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The Link Between Colonisation and Modernism in Architecture

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While colonization is often characterized by the establishment of a central power defining the social, spatial and economic processes of a society, it is only the basis upon which societies begin to develop their own identity. “In a world where institutions are reflected in building types” (Blundell Jones, Peter, 2002, 241), we recognize the importance of spatial categorization and architectural design in establishing hierarchies relevant to subsequent societies. Through the comparison of various texts, this essay will explore the relationship between Colonialism and societies successive developments in the shape of architectural styles concerning cultural influences, specifically in the period of modernity.

Modernism is an international movement that emerged as a response to global changes as well as social and technological advancements. Emerging in the 1920s, the architectural style emphasizes function, simplicity and rationality; it defined a new way of thinking relevant to the cultural advancements at the time. The development of modernism appeared to spark controversy where according to Peter Blundell Jones, all of a sudden, the “local food market was largely an anachronism”, posing the question of “what the public realm is or could be… as we have witnessed the erosion of its old forms”. Further, Jones also introduces the environment as a major vehicle for change, claiming “the planet simply cannot sustain endless reconstruction” (Blundell Jones, Peter, 2002, 244). An urgency and necessity to engage with the existing were realised. The value of place and cultural identity, concepts established at the time of colonisation, remained relevant and useful in this period of modernity where societies grasped the need for maintaining what was pre-existing. A good example of this is the General Post Office in Sydney, Australia. Built-in 1830, the Sydney GPO holds major significance as it reflects the history of its programmatic services dating back to its conception. With the potential for archaeological discoveries related to construction, way of life etc, we can interpret proper ways of conservation. This buildings ability to educate us about the past is incredibly valuable and highlights the importance of engaging with the pre-existing structures that inform us of our country’s past.

Alternatively, in ‘The encyclopedia of Australian architecture’, Philip Goad and Julie Willis pose an alternative narrative to modernism, whereby to understand how to positively engage with new Architecture, we must be “informed by the practices and understandings of the first inhabitants of the continent”. This philosophy differs from the aforementioned ideas of Jones, who implied the damaging effect of architecture is motivated by supply and demand “under the influence of global capitalism” (Blundell Jones, Peter, 2002, 244). Contrarily, Goad and Wells advocate for architecture that acknowledges colonialist features and indigenous presence. Furthermore, the gold rush in 1851 and the emergence of modernism saw Australia change massively and subsequently experience major expansion, resulting in the eradication of much of the existing Architecture. This caused tension amongst architects interested in pursuing the work of modernism and those advocating for the preservation of the colonialist styles. Also often referred to as international style, modernism continued in Australia with a new wave of immigrant architects advocating for a new sense of design sophistication. This is emblematic in the design of the ICI House in East Melbourne. Designed by Bates Smart in 1955, the sleek, tall and modern design clad with copious amounts of glass, is truly emblematic of this sophistication of the modernist era that propelled the architecture that we continue to see today, much like modernism stemmed from the previous colonial style of the 19th century.

Colonization is a key feature of modernity. “The imperatives of modernity are space- conquering economic growth and its attendant processes of statist order building. Indigenous peoples, with their place-based, sustainable, state-free social order, have been chronic obstacles to modernization to be overcome by whatever means”. Additionally, Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Building Precolonial Life’ explores the notion that “the economy and culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders was grossly undervalued”, highlighting his clear disapproval of the view of precolonial society. Understanding Australian society is only made possible through the understanding of Australia’s architectural beginnings; beginnings that saw the indigenous population inhabiting the land or more than 40,000 years prior to the British settlement in 1788. This attitude is like that of Goad and Wells, where they similarly value the acknowledgement of our true beginnings. Ultimately, it is not a unique stance shared between the authors, as we are seeing the development of a modern architecture that pays homage to the country’s beginnings. Such examples are represented in the completion of Federation Square in Melbourne in 2002, commemorating Australia’s federation in 1901. The building evokes qualities of the city and its spatial sequence as well as honouring aesthetic features of the land of Australia.

There are many perspectives on the sense of place in our world as a result of the past and more specifically, our colonial past. The many perspectives on the role of the past in shaping space and society during the period of the modernity are different, but all agree on the idea that modernism serves as a vehicle of change, bringing modern values to the already colonized world. 

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