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Comparative Global Modern Empires

Comparative Global Modern Empires

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Lectures (7)

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The Overview

Empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries dominated vast territories and millions of human beings. In 1938 Western Europe, the US, and Japan together colonized 42% of the earth’s land area and 32% of its population. Overlaying territories with planned cities and building programs constituted major work in a process of colonialist exploitation that depended on imbalanced power dynamics and violence of which cities and architecture are the physical embodiment. They are both power and providence. Although the critical evaluation of European empires and their colonial architecture has become popular amongst scholars in recent decades, this critique remains absent in broader histories of global modern architecture. Jean-Louis Cohen, who through his groundbreaking work helped popularize the study of colonial-era architecture, considers the material to be “architecture in a colonial situation,” rather than distinctively colonial or somehow separate from contemporary metropolitan architectural discourse and practice. Cohen encourages comparative analysis and attention to broad “diachronic lines of continuity” so as to avoid limitations imposed by narrow focuses that can create historiographic and analytical “optical illusions.”

Mindful of Cohen’s suggestions, this GAHTC Module presents selected architectures and cities built within the territories colonized by France, the Netherlands, Britain, and Italy, organized in a comparative and typological fashion, in order to subvert the common categories of colonial power, continent, or chronology and to foster a deeper understanding of colonialism and its ongoing effects on architecture and society. Case studies primarily draw on material from Algiers, Tunis, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, New Delhi, Hanoi, Semarang, and Melbourne, as well as the metropolitan capitals of Paris, London, and Rome.

The seven-part lecture module includes an introduction to colonialism and the state of the field, in addition to thematic presentations dedicated to public urban infrastructures, housing, religious and ritual spaces, commercial structures, and green spaces. The post-colonial context is also addressed in order to illustrate the salience of this material. The module aims to highlight similarities and differences in Europe’s empires in terms of guiding philosophies and built environments, and to reveal the truly global nature of such systems. Improved understandings of the postcolonial condition, neocolonialism, and the enduring power of inherited colonial-era built environments will be made possible by the use of this module.

Assessment activities intended to reinforce lecture content and expand upon thematic content include lecture quizzes and essay assignments. Readings are broadly applicable and have been selected to facilitate conversation and analysis in coordination with lecture themes, rather than to offer architectural details and city-based content.