May 2020: Research during the coronavirus lockdown

Image: My recently ordered printed books and the internet book I’ve got out on loan; it amounts to over a thousand pages of fascinating gbut heavy reading to do.

With the Covid-19 outbreak and ensuing lockdown, I’ve been able to give my Gordon Ricketts Fund-supported research more time. It has though mean the travel element of the project will be put on hold indefintely and I’m fully prepared for it not to happen. I was thinking of going to Shanghai or Delhi, an alternative might be to visit a UK location. Research will defintely continue but it will all be done from my desk and it can not be done from visiting archives or libraries.

My original plan was to use the rich collections of the the RIBA Library, but it is understandibly closed during lockdown and with no set reopening date, I have turned to my previous notes, online sources such as the Internet Archive, and ordering books online – I’ve tried avoiding Amazon for ethical reasons and turned to independent booksellers.

The books I’ve bought recently are:
– ‘Building of Empire‘ by Ashley Jackson
– ‘Architecture and Urbanism in the British Empire‘ edited by G. A. Bremner

The book I’ve borrowed online is:
– ‘The architect and his wife: a life of Edwin Lutyens’ by Jane Ridley

I believe I’ve written a final draft of the introduction and my first case study, on the Cunard Building in Liverpool. So, there’s progress. I’m still mainly reading. Researching has been enjoyable and I hope to be able to continue.

December 2019: Visiting Liverpool Central Library Archives

Image: Looking up at the atrium of Liverpool Central Library, England

On the 30th December 2019, I made a fairly last-minute decision to go to Liverpool to research the Cunard Building. Over Christmas, I discovered to my surprise that the beautiful Liverpool Central Library was open soon after the festive break. The library held a great archive of material related to the Cunard Building and the other buildings on Pier Head. My Gordon Ricketts Fund grant was going to easily cover the cost of the train tickets. My research had begun to look at Liverpool at this time and I was off work, so it seemed a good time to go.

I searched their online cataogue and emailed my request – their archive is available by appointment only and material available with 48 hours notice. The staff were most helpful and the material was ready for me when I arrived a few days later, located in the Search Room on the 3rd floor. It was all free to access and I had the joy of searching through rare and original material, from pamphlets and newscuttings to out of print and recent books. Being able to access this material was not only a privilege, it also moved my research forward significantly.

Image: Picton Reading Room, Liverpool Central Library, England

This is a list of what I looked at from the library’s archive during my visit:

  • ‘Sculptures of the Pier Head’,
    [725.940942753 SCU]
  • Liverpool Pier Head newscuttings,
    [Oversize 942.7211/PIE]
  • ‘[Royal Liver Building] a pictorial record of the history and development of the famous home of Royal Liver Assurance’,
    1982 [725.240942753/ROY]
  • ‘Royal Liver Friendly Society and building: [presscuttings from 1930 – 1998]’
    [368.0065 ROY]
  • ‘The New Cunard Building : Description with plans and views’,
    [oversize 942.7213 CUN]
  • ‘The passenger’s palace: 100 years of the Cunard Building, Liverpool’,
    2016, published Liverpool: Trinity Mirror

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

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.


(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