Features  Beyond Eurocentrism

The slow death of academic colonization in McGill’s School of Architecture

McGill’s School of Architecture was founded in 1896 on the philosophy of universitas: a community of scholars devoted to architectural instruction. The school has consistently prided itself on its own diversity and its pluralistic teaching environment, where scholars are allowed to blossom within their interests and capacities without adhering to a certain set ideology, hence freeing them of constraints. Currently housed in the stately MacDonald-Harrington building on McGill’s main campus, the school declares on its website that its mission is “to educate professionals who will contribute to the socioeconomic and cultural development of Quebec, Canada, and the broader global community through responsible participation in the process of the design, construction, and interpretation of the built environment.” One of the principal ways the “built environment” is interpreted is through the teaching of its history, the knowledge of which is a critical tool in understanding the sensibilities prevailing within the field of architecture. It is from these required classes that students draw significant amounts of precedence and inspiration for their design projects, fusing, compiling, engaging, synthesizing, and experimenting with these aforementioned sensibilities. It is more often than not their first comprehensive introduction to architectural history as a subject, which, as of recently, has been drastically restructured, partially with the intention of globalizing our history curriculum and shifting the historical centre of gravity closer to early modernism.

Eurocentricity lends the ‘West’ a sense of unique historical density, envisioning the world from a single privileged point of view that centralizes and augments a flattened perspective of Europe.

Eurocentrism in architectural history
Architecture is heavily rooted in academia, and what is defined as progress can best be understood by looking at the field’s past. In 1895, the year before McGill’s School of Architecture was founded, a book co-authored by Sir Banister Fletcher and his son called A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method was published in London. The book holds a formative position in English-speaking architectural institutions – McGill included – constituting the historical education of many generations of architecture students. Originally, the work was a modest survey of European styles, but in the fourth edition an important difference surfaced. The book was divided into two sections: “The Historical Styles,” which covered all the previous editions’ European content, and “The Non-Historical Styles,” which included Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Central American, and Arabic architecture.

The nomenclature of Fletcher’s work has been a topic of heated debate and is certainly controversial by today’s standards. Fletcher established a dichotomy of architectural styles and compared them through pseudo-scientific methods that led to the supposed indication and reaffirmation of European superiority and non-European inferiority. What adds to this absurdity is that the very process of identification of the ‘us’ as opposed to the ‘other’ is a European construct in itself. In the words of Annmarie Adams, the current Director of the School of Architecture, the book stands as one of the “culprits of Eurocentrism.” The infamous illustration is the “Tree of Architecture” (the frontispiece of Fletcher’s book), which depicts the sturdy upright trunk bearing the names of European styles. The ‘non-historical styles’ are supported by the Western trunk, with no room to grow past what appears to be the 7th century.

I am not claiming that Fletcher’s work provides the paradigm for Western historiography’s treatment and observation of non-Western architecture in its entirety – no work could ever take on such a charge or claim such a feat. However, Fletcher’s book has stood the test of time and is still in print today in its 17th edition. This “culprit” was taught as a part of McGill’s history of architecture curriculum up until the 1990s, almost a century after its original publication date, which is why the work bears significant relevance to this argument in the context of our university. The book, and many like it, has only recently started collecting dust on the shelves of McGill’s bookcases, symbolizing the glacial pace of this paradigm shift. The book itself is but a mere symptom of the assumptions of Western superiority prevalent at the time of its conception, but its prolonged survival is an indication of the slow death of academic colonialism.

It is important to recognize that the writing of history makes history, and disproportional perspectives of such can no longer be afforded.

