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Pamela Buxton

Edward Denison and Guangyu Ren probed history’s record of power in Manchuria and the ultra-modernism it produced in their medal-winning research

The Asia Express, the South Manchuria Railway’s ‘ultra-modern’ high-speed train at Dalian’s ‘ultra-modern’ railway station with ‘ultra-modern Manchurian girls’.
The Asia Express, the South Manchuria Railway’s ‘ultra-modern’ high-speed train at Dalian’s ‘ultra-modern’ railway station with ‘ultra-modern Manchurian girls’. Credit: Ultra-Modernism – Architecture and Modernity in Manchuria’, Denison & Ren

History is a record of power. The 20th century – modernism’s century – was dominated by the West; its official history bearing testimony to the West’s dominance of ‘others’. Modernist architectural history is a canon constructed by, for and of the West. This has major consequences for architectural encounters with modernity outside the West, which are routinely overlooked or possess an assumed inferiority; a postulation ­asserted through inauthenticity, belatedness, diluteness and remoteness – geographically, intellectually, and even racially.

This condition will be obvious to anyone who has studied post-colonialism, though the hysteria this autumn surrounding the open letter by Cambridge University students to ‘decolonise’ the English Literature syllabus and the unconscionable way that certain newspapers and online media have misrepresented it reveals how far we still need to go to make education fit for the 21st century.

While the popular and populist interpretation of demands for a more inclusive curriculum is framed as yet another attack on the identity of the already privileged, some academics have tried to focus on the actual motives and reality: decolonising the curriculum is not about narrowing learning by undermining the canon, but widening it so that future generations can learn about the full range of experiences that more accurately reflect the reality of our past and the present. 

For architects, this necessity carries particular significance because most of those trained or practising in the 21st century will derive income from projects beyond their national and, probably, continental borders. Such projects will also just as likely be in modern urban environments that, due to specific cultural, political and socio-economic conditions, are quite unlike anything in Europe or North America. It is imperative therefore that tomorrow’s architects have an education with a historical perspective that equips them to deal with the challenges of working outside their geographic and cultural base – something the Western canon is ill-equipped to do in a globalised world. The conspicuously male line-ups of Vitruvius, Brunelleschi, Alberti, Palladio or Le Corbusier, Gropius and Mies Van der Rohe do little to inform any architects practising in Africa, the Middle East or China, to name but a third of the world’s landmass and population.

Modernist architectural history is a canon constructed by, for and of the West

It is worth repeating that this is not about attacking the canon, but augmenting it with other voices and precedents.

Manchuria, the name given to the vast northeast region of China beneath Siberia and flanked by Mongolia and Korea, exemplifies this point. Despite being subjected to Russian (1896-1905) and then Japanese (1905-1945) modern urban planning and architecture on an unprecedented scale (approximately 100 towns and cities were developed by the Japanese), Manchuria does not feature in modernist historiography. 

Japan annexed Manchuria in 1932 and rebranded it Manchukuo. Such was the speed and intensity of Manchukuo’s encounter with modernity and its distinction from Western precedents, the Japanese branded it ‘ultra-modernism’.

Ultra-modernism in Manchukuo was ideologically ubiquitous and became manifest in urban planning, architecture, transportation, communications, photography and film – all essential facets of modern metropolitan life in Manchukuo. The jewel in Japan’s imperial crown was the vast new capital of Hsinking (‘New Capital’), the city’s nomenclature echoing the ultra-modernity on which empire was built. 

Beyond merely recording and analysing the numerous modern urban plans and thousands of buildings, this research focuses on the architectural outcomes of Japan’s imperial project from 1931, including transportation and communication (railways, roads, telegraphy and radio stations), trade and industry (ports, mines, factories, manufacturing and agricultural facilities), leisure and entertainment (shops, department stores, cinemas, bars, cafés, resorts, spas and sporting facilities), health, education and public services (schools, nurseries, hospitals, clinics and fire stations), military and law enforcement (police stations, residences, barracks, and dormitories), and residential (private apartments and houses, and public housing).

Ultra-modernism in Manchukuo was ideologically ubiquitous and became manifest in all essential facets of modern metropolitan life

The research also aims to extend our understanding of how we construct histories of modernism, which were founded on the assumed equation of Westernisation and modernisation and the West’s subjugation of others. Japan – the first non-Western nation to modernise – complicates this assumption. In Edward Said’s seminal thesis on imperialism, ‘Orientalism’, Japan is framed as a ‘complicated exception’ – it would have to be if Orientalism is defined as ‘a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient’. 

Shmuel Eisenstadt, the social scientist and architect of the theory of multiple modernities, claims Japan was ‘the most important test-case – and paradox’ because of its unique example as a fully modernized non-western state. Manchuria therefore, due to the scale and scope of architectural production at that time, exemplifies and exposes the way in which architectural experiences outside the West can encourage a more nuanced understanding of post-colonialism, and, conversely, how the marginalisation of these experiences constrains architectural knowledge and undermines its impartiality.

This is not about attacking the canon, but augmenting it with other voices and precedents

Eisenstadt argues that ‘Western patterns of modernity are not the only “authentic” modernities’. The acknowledgement of the possibility, let alone the existence, of ‘new configurations of modernity’, whether multiple, plural, alternative, indigenous, colonial, entangled, has only occurred relatively recently, helped in part by globalisation enriching our understanding of and connections between the West and ‘others’. 

This research seeks to make a contribution to this shift and to encourage the formulation of truly global architectural histories. Its main conclusions reveal the extent to which Japan sought an empire founded on the projection of modernity that was distinct from Western precedents – not merely modern, but ultra-modern – and demonstrate how this has, in part, caused its relative absence from the modernist canon since. 

The research therefore is intended not only to make a contribution to architectural knowledge in a field that has until recently been almost entirely overlooked, but in doing so also provides a critique of the way in which architectural history (of modernism in particular) is constructed. It also provides important context to the rising tensions in the region, the seeds of which were sown in Manchuria, which bore witness to the start of the Second World War and may yet witness the third.

This work forms part of a wider study spanning 15 years culminating in the recent publication of the first English-language book to focus exclusively on architecture and modernity in Manchuria: ‘Ultra-Modernism: Architecture and Modernity in Manchuria’ (HKUP, 2017)


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