Lecture 1. Architecture and Nation Building in Asia

This lecture explores the ways in which architecture and built environments are used as a medium for social and political agenda, particularly in the Asian context. Since the 19th century, modern Asian nation state formation has encompassed a variety of processes, viz. the consolidation of monarchical centers, the dissolution of European colonial powers, democratization, modernization, and the engagement with international diplomacies. Architectural projects have been an important site through which national and collective identities have been formed and social and political relationships produced, enforced, and reinforced. Though Asia has been home to ancient civilizations and has vast and complex architectural histories, the period of nation building promises a specific historical phase, which witnessed an active search of new architectural expressions for the specific purpose of outward transnational projection as well as an emerging as a medium for unifying the imaginary of the newly independent countries. The architectural sites were broadly similar as well. One the one hand were formal political projects such as parliament buildings and memorials, while on the other were cultural institutions such as theatres, libraries and places of recreation such as sports complexes and carnivals. The function, design, and production of these architectural works were underpinned by important messages of societal and technological advancement, and over time, became symptomatic of the political power of the state. In this lecture, we draw out two key thematic threads. First, we discuss how national identity was articulated through the choice of specific architectural forms and functions, which range from the employment of modernist forms as a clear rejection of local architectures, to varied appropriations and abstractions of vernacular and traditional iconographies within tropes of modern architecture. Second, we discuss how building technologies and materials were employed and expressed as a demonstration of a nation’s political prowess. These themes are further nuanced by establishing in each case how political symbolism was and is a contested terrain, both during the moment of conception but also through the subsequent political history of the architectural work. We also discuss the local, national, and transnational networks in the interplay of which these architectural works were produced. In doing so, we problematize the ‘national’ as not a narrowly defined or localized force but a wider set of strategic alignments and complex context of instrumentalities.

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