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Introduction: towards decolonised narratives of architectural excellence

Decolonising geographies of architectural knowledge

Throughout history, right of conquest and/or colonising policies, behaviours, and practices often resulted in major fissures in the world order. With regard to European conquests and annexations, such actions frequently resulted in charting the hierarchy of the progressive European self in relation to the so- called retarded non-European ‘other.’ This hierarchy was underpinned by the “question of difference” and, ultimately, became the lens through which the notion of subservient “subaltern histories” was conceived (Chakrab- arty, 2000:93). Such hierarchical forms of governing, usually manifested at the geographical level, would then become institutionalised, even in the post-war era, in the humanities and historical canons. On the geopolitical level, the usage of the term “Third World” in a 1952 article entitled “Three Worlds, One Planet” by the French demographer Alfred Sauvy resulted in a vociferous response by colonised nations to establish “a forceful ideology,” thereby creating a monolithic identity (Lu, 2010:2).' In simple terms, ‘First World’ nations are considered to be ‘developed’ nations, while those in the ‘Third World’ were viewed as ‘developing’ nations. This ‘division’ or separation of the world into three entities is further supported by Michael Denning’s assertion that between 1945 and 1989, world order changed and “the world was [now] divided into three sectors - the capitalist first world, the communist second world, and the decolonising third world” (Denning, 2004:2).

On a historical and theoretical level, 19th-century Western Europe was fascinated by what was termed orientalism, a fanciful, glorified yet distorted and stereotypical view and imagery of peoples of the East that was represented in literature, architecture, painting, and the decorative arts. Because of these fanciful artistic and literary images, Europeans viewed Asians, Arabs, Ottomans, and Muslims and, in particular, those who lived in North Africa (Algeria, Morocco, Libya, and Tunisia), the Middle East (Egypt, Persia, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq), Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent as exotic, mysterious, and decadent. The latter lived in mainly Hindu or Muslim kingdoms, princely states, sultanates, khanates, or emirates under the rule of the British Raj. Orientalist imagery elaborated and exaggerated fundamental differences and distinctions between East and West in terms of culture, customs, people, and religion. Peoples and cultures of the East were depicted and propagated as exotic and somewhat alluring, yet backward and wanton.

One of the most famous examples is a rather suggestive orientalist work, The Snake Charmer, by the French impressionist artist Jean-Leon Gerome, painted around 1879. The oil painting depicts a young boy standing on a carpet, facing a wall of bright blue ceramic tiles, his back to the viewer and a snake coiled around his naked torso. Lewdly gazing at him are several old men with rifles, slumped on the floor (Jones, 2012). To his right, an old man is playing a fipple flute, presumably to charm the snake. Some unclear inscriptions are on the wall tiles; one section has larger text identified as verses from the holy book, the Qur’an (2:256) condemning coercion towards Islamic monotheism. An article by Linda Nochlin, “The Imaginary Orient” in Art in America (May 1983), asserted that Gerome’s painting reinforced and fed on Western notions of a licentious East. Nochlin considers the painting to be an unrealistic and fantasist representation of the West’s colonial ideology (Nochlin, 1983). The curious painting graced the front cover of the late Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism. Professor Said, highly critical of imperialist regimes and attitudes they propagated by their titillating interpretations of orientalism, argued, “Orientalism overrode the Orient” (Said, 1979:96). He further claimed, “European culture was able to manage - and even produce - the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period.” Said believed that the “authoritative” position of orientalism imposed “limitations on thought and action” (Said, 1979:3) which negatively affected Western ideology and attitudes towards Eastern cultures for centuries.

