By Rebecca Ginsburg
Historic architecture continues to play a role in defining urban environments around the world—definitions that are not always of positive connotation. For example, my work has brought me to Chennai (formerly Madras) in South India, and as I prepare for my upcoming talk about Johannesburg’s historical urban environment, I can’t resist comparing the Indian and South African built landscapes, especially as these relate to the respective nations’ colonial roots.
It can be hard for Americans to appreciate the power and force of the colonial experience. We have done a remarkable—though by no means commendable—job of erasing obvious signs of pre-colonial habitation within our borders, thereby obliterating reminders of the peoples and institutions that used to inhabit our land. Indeed, for many, the word “colonial” is more likely to provoke images of quaint and charming cottages. For many in India and Africa, however, “colonial” refers less to a period style than to a historic episode, one where the buildings and monuments that the British built to celebrate their empire’s will to conquer continue to dominate many city’ skylines.
Segregation was a key feature of British colonialism. Throughout the subcontinent, they created “black towns” to house native urban populations separate from European residents. Few physical traces of the segregation remain in Indian cities today, especially after the recent economic boon, which has produced its own dramatic reconfigurations and buildings within the Indian urban landscape. In South Africa, by contrast, the legacy of racial segregation remains strong. African women who journeyed and continue to journey from their (African) rural areas to find work in the (white) cities traverse more than geographic space. Here, the urban environments directly play into continuing the historic oppression by a colonial minority regime.
Cities such as these contain lessons for us all about the layered nature of urban spaces; the examination of debilitating spaces highlights the importance of designing sites that promote, rather than hamper, human dignity.
The above is part of what Rebecca Ginsburg will discuss during the "Black Women in White Johannesburg: Domestic Workers’ Spatial Strategies under Apartheid" lecture on February 16, 6:30–7:45 p.m., at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs (Room 1512, 420 West 118 Street, New York City), as a part of the "Sightlines: New Perspectives on African Architecture and Urbanism" series that explores contemporary African cities as unique built environments. www.ias.columbia.edu. (The series is co-presented by the Museum for African Art and Columbia University’s Institute of African Studies, Committee on Global Thought, and Center for African Education.)