A New Approach to Ottoman Architecture in Cairo

Chahinda Karim, Ottoman Cairo: Religious Architecture from Sultan Selim to Napoleon. Cairo: American University Cairo Press, 2021, 256 pages, ISBN 9781649030849

Patricia Blessing

Princeton University


It is no easy task to review a work by an author who recently passed away. The comments below are intended to address the contributions of the late Chahinda Karim (1943–2021) while respecting her memory so lovingly evoked by her student Menna M. El Mahy, who completed Ottoman Cairo: Religious Architecture from Sultan Selim to Napoleon after her mentor’s death. Karim was a long-time teacher of Islamic architectural history at the American University in Cairo (Tohamy 2021). Karim completed her BA and PhD at the American University in Cairo and wrote about Mamluk architecture of the early fourteenth century for her dissertation (Karim 1987). Later, she became interested in the rich Ottoman architectural heritage of Cairo, the subject of her posthumously published book. With it, Karim ventured into an aspect of Cairo’s architectural history that has received much less scholarly attention than earlier periods, which have been studied in depth since the late 19th century.

Karim’s book provides a useful overview of Ottoman religious architecture in Cairo, from the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1517 (and the Ottomans’ defeat of the Mamluks) to 1794, a few years before Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt. Since the subject of the book addresses specifically religious architecture, residential buildings, such as Beyt al-Suhaymi, surviving from the 17th and 18th centuries are not included. The book does not offer a full catalogue but rather a selection of mosques, madrasas, and takiyas (structures for Sufi communities) in the chapters on the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Each building is described with its historical context and structural features, accompanied by photographs and plans. Photographs are mostly in black and white, but a color plate section gives a few highlights in color. The selection of monuments is representative of what was built for the Ottoman governors of Egypt, in the name of Ottoman sultans, and for various notables and Sufi shaykhs active in Cairo. Important issues, such as the relationship between Mamluk and Ottoman architecture, are very clearly addressed at the levels of style, patronage, and building techniques. Most importantly, Karim examined a substantial number of mostly unpublished waqf (endowment) documents related to the buildings that are presented, certainly one of the most original parts of her contribution. Karim uses these archival documents to understand lost parts of structures and to better contextualize their functions and social context. Referring to the Takiya of Ibrahim al-Kulshani (1519–24), Karim notes, for example, how a kitchen, apartments, and additional rooms originally existed in proximity to the mausoleum based on the waqfiya (World Monuments Fund 2018). With this and other buildings, Karim also includes historical photographs to explain which parts of monuments have been destroyed since the late 19th century.

The buildings are clearly situated within the previous literature on Ottoman architecture in Egypt, such as Doris Behrens-Abouseif’s seminal study Egypt’s Adjustment to Ottoman Rule: Institutions, Waqf and Architecture in Cairo, 16th and 17th Centuries (1994). Karim engages closely with Behrens-Abouseif’s book and her numerous articles on late Mamluk and Ottoman architecture. Karim also draws on her own unpublished MA and PhD work completed at the American University in Cairo, providing insights into scholarship that otherwise remains inaccessible to those who cannot visit the university’s library. Karim’s extensive bibliography reflects the scholarship on late Mamluk and Ottoman architecture in Cairo, with works in Arabic, English, French, and German by scholars such as Iman R. Abdulfattah, Bernard O’Kane, and André Raymond. Thus, the reader can easily understand what has been covered and where the gaps are in the study of a period that still offers much material for further research. One gets a sense of how the buildings selected for the book are representative of Ottoman architecture in Cairo. Karim also makes detailed use of the major primary sources, with relevant information on Mamluk and Ottoman Cairo, including the works of al-Maqrizi (d. 1442), Ibn Iyas (d. 1524), and Ibn Taghribirdi (d. 1470), as well as the important Khitat al-Tawfiqiya by Ali Mubārak (Mubārak 1889), which traces the architectural development of the city into the 19th century (Rabbat 2022).