This blinkered vision of Eastern cultures resulted in Eurocentricity - envisioning the world from a single honoured opinion that avers Europe as the sole and superior source of knowledge and enlightenment while at the same time dismissing and denigrating the achievements of other cultures. Sir Bannister Fletcher, an English architect as well as an architectural historian, was a 19th-century ideological Eurocentric. His classic reference tome, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method, published in London (1895), reinforced notions of European superiority and monopolisation of knowledge as valid and significant. The book’s original cover had a Caesar- like figure, with a crown of laurels, sitting upon his throne as the supreme purveyor of architectural design. Fletcher disdainfully attributed all valid world architectural styles to European influences and history. For Fletcher, Europe was the focal point of a superior civilisation; he stressed that European ideals were the only true source of ontological reality and cultural value.

Contemptuous culturally biased proponents like Fletcher and imagery- driven orientalist painters and writers dominated and influenced people’s perceptions and misconceptions of the East and its rich and diverse cultural riches and richness for decades. Eurocentric approaches refute the epistemic diversity of the world; indeed, many modern post-colonial capitalist, Western-centric societies perceive the world as mono-epistemic, and think this can be remedied by colonising, subalternising, and influencing non-Western traditions of thought. This process of cultural imprinting has been practised throughout history as nations invaded, conquered, appropriated, controlled, governed, and impacted other nations, societies, and cultures.

Cultural imperialism was also prevalent in ancient times, for example, in pharaonic Egypt, Mesopotamia, Mongolia, China, the Indus Valley, and Vedic and Moghul India, as well as ancient Greece, Rome, Persia, and Islamic Andalusia and North Africa. Even the Norsemen swooped down from their icy climes to conquer parts of what are now France, Germany, and Great Britain. All of these conquering civilisations left their cultural mark on the vanquished, the colonised, and the ruled, but none more so than the Europeans. As Europeans became more educated, literate, ambitious, and adventurous, they crossed the seas and traversed the continents to spread their Eurocentric notions of superiority and thereby gained worldwide influence and acceptance. This continued to be the case, particularly during the Renaissance in the 16th century, the Enlightenment in the 18th century, industrialisation and modernisation throughout the 19th and the 20th century, and neo-liberalism and post-colonialism in the late 20th century. This type of widespread cultural dissemination and imprinting can create a problem of generalisation and universalisation of knowledge, and disposes locality and specificity, resulting in reducing anthropological forms into a “dominant system of knowledge” (Apffel-Marglin, 1996:33). In the architectural discipline, this attitude diminishes, negates, and even eliminates indigenous styles.

In addition, attitudes of superiority and Eurocentrism create real and valid concerns and complications; two main responses emerge: “The first is the disclosure of the Eurocentric problematic of modern intellectual life; the second is the emergence of anti-Eurocentric mode of thought” (Hostet- tler, 2014:2). For example, Marshal Hodgson, an American historian who specialised in Islamic studies, firmly denounced “the westward distortion in history,” which requires interrogation of the “interdependent, interregional developments” in world history (Hodgson, 1954:117). Such views were validated by the rigorous study of Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350, Parts 1250-1350, in which she noted that the rise of political exchange and influence of both Europe and China had already reached its peak in the opening decades of the 14th century.2

Edward Said’s Orientalism, an important and influential work of intellectual history and theoretical complexities, was “intended as a dramatized retrieval of a contested past” and present status quo (Hussein, 2002:229). Orientalism outlined “asymmetrical” socio-cultural powers and condemned the “fictional reality” of the Orient (Said, 1979:54). These sovereign, and peculiarly European, assumptions are refuted by Dipesh Chakrabarty in his influential book, Provincializing Europe (2000), in which he dismisses the notion of a mythical superior Europe as the original site of knowledge and modernity. Instead, Chakrabarty highlights Europe’s ability to absorb values and notions from other cultures, noting that the transition to capitalism in the Western world was accompanied by a ceaseless process of “translation” - a translation of thought - organisation, categorisation, and self- understandings (Chakrabarty, 2000:71).

