Modernity’s ‘Other’ – Disclosing Southeast Asia’s built environment across the colonial and postcolonial worlds

Kah Wee Lee's picture
Call for Papers
July 5, 2016
Subject Fields: 
Architecture and Architectural History, Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Colonial and Post-Colonial History / Studies, Southeast Asian History / Studies, Urban History / Studies

Across various disciplines, attention on the category of the “Other” has shone light on women, minorities, the poor, profane, criminal and mundane. But what and where is the category of “Others” in architectural studies? Is it to be attached to the spaces and buildings associated with these marginalized social categories? Or are there intrinsically architectural “Others” – subjects within the discipline that undergird its internal discourse through contrast and opposition – that should be opened up to interdisciplinary scrutiny? Finally, what can Southeast Asia offer to the larger intellectual debates in which the category of the “Other” has played a critical role in the last few decades?

This series of questions forms the intellectual agenda of the Southeast Asia Architecture Research Collaborative (SEAARC) Symposium 2017. It is of course not new. One might say that the category of the ‘Other’ is inherent to every discipline’s capacity to reflect on and renew itself. Its generative power lies in how it lends a critical and corrective perspective to the grand narratives of modernity and the internal structures of scholarly discourse. With the postmodern turn towards the everyday, for example, architectural studies have jettisoned the cathedral for the bicycle shed, giving rise to studies in vernacular architecture, counterculture and domestic environments. Studies into the relationship between nationalism and architecture shuttled between, on the one hand, an imperial imperative to establish architectural exemplars of new national identities and on the other, critical inquiries aimed at demystifying this will-to-essentialize by revealing its violence and contingencies. Post 1960s, anthropology, postcolonial and feminist theory, cultural studies and new historicism have all left an indelible imprint on the internal and external reorientation of architectural studies.

Nevertheless, this conference contends that more can be gained by interrogating the concept of the “Other”. It asks not only that we broaden the types of buildings that merit serious scholarly interest, but to question if the field itself can be broadened - the range of discourses, settings, politics and practices wherein the built environment becomes a foil for understanding the hidden and suppressed aspects of societies. It seeks fresh collaboration with allied disciplines that might throw up promising directions in how one can theorize and analyze the “Other”, as well as the challenges of such projects. And finally, by positioning the inquiry in Southeast Asia, this conference takes the world-historical patterns of colonial and postcolonial development, nationalism, economic globalization and cultural change as the broad canvas on which the historical and contemporary transformations of this region are writ large.

The ambition of this conference extends from the first SEAARC symposium, “Questions in Southeast Asia’s Architecture/Southeast Asia’s Architecture in Question”. We see this firstly as a stocktaking of current research on architecture and urbanism in Southeast Asia and secondly as an opportunity to provoke dialogue around an infamously (re)generative concept. We are especially interested in papers that address the following themes:


  • Challenges of the Archive                               

In his latest edited volume, historian Gyanendra Pandey (2013) challenges us to think of two types of ‘Others’ – those excluded from the archive (the mad), and those exiled within it (the trifling). In architectural studies, both historical and contemporary, what constitutes our “archive” and how might one locate its silences? This fundamental question pertains to scholars who rely on, as their source of primary evidence, institutionalized archives, physical buildings, archaeological ruins, oral histories, ephemera and cultural media. The fact that architecture exists in many different forms and engages us in multiple ways – as environment, image, artefact and discourse – adds layers of complexity to this challenge.

We should also ask if our conventional methodologies serve us well in this endeavor. Can one employ the art-historical method of formal analysis on a monument the same way one might an insignificant hut? How about space syntax for an architectural idea that has no ichnographic representation? Or semiotic analysis on material fragments? This panel invites papers that reflect on the challenges of tracing the internal and external ‘Others’ of the archive and the promises of such projects.   

  • Teleology fractured and abandoned 

Of all the master concepts that run across the humanities and social sciences, none is perhaps as vexing and contested as “modernity”. Rather than trying to pin down foundational definitions of what constitutes “modernity” in order to qualify Late or Post or Asian versions, this panel invites scholars who grapple with the situatedness of modernity, its embedded teleology and the forms of architectural imagination and production. While many scholars have shown how the teleology of progress is exhibited in or constitutive of the built environment, we are interested here in what happens when this teleology is fractured or abandoned, and how one might trace this through the built environment. This counter-pastoral dimension of modernity poses theoretical and empirical challenges and SE Asia, with its complex geopolitics and diversity of cultures and histories, provides a rich site to ponder on this question. Possible topics include, at the grand scale, architectural and urban projects associated with the failure of political unification and economic development, the ruins of war, monuments toppled and defaced, to something as mundane as the everyday environments of neglect, despair and vice.

