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Ariane Komeda, Kontaktarchitektur: Kolonialarchitektur in Namibia zwischen Norm und Übersetzung

Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2020
Paul Sprute
Référence(s) :

Ariane Komeda, Kontaktarchitektur: Kolonialarchitektur in Namibia zwischen Norm und Übersetzung, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2020

Cet article est une traduction de :
Ariane Komeda, Kontaktarchitektur: Kolonialarchitektur in Namibia zwischen Norm und Übersetzung [de]

Entrées d’index

Index géographique :

Afrique, Afrique australe, Namibie

Index chronologique :

XIXe siècle, XXe siècle
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Texte intégral

  • 1 Walter Peters, Baukunst in Südwestafrika, 1884-1914: die Rezeption deutscher Architektur in der Ze (...)
  • 2 Itohan Osayimwese, Colonialism and Modern Architecture in Germany, Pittsburgh, PA: University of P (...)

1With Kontaktarchitektur, based on research in Namibia before 2008 and drafted as a dissertation in 2018, Ariane Komeda proposes “contact architecture” as an alternative view of German colonial architecture in Namibia. Contributing to the limited body of research on German colonial construction activity, the author builds upon―and extends―the first overview of German colonial building in Namibia, compiled by Walter Peters in 1981.1 Komeda’s discussion of colonial architecture within the specific context of Namibia also complements Itohan Osayimwese’s more recent work on the relations between German colonialism, society, and architecture, by presenting new material and taking a social focus.2 Komeda links the translation of German architecture in Namibia to a limited number of German colonial intermediaries and delves deeper into the construction history of three buildings. Two of them are in Windhoek: the seat of the colonial government, known as the Tintenpalast; and the Christuskirche, a Protestant church. The third is the rural domicile of a settler colonizer couple. Each of these cases sheds light on different colonial relationships, allowing Komeda to make links to German colonial history and to demonstrate the possibility of exploring colonial practices through specific building projects (p. 53).

  • 3 Komeda understands “translations” broadly, as deviations from the metropolitan normal. For separat (...)
  • 4 For an explicit early example of the use of Bhabha’s notion of “hybridity” in architectural histor (...)

2At the same time, Komeda’s main ambition in contributing to the field of architectural history lies in her concept of Kontaktarchitektur as a tool for the systematic analysis of colonial architecture in general, beyond this particular German case. Kontaktarchitektur defines colonial building activity “between norm and translation”3 as expression and substance of transcultural overlaps and reciprocal influences (p. 51). Komeda’s concept of Kontaktarchitektur draws on a number of by now classic notions of postcolonial theory: Homi Bhabha’s “third space” and “translation,” Ella Shohat’s “situated practice,” and the “contact zones” as coined by Mary Louise Pratt. As a result, the buildings discussed in the book are presented as hybrid structures.4 This conceptual framework is enlightening. It has the merit viewing construction sites in a new way, as contact zones disputed by different actors. By relying on Bhabha’s notion of “third space,” Komeda’s analysis of buildings emphasizes the potential embedded in them―unequally structured as it may be―to negotiate the colonial situation. This view contrasts with the more conventional approach that would limit discussion to their hybrid architectural appearances.

  • 5 Here, Komeda follows views on German imitated, improvised, and flexible colonialism. Russell A. Be (...)

3Using such a perspective, Komeda seeks to depart from the view that colonizers transformed colonial architecture and urban planning into a display of their hegemony, in a strictly dichotomous setting (p. 13). Instead, through the concept of “contact architecture,” she aims to grasp the subliminal dynamics within the colonial situation. German colonialism, she argues, lends itself especially well to such a perspective, as it was marked by improvisation and flexibility.5 According to Komeda, interaction between Germans and Namibians brought new expressions to German colonial building design and techniques. The resulting architecture was embedded in the regional environment and its flows of material, and bound to Namibian knowledge and labor. All in all, Komeda presents “contact architecture” as a framework to explore ideational, social, and material parameters within actions of architecture (Architekturhandeln).

  • 6 In this respect, Komeda’s book is in tune with Osayimwese’s discussion, see Itohan Osayimwese , Co (...)

4Komeda’s conceptualization of “contact architecture” is bolstered by a discussion of building activities in metropolitan Germany as well, situated within a broad historical context. She highlights contemporary influences in German culture, pointing out that German colonial construction confronted such challenges as finding proper building techniques and styles. Suitability was linked to representation. Throughout her analysis, German colonial architecture appears to be closely tied to the broader intellectual currents of its time in Germany.6

  • 7 For example, s.v. “Bauwesen,” in Heinrich Schnee (ed.), Deutsches Kolonial-Lexikon. URL: http://ww (...)

