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A Transcultural Methodology

The Musée Finot in Hanoi, built by Ernest Hébrard and Charles Batteur in 1931 (Source: Le Brusq 1999)

To write a transcultural historiography of colonial architecture, we approach the European-Asian colonial arena (1850-1950, British-India, French-Indochina, the Dutch-Indies and German-China) with a multi-polar concept of space in global art history that goes beyond geography-fixed area studies and the model of a one-way transfer from the metropole (sender) to the colony (receiving container). We conceptualize architectural ‘colonial style’ not as a formal result in obligatory reference to hermetically enclosed territories of nation-states but as a process and transcultural phenomenon that is, acknowledging the abstract structural/systemic analogy of centre-periphery-relations (external and internal colonialisms in different modernisms), informed by multi-centred and multi-peripheral contact and net-like exchange situations: between the European metropole and its Asian colony, the colony and its regions, the mother country’s capital and its provinces, between the different peripheries and centres themselves, and finally, in cross-colonial contact zones of European and Asian world/colonial and international art/design exhibitions.

As a consequence, the global phenomenon of ‘colonial style’ comprises a) different ‘neo-styles’ (Indo-Saracenic style in British-India, Style Indochinois in Indochina, the Indische Style in the Dutch-Indies etc.) inside the colonies as innovative architectural laboratories that influenced the metropole, and b) ‘regionalistic styles’ in the European mother countries.

In both ‘colonial’ style formations, ‘traditions’ of local material, vernacular construction, handicraft and decoration were re-configurated (re-invented) through the practices of mapping, cataloguing, classifying, collecting, exhibiting, and finally re-materialising in ephemeral exhibitionary complexes or permanent hybrid architecture. An systemic enquiry into the transcultural agency of these translational practices compares different political/scientific institutions and social entities like urban planning departments, art schools, museums, exhibitions and individual ‘cultural brokers’ such as architects, art historians and teachers, and is directly linked with the analysis of the wide variety of media (from photographs, travel/sketch/pattern books and drawings to colonial congresses on architectural aesthetics, school curricula and building norms, from real and re-made architectural objects, interior spaces of museum parcours to ephemeral/permanent public buildings and architectural/urban ensembles). In map, analyse and compare these colonial-regionalistic formations in colonial and the metropolitan settings, we apply the image- and sequence oriented method of the picturesque to incorporate all different, fluid and manifest representations of ‘colonial style’ into one object family of transcultural investigation.