If the book had been extended into the 19th century, there might have been ample opportunity to address the Ottoman Baroque, an 18th-century style in Istanbul eventually appearing in other parts of the Ottoman Empire. A slight complication in the context of Egypt is, of course, that under Muhammad Ali (r. 1805–41), the province effectively separated from the Ottoman Empire and became independent in the 1830s. Most of the monuments reflecting the impact of the Ottoman Baroque, such as the Mosque of Sulayman Agha al-Silahdar (1839), date from that period (Archnet N.d.). Considering this historical shift and the dramatic events of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, the chosen timeframe makes sense. And yet there is perhaps a missed opportunity to discuss the late 18th and early 19th century of Cairo and Istanbul in comparison, rather than separately. Looking at scholarship on the Ottoman Baroque, from Doğan Kuban’s work (Kuban 1954) introducing this term to Ünver Rüstem’s recent book (Rüstem 2019) on the topic, Istanbul tends to be the central point of discussion. Thus, Cairo awaits further work that other scholars could continue.

That said, Karim does situate Cairo within the broader framework of Ottoman architecture. Unfortunately, this is not entirely successful since central works such as Gülru Necipoğlu’s The Age of Sinan: Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire (2005) do not appear in the bibliography. Karim’s introduction covering Saljuq, beylik, and Ottoman architecture from the 13th to the 16th centuries is not up to date with scholarship of the last twenty years, including Suna Çağaptay, Robert Ousterhout, Oya Pancaroğlu, Scott Redford, Suzan Yalman, and the author of the present review. This is the only major problem in an otherwise important book. With regard to the visual materials, photographs are, unfortunately, of somewhat uneven quality, although those taken by Menna M. El Mahy are excellent. Plans are taken from a range of both published and unpublished sources; it would have been ideal (even though this was probably not feasible given the circumstances around the book’s completion) to have them redrawn in the same style and at higher resolution to make for a more unified appearance.

The Continuous Use of Architectural Drawing Types

Klaus Jan Philipp, Architecture — Drawn: From the Middle Ages to the Present. Basel: Birkhauser, 2020, 352 pages, ISBN 9783038215738

Jordan Kauffman

Monash University


The contention that drawing practices in architecture are ‘dead’ due to the adoption of new digital technologies found its most expressive declaration in David Ross Scheer’s The Death of Drawing: Architecture in the Age of Simulation (2014). Engaging with this critical debate, Architecture — Drawn: From the Middle Ages to the Present (2020), by Klaus Jan Philipp, the director of the Institute of Architectural History at the University of Stuttgart, provides convincing evidence of the opposite: that architectural drawings remain alive and well in contemporary practice.

Architecture — Drawn is structured as a typological survey of architectural drawings that focuses on orthography — plan, section, elevation — and perspectives. The book begins in the 13th century and traces its subject to the present. The former, the author claims, is when ‘the first “real” architectural drawings are found’, those ‘in the so-called sketchbook compiled … by … Villard de Honnecourt’, circa 1230, which ‘already contains everything that will characterize architectural drawings over the following centuries’ (21). While the drawings in Villard’s book are ‘under-differentiated’ compared with later drawings, they still exhibit abstract qualities familiar in contemporary plans, sections, elevations, and perspectives. Today, because of new digital technologies, these ‘old traditions of architectural drawing may well be at stake’ (17).

Chapter one, which acts as an introduction, frames the volume. The book treats architectural drawings as autonomous historical artefacts in their own right, not as supporting evidence for claims of stylistic changes in building practices. What emerges are continuous histories of the variety of representational possibilities latent in each type, supporting the book’s contention that despite changes in representational modes, and despite arguments for or against them, these types ‘have been utilized in almost unchanged form for centuries’ (21).

The next two chapters are devoted to historical exegesis. Chapter two focuses on the plan, section, and elevation and their variations and combinations. Each type is given its own section and accompanying subsection, treating particular developments. Plans, for example, are accompanied by ‘shadows and perspective’, elevations by ‘shadows’, and sections by ‘variants’ that largely parallel developments in other forms: shading, color, perspective, diagrammatic elements. Combined drawings, those that utilize multiple types on single sheets, also follow. Isometric and axonometric representations lie at the chapter’s end, as they are derived from architectural plans. A convincing argument is made for the development of these latter types: not only did they develop, as is more commonly asserted, through machine and military drawings (not covered in this book), but also through a ‘paragone’ concerning the representational possibilities of drawings versus models. Drawings made after actual models are used as primary evidence.

