Colonial Urbanism and the Question of Race, by Michelle Brais

September 25, 2020

[Reading List]

From Colonial Urbanism to Hybrid Urbanism

The segregation of the colonizers and colonized into “white town” or the “European quarter” and “native town” or “black town” is a central tenet of “colonial urbanism,” as described in “Refiguring the Colonial City.”It is also characterized by the use of space to control the colonized. Preeti Chopra examines this phenomenon in India and its repercussions on the spatial expressions of culture for the colonies’ residents.

Homi K. Bhabha writes about the ambivalence of mimicry in colonial discourse. Mimicry is a double-edged sword.2 In colonial discourse, it is a way in which colonials take on the culture, knowledge, morals and religion of the mother colony but benefit from few if any of the rights afforded to the colonizers.It is a way of controlling the colonials and asserting colonial power by reforming them into “a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite.”4 Quoting British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, Bhabha talks of a balance of the ability to educate and reform colonials as “English in tastes, opinions, in morals and in intellect” in order to use them as labour.5 As a result, freedom is afforded to those who are English in blood and colour.

Another important concept that Bhabha writes about and is also mentioned by architectural historian Chopra is hybridity. Hybridity is a mix of Eastern and Western cultures and can be viewed as a way in which the colonized subverts certain forms of oppression.7 Both mimicry and hybridity, however, demand that the colony’s cultural identity acknowledges the colonizers’ culture and practices.8

According to Chopra, mimicry and hybridity are useful ways to interpret architectural forms in Bombay between 1854 and 1918.She argues that building and architecture during the colonial regime in India was not simply determined by the British but also shaped by local inhabitants. British architecture was reserved for the “white town” and governmental structures, but with time, it appeared in “native town” with Indic details and motifs.10 The goal of the British was to produce “mimic men” or hybrid Indian subjects. However, the strong blend of British architecture and excess of Indic motifs was threatening to colonizers as the locals took on building the city in a hybrid form that could not be distinguished from the city constructed and controlled by the British, thus endangering the hierarchy between the English and Indian identities.11 The architecture was not just an imitation of Western architecture. Rather, it developed its own aesthetic, particular to the local culture and context.12

The Co-Creation of a Common Architectural Culture

What is most interesting in Chopra’s architectural analysis is the blend of British facades and Indian interior uses. The British saw the facade of a building as the representation of the dominant culture; “the colonial regime viewed the city from the outside.”13 Further, the British wanted to create “a beautiful Bombay, a city to be admired for its grand buildings set in spacious, landscaped settings and street schemes that acted as screens for old Bombay.”14 She exposes how urban landscapes were recorded in history through white elites’ eyes, from inside a carriage, and without experiencing the inner workings of the city.15 This way of recording thus overlooks the life of the inner courts of the “native town” hybrid buildings. The buildings had inner courts whose organization and structure reflected the social, cultural and economic realities of the locals, while boasting British-inspired facades.16 The author sees these structures as examples of “transculturation” (similar to hybridity) that suggest a loss of culture to create a new culture.17 However, it is also a way in which colonials mould and adapt British culture to their needs, which act to subvert the power of that dominant culture.18 So, it may seem as though the landscape is dominated by British imagery and culture, but in reality, many of the diverse facets of local life are preserved. Also, hybrid architecture blurs the lines between the segregated “white town” and “native town,” to make way for the construction of co-created “native urbanism” instead.19

The Current Interpretation of these Hybrid Structures: What Do They Mean and Whom Do We Recognize as their Creators

When India decolonized, it was common practice to change the names of buildings, institutions, streets, stations and cities. Was this is an attempt to appropriate British architecture further into local culture? Or is it to signify a change in power structures? Or was it an attempt to erase part of British culture in India? Is the creation of a hybrid culture empowering in a colony or should the local people strive to dismantle all colonial imagery? What hold does British architecture have on interpreting local culture and power dynamics? Can the significance of structures change over time?

Debates on cultural appropriation and authenticity sometimes suggest that there are “pure” versions of food, architecture, and language, for example, that should remain untouched and as if they are not the product of a blend of cultures. We should perhaps use language such as inspiration and creativity to describe the intermingling of cultures.  In this way, the mixing of architectural styles and place-making subverts the power of the British in Bombay. The British prided themselves on knowing Indian culture and being able to adapt it to their buildings as a sign of superiority.20 Meanwhile, local communities showed that they could adapt the British aesthetic to their own needs. Architecture thus acted as a type of intellectual equalizer. It was most likely the key to push past British architecture’s role in colonial urbanism instead of making it integral to “native urbanism.” Chopra shows that colonies are not simply victims of the colonizers. Local communities can be active creators of space and culture in the colonies, their contributions should be studied and highlighted as well and their points of view recounted.