  • Architecture and Violence

From the occupation of Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok to the street violence of post-1998 Indonesia, from the military geometries of cannon fire in British Malaya to the spatial tactics of urban guerillas in Cambodia, historical and recent events point to the continuing importance of architecture and the built environment as both theaters and catalysts of violence. A steady stream of scholarship in recent years continues to push this direction of investigation taking events like the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Arab Spring to argue that the built environment both shapes violence and conditions the possibilities of recovery and resistance (AlSayyad, 1992; Kusno, 2003; Smith, 2006, to name a few). Another area of inquiry asks how architecture serves as witness and evidence in the courts of law, thus transforming abstract concepts of legality and illegality into concrete durable form (Herscher and Wiezman, 2011). We seek papers that continue this rich area of research in the context of SE Asia, explicating both the different modes of violence - physical, symbolic, epistemic and embodied – in relation to the built environment as well as broader theoretical questions about space and power.

  • Types, minor types and non-types

In architectural history and studies, “type” remains an important analytic and classificatory device with which to cut deeply into the sociocultural, spatial, economic and political forces of a given moment in time (Rossi 1966; Pevsner 1976; Markus 1993 for example). Forty’s short critical review of the use of the concept of “type” in architectural discourse argues that the concept of type has been used for different purposes by different scholars and that “its appeal has in practice been less from an inherent strength of content of its own than from its value as a means of resistance to a variety of other ideas” (2000: 311). Thus, types exist in and produce certain hierarchies and oppositions, and certain types in turn become privileged as analogues of modernity – the shopping mall, the house, the skyscraper, the museum, the cinema and the library are amongst those that have received the most attention. This panel critically reflects on the category of “type” in architectural history and studies. At the epistemological level, it asks: how is the concept of ‘type’ used and how do certain types become more valid or significant than others in writing about architecture and cities? What assumptions do we bring into historiography through the category of “type”? It also seeks papers that empirically expand the field of privileged types of SE Asia by studying architectures that deviate from or are occluded by the typological group they are placed in (minor types) or architectures that defy any kind of typological classification (non-types).


Alsayyad N. (ed.) 1992. Forms of Dominance: On the Architecture and Urbanism of the Colonial Enterprise (Aldershot: Avebury Publishers)

Herscher A. and Wiezman E. 2011. “Architecture, Violence, Evidence” in Future Anterior 8(1): 111

Kenzari, B. 2011. Architecture and Violence (Barcelona and New York: ACTAR Publishers)

Kusno A. 2003. “Remembering/Forgetting the May Riots: Architecture, Violence, and the Making of ‘Chinese Cultures’ in Post-1998 Jakarta” in Public Culture 15(1): 149-177

Markus T. 1993. Buildings and Power:  Freedom and Control in the Origin of Modern Building Types (London and New York: Routledge)

Pandey G. (ed.) 2013. Unarchived Histories: The ‘mad’ and the ‘trifling’ in the colonial and postcolonial world (London and New York: Routledge)

Pevsner N. 1979. A History of Building Types (NJ: Princeton University Press)

Rossi A. 1966. The Architecture of the City trans. D. Ghirardo and J. Ockman (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press)

Smith T. 2006. The Architecture of Aftermath (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Forty A. 2000. Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture (New York: Thames and Hudson)



Date: 5-6 (Thursday to Friday) January 2017, Optional Tour on 7th January (Saturday)

Venue: National University of Singapore


SEAARC (Southeast Asia Architecture Research Collaborative) CONVENORS

Kah-Wee Lee, Imran bin Tajudeen, Jiat-Hwee Chang

Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore



Opening of Call for Papers     `                                13 Apr 16

Submission of Abstract                                            05 Jul 16

Notification of Acceptance                                        01 Aug 16

Early bird registration deadline for presenters         15 Sept 16

Deadline for submission of final papers and            01 Nov 16

Registration deadline for presenters

Registration deadline for all                                      24 Dec 16



Please submit your abstract to by 05 July 2016. Abstracts should be at most 500 words in length, and you should indicate which theme you are responding to.



SEAARC has funds to support a number of participants that will cover most if not all of the costs of travel and accommodation. We will strive to support junior scholars and postdoctoral students who have great work to share but might not have the resources to travel to Singapore. The actual amount will depend on the number of participants and the funding available.

IMPORTANT: If you wish to be considered for financial assistance, please indicate so in your abstract. We will inform successful applicants directly a few weeks after notification of acceptance.  


Contact Info: 

Kah-Wee Lee

Dept. of Architecture, National University of Singapore

Southeast Asia Architecture Research Collaborative

Contact Email: