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Itohan Osayimwese, Colonialism and Modern Architecture in Germany

Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017 (Culture Politics and the Built Environment)
Samuel Albert
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Itohan Osayimwese, Colonialism and Modern Architecture in Germany, Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017 (Culture Politics and the Built Environment)

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1The German colonial experience was chronologically short and geographically dispersed.

2Lasting from only 1884 to 1918, Germany’s colonial empire included German Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia and part of Botswana); German West Africa (present-day Cameroon, Togo and part of Ghana); German East Africa (part of Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and others); while on the other side of the globe, in the Pacific, it encompassed German New Guinea (including a number of Micronesian islands and archipelagoes, as well as Samoa), and, eventually, the Chinese concession ports of Jiaozhou and Tsingtao. The creation of this global empire, achieved with the aid and acquiescence of Germany’s European peers, was seen by many Germans as the culmination of a centuries-long dream, and the realization of Germany’s acceptance among the great nations of Europe. United as an Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm out of a series of Kingdoms, Duchies, Principalities, and free and independent cities in 1871, the new “Germany” was now an equal with its European neighbors, France and Great Britain. With settlements and subjects spread across the globe, it too had become a world power.

3Though something of a “Johann-come-lately”—the British Empire, with its vast overseas colonies, had existed for centuries, and the French colonial empire, dating from 1830, was already half a century old by the time Germany emerged as a colonial power—Germany nonetheless embraced its new role, even reveling in it. But Germany greatly benefitted from the British and French colonial experiences. German colonial administrators and colonial organizations were able to draw upon the hard-learned lessons their fellow colonial empires had to teach. Germany incorporated these lessons into its own colonial administration, and used them to shape its colonial experience. In the end, German overseas expansion was not just a process of colonization in the wider world, but also a colonization of the German mind and of German culture.

4This colonization—its effects, and its architectural and exhibitory manifestations—are the subject of Itohan Osayimwese’s new book Colonialism and Modern Architecture in Germany. In this well-researched tome, Osayimwese documents the effects of the Germany’s colonial empire on the German public, exploring how the colonies and their indigenous inhabitants were portrayed to their German (and international) public. It also charts how the necessities of colonialism were answered by the German architectural profession and, ultimately, how this aided in the spread of modernism.

5The introduction lays out the academic aspects of studying colonization, and considers the idea of the “Archive,” a theme to which the author repeatedly returns. The body of the book is divided into five distinct but related chapters which focus on questions concerning the representation of colonies, of colonial production, and its architectural effects. The first chapter explores in depth the representation of German colonialism at a number of Fairs and Exhibitions, including the 1896 Berlin Trade Exhibition, the 1904 St. Louis Exhibition, the very well-known Cologne Werkbund Exhibition of 1914, and the coeval but much less known 1914 Leipzig Internationale Ausstellung für Buchgewerbe und Graphik (International Exhibition for Book Arts and Graphics/BUGRA). Within this chapter, Osayimwese considers both the formal exhibitions and exhibition spaces, as well as amusement areas which often also contained representations of colonies, liberated from the didactic. Indeed, oftentimes the amusement areas were more revealing about perceptions and representations of colonialism than the formal displays.

6The second chapter further develops the theme by considering the relationship between architects and ethnography. Osayimwese brings to the fore the work of several German ethnographers and ties this interest to the work of architect/theoreticians such as Semper, Taut, and Mies

7van der Rohe

8The third chapter focuses of the relationship between German architects practicing in Germany and the colonial need for designs. It analyses specifically the 1914 German Colonial Society competition for a set of designs suitable for German colonies, ignoring the fact that climate and materials differed greatly, from parched sands of Southwest Africa to muggy Cameroon to tropical Samoa; the rest of the chapter is devoted to discussing the entries.

9The fourth chapter focuses on colonialism and the 1914 Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne. Though the exhibition is very well known among architectural historians, Osayimwese focuses on lesser-known buildings, such as the Colonial Pavilion designed by Paul Potts, which displayed two structures: a high-ranking official’s house, and that of a humble settler. Both were completely outfitted with suitable furniture and decorations, such as Springbok antlers. There was also an amusement area. The chapter concludes with a Procrustean discussion attempting to fit the Werkbund Exhibition into the model of the World’s Fair.