Preeti Chopra, “Refiguring the Colonial City: Recovering the Role of Local Inhabitants in the Construction of Colonial Bombay, 1854-1918,” Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum 14, no. 1 (2007), 109.

Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” October 28 (1984), 126.



5 Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Minute on education,” Sources of Indian tradition 2 (1835), 49.

Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” 28.

Amardeep Singh, “Mimicry and Hybridity in Plain English.” Lehigh University (blog), May 8 2009, Accessed September 21, 2020.


Chopra, “Refiguring the Colonial City,” 119.

10 Ibid, 118.

11 Ibid, 123.

12 Ibid, 123.

13 Ibid, 115.

14 Ibid, 117.

15 Ibid, 110.

16 Ibid, 117.

17 Ibid, 119.

18 Ibid, 123.

19 Ibid, 119.

20 Ibid, 121.

13 responses to “Colonial Urbanism and the Question of Race, by Michelle Brais”

  1. Muhammad Awan says:

    Much like every other aspect of the lives of the colonized that the colonizers were trying to control, they of course also established control over the use of space. You did a fantastic job of unpacking how this effort to control space was in fact mainly an effort to control cultural identity, whereby the colonized were expected to take on the culture, knowledge and morals of the colonizers. This is also evident in the way these buildings were organized – with the interior being reflective of the society and culture of the locals, and the exterior being reflective of the colonizer’s culture. This, for me, was evidence that it was not just about transplanting and mimicking the colonizer’s culture, but also very much about controlling what local pedestrians see on a daily basis, that then shapes their thoughts and feelings about being oppressed, thereby in effect subverting the dominant culture.

    Finally, on the topic of ‘hybrid’ structures, it’s interesting that the debate could go either way: on the one hand it could be seen as “transculturation” – the loss of one culture to create a new culture, and on the other hand it could be seen as an act of defiance and necessary innovation whereby the local communities adapted the British aesthetic to their needs and in doing so were co-creators of their space. In this regard, I agree with your final point that the contributions and viewpoints of the ‘co-creators’ need to be recounted in order to gain a deeper understanding.

  2. Andrew Ashbury says:

    I really appreciated the clear theoretical background and examples in Amardeep Singh’s essay on Homi K. Bhabha’s terminology. This piece was extremely helpful for me to better understand “mimicry” and “hybridity” as complex terms and frameworks for these topics, for studying architecture and culture within colonial and postcolonial contexts. Singh points optimistically to how cultural hybridity can offer a “creative way of expressing cosmopolitanism or eclecticism” and this certainly resonates for architecture. I am keen to learn more about these theoretical frameworks and cultural dynamics, and in particular to explore where cultural appropriation fits within these dynamics of cultural hybridity. Appropriation feels like an important dimension of architecture, often overlooked perhaps because it is so common—as a design explores cultural references or vernacular features for example—operating within these complex dynamics of identity and cultural hybridity. Thank you for pointing us towards Preeti Chopra’s studies of cultural hybridity in Mumbai and the fascinating adaptations and reinterpretations of colonial architecture by local communities.

  3. Ke Yan Ye says:

    Colonial and local contributions to the urban experience of Bombay between 1854 and 1918 were fragmented in space as examined by Preeti Chopra. While the British sought to create a legible urban landscape by determining a new road scheme and facade uniformity, the local communities still used the urban quarters according to their needs and customs without physical separation from domestic life and community life. While none of the cultures dominated the other, what was even more striking to me was to examine the actors involved in the process of hybridity. Chopra highlighted that ‘strict uniformity is usually imposed when a neighborhood or city is designed by the singular vision of an individual’. This manifests in the way colonizers represent a restricted group of people of power that looked at the city from the outside but also proves the ignorance of actual urban experience by the people utilizing the space that translate oftentimes in multi experiences.

  4. Aamirah says:

    I found Chopra’s writing incredibly useful in understanding how colonialism manifests itself through architecture and the use of space. It led me to question how many spaces and buildings I admired as expressions of Indian culture were in fact products of British colonization. The term ‘hybridity’ while in some cases may imply the loss of culture, in the context of architecture and design it could also be indicative of acts of resistance in response to attempts to erase or rather hide the existence of a culture in history. Though it may be subtle, local influence and reconfiguration of British structures can give visibility to voices that would otherwise remain silent, consequently transforming the narratives that were so deliberately planned and constructed by the British. Chopra also writes of the coherence that can lie within community and local relationships rather than solely outward appearance, leading me to consider the multitude of ways in which design can follow suit by beginning from the interior out rather than vice versa. Architecture as an intellectual equalizer as you mentioned, requires that local communities are active contributors. We need to explore, design and create ways to give these communities the means to contribute if we want to see “native urbanism” and feel local culture within space.

