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Contested Modernities. Postcolonial Architecture in Southeast Asia


Idea, concept, and artistic direction: Sally Below, Moritz Henning, Christian Hiller, and Eduard Kögel

From 10 September to 24 October 2021, the exhibition Contested Modernities. Postcolonial Architecture in Southeast Asia has been shown at the Haus der Statistik in Berlin.

With the attainment of independence in the mid-20th century, the appearance of many cities in Southeast Asia changed. Hand in hand with the task of constituting a nation went the desire for a symbolic new beginning in architecture and urban planning. International modernism not only offered an aesthetic programme that reflected expectations of progress and prosperity, but also served as a means of emancipation from the colonial powers. With their knowledge of climatic building requirements in tropical regions and cultural specifics, local modernisms were created that shaped the image of the cities for years to come.

Today, rapid urbanisation processes, often politically motivated reassessments of local architectural history, and new usage requirements place the architectural legacy of this era of new beginnings under threat of demolishment or destruction through excessive conversions. Against this backdrop, the significance of postcolonial architecture in the region is increasingly thematized. This is accompanied by critiques of the widespread interpretation of modernism as an originally Western movement.

In Germany, the buildings of Southeast Asian modernism and the discussions about their preservation are barely known. Contested Modernities brought the Southeast Asian discourse to Berlin, where astonishingly similar discussions are currently being held about the architectural heritage of modernism.

Contested Modernities was part of the long-term programme Encounters with Southeast Asian Modernism, which launched in 2019 with exhibitions and events in Phnom Penh, Jakarta, Yangon, and Singapore. Five curatorial teams in the respective cities dealt in different ways with the significance of local architectural modernism. The exhibition brought together these contributions in Berlin. Documentary projects, interviews and artistic research works provided an exemplary insight into the debates as they are being conducted in the respective cities.

These contributions were supplemented by a look at the role of the two German states in the modernisation process of Southeast Asia during the Cold War. The exhibition section Poelzig’s Legacy and the Prefab in the Tropics: German Influences in Southeast Asia took a novel look at planning and building activities with the participation of the Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR in some countries in Southeast Asia from the 1950s to the 1970s. In addition to the planning and building projects, it also dealt with architectural education, which was influenced by figures such as Julius Posener.

Haus der Statistik (House of Statistics) as an exhibition venue established a direct link to the theme of the exhibition. Built as an administrative building in the centre of the city, it stood empty after German reunification and was scheduled for demolition. Thanks to civic engagement and an open-minded administration, this fate was averted. After its renovation, Haus der Statistik will serve as a model project combining cultural, social, and educational projects, affordable housing, and administrative uses in this special location.

In conjunction with the topics addressed by the contributions from Southeast Asia, Contested Modernities aimed to open up a shared thought process that negotiates new perspectives on the perception and treatment of architectural modernism, both here and there.

Contested Modernities was funded by the German Capital Cultural Fund (HKF) and the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community and supported by stadtkultur international ev and others.