Eurocentrism in architecture
The comparative method is an excellent demonstration of how academic Eurocentrism operates. While there are various definitions, the one used for the purpose of this article – without claiming authority of this definition – is Eurocentrism as the disposition to view Europe as the focal point of civilization and its ideals as the unique true source of ontological reality. Eurocentricity lends the ‘West’ a sense of unique historical density, envisioning the world from a single privileged point of view that centralizes and augments a flattened perspective of Europe. This augmentation is all too literal in the case of European spatial evaluation practices literally belittling Africa cartographically and subdividing Asia into ‘Near,’ ‘Middle,’ and ‘Far.’ Another example is Greenwich Mean Time, which centralizes England as the regulator of temporal measurement and calibration. The abrasive, binaristic, hierarchical constructs that have manifested and infectiously proliferated under the ‘West’ and ‘East’ dichotomy as a result of Eurocentrism are innumerable: the word ‘nations’ stands opposed to ‘tribes’; ‘culture’ to ‘folklore’; ‘religion’ to ‘superstitions’; ‘philosophy’ to ‘religion’; ‘pedigree’ to ‘elders’; ‘art’ to ‘artifact’; ‘psychology’ to ‘behaviour’; ‘protests’ to ‘riots’; ‘defence’ to ‘terrorism’; and finally what about ‘architecture?’

‘Vernacular architecture’ is probably the closest binary falling into the framework of the previous pattern, though there are also positive connotations behind this contemporary nomenclature. The word ‘vernacular’ itself comes from the Latin word vernaculus, which means domestic, indigenous, or pertaining to home-born slaves, and it is unsurprising that its frequency of use increased drastically over the 18th and 19th centuries. Obviously, language is prone to evolution, and in the context of architecture and its instruction today, there is an inherent appreciation and positive association with vernacular architecture; however, oftentimes it is placed adjunct to what is considered established. It is in the distinction between this established breed of architecture and that subsidiary breed that the polarity is presented, subverting the latter by demoting it from its self-evident signification.

Architecture has, as Ipek Türeli, professor of architecture history at McGill, puts it, two schools: the school of the ‘Cathedral’ and the school of the ‘Bicycle Shed.’ This original distinction was made by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, who argued that the Lincoln Cathedral is architecture and that the Bicycle Shed is a building. The former symbolizes architecture as most people conceptualize it, but the latter symbolizes the architecture with which the majority engages. The former has been infinitely legitimized, the latter persistently delegitimized. The former implies an extension of high culture and the establishment, while the latter implies quotidian utility and democracy. The former symbolizes ‘architecture,’ while the latter signifies ‘vernacular.’ Their purpose here is to serve as metaphors that embody the contrast between an École des Beaux-Arts outlook, in comparison to a Bauhaus outlook – two major schools of thought in architecture. Vernacular architecture used to be defined, in the imperialist sense, as a byproduct of dwelling requirements, or a mechanism for habitation, but not really as architecture. Today, however, it is defined as architecture without architects, hence exhibiting the paradigm shift. In Fletcher’s tree diagram, all the buildings we see are monumental. This is due to the Western desire to draw parallels between European and non-European monuments, so it can seek self-validation and reaffirmation of its definition of architecture.

Architecture as an organic extension of culture is paramount to its understanding and practice; it remains an integral part of our perceptions of reality and its construction.

Teachings of McGill’s School of Architecture
It is safe to say that Eurocentrism – any return to or manifestation thereof – would be, considering our post-colonial reality, not just a hinderance to globalizing movements and cultural pluralism, but literally reversing any legitimate intentions in that direction. Can we say we have or ever truly will distance ourselves from Eurocentrism at McGill’s School of Architecture or even the field in its entirety? The answer is probably no, based on the difficulty of such eradication, particularly with regard to the limitations of the recorded historical academia made available to us by the languages that we understand and are educated in. My advantageous position of being a student that underwent all four required segments of architecture history before the restructuring allows for observations on how we are ‘dealing’ with the constant presence of Eurocentrism in our teachings. My cohort, on the other hand, took these classes after the current restructuring, allowing me to compare my experiences to their own.

