Encounters with Southeast Asian Modernism was launched in 2019. The initiators took the Bauhaus Year 2019, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of Germany’s famous school of art and architecture, as an opportunity to discuss modernism and modernity in Southeast Asia in an international context. Together with curators, artists, architects, and many other contributors from Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Singapore, they developed a comprehensive discursive programme that took place in Jakarta, Phnom Penh, Singapore, and Yangon.
Encounters with Southeast Asian Modernism has since evolved into a platform dedicated to fostering ongoing dialogue on the topic between Berlin and Southeast Asia.
The overarching aim of Encounters with Southeast Asian Modernism is to raise public awareness about the development of postcolonial modernism in Southeast Asia and demonstrate its underlying potential for the future. As a growing international platform, Encounters aims to illuminate cultural achievements in Southeast Asia and provoke new questions on globalization and local adaptation. These questions include:
What can early modernist solutions by architects contribute to contemporary challenges? How are early modernist works treated in their respective countries today? How have the ideas of historical modernism proved their worth over time, and can they still serve as guidelines for society, architecture, and urban culture? How can positive achievements be accepted and introduced into the current urban discourse in Southeast Asia – or how can such a discourse be initiated and accompanied? Can contemporary, postcolonial modernism become a stepping stone for sustainable development that expresses universal values beyond forms?
Encounters aims to advance international cooperation in addressing the implications of modernism in Southeast Asia and beyond. One goal is to formulate joint recommendations for dealing with the buildings that remain from this influential period in history. Another goal is to explore how the knowledge and traditional practices reflected in the architectural heritage of modernism – such as climate-adaptive design and the design of public space – can serve as examples for tackling contemporary challenges.
In order to trace the development of modernism and demonstrate its underlying potential, close collaboration is needed with local and regional experts who will enrich and expand the discourse. By working with local partners, project participants will identify and collect existing knowledge to inform and inspire ideas for the city of tomorrow.
A further aim is to open new perspectives on the social developments of the postcolonial era and their forward-looking architecture through the lens of design and ecology, to illuminate their connection to German and European modernism, and thereby introduce new dimensions to the discourse on sustainable urban development.
Modernism in Southeast Asia
The mid-20th century marked the start of a new era in many countries of Southeast Asia, as the colonies and protectorates of France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands gained their independence. The young states faced the task of establishing themselves as new nations. Their efforts were often accompanied by the desire to express this new beginning through architecture and urban planning. In the architectural language of international modernism, many countries found a contemporary form that reflected their hopes of progress and prosperity while signalling their emancipation from former colonial rule.
New districts, squares, and buildings were designed by local architects, some of whom were trained in Europe and the USA, western planners who maintained established networks after the colonial period, and architects from the Soviet Union, China, and other Asian countries. The concepts of the International Style, classical modernism, and the Bauhaus also influenced many designers of this generation in Southeast Asia, who were indirectly inspired by historical notions of interdisciplinary design. Regional modernist styles emerged, reconciling the design ideas of a universal modernism with specific cultural references and building traditions, as well as an understanding of the climatic challenges of building in the tropics. These local modernisms were formative for architectural developments that took place from the 1950s to the 1970s.
Contested modernities today
Today many of these structures that once embodied the dawn of a new age are considered unimportant and obsolete and have been destroyed or are threatened with destruction. Many cities in Southeast Asia seem to be prototypes of uncontrolled urban growth. But there are alternative, viable approaches: some architects are seeking to define a contemporary, tropical modernism, while cultural and creative actors and urbanists are working cooperatively on urban concepts that explore the relationships between global demands and local integration.
A lively discourse on modernity is developing in the region itself, but with a few exceptions, the issues and the work of the architects involved are still relatively unknown in Europe. Against the backdrop of rapid urbanization in Southeast Asia, the modernist impulse has led to independent approaches in the design of cities and architecture – a potential that deserves closer attention. Planners and architects in the region are currently developing models such as the high-density, high-rise city for tropical regions and growing cities, which can also bring new aspects to the discussion in Europe.