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Vimalin Rujivacharakul, H. Hazel Han, Ken Tadashi Oshima and Peter Christensen (eds.), Architecturalized Asia. Mapping a Continent through History

Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press; Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013
Eduard Kögel
Référence(s) :

Vimalin Rujivacharakul, H. Hazel Han, Ken Tadashi Oshima and Peter Christensen (eds.), Architecturalized Asia. Mapping a Continent through History, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press; Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013

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Index de mots-clés :

histoire de l’architecture

Index by keyword:

architectural history

Indice de palabras clave:

historiografía de la arquitectura



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1How and when did the term “Asia” originate in the Western world, and did it affect the perception of the built environment? From the fields of history and architecture the book tackles the spatial and ideological formation of Asia in relation to its architecture, with the help of cartography, urban and architectural projects and further visual narratives. The book, which has 13 chapters divided into three sections, evolved from two international symposia, in 2010 and 2011.

2The first of the three sections focuses on the period between the ninth and sixteenth centuries, during which the idea of Asia was shaped in the Western world. The study looks at icons and symbols of representation in ancient depictions of the region as well as at textual descriptions produced in the East and the West. The second section explores how the field of Asian architecture was defined in the nineteenth century when Asia was examined using Western scientific methods. It focuses on a wide range of colonial concepts and discourses on spatial constructions and imagined geographies throughout the century. The third section continues into the twentieth century with the shaping of the image of Asia and the consequent effects on architectural development.

3Using a cross-disciplinary approach the book expands the notion of Asia and how the term is used today. It observes how a contemporary and often unquestioned geography was created, with representative buildings being used as symbols of nations and regions.

4The challenge of the book however does not lie in the quality of the individual articles—which are all interesting in their own way—but in the wide variety of topics covered, from regional geography to objects, from medieval times to the twentieth century, encompassing the entire region known today as Asia. Such a huge time span and such a wide geographical area naturally open up many different aspects of the area’s history as well as its interpretation and formation by different interest groups. Within the overall topic, a field of investigation is outlined which deserves further attention and study. The view from within could be especially helpful in shaping or reshaping a history in opposition to the Western colonial perspective that still today provides the blueprint for the perception of urban and architectural development. In order to continue on the way shown here with historically relevant reference topics, a discussion of specific regions or countries and their individual history outlines could help reshape historical understanding and its impact on contemporary development.

5The book therefore can be seen as a first step on a longer path to rewriting the narrative of known history and how it shaped and still shapes most people around the world’s understanding of Asia. The variety of topics represented in the book confirm that it is worthwhile investigating these issues with a new understanding of history and the impact this can have on the shape of self-conception or as a framework beyond everyday, often simplistic models of historical truth. It also reveals that history depends on perspective and on the interpretation of events and processes from different points of view, which form and reform the storyboard of understanding. But the story under discussion here is far from simple, involving as it does many twists, interrupted connections and sudden changes in perspective. To take the example of Japan, which is represented in an article about the origins of the 1960s’ concept of metabolism, we see how from the time of the country’s isolation from foreign influence to its absorption of Western knowhow, from its focus on self-cultivation to its adoption of an aggressive colonial attitude, the process of historical development ran through several very different periods. A full picture of this contradictory development alone deserves a book of its own, in order to discuss the sometimes opposing directions of development and discourse. An investigation into transculturation and the adaptation of cultural values from one hemisphere to the other could help to close gaps in the national as well as the global history of architectural production. Exchanges and Influences between different cultures—also within Asia—could show how Western theories were adapted, transformed and newly invented according to the West’s own needs.

6The great value of the book under discussion is that it opens up a field of investigation and discourse which refocuses the established point of view into a more multi-faceted approach, depending on the perspective of the topic, the writer or the purpose of the investigation. The narrow-minded history of Asian architecture perceived in the West and the struggle of newly-founded nation states or newly-established political systems and their search for representation in the framework of colonial discourse are crucial issues for a deeper understanding of the formation of architectural values in the region. But, taking China as an example, the challenge is huge. With regard to foreign influence, the book presents the perspective of Ming Dynasty Chinese scholars. Architectural development and the impact of Western, Socialist and Nationalist concepts in the formation of today’s aesthetics in representation is once again a complex issue with many twists and turns, borrowing from different sources and transforming them into something new, which today is conceived of as contemporary Chinese. Also in this case further studies along the timeline could help pinpoint developments and their formation and impact.

