“Stories of the Enlightenment often pair knowledge and vision, in two senses: the privileging of the sense of sight, and the importance of planning.”
—Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
Colonial Traces is an ongoing research project tracing the colonial history of the Netherlands in Indonesia through spatial and architectural perspectives. I started Colonial Traces from the assumption that architecture, as a silent agent, occupies a prominent position among cultural formations: it is firmly grounded in material and daily life and has the potential to express and form social relations, cultural values and power structures. As such, architecture can tell us more about the colonial condition and the world view —the idea of what a colony is and how it should be managed and governed— of the Dutch colonizer, which in turn gives way to new insights in the constellations of our globalized world today. What particularly interests me in this regard is that in the colonial context, the expression of power through architectural and cultural programs is more transparent, because there are fewer actors in the decision-making process, and more present because of the explicit binary hierarchy between colonizers —usually a minority— and the colonized. How did architecture support colonialism, i.e. in what way was it used to strengthen Dutch colonial rule? As spatial reflections of a little discussed period and part of Dutch history, architecture can reveal the motives of colonial rule and make other critical histories possible.
In the Netherlands, the possession of a large colonial empire in Asia and America is often seen as the result of a series of unintentional events that made Dutch people colonizers against their will. The VOC, is the prevailing idea, would primarily have been a trading company whose sole purpose was to set up a network of factories in tropical regions without the need for colony formation. The unilateral wars, forms of oppression and forced labor that accompanied this are invariably not mentioned or put away as excesses. A young generation of historians tries to adjust the image of the Netherlands as a tolerant country, skilled in trade and full of innovation drift. They emphasize the coherence of facets instead of highlighting only a few positive and ‘unique’ subjects. This makes their historical image not only more complete but also more inclusive.
The subject of colonialism and post-colonialism is also increasingly being touched in the arts. For example, for her work La Javanaise, Wendelien van Oldenborgh studied the relationships between the Dutch textile company Vlisco, former colonies in the East Indies and the current African markets in a contemporary, globalized world; and for her work FRAGMENTS [or a desire for revolution] Lidwien van de Ven researched the Dutch role in the history of communism in Indonesia, which brought her to the internment camps in Boven-Digoel, Papua New Guinea, founded by the Dutch.
The valuable contributions of historians and artists shed new light on the colonial past of the Netherlands, but they are mainly focused on contracts and trade relations, political constellations, the perspective of ‘the other’ and the way in which the Netherlands largely seems to have forgotten its colonial past. What is lacking to date is an insight into the materialization of the world view (the idea of what a colony is and how it should be managed and governed) of the Dutch colonizers. With this in mind, I want to investigate the configuration of colonial architecture and planning in their broad cultural sense, based on the assumption that it can tell more about the world view of the colonizer. What did architecture and planning contribute to colonialism and how was it used? As spatial reflections of a little discussed period and part of Dutch history, architecture and planning can reveal structures that make other critical perspectives possible.
Important here is the conception of modernization, in the sense of changing political constellations and technological innovation. On the one hand the believe in modernization consolidated and strengthened the relation between the Netherlands and its colonies, on the other hand it maintained the global political position of the Netherlands. The process of modernization becomes visible in the liberal economic climate that led European private entrepreneurs to establish themselves in large numbers in the Dutch East Indies at the end of the nineteenth century. But also in Dutch colonial policy, which got a different foundation around the same time in the form of a moral or “ethical” vocation. Facets of everyday life were institutionalized and the government began to ‘take care of’ the colonial population by (re)organizing and managing things such as housing, education, labor, food, water, land etc. The programs that were drawn up had beside a social, also a spatial dimension. For example, new modernist ideas about architecture and urban planning —hygiene, zoning, rationalization— that were emerging in Europe, were introduced into the colonies and with it also a form of culture was implemented.
In the colonial context, the expression of power through architectural and cultural programs is more transparent, because there are fewer actors in the decision-making process, and more present because of the explicit binary hierarchy between colonizers —usually a minority— and the colonized ones. By zooming in on small stories and events that unfold around spatial projects, consulting various museums, institutions and archives, interviewing people and traveling to Indonesia myself, I hope not only to find out how the representation and power of the Dutch government was functioning, but also what the impact of this was on society. What particularly interests me in this regard is that after the emancipation waves in the West (abolition of slavery, trade unions, general and women’s suffrage, etc.), and after the independence of the colonies; forms of racial and cultural oppression may on paper have been abolished, but the spatial structures of these have persisted. Infrastructures and urban construction projects are not so easy to erase and though they often seem to allow the possibility of appropriation, they also take over the implemented structures of the colonizer. In many young independent nations, for example, the ‘immaculate’ modernist architecture that the Europeans brought to the colonies, lent itself perfectly to the symbolic representation of new values.
The fact that architecture and planning as a means of power and conduction for the symbolic representation of ideals, support a complex fabric of cultural and social significant layers —of which I cannot yet comprehend the interpretation— opens up a huge field of research that I would like to explore in the coming years.