Chapter three concerns perspective drawings. Philipp includes them for two reasons. The first is that attempts to represent three dimensions in two have a synchronous history to the types considered in chapter two, and second, the perspective has been and is still often the primary means through which architects communicate their ideas to clients. Even so, Philipp recognizes that the perspective is sometimes controversial, especially among people who favor more analytical modes versus those who prefer more painterly ones, that is, ones without adornment and those with. This chapter illustrates diverse kinds of perspectival drawings, ranging from Pompeii’s wall paintings and Villard’s drawing of the tower at Laon Cathedral to the technique’s ‘survival’ today within architecture to represent architectural ideas. Included in the interim are treatises on perspective, the narrative possibilities in perspectival representations, ‘criticisms’ of narrative in the late 19th and early 20th century and the use of perspective in competitions at the time, and ‘attacks’ on perspectives in the early 20th century.

The final section of the book addresses a number of themes latent in the previous chapters. A crucial case is the relationship between drawings and architectural styles. Philipp contends that it is not always obvious whether modes of drawing truly represent contemporaneous architectural styles or whether this is a retrospective judgment. Concluding the book, Philipp argues that despite changes in substrates and printing techniques throughout history, the drawing types surveyed found continuous use. While Philipp agrees that computation has supplanted drawings in certain circumstances, he argues that outside of solely computational practices, drawings survive and thrive.

The continuity of history afforded by the focus on drawing types serves to create narratives that are easy to follow. The book reflects Philipp’s claim about the continuous history of particular drawing types from the Middle Ages to the present. Though not articulated by Philipp in precisely these terms, one comes to understand that practices during the Middle Ages are not far removed from modernity as far as architectural drawings are concerned, and indeed, constitute a substantial part of its foundation. What this form of history neglects, however, is the articulation of broader effects that led to variations in drawing. For instance, readers learn about the ‘succinctness’ of Durand’s drawings in the Précis, but they are not informed that it was necessary partly because of the short length of the design course at the École polytechnique, and thus students needed to learn to design quickly and efficiently. Likewise, while demonstrating that drawings in the late 20th century experiment with representational possibilities of traditional techniques (and thus are used as evidence that those techniques persist), readers are no wiser about the specific critical, political, economic, and social theory nor the structuralist and post-structuralist philosophy that influenced the creation of such drawings.

The illustrations in the book are predominantly presentation drawings. The reason for this, Philipp relates, is that he understands these as the best representations of fully developed architectural ideas. While this results in a collection of stunning drawings, process drawings are excluded from the book altogether, save for one example of the famous perspectives on Bramante’s plan for St. Peter’s in Rome (Uffizi 20A r.). These are utilized to underscore that while perspectives are used as part of the design process, such drawings are beyond the scope of this publication.

The book remains a history of Western practices. It relies considerably on German examples. France and Italy are also well represented, but only a few drawings appear from Britain and Holland. Even fewer are selected from the USA and Japan. Only one drawing, a plan from Mesopotamia, is from. Readers in search of a more inclusive representation or discussion of global work, even of European influence found in other parts of the world, will find room for improvement.

The choice of drawings is most exciting when Philipp lingers on those that exploit particular types to surprising ends. While any number of examples could be chosen, among them are the late 13th-century parchment of the Breisach Cathedral chancel by Erwin von Steinbach that contains plans and sections, as well as two ‘fold-down plans’: one of a palace complex that includes paper elevations, secured such that they can be raised and lowered in their respective places on the plan (1722); and another, an undated work by Wilhelm Dilich for Rheinfels Castle with a number of overlaid drawings of varying sizes, secured together such that each folds down to expose elevations and sections receding in the distance.

Furthermore, the book provides opportunities for some inspired juxtapositions that reveal the value of the book’s structure. One such example is the plan and sections for the construction of domes at Neresheim Abbey by Franz Ignaz Michael Neumann (1755) and a plan and section drawing for prestressed tendons for the Stuttgart television tower by Fritz Leonhardt (1954). Both are used as examples of drawings that combine plans and sections. However, the former is highly rendered and complex, while the latter is minimalist in comparison; both are superb works of drawing that implicate architecture, engineering, construction, and art, utilizing the same drawing types toward similar ends, but manifested in vastly different ways.

