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Blue, Green, and Grey: Towards a New History of Architecture and Empire

Public lecture by Alex Bremner, of the University of Edinburgh
In 2009 the historian Glen O’Hara appealed for the mingling of ‘blue’ and ‘green’ histories in an effort to understand better Britain’s place within the increasingly globalised history of empire.

In suggesting this O’Hara meant to draw attention to the apparent disjunction between maritime and territorial historiography. Since then the rise of the ‘oceanic’ in British imperial history has moved centre stage, forcing historians to rethink traditional land-based conceptions of empire, particularly in the context of Asia, to an approach that is concerned more with a water- or ocean-based framework of analysis. As a result, we now tend to view the empire not only from a globalised perspective, but also as a web-based construct of intersecting nodal points.

In the context of this wider historiographic development, a parallel shift of focus away from grand buildings and monuments has begun to affect the architectural history of British imperialism. A greater interest now attends ‘banal’ architectures of little or no apparent artistic significance, with a view to revealing the critical role played by such architectures in the day-to-day management of empire. The contention is that historians of architecture must now pay heed to those less identifiable, harder to categorise, if not ephemeral typologies that were in a sense the operational ‘tools’ of the British imperial system, strategically located as they were along the networks of information flow and commodity exchange. These buildings – docks, depots, warehouses, back-office facilities, etc. – occupy what might be termed an indeterminate, or ‘grey’, zone within the received hierarchies of architectural historiography, blurring traditional distinctions between infrastructure and ‘architecture’.

Focusing on the China Trade firm of Jardine, Matheson & Co., this paper proposes to outline what a history of imperial architecture along the lines O’Hara suggests might look like, as well how it can be tackled methodologically and historiographically.

Image: Jardine, Matheson & Co headquarters, Hong Kong, c1860

Event details

Date: Thursday 14 March
Time: 5.30pm - 8.00pm, Light refreshments from 5.30pm, talk commences at 6.00pm
Location: Lecture Theatre 250, Level 2, Wilkinson Building (148 City Rd, Darlington), The University of Sydney

About Alex Bremner

G. A. Bremner is Senior Lecturer in Architectural History at the University of Edinburgh. His recent publications include Imperial Gothic: Religious Architecture and High Anglican Culture in the British Empire, c.1840-1870 (Yale UP, 2013) and Architecture and Urbanism in the British Empire (Oxford UP, 2016). Apart from working on the relationship between architecture, trade, and the development of early global capitalism, he is currently engaged as a Leverhulme Major Research Fellow investigating Edwardian architecture in Britain and the wider British world.

Wilkinson Building, The University of Sydney