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.

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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.

3Ibid.

4Ibid.

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. https://www.lehigh.edu/~amsp/2009/05/mimicry-and-hybridity-in-plain-english.html

Ibid.

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.

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