5Komeda shows how practical expertise and awareness of local conditions were valued by representatives of German colonial building both in the colonies and the metropole, by tracing such issues in various colonial publications and in the positions of German intermediaries, such as Heinrich Schnee.7 Furthermore, Komeda convincingly presents the networks and conditions for the use of specific materials and techniques. For example, Namibia’s scarcity of lumber for building was in conflict with its role as Germany’s most important settler colony. Air-dried bricks were among the few locally produced building materials. However, small companies based in the colonies also produced building blocks from sandstone or marble (p. 206), as well as artificial stone, although it often proved deficient. Komeda’s research also suggests that prolific construction companies like Sander & Kock could be further investigated. The fact that vocational training of local workers was banned only in Namibia and not in other German colonies reflects how construction knowledge was treated as an exclusive domain of the colonizer in the settler colony.

6In the three case studies, Komeda delves into architectural planning and styles as well as into the influences of different intermediaries and construction techniques. Despite the fact that her choice of cases reflects a focus on landmark buildings, as is still fairly common, rather than engaging with the construction of infrastructure or more mundane typologies, for example, each case represents a different colonial situation. Taken together, these cases highlight varying dynamics as contact zones.

  • 8 All three cases are discussed in Peters’ work; Itohan Osayimwese , Colonialism and Modern Architec (...)

7The first case is the government seat in Windhoek, an edifice of 1913, which has been subject of previous scholarly work.8 Komeda recapitulates the design process resulting in a building that stylistically projected contact in its translated form of power representation. She particularly focuses on the prominent colonnade and veranda as well as the overall clarified design of the so-called Tintenpalast, or “ink palace.” To Komeda, the building stands for adopting the principle of locale (Lokusprinzip), with the civil servant and architect Gottfried Redecker, born in the colony, acting as the decisive intermediary between metropolitan and local knowledges.

  • 9 Between 1904 and 1907, the German colonial state waged a genocidal extermination war against the H (...)
  • 10 Here, Komeda makes use of archival sources to move beyond Peters’ research and also makes a contri (...)

8The second case study discussed is the Protestant Christuskirche in Windhoek. It constituted an important landmark for the colonial settlers as well as for the Prussian state church. Again, we encounter Gottfried Redecker as the designer of the project. Apart from his gable designs which resemble Dutch building styles in the Cape Colony, Komeda discerns little architectural translations and adaptions in the project. Central in her discussion is the interrupted construction history of the church, due to financial and supply problems and the use of Nama and Herero forced labor following the genocidal war.9 Engaging with the question of the extent to which labor relations turned the construction site into a contact zone, she proposes this case as an exemplification of the principle of contact (Kontaktprinzip).10

  • 11 For a number of sources taken from Margarethe von Eckenbrecher’s autobiography, see Walter Peters, (...)

9The third case study deals with the rural domicile of the colonizer couple Eckenbrecher and opens the perspective to a more private contact zone. The cubical building with its dominant porticus and veranda speaks of the couple’s negotiation of their architectural ideals and local requirements. Furthermore, Komeda describes the informal layers and contacts occurring in what was a negotiated and improvised construction process: While the proprietor laid the corners of his home himself to guarantee linearity, workers of the local Damara ethnic group were involved by producing the clay tiles or laying the floor in locally common ways. To fend off termites, the window frames were executed in brick and not wood.11 (p. 303-315).

10These three case studies of Kontaktarchitektur bring important aspects into the foreground. However, Komeda’s overall focus is on the productivity of this contact for architectural innovations, and her perspective follows the concerns of the colonizers mainly, if not exclusively. As a result, our view of the violence of the colonial framework at large is obstructed. Admittedly, Komeda does preemptively emphasize the inequalities in the encounters. However, due to the focus on the construction site as a “place of accommodation” [Verständigung] and “common ground,” possibly to pursue shared goals (p. 140), such inequalities remain underexplored in her cases. Komeda indeed assumes that not only European experts directed the construction site as a “field of maneuvering,” but that Namibians also had “weight” in their contributions (p. 22) and both sides “struggled for solutions” (p. 307), but fails to substantiate this claim in some detail.

11Moreover, one could argue that her perspective overlooks the fact that the actual exchange in the design and building process did not require overlapping interests. Nor did the Germans’ need to adapt and their reliance on Namibian resources or knowledge break down hierarchies, because the colonizers could even reassert their power by flexibly integrating local knowledges. In her book, Komeda suggests the “spider” as a metaphor for common understandings of colonial architecture as a hierarchical imposition of norms. She contrasts the spider with the “network” or “web” to point to an alternative. Yet, such a binary framework ultimately shifts the attention away from the question of who structured the network or set the “translated norms” in the center of the “spider’s web.”

