September 2019: Managing my research

I’ve done more reading than writing. I’m nearing the halfway point of the two-year research project. I’ll retain the list of 20 buildings and places I finalised in January 2019, but for the first phase of writing I’ve chosen five sites to focus on to make my research manageable. I’ll work on these one at a time, and since some of these sites are potentially big projects in themselves, e.g. the Bund in Shanghai, I will focus on a particular building and write more generally about the buildings around it if together they form an ensemble, and then also the city it’s in. Each building will be used as a way of analysing the architectural and cultural impact of British architects and the British Empire. 

Union Assurance Company of Canton Limited building, corner of the Bund and Guangdong Road, Shanghai, China. Image credit: Edward Denison / RIBA Collections

This is a list of the first five sites I will look at:

  • Imperial Institute, London  
  • Commonwealth Institute, London
  • New Delhi
  • Bund, Shanghai 
  • Pier Head, Liverpool

The history of the Imperial Institute and Commonwealth Institute are very much intertwined and they reflect some of the changing attitudes to empire and architectural taste between the height of the empire in the 19th century and it’s end in the 20th century. New Delhi was a costly overseas and symbolic showcase for the British Empire, whilst the buildings of the Bund and Pier Head were the signs of commercial success brought on by international trade. These five buildings, I hope will cover many, although I admit not every, aspect of how the “architecture, culture and urban planning of cities from Liverpool to Shanghai were shaped by the British Empire and its architects”. 

June 2019: New website

As of today, 30th June, I have moved and consolidated my online content to it own website. Formerly it had been crammed onto a single web page on my personal website www.wilsonyau.co.uk

Up to this point I have been doing a lot of reading and attempting to refine my field of research. I hope creating this website will keep pushing me along. The next step is to begin to focus on my list of chosen buildings, beginning with writing up research about one of them and reducing the list. Perhaps 20 buildings are too many to contemplate at this point, considering this is a part-time endeavor and I am not a trained academic.

April 2019: Architecture can influence history

The quote “architecture can influence history” (1) was a reference to what one aristocratic woman in London thought of her mansion in Park Lane in 1900, Londonderry House, which she used extensively to entertain powerful and influential guests like imperialists Cecil Rhodes and Joseph Chamberlain. 

Park Lane, Mayfair , London. Image credit: Crispin Boyle / RIBA Collections

The British Empire was building throughout its long history. In the evolution of their style, purpose and location, these structures were reflecting the changes in technology, geographical extent of the empire, the beliefs and outlooks of the imperial administration and the cultural power of the rulers and those being ruled. The design and construction of each building was a deliberate act and each one had a part to play in the empire, some would have a bigger impact than the palatial Londonderry House. 

High Court, Kolkata (Calcutta), India. Image Credit: RIBA Collections

I’m discovering that while the empire’s history was shaped by the actions of its people, the buildings were more than just the – sometimes aesthetically pleasing – ‘face’ and backdrop of British rule. I assume architects were aiming to make buildings that were well designed, innovative, fit for purpose and embody the beliefs of the prevailing British culture or that of the local community or wider empire. The empire could only happen because of its buildings, which were the home or stage to its people, government, military, culture and commerce.

The round pool garden, Viceroy’s House, New Delhi, India. Image credit: RIBA Collections

My research so far places architecture at the heart of how the empire saw itself and operated, with its architects often not the primary players but frequently playing important supporting roles. Beyond the more practical purposes, people thought “Architecture could help forge a national and an imperial identity” (2), and during the heyday of empire it seems some architects believed this too. Perhaps these were the thoughts in the minds of architects Lutyens and Baker while they were designing the colonial capital city in the eastern part of the empire, New Delhi, where their monumental stone buildings were to demonstrate “the power of Western science, art and civilisation” (3) upon a much older and populous civilisation. The buildings that make up New Delhi are part of my research and I’m discovering they have a very rich and interesting story. I expect other buildings will also be equally enlightening.

References

(1) Jonathan Schneer, ‘London in 1900’, 1999, p.128
(2) Jonathan Schneer, ‘London in 1900’, 1999, p.34
(3) Tristram Hunt, ‘Ten Cities that made an Empire‘, 2014, p.364

January 2019: Twenty buildings that tell the story of the British Empire and its architects

Commonwealth Institute building, London, 2011, before it was renovated and became the Design Museum. Photograph by Wilson Yau

After some research, I’ve drawn up a list of 20 buildings or groups of structures that together tell the story of how the empire grew and declined and the part played by its architects and architecture. I need to do much more reading and begin planning my travel, but it is clear architecture is not neutral and the buildings created across the empire were the tools and expression of Britain’s influence overseas, for good and bad, and showed the impact links to the colonies had on the very heart of the mother country, London.

Currently this is my list, but I suspect it’ll change:

  1. Imperial Institute and Commonwealth Institute, London, England
  2. University of Ibadan, Nigeria
  3. New Delhi, India
  4. Government House, Calcutta, India
  5. King’s House, Spanish Town, Jamaica
  6. Colonial Building, Newfoundland, Canada
  7. St Martins in the Field, London, England, and imitations in India (St Andrew’s Church, Calcutta)
  8. St. John the Baptist Anglican Cathedral, Newfoundland, Canada
  9. Shah Jahan Mosque, Woking, England
  10. Royal Arcade, Melbourne, Australia
  11. East India House, London, England
  12. Old Supreme Council and Statue Square, Hong Kong
  13. Pier Head, Liverpool, England
  14. Bund, Shanghai, China
  15. Kingsway, London, England
  16. Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, Singapore
  17. VT station, Bombay, India
  18. Victoria Falls Bridge, Zambezi River, Zimbabwe/Zambia
  19. Faneuil Hall, Boston, USA
  20. Independence Hall, Philadelphia, USA