On Pedagogy and the “Canon”: Interview with Esther da Costa Meyer

Publication Date
April 4, 2019

A native of Brazil, Esther da Costa Meyer specializes in issues of cultural translation involving architecture focusing on buildings erected by colonial powers in the Global South, as well as the emerging cultures of resistance that were themselves highly hybrid, transnational, and diasporic. Interested in issues pertaining to gender and design, she has published on architects Lilly Reich, Charlotte Perriand, and Lina Bo Bardi.

Who defines the canon and has the definition changed over the years?

Globalization has challenged the very notion of “canon,” which cannot respond to the broader interconnected world of the digital age. Both students and faculty now come from all over the world. A glance at the seminars and lecture courses in architectural history will show that advanced universities do not have a canon as such; we have a curriculum devised by the faculty, but it is always changing depending on several factors: sabbaticals, visiting professors, the wish for greater coverage, and the suggestions of students and professors. Yet we are caught in a dilemma. While architectural curricula are still dominated by Western traditions, it is sometimes hard to separate East and West, North and South, given the fact that major professional studios now build in every continent and have practitioners from many different countries. It thus makes no sense to talk of contemporary “American” or “Chinese” architecture. Where would you situate David Adjaye, for example, or the late Zaha Hadid? In architecture schools, studios admittedly tackle projects in all parts of the world, though in some areas far more than others. That said, the global reach of studios and projects often reflects a modern, cosmopolitan, and largely Westernized culture that does not necessarily deal with cultural difference. Many architects and architectural historians have tried to make room for cultural heterogeneity, that is, for the vibrant architectural cultures and countercultures of other parts of the globe that express it in different ways. This requires moving beyond presentism and understanding the geopolitical forces that led us to where we are.

Has there been a shift in your research interests?

Yes. When I began to teach, my interests shifted to the relationships between different continents brought about by colonialism. My own country, Brazil, is a case in point: slavery bound it strongly to West African cultures; while Portugal’s colonial reach included India, East Timor, Malacca, etc. We need more courses that bridge North-South and East-West divides from a postcolonial perspective, and show the connections that have always existed between them. This is why I now tend to work on cities that are multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. I have team-taught several courses with colleagues from other disciplines which allowed me to focus on specific cities in India and China, for example. My goal is to understand the complex forms of cultural production that resulted from the unequal and indelible encounter with imperialism: the role played by art and architecture in the Western constructions of Asia or Latin America and conversely, the emerging cultures of resistance in the colonies that were themselves highly diversified and cosmopolitan. In other words, the cultural forms taken by hegemony and resistance.

As an academician, has there been a change in the way you structure the curriculum of the history and theory courses you teach?

I try to teach courses that either focus on other parts of the world in which I have expertise, or team-teach courses dealing with cities where East and West, North and South meet and can serve as a template for other approaches. I’ve always had problems with “global” histories of art and architecture because they are basically defined by exclusions. Large non-Western countries are easily included but smaller ones rarely make it. Global histories also tend to be reductively state-centric. It is important to emphasize the crucial role played by large, deterritorialized groups in diaspora—Africans, Chinese, Indians, Jews, Muslims, Armenians—who were also bearers of culture and whose presence subverts over-arching art-historical narratives. However violent and unequal, trade routes and networks, powerful consortiums like the East India Companies, and the opium wars were always two-way streets. The “discovery”—that is, the constitution—of foreign monuments or portable objects as “art,” had an impact on the self-imagination of empires: colonial powers learned from what they encountered. And in the colonies, emerging cultural forces were predicated on both rupture and accommodation, and sustained forms of expression and resistance that were themselves hybrid and transnational.

Do you think that architecture schools can respond to these issues pedagogically?

Absolutely! But changing or broadening the curriculum—as institutionalized by classes, syllabi, studios—cannot be simply a top-down affair. It is up to those of us from the Global South to make our voices heard in a spirit of dialogue with concrete and constructive proposals that call attention to the architecture from other traditions and latitudes that might also be taught. We must be careful, however, not to reify the Global North/Global South divide. First because all rich nations, and the U.S. is a case in point, have vulnerable populations: minorities, seasonal workers, migrants (legal or illegal). In this respect, Etienne Balibar rightly said that all nations are both colonized and colonizing, sometimes both at the same time. Second, because as far as architectural history is concerned, gender continues to be a major lacuna: women are barely mentioned in the overwhelming majority of histories of architecture. We are all here—students and professors alike—to contribute to a dynamic architectural culture that needs to change continuously to face the evolving challenges of today’s world. That responsibility is shared by us all.

Publication Date
April 4, 2019
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