12This is particularly apparent in the case of the Eckenbrecher villa, where underlying questions of power relations could also have been explored. In the case of the Christuskirche, one can wonder what is gained in the first place from suggesting the construction as a common ground and contact zone. What comes to the fore from the in-depth archival research, rather, is the absence of negotiations and an overall pattern of workers’ oppression, so that the building of the church can rather be read as a counter case to the contact principle, and the productivity of contact, that Komeda suggests here.

13What is more, stylistic adaptations remain at the center of her analysis. Social implications and political connections could have been included in a more profound way, if Komeda’s research into the case studies had integrated more stringently the history of German colonial rule. Walter Peters, for instance, relates colonial architecture in Namibia more directly to its political history through the periodization of his survey, which designates the period 1904-1907 as a turning point, even though he euphemistically labels it “Years of Crisis.” Even if Komeda seeks to steer away from what she sees as bias towards questions of political rule (p. 142)―and rightly so―, her analysis could have made palpable the apparent links of all three buildings to the genocidal war within the pervading colonial order of the time, and hence complemented Peters’ broad survey.

14Since the empirical research Komeda presents does not examine the perspectives of Namibians, her application of the concept of contact architecture remains one-sided. The focus remains exclusively on German builders negotiating metropolitan knowledge and stylistic preferences with the material and social requirements immediately relevant to the building projects. In fact, the South-West German colonizer Gottfried Redecker appears as the central counterpart to the colonial metropole, so that in Komeda’s analysis the contact zone appears less a common ground between Germans and Namibians than between colonizers and the metropolitan state. Put differently, the German colonizers arrange the “third space” among themselves. Namibians do not appear as agents for themselves and with agendas of their own. A different take on reciprocal contact architecture could have explored Namibian initiative in incorporating colonial building techniques in their own buildings, for example. Admittedly, tracing the source material that would make this possible might pose a problem. Much of Namibian construction at the time was erected as temporary and has not survived to be studied, while the colonizers’ recorded interest was narrow in what they perceived as “traditional” or could be pragmatically used for themselves. However, the colonizers actually did relate to adaptions in local buildings by Namibians, describing them as “true monsters of imitated European houses” (p. 189, p. 299-300). Drawing on Homi Bhabha’s notion of “mimicry” as a subversive practice (p. 154), such constructions could be investigated with the available sources as yet another form of Kontaktarchitektur, even if Namibians “speak” to us only through the German conclusions about their own colonial building requirements (p. 168).

  • 12 Christoph Kamissek and Jonas Kreienbaum, “An Imperial Cloud? Conceptualising Interimperial Connect (...)

15One way of expanding Komeda’s research could be to open up the perspective beyond the strict connectivity between German colonizers and the metropole. While Komeda mentions on various occasions the influence of international architectural currents, her discussion would have benefitted from extending such observations to the relations with the neighboring Cape Colony in more profound ways. For it is not only possible to identify stylistic and ideational influences, but also links in networks of professional knowledge, labor, and supply (p. 271, 485, 504). Not least, in correspondence with the authorities in Berlin, German settlers compared the planning of their towns unfavorably to South Africa (p. 226). Elaborating on these connections that are currently mentioned only in passing would make it possible to link the Namibian case to discussions about trans-imperial cooperation and competition within a shared colonial framework. Such discussions are thriving in current global history-scholarship, and could serve to highlight trans-imperial learning beyond views of German imitative colonialism.12

16Another means of deepening the analysis of colonial architecture in Namibia would be to take a longer-term perspective, into the era of the South African mandate. Such a view would help explore how different actors in Namibia worked with the legacies of German colonial architecture as contact architecture. Through such a longer temporality one could start to account for questions of appropriation, but also offer a more complex historical perspective on built heritage in Namibia.

17For if the book has, first, a historiographical agenda in coining the concept of Kontaktarchitektur, Komeda also takes strong interest in connecting “contact architecture” to common notions of heritage. She criticizes the discipline and practice of heritage protection for not accounting sufficiently for processual and interactive factors in colonial construction (p. 26). To counter this rigid formal framework, the author suggests at the end of the book a model of comparison contrasting colonial architecture and the opus mixtum of contact architecture as a basis against which to assess and value the heritage in individual buildings (p. 327-330).

18As an annex to the book, Komeda adds a catalogue of 68 buildings. Each is presented with basic information, a short description, and a contemporary photograph, illustrating the current state of the buildings and its architectural influences. This catalogue enables the reader to discern stylistic adaptions and translations resulting in the building’s hybridity. However, the catalogue obscures our view of the interactive factors within a “third space” in the colonial construction process, a process that is central to Komeda’s previous analysis. As a result, this catalogue shifts the focus away from the author’s main contributions, not least as a large number of the edifices seem to represent “exceptions” as relatively unfiltered “genuine architectural exports” (p. 143-146).

