Post-colonial architectural imagination in between aid and extraction

Sebastiaan Loosen

Keywords: Architectural history; Development aid; Coloniality política

Participation: presential

In this paper I aim to interpret architectural drawings from ‘post-colonial’ projects in the Global South through the theoretical notion of coloniality in order to sharpen our visual sensibilities when engaging with architectural history in the Global South.

In architectural historiography, from the 1990s onwards, postcolonial theory has become an invaluable frame of reference to interpret the intercultural exchanges that took place under colonial and post-colonial regimes and how these exchanges have thoroughly impacted architectural culture at large (Avermaete et al. 2010; Hosagrahar 2012). For instance the work of Jiat-Hwee Chang has pointed to the ways in which the late colonial paradigm of ‘Tropical Architecture’ reduced subjects to a globalizing and universalizing techno-social knowledge that tied the production and representation of architecture to a biological definition of physical comfort, thereby overruling other forms of subjectivity to which architecture could cater (Chang 2016).

Thus, the ways in which architecture is enmeshed in networks of power has always been strongly at the foreground of historical analysis. Yet, despite this import of postcolonial theory to the discipline of architectural history, only a handful of studies fundamentally challenge the colonial legacy of inequality on a conceptual and epistemological level (Le Roux 2020). The bulk of architectural scholarship is based in former colonizing countries, relies on funding and archives in those countries, tends to prioritize narratives of protagonists of those countries, and only very rarely engages with notions such as extraction, abandonment, restitution, and decolonization.

While this paper does not pretend to escape that critique, it attempts to explore the leeway we have as scholars in taking up such questions by confronting visual material from hegemonic archives of the Global North with the theoretical toolkit of coloniality as developed by authors such as Walter Mignolo, Aníbal Quijano, Arturo Escobar and María Lugones.

This toolkit serves us particularly well when delving into the history of post-colonial ‘development aid’, an area in which architectural expertise has been actively mobilized by various actors of the Global North. By interpreting Belgian and Swedish architectural drawings from the 1960-70s stemming from a diverse set of actors in this context – from architect-entrepreneurs delving into expanding markets to idealistic architecture students aiming to serve a good cause – and by attempting to detect underlying visual codes of coloniality, this paper aims to stretch the vocabulary of coloniality to the context of ‘development aid’ to better understand architecture’s role in it.

By pairing the notions of aid and extraction, I aim to highlight the ambiguous field of tensions inherent to coloniality as it plays out in the visual realm. Thus, I aim not only to argue how architectural images operate within the power and knowledge structures of their day, but also how they express an underlying reality of continued inequality, highlighting the relevance of theoretical notions such as ‘coloniality’ as more salient to architecture historiography than employing the terms ‘colonial’/‘post- colonial’ as terms of periodization as if they cover entirely separate realities.


Avermaete, Tom, Serhat Karakayli, and Marion von Osten, eds. Colonial Modern. Aesthetics of the Past, Rebellions for the Future. London: Black Dog Publishing, 2010.
Chang, Jiat-Hwee. A Genealogy of Tropical Architecture. Colonial Networks, Nature and Technoscience. London: Routledge, 2016.
Hosagrahar, Jyoti. “Interrogating Difference: Postcolonial Perspectives in Architecture and Urbanism.” In The SAGE Handbook of Architectural Theory, edited by C. Greig Crysler, Stephen Cairns, and Hilde Heynen. London: SAGE, 2012, pp. 70–84.
Le Roux, Hannah. “Comfort, Violence, Care: Decolonising Tropical Architecture at Blida, 1956.” ABE Journal. Architecture beyond Europe, no. 17: Entanglements of Architecture and Comfort beyond the Temperate Zone (2020).


Sebastiaan Loosen is a lecturer and postdoctoral researcher based at ETH Zürich's Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta). His postdoctoral research project aims to chart the role of architectural schools, centres and institutes in contributing to the 1960-80s agenda of 'foreign aid' by offering 'South-oriented' training programs in architecture, urbanism, and spatial planning. After obtaining degrees in architectural engineering and in philosophy, he completed his doctoral dissertation on the formative years of architectural theory in 1970-80s Belgium (KU Leuven, 2019). He recently co-edited for Architectural Histories a theme issue on ‘Marxism and Architectural Theory across the East-West Divide’ (2018-19), for Leuven University Press a book based on the international conference Theory’s History, 196X-199X. Challenges in the Historiography of Architectural Knowledge (2020); and is currently co-editing a double theme issue of ABE Journal. Architecture Beyond Europe on 'Architecture in the Foreign Aid-Funded Knowledge Economy' (2022-23).