The insidious power of borrowing

Cultural synthesis has historically been a tool of colonial oppressors

Victoria Memorial, India

Visual culture and architecture are firmly connected to the identities of cities and nations. The Eiffel Tower is almost synonymous with Paris; the Statue of Liberty with New York. When we imagine colonial architecture, our minds turn to towering Corinthian columns and imposing imperial pediments.

We imagine the halls of Harvard University, or the French châteaux scattered through the jungles of Indochina. Yet this is to treat the subject unfairly. Colonists frequently built settlements that synthesized their own architecture with that of those they oppressed, creating uniquely syncretic structures, not quite based in either tradition.

Take the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, India, for example. At a first glance it looks like a marble St Pauls Cathedral, a perfectly baroque structure plucked straight out of London. But the longer one looks, the more Indian the building seems to become. Its arches are pointed and its towers are topped with octagonal-domed Hindu chattris. The portal resembles a Mughal iwan and the marble itself is the same marble as was used for the Taj Mahal.

The Victoria Memorial is a prime example of Indo-Saracenic architecture – Saracen being a medieval Latin word for Muslim. To some extent the collision of cultures and use of Indian techniques was not a positive recognition of Indian architecture. This cultural synthesis was rooted in the British appreciation and romanticisation of Indian art – in the nineteenth century, orientalism in Europe was at its height and Indian art was frequently valued for its exotic but alien qualities.

Yet mere aesthetic concerns are insufficient to explain the Victoria Memorial. The Memorial’s unique style of architecture is seen virtually nowhere back in the UK (with the notable exception of the Brighton pavilion). The rarity of this memorial betrays the real reason behind such architecture: control.

After the Indian Uprising in 1857, the British finally deposed the last Mughal Emperor and with their main rival gone, they now wished to legitimise their rule over India. Thomas Metcalfe writes in his book An Imperial Vision, “The colonists did not want to consider themselves as only foreign invaders. They wanted to be a legitimate continuation of the Mughal Dynasty”. Incorporating traditional elements into their architecture helped to present the British crown as a natural successor to its enemies. Including Indian techniques in local architecture was not a sign of respect but a state policy intended to justify British rule.

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The Spanish conquest of South America showed much less fusion of art and architecture. However, even in South America, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as Spain gained control over parts of Morrocco they began to build numerous ‘Neo-Mudéjar’ buildings, combining modern Spanish architecture with ‘horseshoe’ archways and arabesque tiling. No colonial powers remained devoid of the influence of those that they oppressed.

When an area is conquered, local art usually ceases and foreign styles of art are imported en masse. But if any empire is to be sustained, it needs to provide work for the local population. Local artisans are eventually employed to build and design again. Given time, local styles of art always resurface, albeit in a new context. This fusion of the art of conqueror and conquered has happened since the dawn of civilisation.

One only needs to look at how Egyptian and Greek art became subsumed into a new Roman art to see this play in action. Hagia Sophia – the magnificent mosque which became emblematic of the Ottoman Turks, and became a model for mosques across Asia minor – began its life as a Byzantine Cathedral.

Architecture is inherently a display of power and it brings up problems of heritage more powerfully than issues surrounding other debates about literature, music etc.

In many post-colonial countries, therefore, colonial architecture has been eradicated from the map in a symbolic gesture to show newfound freedom – either through deliberate bulldozing or simply through a wilful indifference to its demise. But despite it still being built for colonial aims, this same fusion architecture has proven much more problematic than normal colonial architecture after independence.

Whereas a baroque English cathedral in the Caribbean is easy to dismiss as an imposition, fusions shows some level of syncretism. It is proof that the colonial experience was irrevocably part of a nations life, not just a mere slip up.

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The most powerful forms of imperial artist control were not always erasure or imposition. Frequently imperial rule was legitimised by the co-opting of traditional regional symbols and the moulding of them into imperial forms and styles. The echoes of imperial rule remain in strange, distorted buildings that belong to no one culture, but instead exist in a liminal space and time.