establish that some of the forms usually attributed to British or Dutch influences are actually vernacular.

5It is also thanks to a thorough study on forms that Hazel Hahn revisits the history of modernist architecture in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam. In her article, she analyzes a particular phenomenon: the exceptional concentration of buildings with curved corners in the city. She considers the history of these buildings over a long period, from the nineteenth century to today, in studying the development of this form across the historic ruptures that commonly segment the analysis of the architecture of the city. Thus, for example, she highlights the importance of Vietnamese architects in the construction of these structures, both during the colonial and postcolonial periods. The author demonstrates thus how these buildings with curved corners cannot be thought of as simple copies of their Parisian Art Deco equivalents. She interprets the longevity of this typology as the result of dynamics internal to the city and not uniquely as the result of external transfers.

6In the third article, Roger Nelson presents another example of modernist architecture that cannot be uniquely thought of as an expression of international architectural standards. The central object of his analysis is the Phnom Penh stadium (officially called “National Sports Complex”) designed by Vann Molyvann in 1964. Even though the stadium was constructed with the aid of foreign experts and that the initiator of this project, Prince Sihanouk wanted to inscribe it in a modernity that can clearly rival the great projects of the international scene, the author reveals the necessity of reading the building in its domestic and regional dimensions. Here again, this approach discloses unexpected logics that blur usual divisions. Thus, for Vann Molyvann, modular architecture refers to Japanese architecture as much as the international style and the elevation of the building on columns evokes Southeast Asian vernacular architecture as much as Corbusian pilotis. The domestic reference articulates at several levels with the international and modernist dimension of the structure. This “discursive syncretism” as the author calls it, is found simultaneously in the visual references, in the spatial organization, and in the method of financing the architectural ensemble without being contradictory. To understand this apparent contradiction, it is important to place, as the articles does, this construction program in the political context of the time as inscribed in a symbolic way in the politics of “neutrality” and an affirmation of a modern national state fiercely preached by Sihanouk at the time of independence and the Cold War.

7The political dimension is equally at the heart of the last article of this section where Sarah Moser and Alyssa Shamsha Wilbur consider the case of the architecture of the Riau islands (Indonesia). Since the mid-2000s, the Malaysian elite has launched a vast program of the revival of Malay identity in this province, notably through state architecture, with the goal of legitimizing its power over the ethnic minorities that have been long present on these islands. The understanding of the hybridization phenomenon is different here than in the other articles, since at first look, one is in the presence of architecture that displays its uniqueness and its “local” character to the visitor. But the authors establish the syncretic processes at work behind this new architectural landscape that is an invented tradition. Its elaboration proceeds by the state eliminating cultural traits belonging to the marginalized communities on the one hand and by the state borrowing architecture from South Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and other parts of Indonesia on the other hand. The syncretism existing in the Riau islands that was predominant in the built environment before the policy of decentralization is thus being replaced by another syncretism, selective and controlled according to the state’s interpretation of Malay identity.

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1 The term Southeast Asia appeared before World War II but it remained very imprecise and little used. It was during the Second World War that it became a widespread geographic concept. See Donald K. Emerson, “‘Southeast Asia.’ What’s in a Name,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 15, no. 1, march 1984, p. 1-21. Southeast Asia today includes eleven states: Myanmar, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, East Timor, and Vietnam.

2 Johannes Widodo, “Morphogenesis and Hybridity of Southeast Asian Coastal Cities,” in Rahil Ismail, Brian Shaw and Ooi Giok Ling (dirs.), Southeast Asian Culture and Heritage in a Globalising World. Diverging Identities in a Dynamic Region [First edition 2009], Burlington, VT : Ashgate, 2016 (Heritage, culture and identity), p. 79-92, p. 81.

3 Very schematically, those cultures were: Chinese, Arab, Persian, Indian for the older exchanges and Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, and American cultures during the development of Western empires.

4 Kelly Shannon, “Beyond Tropical Regionalism : The Architecture of Southeast Asia,” in Elie G. Haddad, David Rifkind and Peter L. Laurence (dirs.), A Critical History of Contemporary Architecture : 1960-2010, Burlington, VT : Ashgate, 2014, p. 359-377, p. 369.

5 Rem Khoolaas and Bruce Mau, “Singapore Songlines: Thirty Years of Tabula Rasa: Reconstruction,” in Rem Khoolaas and Bruce Mau, S,M,L,XL [Second edition], New York, NY: The Monacelli Press, 1998, p. 1008-1089

6 Philippe Goad, “New Directions in Tropical Asian Architecture,” in Philip Goad, Patrick Bingham-Hall and Anoma Pieris (dirs.), New Directions in Tropical Asian Architecture, Clarendon, VT: Tuttle, 2014, p. 9-20, p. 18-19

7 Anthony King, The Bungalow: The Production of a Global Culture, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995. 

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Caroline Herbelin, « Editorial: Paradoxical Southeast Asia »ABE Journal [En ligne], 11 | 2017, mis en ligne le 05 octobre 2017, consulté le 06 décembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Caroline Herbelin

Associate Professor, FRAMESPA, Université Toulouse Le Mirail-Jean Jaurès, Toulouse, France

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