  5. Michael Nugent says:

    Thank you for organizing the readings this week, I found the Bhabha reading particularly insightful. The use of hybridity (particularly in duality between interior/exterior design) as a means of subverting certain forms of oppression seems to be a one of the clearest manifestations of the surplus or “difference” which Bhabha describes as the key to colonial mimicry. As the perception of the hybridized city from the colonizers perspective is almost entirely from the exterior, ie, the ‘colonial state’, while the ‘surplus space’ of the interiors becomes the subject of post-colonial discourse. It draws an unfortunate parallel to set design, in which the focus is entirely on the perceived exterior, and what is behind ‘does not matter’. Socio-spatially this just acts to reinforce the oppression as it draws a clear distinction between the threshold of the ‘colonial city’ and the domestic/private domain of the colonized. While yes, this provides a means to subvert direct oppressions, it also functions to concretized and normalized it within the morphology of the city, therefore preserving and embedding that oppression within the cultural psyche of future generations.

    Many former commonwealth nations are currently attempting to address issues around truth and reconciliation, New Zealand in particularly has worked with its Maori communities to incorporate indigenous housing/planning typologies into some of its new developments. The question becomes: How to do this without the “hybridization” or reinforcing an “othering” within indigenous architecture/planning that memorializes a legacy of oppression?

    On a different note, these readings made me think about what “colonization” actually means. Being raised/educated within the colonial legacy of Canada/Ontario, colonization, or the act of establishing a colony, was taught and treaded as a neutral term. However the legacy of subjection, oppression, marginalization, and often genocide, of the indigenous people is the primary focus of post/de-colonialization discourse. It raises the questions whether “colonization” is about the establishment of a colony, or the subjugation of a people under and empire? Our discourse deals with the latter, but what about establishing a colony in a truly uninhabited place? Are the research bases in Antarctica considered acts of colonization? Would creating a colony on the moon or a different planet, both from sci-fi, or the very real plans of public and private space agencies be considered “colonization” in the same vein we are discussing it.

  6. Genna Kalvaitis says:

    After reading both texts on colonialism, I am left with many questions about hybrid culture and urbanism. I appreciate how complex and nuanced cultural growth is. Chopra clearly outlines the ignorant, misguided and disconnected behaviour of British colonizers in India; their refusal to understand the complexities of the local urban system, forcing “solutions” that impeded local way of life, etcetera. The reality remains that these horrible interventions occurred, and cultural hybrids resulted. The focus of the discussion becomes about the very real and prevalent aftermath of colonialism.

    I am challenged by many of the questions Michelle poses in her essay; are hybrid structures a way to signify a change in power structures? Are they empowering or should they be dismantled? What does it mean when this mimicry occurs in western culture? It is important to be mindful of meaningless appropriation here. Power is a factor that must be considered when it comes to mimicry and hybridisation of culture. Both texts and this essay bring many important questions about the aftermath of colonialism to the forefront and I am looking forward to continuing this dialogue.

  7. Christina Mahut says:

    felt as though history could be told very differently if it was done through the lens of architecture, rather than politics. This adaptability, of both the colonizers and the colonials, highlighted a more hopeful and optimistic view of “cohabitation of cultures”.
    I’m also compelled by the notions of mimicry, that became much easier to grasp after reading Amardeep Singh’s essay Mimicry and Hybridity in Plain English. It seems that integration and imitation of colonizer’s behaviors, culture, religions, is analogous to that of the architecture: native on the inside, and white on the outside, and over time becoming a hybrid of both.
    While not quite the same narrative or context, these ideas made me think about the history that underlies the current dynamics in Quebec, where a hybrid culture has always lived. This fear of being absorbed by another culture, of losing our power, but also of integrating and appropriate the practices of the “other” is what has come to shape this unique bilingual province. It becomes clear that every culture, through its architecture, practices and language, is a mix of others.

