Centre for Architecture Theory Criticism History
School of Architecture

Race, Place, Taste and the Colonial Context

  • Dr. Deborah van der Plaat

The aim of this research is to consider factors or contingencies of the colonial experience that challenged, worked against, or sat alongside the more formal (governmental) representations of colonisation (in Australia and beyond). While colonial architecture is often assumed to approximate that of home, especially in formal and material terms, a question regarding architecture’s disciplinarity, it’s conceptual framing as an aesthetic or a high art, is often difficult to reconcile with the climatic, geographical, ethnic and racial complexity of the colonial context.

Climate: The deterministic role of climate and landscape on colonial architecture is commonly argued. The disciplinary positioning of architecture within the colonial context is, however, rarely considered. How was the practice of architecture framed or viewed by architects working in colonial settings? Could the entanglement of taste (architecture as a cultivated rather than mechanical art, painting instead of engineering) be maintained? What effect did the topographical and climatic diversity revealed by colonisation have? Was it possible to cultivate an artistic practice or architectural culture within tropical/sub-tropical/arid settings? Did the aspiring artist/architect need to leave for more temperate climes in order to develop an aesthetic sense or could these concerns be addressed locally (southern versus northern colonies, or east versus west)? Or, from a slightly difference perspective, was climate viewed by colonial communities as degenerate or redemptive and did climate theorists explicitly address the arts/ architecture alongside the problems of labour and national character?

Race: While British colonial institutions governed the early penal and settler societies of Australia, the populations of these new communities were often heterogeneous, ethnically diverse, and racially conflicted. In Australia, this is made most explicit by the imbalance of settler and indigenous populations and the conflict and dispossession that resulted. It is complicated further by the ethnic diversity of settler populations, one that is often mirrored in colonial settlements the world over.

While racial and ethnic diversity and conflict are acknowledged as attributes of the colonial condition, their impact on the architecture of white settlement is less considered. How did issues of race, ethnic heterogeneity, hybrid populations or racial conflict impact on colonial architectural practice? Did architecture participate in broader agendas of cultural representation, racial division and/or “reform”? Did ethnic and racial diversity challenge the authority of colonial institutions and/or Enlightenment and humanitarian values of universality and equality? Were “hybrid” communities viewed, in accordance with nineteenth century theories on race—as potentially infertile, unproductive and lacking in character— or did they make explicit alternative models, such cosmopolitanism?

Taste: Within Australia, colonised initially under a penal system and later through free settlement and migration schemes, significant proportions of early populations were often illiterate or semiliterate, valued for their physical labour rather than their intellectual capacity. Cultural refinement, as Evan has suggested, though not entirely lacking, often remained somewhat at a discount—at best a luxury and at worst a distraction. What role did the concept of ‘taste’ play in Colonial societies? What was the impact on the practice of architecture of such a demographic mix? How was architecture viewed by such communities (technical practice or higher art) and was it valued? Did architecture, and the broader arts, play a role in the lives, education and ‘improvement’ of such communities or was it the sole domain of government and a wealthy elite? Was a culture of architectural taste developed and if so how and by whom?