7In a few cases it even seems possible that the colonizers in Asia used their colonies as a testing ground for new strategies and as a back folio for developments at home. The issues discussed in the book could easily be extended to further fields of architectural discourse in Asia as well as in Europe. The topic can also be used as a case study for the relationship between colony concept, colonizers and the reactions of the people under colonial rule. The book therefore opens up an important debate towards understanding better the Asian perspective and the region’s struggle to establish its own models of modernization.

Section One: “Mapping Asia: Architectural Symbols from the Medieval through the Early Modern Periods”

8Chapter 1: “Asia in World Architecture and World Cartography,” by Vimalin Rujivacharakul
In the first chapter Vimalin Rujivacharakul focuses on the development of architectural icons on early European maps and looks at the first theoretical considerations on architecture by Roman architect Vitruvius (80–ca. 15 BCE) and the four books of Andrea Palladio (1508–1580). By investigating these two fields—geographic maps and architectural theories—she discovers that in the first field only a few architectural icons are used, without following territorial narratives. In the case of the early books on architecture, there are no categories such as geographical specifications; architectural description is based on form and style alone.

9Rujivacharakul guides the reader through the development of European cartography in the medieval period and how the shape of Asia was developed step by step up to the seventeenth century. According to her, Fischer von Erlach’s “Entwurff einer Historischen Architectur” published in 1721 is a key proposal for the later development of architectural narratives about Asian architecture. In the nineteenth century Scotsman James Ferguson proposed a world history of architecture based on race, ethnography and evolution. The idea of world architecture was taken up by the father and son duo of Banister and Banister Flight Fletcher in the late nineteenth century. In the fifth edition of A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method (1905) the younger Fletcher came up with the famous conceptual illustration “Tree of Architecture”, in which he tried to describe the evolution of world architecture. This depiction raised questions, since ancient architecture like that of China was not properly represented. Rujivacharakul’s findings show the limited knowledge of the topic under discussion that existed during that early time and the speculative nature of the conclusions reached, conclusions which became the basis for later agreement in the West.

10Chapter 2: “Imagining Asia from the Margins: Early Portuguese Mappings of the Continent’s Architecture and Space,” by Zoltán Biedermann
This chapter focuses on the mapping of Asia by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century by analyzing images and texts on the subjects of geography and architecture. In particular the attempt to create a framework of regions along the coasts provided the opportunity to apply a description of a regional architecture. The author singles out three points of departure for further research. First, the Portuguese experimented with different notions of region on abstract levels. Second, the architectural style identified was not clearly described, leaving the way open for an interpretation based on concepts known at home. Third, on the basis of the descriptions of region and architecture, no further “architecturalizing” was possible. Biedermann finally comes up with the question of whether such a concept was at all plausible in sixteenth century Europe. He concludes that “architecturalizing Asia” is only a very recent concept, whose origins require further study.

11Chapter 3: “Mountains and Streams: Architecturalized Landscapes in Medieval Korea,” by Remco E. Breuker
In the tenth century Korea was established for the first time as an independent state covering the entire Korean peninsula. The mountains and streams of the territory were used as a surface on to which spatial and ideological knowledge matured layer by layer. The connection between the natural landscape as source and the complex set of architectures like temples and other man-made structures was enriched through literature and oral history. The people formed the landscape and its meaning for society as much as the landscape created the framework for the state.

12Chapter 4: “The Entry of Yaxia/Asia: The (Re)construction of Global Geography in Early Modern China,” by Yuming He
The idea of foreign countries was discussed in Ming Dynasty China from the focus of a world with its centre in China. The publication of a book called “The Record of Naked Creatures” described people, customs and lands beyond the middle kingdom and its tribute states. Those countries at the fringes of the known Chinese world introduced facts and fiction from European and North African regions.