  8. Olivera Neskovic says:

    I really appreciate your succinct and thorough response to the two readings, as well as your inclusion of Singh’s breakdown of Mimicry and Hybridity. The combination of readings really helped to reveal the historical nuances in architectural styles.
    It was interesting to expand my understanding of hybridization in architecture as also a form of defiance and resistance and subversion of the power imposed by the oppressive colonizer. It also goes to show to what extent we do not recognize colonials as individuals with their own power to reshape and reinterpret their environments when we simply refer to them as “victims of colonialism”.
    One question I grasped onto while reading the piece by Chopra, which you also included at the end of your post is: Can the significance of structures change over time? This ties in nicely with last week’s discussion of monuments and their place in contemporary social landscapes. In architecture school, we often analyze architecture in post-colonial countries in a very Eurocentric way, without considering all the active participants in the construction and urbanization of those places.
    The examples Chopra offers of the Hari Bagh and entry gate of the Krishna Bagh, are designed by colonials, and demonstrate their innovative mastery of the architectural styles imposed upon Bombay. Often in contemporary Western teachings of architecture, we are taught that unnecessary ornamentation and lack of purity is not considered “real architecture”, but in the case of Bombay, the ornamentation actually reflects the historical realities of that era more than the seemingly “pure” architectural styles introduced by the British colonizers. In studying architecture of post-colonial countries in this way, we can begin to reallocate our attention to the invisible builders and designers of contemporary urban societies.
    My question after these readings is: How can we imagine a more organic and democratic way to design spaces that take the social, cultural, environmental, and energetic dynamics of architecture into account?

  9. Tara Selvaraj says:

    Hybridity and mimicry have become part of Indian cultural identity. Beyond architecture, this applies to the schools attended, and the naming of cities. Singh states “Mimicry is often seen as something shameful, and a black or brown person engaging in mimicry is usually derided by other members of his or her group for doing so.” Recent debate, not entirely different from that of North America, regarding re-appropriating names and spaces back to their indigenous roots, has been happening in India for decades. Should this hybrid identity be worn with pride?

    Bhabha talks of a balance of the ability to educate and reform colonials as “English in tastes, opinions, in morals and in intellect” in order to use them as labour. This use of Indian craftsmen and builders as labour to actualize the designs of the British. This, along with the fact that architectural history in India was first written by colonizers (Fergusson and Havell) who lacked knowledge on the local building process, has led to a biased history. Bhabha states “Local communities can be active creators of space and culture in the colonies, their contributions should be studied and highlighted as well and their points of view recounted.” Studying pre-colonial, and post-colonial architecture in India is a difficult task, as until recently the voice of local communities that understand the organizational structure or building process that was employed, has not been highlighted. Even today, most of Indian architectural history is told adjacent to colonialism, or modernism. Are we going to continue to study the east from the perspective of the west?

    In the efforts of re-learning or un-learning, I would like to highlight contemporary Indian architects that have parted from colonial practices. Recent Pritzker prize winner Balakrishna Doshi has brought attention to his post-colonial practice referred to as critical regionalism. At the 2016 Venice Biennale, Studio Mumbai showcased how they study local materials and trades in a “bottom-up approach that encourages the upper classes to embrace local crafts and skills as a sign of quality, rather than insisting on global technologies and building innovations.”

  10. Zoe Goodman says:

    In her essay Michelle asks “Is the creation of a hybrid culture empowering in a colony or should the local people strive to dismantle all colonial imagery?” I find this question particularly interesting in relation to Preeti Chopra’s writing. Chopra explains that the British became uncomfortable with the Indian use of architectural elements taken from European architecture. This mimicry of European architecture displayed a certain degree of knowledge and playfulness which gave power to the colonized. Amardeep Singh’s reflection on the Bhaba reading also touches on this. She explains that members of a colonized society mimic people in power because they hope to have access to that power themselves. Mimicry can be seen as a performance that exposes the artificiality of colonizers symbolic expressions of power. Does maintaining this hybrid culture after decolonization help to acknowledge a colonial past and place the power into the hands of the colonized?

