Colonialism involves the physical occupation of one land by people associated with another place. The colonists do not simply remove resources and wealth from the new land but actually occupy the territory, building settlements, and often also agriculture and industry.

Forms of colonial built environment

“The Indian or native city is situated often at a considerable distance from the European civil lines and military cantonments, in one or the other of which the Europeans live. [It] is usually walled. The houses are closely packed together, the streets being very narrow … Even the main street, in which the chief business is transacted, will hardly allow of one cart passing another. The houses are high and most picturesque, though very dirty. The bazaar is a feast of color.

The effect would be garish, but with the background of closely set fantastic buildings, the sunny lights and deep velvety shadows, the picture gives joy and satisfaction to the onlooker. True, a captious critic does not approve of what he sees on close inspection, and the state of sanitation is such that diseases when introduced spread with incredible rapidity. It is not without reason that the European residential quarter is built at a considerable distance from the fascinating but dangerous native city. “ (Platt, 1923, quoted in King, 1976: 127)

The form of the colonial built environment can tell us a good deal about how the colonizers viewed the native people and their landscape.

As we can gather from the opening quote, native towns were often viewed with a mixture of wonder and fear. The colors and designs were seen as exotic and exciting, but at the same time, their apparent lack of order and design was worrying to the colonisers.

Sometimes native areas were ordered and rebuilt; most often, though, European quarters were established in distinct areas, sometimes at quite a distance from the natives.

Power in the landscape

When it came to the landscape, colonialism was about transformation.

Colonial landscapes were ordered, made amenable to regulation, and structured to enhance the flow of economic activities. Thus, these landscapes did not simply reflect colonial aspirations but were also both consciously and unconsciously used as social technologies, as strategies of power to incorporate, categorise, discipline, control and reform the inhabitants of the city, town or plantation.

Components of such a framework of colonial power in the landscape varied between the cities of the different colonial powers in place, but included trading companies such as the British East India Company.

Through the actions of these institutions, colonial policy was made concrete through colonial space and practice.

In many cases, the first stage in the colonial process was the capturing of land belonging to the previous ruler and using this to weaken the power of native institutions. This simultaneously undermined the economic base and attacked symbolic power.

How did power work through the colonial urban landscape?

Similarity with the colonial landscape:

In terms of the colonial landscape we have the operations of power working subtly through the landscape. For instance, the layout of colonial plantations was such that the workers’ accommodation and the rows of crops would sometimes radiate outwards from the owner or manager’s residence, or would be ordered along easily monitored straight lines. This allowed surveillance of the workers from a central point, a bit like the guard in the panoptic on tower, and once again it would not always have been apparent to the workers whether they were being watched or not.

Architecture acts as a metaphor of the power of the colonizers and it is intended to overawe its new subjects. Such architecture tended to be located within the capitals and major cities and that architecture elsewhere tended to be much more modest and mundane. Colonial architectural investments also differed by location. The British invested more time and money to changing the Indian landscape

  • Example: In India the British created landscapes of power in a new capital. New Delhi was planned to incorporate spectacular and grand architecture to enforce British dominance. This plan included a conscious attempt to civilize the Indian population. The architect of this plan and the major buildings, Edward Lutyens, had nothing but dislike for Indian architectural heritage. He considered that India had no architecture before the arrival of Europeans, just tents in stone .
  • He, and many other European architects of the time, interpreted Islamic art as feminine, insufficiently structured, and exotic and imaginary rather than practical. He assumed that architectural styles had remained constant for all time rather than progressing and developing as had been the case for European architecture. British architecture was supposed to ‘improve’ the natives, especially via public buildings and museums.
  • The Victorian bourgeoisie had the same plans back at home for the working classes, whom they  considered were in need of the same moral guidance and enlightenment.

How did power work through the colonial urban landscape?

More generally, Delhi colonial town model emerged which involved two separate settlements comprising each city – the Oriental and the western quarters. These were kept separate by colonial administrators, nominally for health and safety reasons, and protected Europeans from what were believed to be disease ridden traditional quarters, and also the perceived threat of violence. However, these two parts had to be close enough to allow workers to travel to service the Europeans.

Also read: What is Anthropology?