Many of the drawings are keyed to the text, while many others are not. There is, it seems, a desire for the drawings to form a visual essay through which to scan. Since the volume is oversized, well illustrated, and beautifully printed, with all 339 drawings reproduced in full color (many being the best reproductions available), the book creates a highly enjoyable and often enlightening journey. It makes apparent the continued use of particular drawing types, as well as the visual power of architectural drawings, even when scaled down. However, difficulties sometimes arise in understanding each drawing’s context within this continuous history, as some figures are incorrectly keyed to the text. Additionally, sometimes drawings seem to disrupt the flow of the visual story, such as when two drawings by Aldo Rossi, containing multiple types, appear between discussions of roof-truss drawings and the influence of architectural models on drawing practices (132–134).

Another difficulty in navigating the book arises from its structure. Plans, sections, and elevations that have similar pictorial elements and styles are revealed to be influenced by similar discourses and schools of thought. But this is only evident as the survey unfolds and only realizable as one moves back and forth through the book. The lack of an index makes this task particularly onerous.

Finally, the book’s strengths remain between the Middle Ages to the 19th century; there is little emphasis on the late 20th century and later, and few examples. Readers wishing to know more about modern, postmodern, or contemporary practices would be better served looking elsewhere. However, this is not necessarily a weakness in the book’s argument; it can be understood to support Philipp’s stance that because particular drawing types have a long, extended history into the present, there is nothing so new that needs detailed attention and extrapolation. This is an assertion that might cause pause for those who more readily understand changes during this period to reveal disjunctions in architecture’s history.

It was perhaps time for a new survey of architectural drawing to be written. The last one of similar scope was published in 1983 (Powell and Leatherbarrow 1983), and prior to that was the first, in 1912 (Blomfield 1912). The difficulty in composing such a book arises from the fact that the terms are capacious enough to include a whole host of drawing types, materials, and practices not easily codified into definitive conceptual categories. Philipp’s book limits its scope to presentation drawings, groups drawings typologically, and traces the continued impact of these types throughout architecture’s history from the Middle Ages. In doing so, it raises a convincing argument about the longevity of drawings throughout social, professional, and, perhaps most important for the book’s framing, technological shifts. Philipp’s conclusions about architectural drawings being alive and well rest on contemporary drawing competitions, prizes, societies for the promotion of architectural drawing, and issues of architecture journals dedicated to them. However, as the book demonstrates, except in the most narrow of circumstances, nullifying architectural drawings and the intelligences they embody will take much more than the adoption of digital and computational techniques.

Positioning the Qing Political Landscape in Global Art History

Stephen Whiteman, Where Dragon Veins Meet: The Kangxi Emperor and His Estate at Rehe. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020, 292 pages, ISBN 9780295745800

Lianming Wang

City University of Hong Kong


Stephen Whiteman’s long-anticipated book, Where Dragon Veins Meet: The Kangxi Emperor and His Estate at Rehe, extends our understanding of the early Qing emperorship uniquely through landscape — a hidden history that goes beyond the textual sources. At the center of his intricate narrative lies the question of how the Kangxi Emperor’s Mountain Estate at Rehe (Chengde, Hebei province) furthered his vision of ‘a geographically and culturally cohesive empire’ (4). Central to Whiteman’s analysis is his approach to landscape through two ‘senses of motion’: the first is the site’s dynamic interplay, with its manifold representations and subjective perception, or as he puts it, ‘a form of spatial intertextuality’ (between text, image, experience, and memory); the second is the mobilization of the landscape by pulling apart its collapsed layers and restoring a degree of chronological stratigraphy to the Mountain Estate. This approach has been essential to Whiteman’s interpretation of a series of broader questions, such as ideology, imperial identity, and emperorship.

