Set in stone? The architecture of colonialism

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Set in stone? The architecture of colonialism
Merrion Square, Dublin, Ireland
Set in stone? The architecture of colonialism
Merrion Square, Dublin, Ireland

There are some subjects that should never be brought up in polite conversation. Traditionally, Northern Ireland (part British, part Irish) was one of them. Colonial buildings are another. As design objects, they often have great charm (and make romantic ruins), but they are politically provocative. Opinion on them divides along an obvious line—between those who have no personal or historical experience of colonisation, and those who do.

In countries like Myanmar and India, such buildings have been decaying peacefully and prettily without garnering too much of the world’s attention for more than half a century, but recently that has changed. In Yangon/Rangoon, for example, the long-abandoned Pegu Club is one of the world’s most atmospheric ruins, and its fate has become something of a cause célèbre. A popular New York bar has taken its name and re-popularised the legendary ‘Pegu Club cocktail’ of gin, Curaçao, lime juice, Angostura, and orange bitters.

Originally the Club was “open to all gentlemen.” According to local author Wai Wai Myaing, this meant that “rank, wealth, and birth had no relevance. The colour of the skin was the only feature that mattered.” Wild dogs are now said to have taken up residence in the abandoned building. Many locals seem happy enough to leave it to them.

Canines also feature in the history of a Mumbai monument—the old Watson’s Hotel, which famously bore a sign saying “Indians and Dogs are not Allowed” and hired only English waitresses in its restaurant. This landmark building is now “most dilapidated” (that’s an official classification). Architecturally important (it was India’s first cast-iron building), the old hotel is now causing so much concern abroad that it has been put on a global watch list of 100 endangered monuments. Cost and bureaucracy in Mumbai—rather than antipathy to the building’s history—are said to be responsible for its ongoing deterioration. I’m not so sure. […]

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