The first pre-reform segment of architectural history classes at McGill focused on antiquity to early Christianity – and in an excessively traditionalist manner, Greece and Rome are considerably stressed. This is the course Eurocentric historical trajectories unflinchingly take, from their roots in Classical Greece (constructed as ‘pure,’ ‘democratic,’ and ‘Western’) to imperial Rome and all the way through history to the metropolitan capitals of Europe and the U.S.; rendering Europe, isolated and unassisted, as the motor of progress as it ‘invents’ class society, feudalism, capitalism, and the industrial revolution. The Greeks and the Romans evidently had no notion of European identity beyond a geological one, and often times viewed the indigenous people of Western Europe as ‘barbaric’ and ‘backwards.’ In almost the grandest case of Stockholm Syndrome ever imaginable, the Western European obsession and fetishization of Roman culture could arguably be described as verging on sadomasochistic. The now-reformed preliminary segment still retains the same period and a similar stress on “European” topics with the only occasional stray toward a more holistic historical perspective.

The second pre-reform segment endured the most noticeable and the most admirable transition of all. The segment originally focused on Europe, from pre-industrial to early modernism, and then suddenly veered toward the U.S. to discuss the dawn of the skyscraper. This class has been vastly reformed and can be perceived as the School of Architecture’s most substantial and drastic response to combatting Eurocentrism. Focusing on the scale and fabric of numerous cities, Türeli’s class does not deal with the ‘West’ versus the ‘non-West’ but rather focuses on the connections and processes of how cities are made and how buildings come to be as part of urban conglomerates and transnational connections. Türeli presents history as an intertwined, complex reality, and actively deconstructs notions of European exceptionalism by spending as much time talking about the grain elevator, as she does talking about Daniel Burnham’s famous buildings (such as the Flatiron Building), stressing their relevancy to modernists and praising the ‘Bicycle Shed.’

The third pre-reform segment was both a literal and figurative step back, in that it stepped literally chronologically backward to look at Europe from the early renaissance to the industrial revolution, and in doing so, it stepped figuratively backward to look exclusively at Europe. I would like to be the first to state that the latter is rooted in subjectivity. I do admit that the class presented the valuable opportunity for a more extensive analysis of history as opposed to a diluted broader one, and that this is respectable. It was, however, the bombardment of Eurocentric undertones within this class that I found worthy of criticism. I also find it vital to reassert that it is not Europe or European architecture that I am choosing to polemicize, nor specific Europeans, but the notions of Eurocentrism and European exceptionalism. This segment was certainly the most complacent in its Eurocentric tendencies; existing under the age-old philosophy of ‘we have to teach Europe.’ I would like to clarify that it is not my belief otherwise, however, I do believe that we should not teach Europe alone. This view of history performs a gross disfavour to both history itself and its students.

The fourth segment was taught by the director of the school herself, and operated in a way so as to peel back the cover to reveal the complex cultural, social, and political layers behind architectural developments in the twentieth century. It focuses on North American topics but dissects these topics intriguingly, and attempts to demonstrate their evolution in the context of their significant socio-political backdrops. The class discussed everything from gender topics to the vernacular, and even had classes that focused exclusively on Canada, a rarity. Many may argue that Anglo-Americanism is merely an extension of Eurocentrism – in fact, in a more recent version of Fletcher’s book, a tree of architectures put the ‘American’ style at the pinnacle of the updated tree of architecture. My belief is that there isn’t a clear break between the two but a complex evolution and exchange that is certainly worth studying. It is evident that this class never actively addressed Eurocentricity but passively engaged with it by perceiving and addressing architectural history in a responsible manner that allowed Adam’s students’ perceptions of architecture to mature. Other classes in the School of Architecture that would be relevant to the discussion on Eurocentrism are History of Housing taught by Pieter Sijpkes and Cultural Landscapes taught by Robert Mellin.

It is important to recognize that the writing of history makes history, and disproportional perspectives of such can no longer be afforded. Eurocentrism permeates historical teaching, and is an ever-present concern in attempting to teach our past holistically, ethically, and realistically. Architecture as an organic extension of culture is paramount to its understanding and practice; it remains an integral part of our perceptions of reality and its construction. The menagerie of imported styles of the buildings on this campus serve as a concrete reminder of how this reality has been historically distorted through the lens of eurocentricity and its ubiquitous hegemony. The eradication of this bias is a difficult one, and it is important for us as students to take agency and engage with the education we are receiving.

Alice Shen