Following these premises, Whiteman’s book, in its reach and ambition, manages to reanimate the role of Kangxi’s Mountain Estate as ‘an active medium for, rather than just a reflection of, ideological expression’ (6). Intersecting with annotated, accurate translations of primary sources, the main body of narration is well proportioned in four major themes with six chapters, focusing on physical, representational, and conceptual matters of this palace-garden. Beginning with an excerpt from Zhang Yushu’s 1708 travel account, part one, ‘Recovering the Kangxi Landscape,’ restores an accurate chronology of the Mountain Estate by identifying three phrases of construction during the Kangxi period: 1703 to 1708, 1709 to 1711, and 1712 to 1713. Instrumental to this is the author’s use of modern technology to understand the site’s spatial design and features, such as GIS-based mapping and spatial reconstructions. Noting that some of the northern, far distant sites are absent in Zhang’s account, Whiteman proposes a new layout for Kangxi’s palace-garden by highlighting the Inner and Outer Circuits in its overall plan. More importantly, Whiteman reveals that at the time of Zhang’s visit, the Outer Circuit was a private sphere reserved for the emperor — a fact previously unknown to scholars.

In the second phase (1709–11), the inner-outer distinction of the scenic sites has been replaced by a ‘lenticular landscape’. A small-scale palace called the Palace of Righteousness, with a rear garden, is brought into play, turning the site into a microcosmic landscape that is ‘lenticularly augmented to appear as the world itself’ (38). In this phase, as the author reveals, the ‘lenticular illusion’ was further extended through the experience of boating, which created an interplay between the palace and its limitless surrounding world, a network of controlled water that ‘shaped the experience of, and engagement with, the site’ (51). In the last phase (1711–13) of the construction under Kangxi, two religious sites were created. Rejecting the common view of ‘a holistic Buddhist design’ (52) of the site, Whiteman convincingly demonstrates a break in the imagined lineage from Kangxi to his grandson Qianlong in terms of their Buddhist visions. This is key to understanding Kangxi’s attitude toward religion, an essential part of the early Qing emperorship.

In part two, ‘Allegories of Empire’, which consists of two chapters with an accompanying translation of Kangxi’s garden essay, Whiteman questions the nature of this palace-garden. Why the location at Rehe? And what had the Mountain Estate to do with the Qing empire? Chapter two, ‘Mountain Veins’, brings the readers back to the fundamental question of why the Mountain Estate was built about 150 miles away from the Qing capital and reevaluates its topographic significance by looking at the interplay between (Chinese) geomancy and (European) cartographic techniques. To answer this question, Whiteman first draws readers’ attention to the shifting status of Mount Changbai in the Manchu homeland. As he points out, its ascension to a sacred mountain through the recentering of the fengshan ritual, and further its priority in the imperial surveying project of the Northeast, suggests ‘the court view of its geographic preeminence and its contemporary strategic importance’ (66).

Zooming out, the idea behind the site was to establish a cohesive Qing landscape with the Mountain Estate, placing it along the estate’s ‘dragon veins’ that occurred within an imagined geomantic continuity between Mount Tai (of China proper) and Mount Changbai (of the Manchu homeland). This geomantic pivot within the empire’s auspicious landscape, the author reveals, was the scenic site called ‘Northern Post Linking Paired Peaks’ embedded in the early ‘Outer Circuit’ of the site’s overall plan. On this site where the ‘dragon veins’ of the empire meet, Kangxi’s palace-garden was culturally turned ‘into a coherent if still differentiable whole’ (97) through the emperor’s own writings, and further, became a political stage in which differences between the center (the court) and the periphery (the Mongolian and Central Asian tribal leaders) were dissolved through intimate, joined activities of hunting, banquets, and tours of the site. Readers are convinced that the construction of this palace-garden along Qing’s ‘dragon veins’ was of great state importance.

Moving away from the site’s physical aspect, in part three, ‘Space and Pictoriality’, the author elaborates how the idea of ‘dragon veins’ and the site’s auspicious meaning are furthered by a close reading of View of Rehe by Leng Mei (act. 1677–c. 1742) and Kangxi’s Imperial Poems. The former is a well-known but controversial and less studied work of a type of early Qing court painting. What is insightful is that the author suggests that how this painting attests to ongoing visual experimentation in the Kangxi court is more significant than the minute question of the exact date — whether it was painted in 1708, 1710, or 1713. The tools of Leng’s interpretation of space are summarized as ‘perspective’, ‘measurement’, and ‘chorography’ — all conventions that originate in Europe.

