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Jiat-Hwee Chang and Imran bin Tajudeen, Southeast Asia’s Modern Architecture, Questions of Tranlation, Epistemology and Power

Singapore: NUS Press, 2019
Caroline Herbelin
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Jiat-Hwee Chang et Imran bin Tajudeen, Southea´s Modern Architecture, Questions of Translation, Epistemology and Powers, Singapore : NUS Press, 2019

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1This book explores the history of architecture in Southeast Asia in the twentieth century through a series of historiographical reflections and several case studies of Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. One of the greatest merits of this book is to rethink how the local articulates with the global by questioning the links between regionality and architecture.

2Interrogations of Southeast Asia as a framework for reflection open and close the book. In their Introduction, the editors Jiat-Hwee Chang and Imran bin Tajudeen explain how they take the concept of Southeast Asia as a “contingent device” in recognition of the problems and questions that this term, invented during the Second World War, poses. The originality of the collection of essays that they have assembled comes from the fact that there is no attempt to find artificial commonalities of the regional architectures in question but rather to precisely define their meanings and their conditions of emergence. Thus, the editors go beyond the particularism of national histories, but also the often approximative generalizations of transnational histories focused on global phenomenon. Rather than focusing on a history of evolving forms, the book’s richness comes from the interdisciplinarity approaches that place these architectures in their spatial, cultural, social, and historical contexts. Historicity is a particularly important common point for all of these essays. This point is highlighted by Mark Crinson in his illuminating epilogue centered on the notion of regionality. He suggests that the originality of this volume is not to seek to define, once again, architectural regionalism but rather to suggest an architectural regionality that is “a communality of history and practice across space that is neither of the nation state nor of the world.”(p. 297)

3To distinguish themselves from previous histories of architecture in Southeast Asia that for the most part oscillate between local particularity and a global system, the editors propose a new methodological position: “cross comparisons that are based not on theoretical assumptions, but rather on three methodological challenges in the architectural historiography of Southeast Asia: translation, epistemology and power” (p. 7). These three concepts organize the body of this book.

4The section on translation opens with a chapter dedicated to the reception of Rabindranath Tagore’s universalist ideas during his trip to Saigon. Hazel Hanh revisits in this essay the theme of architecture as theater of colonization in a more nuanced manner than that consisting of simply seeing it as a mere facade of power for the colonizers. Tagore’s visits to places and buildings reflect the tensions that existed in the Indochinese colonial society. Hahn shows how the places visited were interpreted by the different social groups concerned but also how Tagore’s ideas could divide the Vietnamese political circles of the time. These different interpretations of built and symbolic spaces reveal cleavages in colonial society much more complex than a simple divide between colonizer and colonized. Contrary to simplistic interpretations of references to fascism in contemporary Thai visual culture, Lawrence Chua proposes to trace historically the connections between fascism and modernism in the architectural field. By analyzing the monuments designed by the People’s Party in the postabsolutist Thailand of the 1930s, Chua shows how these forms, voluntarily appropriated and transformed in relation to Western models, were part of a larger program destined to discipline bodies and minds. It was about, for the leaders of the People’s Party, creating a modern, deeply racialized nation based on the idea of the existence of a Thai race. In a similar way, a careful historical investigation allows Peter Scriver and Amit Srivastava to reinterpret the meaning of the Bali style. Perceived as an imperialist or postcolonial invention this style is often criticized for being artificial. The authors trace its origins to the meeting of expatriated aesthetes and regional entrepreneurial elites. But where their analysis in the freshest is in their insistence on the importance of certain Asian economic conditions to explain the development of this style. In this way, they reposition it not as exogenous but very much as the result of Asian conditions, concluding that “Bali Style was neither imported, nor imposed” (p. 86).

5The book’s second part, “Epistemology,” is composed of two essays that critically reflect on knowledge production in and about the region by encouraging the adoption of a non- essentialized Asian perspective. Based on the case of Bagan in Myanmar, Tim Winter seeks to subtly reframe the history of heritage in Southeast Asia. While recalling the importance of colonial policies for monument conservation and their current impact, his innovative study evokes the need to take into account the rise of regional heritage policies. By tracing the evolution of a “political economy of scholarship” from the colonial era to the present, Winter suggests how Japanese, Indian, and North Korean programs are changing the practices and meanings of conservation in Southeast Asia today. Studying heritage diplomacy, he shows how “the cartographies of influence and power across the networks of heritage are steadily shifting.”

6In a different but complimentary way, Anoma Pieris also encourages a decentering of knowledge. Based on the methods of postcolonial studies and sociology of the Global South, her chapter focuses on the English-language historiography of architecture and urban planning in Southeast Asia. Taking the case of Malaysia and Singapore, her chapter shows how the production of knowledge on architecture and urbanism in Southeast Asia is still largely dominated by a Western-centered vision. Pieris’s call to rethink a system of knowledge production by emancipating it from national narratives is particularly convincing when she urges a rethinking of historiographic priorities appropriate for the region, notably to respond to the practical urgency of taking into account social equity in the rampant urbanization of the region.

7The third and last part of the book adopts a more traditional but no less convincing. It approaches the relationship between architecture and power from four different directions. In his chapter Gerard Lico shows how following the major plague and cholera epidemics at the turn of the twentieth century a drastic program of urban planning was set up in Manilla, a classic example of the use of biopower on the population. Adopting the lens of political history, Koompong Noobanjong recalls how architecture can serve state discourse, while its meaning can evolve and reappropriated with the changing of the government. Such was the case for the Constitutional Defense Monument and the Democracy Temple, which were built in Bangkok in 1936 and 1940, respectively, and whose symbolism continues to be politicized to this day. Focusing on the politics of urban development, Eunice Seng traces the history of Singapore’s People’s Park, the iconic shopping and housing complex constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. By comparing the visions of public space of the state, developers, and architects, she shows how private and public interests went hand in hand to carry out the ideological enterprise of the new Singaporean state, despite criticisms from certain architects and the lack of public consultation. This flagship development project aimed to create model modern citizens while simultaneously forming the image of the identity of middle-class Chinese. In the essay that concludes this part, Tutin Aryanti points out the almost total absence of the study of spaces dedicated to women in mosques. Based on an ethnographic and archival survey, the author explains that this gap is the result of both the bias of a history of Islamic architecture written mostly by men and the invisibility of these prayer spaces, always marginal and of limited access, for the public.

8Southeast Asia's Modern Architecture is an important publication not only because the works devoted to this subject are still too few in number but also because this book’s methodological positioning is simultaneously a testimony to a historiographical renewal and, hopefully, a manifesto for future research. The articles may at first seem disparate, which is not surprising since this book is based on conference proceedings. But this heterogeneity makes sense due to the diversity of disciplinary approaches that combine the history of architecture and the social sciences. The thematic organization of the book intelligently sets out lines of comparison across Southeast Asia, drawing on examples firmly grounded in their local, regional and international context.

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Caroline Herbelin, « Jiat-Hwee Chang and Imran bin Tajudeen, Southeast Asia’s Modern Architecture, Questions of Tranlation, Epistemology and Power », ABE Journal [En ligne], 14-15 | 2019, mis en ligne le 02 août 2019, consulté le 16 septembre 2019. URL :

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Caroline Herbelin

Lecturer, Université Toulouse II-Le Mirail, Toulouse, France

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La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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