In this way, claims Geyer, a German historian at the University of Chicago, world history has to be liberated from the “optical illusion” of both narrow regional attitudes and dominant Eurocentric hierarchies (Geyer, 2018:55). This call for liberation or decolonisation of knowledge was earlier emphasised after the end of Communism and the dissolution of the USSR. Czech statesman and writer Vaclav Havel asserted in an article, “The End of the Modern Era” published in the New York Times (1992), that now is the end of “the era of arrogant absolutist reason” (Havel, 1992:15). NgiigT wa Thiong’o, a well-known Kenyan academic, stated that colonial cultures are always struggling between two mutually opposed forces: “imperialist tradition” and “resistance tradition.” He also averred that “imperialism is total: it has economic, political, military, cultural and psychological consequences for the people of the world today” (Thiong’o, 1986:87). In addition, he argues that colonised cultures are always in a “quest for relevance.” He defined this quest as the “search for liberating perspective within which to see ourselves clearly in a relationship to ourselves and to other selves in the universe” (Thiong’o, 1986:87).

This ‘quest for liberation’ resonates with the call to decolonisation posited by Frantz Fanon, the French-Martiniquais post-colonial writer, psychiatrist, and philosopher, in his seminal anti-colonial work, The Wretched of the Earth (Fanon, 2001). Fanon suggests that during the decolonisation process, the intellectual “must press on until he reaches that place of bubbling trepidation from which knowledge will emerge” (Fanon, 1965:161). This kind of knowledge, in all aspects, then will spur from a resistance to orientalism and Eurocentric notions; such a reactionary response will either be in the form of emphasis on the self, and nationally indigenous roots, or in the form of merging with the other First/Western World, or globalisation. On the one hand, the institutionalisation of identity results from the emphasis on self, on the other, merging with the Other, or globalisation, as highlighted by Denning, has resulted in “the lineaments of the global cultures that emerged as three worlds gave way to one” (Denning, 2004:282).

The built environment in various nations and contexts has been characterised by diversity whereby the architecture of numerous cultures has been emulated and subsequently materialised in polarised representations of tradition/modernity, or Islamic/Western. These variations have allowed for a more hybrid architectural vocabulary. This hybridity of diverse forms conforms to Fanon’s rationale for decolonisation that went beyond the obsession with Europe’s affectations. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon dismissed the notion of a universal standard of culture and civilisation. In fact, he asserts, decolonisation is “a nuanced process” (Craggs and Wintle, 2018:2) that encompasses discursive values of engagement and denial. It combines both the denial of the ‘retained imperial characteristics’ and the engagement with the “ambivalent agendas” (Craggs and Wintle, 2018:2). Consequently, the process of decolonisation refutes any fixed universal category or culture. This hybridity, as viewed by Fanon, is regarded as a dynamic opposition to hegemonic colonial perceptions and a non-assimilationist way of building connections across cultures (Fanon, 1965).

Architecturally speaking, the idea of an Islamic architecture or Islamic city was first categorised by the orientalists’ canon; later raised in national discourses, this classification was questioned by the rise of international architecture, cosmopolitanism, and globalisation. These later constructs liberated the discipline of architecture from the older, fixed models and acknowledged the impact of different world orders - colonial empires or nation-states - on the production of architectural knowledge. In adopting these other conceptualisations in their work, non-Western architects continue to adopt, change, and modify, and thus display their wide range of innovative and adaptive skills. However, for some, the “unrepresentability” of the “non-West” is still relevant in the context of the Eurocentric canon, as it exposes the difficulty of a truly global architecture (Rifkind and Haddad, 2014:131).

In an attempt for a new understanding of the changing scope of the discipline of architecture and the diversity of locations within which its knowledge base develops, it is argued that the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA) is the prime exemplar that strives to relocate Islamic societies within the fluctuating geographies of architectural narratives. The underlying thrust on instituting a global change in the geography of architectural knowledge has been inspired by the Award’s recognition of the multiplicity of architectural and urban responses produced within a variety of social, cultural, and economic environments within the Islamic world.

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