The Mountain Estate was the epitome of the Qing’s global engagement. In chapter four, ‘Painting and the Surveyed Site’, many spatial features of this view, including its very nature — is it a portrait, a plan, a map, or a combination of all three? — are examined for the first time. As Whiteman convincingly demonstrates, Leng’s composition was shaped through three separate but intersecting perspectives, including concerns of the viewer’s physical position, which together create ‘a system of mobile vantage points and multiple pictorial foci’ (130). In addition to the trigonometric surveying applied in this view (which is definitely new to the Qing court), readers are convinced of Whiteman’s attribution of conventions in Leng’s painting to the genre of European chorographic representations, such as the ‘View of Besançon’ and the ‘View of the Château of Fontainebleau from the Garden Side’. Going far beyond a mimetic portrayal, Whiteman highlights this painting as the transcultural moment when the Qing court engaged with new fields of knowledge that intersected with the established epistemological, political, and mathematical understandings of space.

In chapter four, ‘Paper Gardens’, Whiteman extends the discussion of the spatial representation of the Mountain Estate to its manifold pictorial characteristics. Centering on Kangxi’s Imperial Poems, it begins with an examination of the accessibility of its transmedial iterations produced for a broader, cultured audience. (For readers who are not familiar with this imperial project, Whiteman and Richard Strassberg collaborated on a study of the Mountain Estate’s ‘Thirty-Six Views’; see Strassberg and Whiteman 2016.) While the multiple iterations (woodblock print, engraving, painting) of the Imperial Poems are read as an integrated project, two new findings greatly deepen our understanding of the representation of this site: the ‘views’ are achieved through looking ‘inside’ (Chinese) and from the ‘outside’ (European). An album, now lost, by the court painter Wang Yuanqi (1642–1715) is suggested as the prime object upon which the other iterations were based. Having compared a series of pictorial works with orthodox treatments, the author then speculates about the painterly style of this album and argues that the printed images of the emperor’s ‘Imperial Poems … [are] rare, … in not being explicitly identified as an Old Masters album’ (178). Its binding, however, which folds out to present an unobstructed panorama, is apparently borrowed from the album of prints called Cabinet du roi (King’s Cabinet), published during Louis XIV’s reign (1643–1715). This unique format is further addressed in the chapter that follows.

Part four, ‘The Metonymic Landscape’, consists of a single but extremely insightful chapter. It disusses audience by looking at the ‘access’ and ‘intimacy’ of these ‘Paper Gardens’, showing how from the emperor’s perspective an imperial landscape was virtualized by interaction with its viewers. Delving into the long history of Chinese garden painting as well as the Qing dynasty’s contemporaneous developments, Whiteman concludes that Kangxi’s Imperial Poems go ‘beyond historic habits of imperial picturing or contemporary court documentary practices’ (196). While its album format shows a strong affinity with the literati’s ‘garden portrait’ framing of Kangxi as a virtuous garden builder, the grouping of discrete scenes implies a multiplicity of organizational logics, drawing from the established narrative structures of both garden album and landscape scroll. This unique combination greatly shaped ways of viewing and (virtually) touring the Mountain Estate, and further generated ‘a particular bond of loyalty’ between emperor and viewer through ‘a shared experience’ (224).

Overall, Whiteman’s impeccable work goes far beyond simply a comprehensive and thought-provoking study of Kangxi’s Mountain Estate itself. Instead, it reveals not only the global dimension of this ‘frontier landscape’ (see also the term discussed in Fei 2018) but a Qing political landscape within an interconnected ‘long’ 18th century, creating a milestone in writing global art history. While it is not a book for a broad audience, since most readers will lack the tools for comprehending the complicate GIS mapping of topography, literary connotations of the scenic sites, and countless names and terms that are largely unknown to Western readers, it is intended for the ‘enlightened specialists’ in the fields of Qing imperial history, art history, garden history, architectural history, and environmental history. Whiteman delivers an insightful and exceptional example of how this kind of non-Western topos could be conveyed to a global audience.

