Cultural synthesis has historically been a tool of colonial oppressors

We imagine the halls of Harvard University, or the French châteaux scattered through the jungles of Indochina. Yet this is to treat the subject unfairly. Colonists frequently built settlements that synthesized their own architecture with that of those they oppressed, creating uniquely syncretic structures, not quite based in either tradition.

Take the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, India, for example. At a first glance it looks like a marble St Pauls Cathedral, a perfectly baroque structure plucked straight out of London. But the longer one looks, the more Indian the building seems to become. Its arches are pointed and its towers are topped with octagonal-domed Hindu chattris. The portal resembles a Mughal iwan and the marble itself is the same marble as was used for the Taj Mahal.

The Victoria Memorial is a prime example of Indo-Saracenic architecture – Saracen being a medieval Latin word for Muslim. To some extent the collision of cultures and use of Indian techniques was not a positive recognition of Indian architecture. This cultural synthesis was rooted in the British appreciation and romanticisation of Indian art – in the nineteenth century, orientalism in Europe was at its height and Indian art was frequently valued for its exotic but alien qualities.

Yet mere aesthetic concerns are insufficient to explain the Victoria Memorial. The Memorial’s unique style of architecture is seen virtually nowhere back in the UK (with the notable exception of the Brighton pavilion). The rarity of this memorial betrays the real reason behind such architecture: control.

After the Indian Uprising in 1857, the British finally deposed the last Mughal Emperor and with their main rival gone, they now wished to legitimise their rule over India.


In many post-colonial countries, therefore, colonial architecture has been eradicated from the map in a symbolic gesture to show newfound freedom – either through deliberate bulldozing or simply through a wilful indifference to its demise. But despite it still being built for colonial aims, this same fusion architecture has proven much more problematic than normal colonial architecture after independence.