Buildings of Empire

SPEL027My summer holiday reading has been “Buildings of Empire” by Ashley Jackson. As the title suggests, this is a grand tour around landmark examples of the built environment legacy of the British Empire. Twelve fluently written chapters take us from Dublin Castle to the iconic Raffles Hotel in Singapore, before returning the reader to the Empire Stadium at Wembley.

Professor Ashley Jackson is part of the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. He combines expertise in imperial history with a taste for architectural detail. The result is an enriching, probing and at times amusing account.  The constructions of a colonial power tend to be highly symbolic, expressing values such as power, majesty, but also knowledge and justice. Others read the buildings as exemplars of repression. As Jackson shows these totems to the empire on which the sun never set remain significant urban elements today.

Jackson’s story starts in Dublin Castle, a building I was in for the 2013 ESPON seminar under the Irish Presidency. The castle began as a medieval fortress, and for long divided “the rich from the poor, the protestant from the Catholic”. It was the political and social heart of the Anglo-Irish ascendency, the home of the viceregal court, a function that necessitated regular, ever grander modifications to the buildings.

Hill Stations.
When I was in Pakistan, twenty years ago, I visited Murree, in the hills above Rawalpindi, one of over 8o British hill stations in India. Architecturally eclectic, these “more-British-than-Britain” enclaves were developed rapidly from the mid-nineteenth century as places for places for recreation and recuperation, but also as administrative and military outposts.

The Viceregal Lodge at Simla was, in Jackson’s words, “the queen of them all”. Lord Dufferin, who had been frustrated by lack of funds in his desires to build grand houses on his estate in County Down, and during his time as Governor-General of Canada, met no such obstacle here. A hill was levelled and the slopes used to create a five-storey edifice that overlooked the lawns and gardens of a 330 acre estate. Mainly in English Renaissance / Elizabethan style, and described by some as a “medieval stronghold”, it was constructed by thousands of Indian workers.

Raffles Hotel, Singapore

I have sipped the obligatory gin sling in the elegant lounges of Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Along with other colonial era buildings – notably the town hall and the cricket club – Raffles is now surrounded by the gleaming office towers of the post-independence global city state. As Jackson reminds us, Somerset Maugham described it as embodying “all the fables of the exotic East”, a fabulous combination of lush tropical gardens, cooling verandas and terracotta-tiled pitched roofs.

Colonial life in Singapore seemingly revolved around dinners and alcohol. Jackson describes a man’s life: early morning ride; tea and biscuits while reading or writing letters; 9 o’clock breakfast, washed down with claret; visit the office; then 1 o’clock was “tiffin time” (another substantial meal lubricated by beer or claret); more business in the afternoon, then sports before sundown, and the 6pm “sundowner” as a prelude to a large dinner.

The club

The private members club was another essential part of the urban infrastructure of the British Empire. The one that I have been privileged to stay in a couple of times is the Muthaiga Club in Nairobi, which is best known for the “white mischief” scandal. It gets a mention in Buildings of Empire, but the example discussed in details the Gezira Sporting Club, which was modelled on the Hurlingham Club.

Gezira Island is in the middle of the Nile as it flows through the crowded centre of Cairo. Here the British built what was claimed to be the finest sporting club in the world, and occupied it until they were evicted from its “temporary occupation” of Egypt in the 1950s. It provided polo, cricket and hockey grounds, pavilions, tennis courts and croquet lawns, all focused around a lido, plus, of course, the necessary bars and dining rooms.

Gezira, like the hills stations, was a space of separation from the indigenous city. It was socially and racially exclusive, thus affirming the dominance of the ruling colonial elite. As late as 1951 the British ambassador was still the president of the club. Golf caddies and ball boys were attired in red, white and blue. After the British left, the club, like the buildings featured in many of the chapters, morphed into use by the local elite.

A fascinating read

Other places covered in the book are Spanish Town (Jamaica), Williamsburgh (Virginia), Fort St. Angelo (Malta), the Botanic Gardens in Christchurch, the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station, the Melbourne Royal Exhibition Centre, and the Gordon Memorial College (Khartoum). There are also chapters on the famous Foster and Partners HSBC building in Hong Kong, then finally on the Wembley Empire Stadium. In every case, Jackson sets the buildings in both their local and their wider imperial contexts.

What it shows for planners is how closely entwined planning and architecture were with colonial implantation. It wasn’t just the clubs and public schools that were set down by the imperial masters, but space was organised in a way to embed British power. The book also addresses issues of building conservation. Raffles, for example has survived and thrived on a combination of entrepreneurial vision, post-colonial chic and government policies supporting historic conservation. Spanish Town’s King’s House has undergone a long period of decline, while colonial Williamsburgh has been revived as an 18th century theme park. Planners and architects with an interest in the past will find this a fascinating read.

Buildings of Empire is published by Oxford University Press, recommended retail price is £30.