Shanghai Improvised

Cole Roskam, Improvised City: Architecture and Governance in Shanghai, 1843–1937. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019, 304 pages, ISBN 9780295744780

Nancy S. Steinhardt

University of Pennsylvania


If the words ‘modern Chinese architecture’ call to mind images, they are likely to be in Shanghai. Today the world’s most populated city, with estimates as high as 27.1 million in 2021, the port that rendered Shanghai an international city became significant only in 1843. Shanghai, nearly uniquely among Chinese cities, has an almost exclusively modern history, and probably for that reason, as well as its extraordinary growth, it receives more attention than any city in China except Beijing. The charge for a new book on Shanghai is to find material or offer an understanding that is new. Cole Roskam’s Improvised City: Architecture and Governance in Shanghai, 1843–1937 does both, and for a 94-year period. The title informs the reader of the key theme: architecture and government are intimately entwined. The intriguing adjective ‘improvised’ will be crucial to the narrative.

The framework of 1843 to 1937 is obvious to an historian: the end of the First Opium War to the fall of Shanghai to Japan. The First Opium War (1839–1842) resulted in an indemnity to Britain and the opening of five treaty ports, Guangzhou (Canton), Amoy (Xiamen), Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai, as well as the cession of Hong Kong to England. The Second Opium War (1856–1860) led to the burning of the so-called European Mansions, architecture in the imperial gardens in Beijing designed by Jesuits, and resulted in the opening of additional ports, including Tianjin, and the cession of Kowloon to England. Meanwhile, the Taiping Rebellion (1850s–1864) was maintained by Chinese Christian reformers in southeastern China. In the year 1900, the Boxer Rebellion arose, aimed at eight foreign powers; China capitulated. By 1900, the Chinese and Russians were fighting at the Sino-Russian border, and in 1895 and again in 1904–1905, the Chinese were fighting the Japanese. Imperial China would collapse in 1911, ushering in a brief presidency, a briefer return to rule by an emperor, again a republic, and finally a fight with the communists for control.

The author provides background for his study of Shanghai in the introduction and first chapter. Foreigners, their writings, and foreign ambitions in Shanghai, the relation between law, architecture, and government, and 19th-century maps of the city are discussed in the introduction. Extraterritoriality, specifically as it relates to the opium trade, is an important subject of chapter one. The theme of the chapter, however, is how this port with so much potential was to transform once the British gained entry in 1843. Extraterritoriality, Roskam explains, is legal, physical, and psychological (32). All three were part of the negotiations of the counsel-general, Sir George Balfour (1809–1894), with the imperial Chinese government for England’s territory and the price of that territory, which would then lead to the design for the building that would represent the British Empire in China. Beginning in 1843, it was clear to Britons and Americans alike, whose records the author quotes, that Shanghai was to be a singular place that offered freedom and opportunity, or, as Roskam describes it, ‘an unimaginable degree of procedural and spatial flexibility’ compared to Guangzhou, the port to the south where foreigners had been permitted to trade and reside in a highly restricted compound before 1843. England’s warehouses, known as godowns, were standardized and prefabricated, yet they would be the first structures in Shanghai to use iron. Mercantile compounds by contrast were usually two stories with commercial areas as well as, for example, a tea room, dining room, drawing room, office, and toilets on the first floor and bedrooms upstairs. They also took on verandahs, characteristic of colonial architecture in India and Jamaica, that were constructed on the sides of structures less likely to receive torrents of rain yet could protect from the sun and allow the flow of breezes. The twenty-three articles of British territorial rights were followed by French and American entry to the concession and a showcase consular headquarters.