Section Two: “Conjugating Asia: The Long Nineteenth Century”

13Chapter 5: “Abstract Spaces of Asia, Indochina, and the Empire of the French Imaginaire,” by H. Hazel Hahn
Hahn introduces the European conception of Asia before the nineteenth century and continues with the advent of Indo-Chine by the French and Indochina by the British, focusing on the region between India and China. In the nineteenth century the perception of Indochina was shaped by a European point of view, with which the colonizers constructed their own idea on geography and architectural culture, strongly based around the temples of Angkor. Hahn reveals the rather complex development of the names Indochina and Indo-Chine and their meaning for the Western powers as well as for the local people.

14Chapter 6: “The Eurasian Hour: Razel, Mackinder, and the Architecture of Geopolitical Identity,” by Peter Christensen
The author studies the advent of Eurasian space and geopolitics, beginning with the Dual Alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary in the late nineteenth century up to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Christensen looks at the work of German geographer Friedrich Ratzel, who became well known with his book
Der Lebensraum in 1901. From the British perspective he studies the development of the ideas of geographer Halford Mackinder, who proposed the “heartland theory” for the central area of the Eurasian continent. From the point of view of architectural development in Germany and Austria-Hungary he discusses the influences and the discourses of such architects as Herman Muthesius, who as a cultural attaché stayed in Japan and Great Britain, where he wrote the influential book The English House (Das Englische Haus). The Vienna-based architect Otto Wagner is also examined according to his architectural development as well as his writings. The economic interest of Germany and Austria-Hungary in the oilfields of the Caucasus and the Middle East led to infrastructure projects in Turkey, such as railway lines to transport raw material for developing industries.

15Chapter 7: “Java’s Architectural Enigma: The Austronesian World and the Limits of ‘Asia’,” by Imran bin Tajudeen
Imran bin Tajudeen addresses the fact that Javanese architecture was defined by European categories and classifications. He suggests including the Austronesian point of view, which had been used in earlier scholarship for vernacular architecture and investigates terraced complexes like the Buddhist monument Borobudur, as well as temples, palaces and mosques. The origin and use of a local architectural vocabulary, which derived from different regions like India, Austronesia and other places in East Asia, developed in the specific cultural environment of Java into a style in its own right. A closer look reveals that it is beyond the scope of the West’s oriental concept to discuss local cultural dependencies and values, especially if they tend to slip out of the ordinary perspective.

16Chapter 8: “Colonialism and Its Discontents: Caitya Halls and the Constructed Origins of South Asian Buddhist Architecture,” by David Efurd
David Efurd focuses his text on British nineteenth century descriptions of early Buddhist cave architecture in India. He detects a mistaken interpretation of the relationship between this tradition and foreign architectural developments. In particular, the attempt to use Roman Catholicism as a reference when describing Buddhist cave halls shows that scholars needed to use familiar models when classifying and communicating with their public in the West. Later scholars took up the vocabulary used and extended the meaning of terms like “Buddhist church”. Efrud discusses the use of terms and the development of interpretation. He further searches for the origins of space concept and its development in South Asia.

17Chapter 9: “Asia outside Asia: The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition,” by Ken Tadashi Oshima
The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition of 1909 in Seattle is the focus of Ken Tadashi Oshima’s text. He investigates the Asianness of different pavilions and the artistic concepts which focused on the region of the Pacific Rim as a new entity to be defined by its architectural style. In the Western discourse the pagoda and the pavilion were the two types known since the eighteenth century to be of Eastern origin. According to Oshima the 1909 exhibition in Seattle marked a shift from earlier interpretations. American architects used Japanese forms like the Tori-Gate and American Indian totem poles to create a new synthesis based on cultures from around the Pacific Rim. Imagination was shaped by local and global discourse and, as Oshima detected, was constantly changing. The new interest in the East from the American continent and the search for a common style for the newly-discovered geographical entity of the Pacific Rim opened up a playground for architectural fantasies with reference to indigenous cultural expressions and borrowings from distant Asian cultures.

