The politics of culture and the problem of tradition: re-evaluating regionalist interpretations of the architecture of Geoffrey Bawa

O'Coill, Carl and Watt, Kathleen (2009) The politics of culture and the problem of tradition: re-evaluating regionalist interpretations of the architecture of Geoffrey Bawa. In: Architecture and identity. Lit Verlag, Berlin, pp. 483-494. ISBN 9783825810887

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The politics of culture and the problem of tradition: re-evaluating regionalist interpretations of the architecture of Geoffrey Bawa
This paper examines the work of the late, Sri Lankan architect, Geoffrey Bawa, in order to draw attention to some of the pitfalls surrounding the representation of post colonial architecture and to examine the explicatory power of the concept of 'hybridity' in postcolonial theory.
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Abstract

The research examines regionalist interpretations of the work of the late Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka's most celebrated architect. Although sometimes labelled a 'romantic vernacularist' or 'tropical modernist', Bawa is best known as a 'regionalist' because of the way he attempted to blend local building traditions with modernist aspirations. The aim of the study is to show how regionalist interpretations of Bawa’s work have been constrained by a form of dualistic thinking that has its foundations in the ideology of Western modernity. Given their preoccupation with the modern/tradition dichotomy, the paper argues that critics have failed to acknowledge the extent to which his work is bound up with local struggles over identity in the context of a long-standing and violent ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. A further aim is to reveal alternative readings of Bawa’s architecture from outside the canon of critical regionalism to demonstrate the fundamental inadequacies of this perspective.

Item Type:Book Section
Additional Information:From a post-structuralist perspective, efforts to revalorise or transform signifiers of tradition in contemporary, post-colonial architecture reflect present concerns and purposes and are therefore expressions of and a source of power. Invariably only the most powerful groups are entitled to select and redefine 'traditional' cultural forms. While cultural conflict at a global level has frequently fanned the flames of local identity politics, particularly during the colonial era, in the present, local ethnic rivalries sometimes loom larger than any global politics. However, interpretations of post-colonial architecture in the Western academy invariably present the global/local or West/non West divide as the key site of struggle. This paper examines the work of the late, Sri Lankan architect, Geoffrey Bawa, in order to draw attention to some of the pitfalls surrounding the representation of post colonial architecture and to examine the explicatory power of the concept of 'hybridity' in postcolonial theory. Commentators who point to Bawa's architecture as an exemplar of 'critical regionalism' have generally ignored the internal politics underlying architectural production in Sri Lanka and the significance of struggles over cultural identity in the context of a long-standing and violent ethnic conflict. In their preoccupation with the modern/traditional dichotomy, they tend to reduce complex and culturally diverse peoples and places to a simplistic cultural image, which confers upon them a single homogeneous identity in opposition to the West. Hybridity, on the other hand, acknowledges politics and avoids the pitfalls of essentialism. Thus, it seems to offer the possibility for an alternative reading of Bawa's architecture. However, the fact that the concept is currently grounded in postcolonial theory means that there is a similar tendency for theorists to neglect the multifaceted nature of local identities and cultural conflicts in order to explore the relationship between coloniser and colonised or the concerns of diasporic intellectuals. Hybridity can only achieve its full explicatory potential, we argue, when it is used to conceptualise local conflicts as well as global struggles over identity.
Keywords:Architecture, Identity, Culture, Tradition, Hybridity, Sri Lanka, Digitised
Subjects:K Architecture, Building and Planning > K100 Architecture
V Historical and Philosophical studies > V360 History of Architecture
Divisions:College of Arts > Lincoln School of Architecture
ID Code:1823
Deposited By: Carl OCoill
Deposited On:05 Mar 2009 16:43
Last Modified:05 Dec 2013 08:49

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