Chapter two focuses on the uprising by a group known as the Small Swords and the much longer and more widespread, above-mentioned, Taiping Rebellion, and the architecture that resulted from them. Under siege, Chinese citizens and foreigners living in their part of the city, such as missionaries, sought refuge in the foreign concession district. Although French, British, and Americans, Roskam points out, fought among themselves for how to deal with the huge influx of Chinese into their heretofore highly restricted territory, and also had to deal with the psychological impact of the raging battle between rebels and the Chinese government so nearby, the war led to the enlargement and bridging of British territory and French territory. Architectural changes eventually appeared, such as Chinese ceramic-tile roofs and Chinese decoration on the Imperial Maritime Customs House; the fast construction of residences to accommodate the influx of Chinese in self-contained settlements of orthogonal streets that allowed for strict control over the population; new ways of identifying foreign housing, such as clearly visible roman numerals for addresses; and the first civic monuments in Shanghai: a memorial to French soldiers killed in the Small Swords Uprising and a Chinese-style ancestral shrine to American Frederick T. Ward (1831–1862), who fought with the Qing army against the rebels. These buildings, as well as the European colonial-style Memorial to the Ever Victorious Army, are illustrated in the chapter.

The author next turns to the rebuilding of the Chinese city after the Taiping Rebellion. New architecture included a structure known as Crystal Palace, based on London’s Crystal Palace, whose purpose was to open foreign ideas to the Chinese. The question of whether architectural styles should represent their patrons, and where in Shanghai they should stand, came into focus at this point, when the design of a Mixed Court Building for trying British and Chinese cases was discussed. Before the design was resolved, the French concession made a strong statement in architecture through a magnificent, ‘opulent’, as the author describes it, French Municipal Council Hall, built between 1863 and 1865. Clear by now that architecture not only could identify nationality but could also elevate status in Shanghai, France renovated its consulate in 1870. Already in 1863 England and the United States had joined together in what was known as the International Settlement. Showcase architecture of this collaboration included George Gilbert Scott and William Kidner’s Holy Trinity Church, the first building in Shanghai by internationally acclaimed architects, and a masonic hall, for which Kidner also was one of the architects.

Chapter four deals with inevitable aspects of the burgeoning number of foreigners and buildings in Shanghai: building codes and professionalism, more generally. Discussion in the 1860s focused on acute differences between Chinese timber-frame construction and the more permanent materials of European construction, as well as equitable taxation for city services such as fire protection for both kinds of structures. Roskam argues that a result of these focused discussions of the financial as opposed to purely nationalistic aspect of architectural style made Shanghai ripe for eclecticism, an architectural style present in Shanghai from the 1880s onward, in buildings from teahouses to university campuses. This occurred just as the profession of architect, as opposed to builder, came into its own in Shanghai. By the first decade of the 20th century, European and American architects were building in Shanghai, some of them with offices there or elsewhere in Asia. The result, suggests Roskam, was cosmopolitanism, or a ‘modern urban vision of Shanghai’ (127).

The book next turns to Shanghai architecture of a new nation-state, after the fall of imperial China in 1911. A national style of China, Roskam suggests, was replaced by the expression of ‘face’, a term borrowed from the Chinese, which conveys a meaning more powerful than national style, carrying with it social position expressed in architecture. Competition for embassies among the French, British, and Americans and urban improvement structures such as a waterworks become expressions of face. Designs for Chinese buildings by foreign architects are also are examples of face. The culmination of China’s decision to take on a Western face was the destruction of the city wall. By the next decade, the subject of chapter six, Chinese architects educated abroad began to build in Shanghai.

The next chapter discusses how architecture was the medium through which not just architecture, but distinctive architecture, was built through competition in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The Greater Shanghai Civic Plan, a commission won by Dong Dayou (1899–1973), exemplifies the new vision, which can be described as a utopia. The final chapter demonstrates that the international face of Shanghai was shown in a Chinese modern architectural style in 1929 at the National Art Exhibition in Shanghai, in the 1930s at the Chicago World’s Fair, and at an architectural exhibition in Shanghai in the same decade. Roskam returns to extraterritoriality in the short epilogue, suggesting that still today Chinese political leaders ‘invoke the importance of national sovereignty’ through architecture (214).

This well-organized book indeed explains that Shanghai and modern Chinese architecture are as they are because of the interplay between architecture and government. Improvisation is implicit: patrons and those designing buildings were affected by varying political circumstances and directives from the local to national governments of modern China.

Competing Interests

The authors have no competing interests to declare.


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