10The fifth and final chapter—the most interesting yet most problematic—considers the development of modern prefabrication and its relationship to the German colonial experience. Delving deep into the corporate archives of the Christoph & Unmack company, Osayimwese thoroughly documents the domestic and foreign business relations of this pioneering pre-fabrication firm, demonstrating the marketing and development of prefabricated structures suitable for German colonies.

11Although a number of books exploring the relationship between Germany and it colonies have appeared in recent years, especially dealing with the remnants of empire, both in the colonies themselves and in Germany, Osayimwese’s is one of the first studies to engage with questions of German colonialism and architecture, and certainly the first to explore its connections to modernism. It does this almost by a triangulation: looking, examining, questioning various implications of colonialism and the colonial experience, through its manifestations at home, especially in fairs and exhibitions, and, to a lesser extent, in the press. This is an extremely effective way to bring in secondary and supporting material, and to capture a sense of the milieu in which modernism is considered to have emerged in the eyes of the author. Indeed, of the five chapters, three, or three and a half, are devoted to exhibitions—both the exhibits themselves and also their entertainment spaces, which, because of their guise, often masked the earnest seriousness of their intellectual underpinnings. This approach has allowed Osayimwese to explore the German experience in and reception of ethnography as well as foreign practice.

12But this approach is problematic in the sense that it also detracts somewhat from what seems to be the main focus of the book: the relationship between modern architecture and colonialism. While the material presented in a variety of chapters is interesting, it seems designed for a different book. There is clearly a theoretical underpinning, which emerges in the author’s concluding remarks at the end of each chapter, but the theoretical intermezzi sometimes seem to confuse more than enlighten. For instance:

If the archive is more than a collection of sources and institutions that house them, and is equally the system that determines what can and cannot be said within a certain discourse, then the reproduction of non-Western architectural elements within the oeuvres of individual architects cannot be the sole measure of the colonial with German architecture. Rather, but using the concept of the archive, we can argue that German colonialism, broadly construed, may have engendered architectural effects that operated beyond the limits of form and instead intervened on the level of discourse – the level where architects and designers generated new ideas in relation to existing knowledge (p. 59‒60).

13While a strong theoretical foundation is important for any art historical work, in this book, there seems to be repeated attempts to fit the material to the theory, rather than deriving theory from materials, as when, for instance, the author considers the presence of a colonial pavilion and native village at the Werkbund Exhibition as a “proof” that the exhibition fits into the International Fair typology. Obviously, an enormous amount of research has gone into this book, but it often gets lost in the thicket of facts and intellectual frolics and detours which, while interesting, detract from the argument at hand.

14The ultimate chapter, “The Colonial Origins of Modernist Prefabrication,” truly embodies the paradoxes of the book. A profoundly revealing look at a major prefabricated building company, drawing on a vast and interesting archive, the chapter discusses the relationship between the company and the colonial market, discussing how specific goods were designed to accommodate the varied climates of the German colonies. A specific example, for instance, is the veranda, described as a “fetishized, colonial-tropical supplement”. It is noted with surprise that the 1903 catalogue of Christoph & Unmack included non-colonial structures with verandas, though no doubt in the less temperate German climate they would just be called porches.

15While colonialism undoubtedly had an effect on German society and its products (as it did in other nations with colonies) and continues to this day, as Germany grapples with the remnants and history of it colonial past, both domestically and internationally, the ultimate question seems to remain unanswered, indeed, unasked: if colonialism and its architectural necessities brought forth modern architecture in Germany, why did not the same thing happen in other European colonial powers, such as Britain or France.

16Within the text itself there are a number of errors, such as the identification of Franz Baltzer with the construction of the Tokyo railroad station (p. 14), or the incorrect referencing of Boerschmann’s drawing of the city of Qufu as plate 4 in the book when it should be 5 (p. 69). There is also a lack of uniformity of italicisation, capitalization and translation of the numerous German words throughout the text, for instance the translation of Technische Hochschule as technical institute.

17The significance of turn-of-the-century Germany in the development of modern architecture (at least within the narrative to which most western scholars adhere) is undisputed. That Germany had colonies for which it had to design and construct buildings and entire developments is also not in dispute. But how the latter influenced the former is not something that I come away with from this book. I gained a far greater appreciation of how Germans displayed their colonies and its products, but that is not the stated purpose.

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Samuel Albert, « Itohan Osayimwese, Colonialism and Modern Architecture in Germany »ABE Journal [En ligne], 13 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2018, consulté le 04 octobre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Samuel Albert

Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, United States

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