Section Three: “Manifesting Asia: Building the Continent with Architecture”

18Chapter 10 “Construire le style indochinois: Identity Formation through Geopolitical Territory and Architecture,” by Caroline Herbelin
Caroline Herbelin investigates how, in the early part of twentieth century, French and Vietnamese architects searched for a local architecture style. She comes up with the insight that different approaches with different stylistic expressions were used in parallel and in discourse between France and the colony. The difficulty in finding appropriate modes of expression and descriptions led to some rather hybrid concepts in the search for an identity based on local or imported values. Herbelin describes the rather complex ping-pong between colonial influence and power and the local struggle for identity. The projection from the outside and the adaptation from within created a dialogue controlled by the colonial rulers. The determination of the French to create a new identity for the colony, which would reflect both the homeland and aspects of the local culture as seen by them, created a complex approach with diverse expressions. Herbelin points out that two points of view needed to be considered and distinguished: that of the colonizer and that of the colonized. However, the strategy for evolving architectural concepts was far from straightforward and clear. It clearly depended on time, place and discourse and changed constantly throughout the twentieth century.

19Chapter 11: “Land as an Architectural Idea in Modern Japan,” by Seng Kuan
The connection between territory and architecture in Japan is the topic of Seng Kuan’s text. Following the example of Otaka Masoto and Kikutake Kiyonori he researched Japanese colonialism in Manchuria and the process of land reform process in Japan after World War II. It is highly interesting to see the connection between fascist Japanese expansion in the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” as conceived by the Japanese military during World War II and the agricultural basis of the Metabolist concept. Seng Kuan points out that the utopian projects across Tokyo Bay reflect an agricultural crisis, which architects believed could be cured by the creation of artificial land. Investigations reveal that the post-war Japanese avant-garde was still dealing with topics deriving from darker periods in their own history.

20Chapter 12: “Communist Mosques: Forgotten Futures of Late Soviet Central Asia,” by Igor Demchenko
Igor Demchenko investigates the quest for identity in the Central Asian region of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s. He discusses the new search in the 1970s for building types based on region and climate. There was also a turning back to the Stalinist discourse of “national in form, socialist in nature” on the one hand and on the other hand late modernist architecture was used. Demchenko shows that many of the themes discussed for the design of buildings during that period were artificially borrowed from other regions in order to establish an “illusion of the Mediterranean south in the middle of Central Asian steppes”. In the mid-1980s the new freedom of Perestroika opened up the way for local investigations, which introduced a new discourse in the search for architectural expression. Through reference to local traditions combined with the stimulation of discourse in architectural magazines the protagonists fostered an approach, which brought a new vernacular into being.

21Chapter 13: “Shifting Gaze: Irano-Persian Architecture from the Great Game to a Nation-State,” by Talinn Grigor
The final essay focuses on a similar struggle for contemporary expression in Iranian architecture through the twentieth century up until the revolution in 1979. The Pahlavi rulers had looked to the West and actively imported concepts of urban and architectural development based on Western values in order to propel the country towards a modern state. The clash between the country’s great past and a modern lifestyle imported form the West created challenges for architects in their search for a contemporary architecture that reflected the discourse between east and west. In Grigor’s opinion this struggle continues today and “continuously changes the construction of notions of Asia and Europe”.

22All essays in the book are carefully edited and the graphics and photographs clearly illustrate the topic under discussion. A bibliography and an index complete the volume.

23The book questions the validity of certain commonly used terms and can be understood as a beginning in the readjustment of historic knowledge. In order to bring about changes to today’s commonly accepted interpretations further, more focused studies are required that take into account alternative perspectives for a different understanding of geography and architecture.

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Eduard Kögel, « Vimalin Rujivacharakul, H. Hazel Han, Ken Tadashi Oshima and Peter Christensen (eds.), Architecturalized Asia. Mapping a Continent through History »ABE Journal [En ligne], 6 | 2014, mis en ligne le 30 janvier 2015, consulté le 24 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Eduard Kögel

Associate Professor, Technischen Universität, Berlin, Germany

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