  11. Jugal Patel says:

    In Bhabha’s ‘Of mimicry and man’, I am simultaneously impressed and confused by a piece that weaves together bits from, what are in my opinion, incompatible philosophies of Edward Said & Frantz Fanon with John Locke. While obviously not contradictory in what’s being said in the piece, I’m not sure what we gain from Locke’s duality on ‘slave’. To understand my reservations, maybe it’s important to consider if ‘the dream of post-Enlightenment civility’ is genuine to begin with.
    Unnecessary criticisms aside, I agree with the authors in thinking there is value in words like mimicry and hybridity. While I’m absolutely sold on mimicry (as fan of Fanon) I wonder what exactly it will mean to call a culture hybrid. Even at the scale of a building or community: are buildings with ‘British’ facades hybrid if material realities of the place are irrefutably Indian? Existentially and at the scale of the individual, I wonder if mixed-raced students of colour have similar concerns? Is your experience bi-racial or simply racialized, like mine? Do you need a white mask to engage w broader society? Maybe my core concern is wrt to negation of a culture: I do not accept loss of culture to create another, as is with transculturation. Consider snowmobiles in Nunavut – while they have reshaped cultural practices around food and who participates in hunting, I don’t think Inuit culture is suddenly hybridized.
    In terms of adequately mimicking or creating increasingly indistinguishable ‘hybrid’ architecture, I prefer to think of it as colonized people displaying mimicry as a feature of their resilience – not that their experience is existentially challenged or are producing a hybridized form (away from their own). To be frank, I know nothing about the sort of impacts architects consider; but how important is it to you that certain types of material forms and art are defined by their geographies? Also, how sure are we that uniformity didn’t matter to Indians? Jaipur’s Pink city is not the only example of this in India; additionally, not all are top-down. Maybe we were/are unable to consider all forms of uniformity? Have to ask: how valuable is this narrative as it reinforces coloniality – in how we discuss India and the East.
    Btw, did the British really know Indian culture at all? As far as I’m concerned, they came to India, built what they could (perhaps as an exercise of power), and proceeded to have their urbanism rejected as Indians carried on with White Masks; both on their faces and buildings.

  12. Rachel Law says:

    Bhabha’s text “Of Mimicry and Men” reminded me of the many conversations within the Asian-American community of the dialectic “model minority-yellow peril” stereotypes, with Asian diaspora transforming themselves from menaces to model citizens, from unassimilable aliens into decorated allies (particular in comparison with Blacks). This struggle for identity can be seen in Chopra’s example of architecture in Bombay, with the façade mimicking the colonized while the interior still holds the values inherent in the native culture and community.
    However, the biggest take-away from Bhabha’s text for me was his characterization of the relationship between colonizer and colonized. It is ambivalent. Ambivalence suggests that complicity and resistance exists in a fluctuating relation within the colonial subject.
    This is, of course, disruptive in the eyes of the colonizer, which looks for a submissive in its colonial subjects. Ambivalence decentres authority from its position of power.
    So inevitably one must ask when does mimicry become hybridity? Does it arrive when the power relations shift between the colonizer and the colonial subject?
    It is important to note that the hybrid structures illustrated by Chopra were all spaces of power: government buildings, institutions, etc. The reclaiming of these symbols of power was a deliberate disruption of the homogeneity which the Western colonizers sought to achieve; a step towards decolonization.
    Ultimately, while most if not all of the discussions around hybridity focus on issues of identity through architectural style, it may be more productive to instead speak on space and the social processes through which it is constituted. How do we shift from an imposed colonial perspective of construction to one that is crafted, shaped and championed by local communities?

  13. Christopher Clarke says:

    Colonists often construct cities over top of those of the colonized as a way to subjugate the Indigenous population into mimicking their culture, values, and mannerisms. Furthermore, design and construction of infrastructure deliberately creates a display of their dominance and permanence, ensuring the reinforcement of their rule. This is excellently portrayed in those papers we reviewed and can be clearly seen anywhere that colonization has occurred.

    In the photo displayed, we see that display of dominance in the community of Fort Resolution, NWT. This is where my grandmother was taken to for residential school, and where my mother would have been taken had my grandparents not moved there permanently, ensuring my mother was not forcibly removed from them. Here, you can see the dominance of the church over the traditional dwellings of my people through its size and grandeur. Additionally, with the traditional dwellings designed to be transportable, the church of the Canadian missionary is purposefully permanent.

    Displays of dominance are created by the insertion of architectural interventions, which completely disrupted the lives of those they subjugated. Chopra discusses this in regard to Memon women. Already not permitted to be seen my men, they are further subjugated by the colonizer through the construction of a street dividing their neighbourhood. In doing so, this would create a more public streetscape, causing the women to be seen by men if using it. However, women would likely then avoid this new street, causing a fissure through the community for women, as they would then be separated from those on the other side.

    The power of colonial urbanism as a mechanism for subjugation is apparent and widespread. It is used deliberately as a tool to teach those being colonized the new culture they are expected to emulate, and it ensures that they are at all times reminded they have new rule. Also, it is meant to alter the lives of the subjugated, and in doing so, the colonized appease their oppressors through mimicry of that dominant culture.

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