19Despite these critical comments, Komeda’s book does contribute to the study of colonial architecture by exploring the potential of concepts like the “third space” and “contact zone” in the case of German Namibia, a context that so far has attracted little attention from architectural historians. Komeda’s work convincingly presents German colonial architecture as a dynamic, socially and materially embedded phenomenon. Komeda’s book has the merit of showing that the postcolonial concepts of Bhabha and Pratt still have some relevance for architectural historiography, and her analysis of colonial buildings as “contact zones” remains useful beyond the particular case of German Namibia. Yet her in-depth discussion of three well-chosen case studies does not quite meet the expectations raised by the stimulating conceptual framework, in spite of considerable empirical research. All in all, it grants too little space for Namibian voices and agency in these “contact zones.”

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1 Walter Peters, Baukunst in Südwestafrika, 1884-1914: die Rezeption deutscher Architektur in der Zeit von 1884 bis 1914 in ehemaligen Deutsch-Südwestafrika, Windhoek: Süd-West-Afrikanische Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft, 1981. Also see Andreas Vogt, National Monuments in Namibia: an Inventory of Proclaimed National Monuments in the Republic of Namibia, Windhoek: Gamsberg Macmillan, 2004.

2 Itohan Osayimwese, Colonialism and Modern Architecture in Germany, Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017 (Culture, Politics and the Built environment).

3 Komeda understands “translations” broadly, as deviations from the metropolitan normal. For separate literature using the concept, please see: Esra Akcan, Architecture in Translation: Germany, Turkey and the Modern House, Durham, NC; London: Duke University Press, 2012. For the discussion of types and norms, see Peter Scriver and Vakramaditya Prakash (eds.), Colonial Modernities: Building, Dwelling, and Architecture in British India and Ceylon, London; New York, NY: Routledge, 2007 (The Architext Series).

4 For an explicit early example of the use of Bhabha’s notion of “hybridity” in architectural history, see Patricia A. Morton, Hybrid Modernities: Architecture and Representation at the 1931 Colonial Exposition, Paris, Cambridge, MA; London: MIT Press, 2000; See also Felipe Hernández, Bhabha for Architects, London; New York, NY: Routledge, 2010 (Thinkers for Architects, 4).

5 Here, Komeda follows views on German imitated, improvised, and flexible colonialism. Russell A. Berman, Enlightenment or Empire: Colonial Discourse in German Culture, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1998 (Modern German Culture and Literature).

6 In this respect, Komeda’s book is in tune with Osayimwese’s discussion, see Itohan Osayimwese , Colonialism and Modern Architecture, op. cit. (note 2).

7 For example, s.v. “Bauwesen,” in Heinrich Schnee (ed.), Deutsches Kolonial-Lexikon. URL: Accessed 15 February 2021.

8 All three cases are discussed in Peters’ work; Itohan Osayimwese , Colonialism and Modern Architecture, op. cit. (note 2), p. 149, addresses the government seat’s negotiated construction.

9 Between 1904 and 1907, the German colonial state waged a genocidal extermination war against the Herero and Nama people. Jürgen Zimmerer, “Colonial Genocide: The Herero and Nama War (1904-1908) in German South West Africa and its Significance,” in Dan Stone (ed.), The Historiography of Genocide, London; New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan 2007, p. 323-343.

10 Here, Komeda makes use of archival sources to move beyond Peters’ research and also makes a contribution beyond Osayimwese’s by taking a religious building into view. With her use of archival sources on labor at the construction sites, Komeda edges closest to recent labor histories. Stefano Bellucci and Andreas Eckert (eds.), General Labour History of Africa: Workers, Employers and Governments, 20th-21st Centuries, Woodbridge: James Currey; Abidjan: ilo Regional Office for Africa, 2019.

11 For a number of sources taken from Margarethe von Eckenbrecher’s autobiography, see Walter Peters, Baukunst in Südwestafrika, op. cit. (note 1), p. 112-115.

12 Christoph Kamissek and Jonas Kreienbaum, “An Imperial Cloud? Conceptualising Interimperial Connections and Transimperial Knowledge,” Journal of Modern European History, vol. 14, no. 2, 2016, p. 164-182. DOI:; Daniel Hedinger and Nadin Heé “Transimperial History – Connectivity, Cooperation and Competition,” Journal of Modern European History, vol. 16, no. 4, 2018, p. 429-452. DOI:

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Paul Sprute, « Ariane Komeda, Kontaktarchitektur: Kolonialarchitektur in Namibia zwischen Norm und Übersetzung »ABE Journal [En ligne], 18 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2021, consulté le 18 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Paul Sprute

Research Associate, Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space

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