Dr Tania Sengupta
Lecturer in Architectural History and Theory
The Bartlett School of Architecture
Faculty of the Built Environment
- Joined UCL
- 11th Sep 2011
While engaging with transculturality and colonial / post colonial studies, my fundamental approach questions the traditional premises for research and teaching in the field. My recently completed PhD dissertation titled ‘Producing the province: colonial governance and spatial cultures in district headquarter towns of Eastern India 1786 – c.1900’, focuses in the architecture and urban patterns of everyday administration, domestic and public life created around the central function of governance in provincial administrative towns of Bengal, colonial India, in the nineteenth century. The study engages with spatial practice rather than a purely form-based or stylistic discourse; everyday and ordinary bureaucratic, domestic and civic spaces rather than iconic monumental architecture; a middle-lower tier of administrative governance rather than prominent centres of power and provincial areas instead of metropolitan urban centres. It questions traditional black and white readings of colonial landscapes to reveal them as complex, heterogeneous and contested domains. It also re-orients our very spatial imagination of the colonial state and the modern state per se, from ‘stable’, ‘consolidated’ and ‘consistent’, towards a far more unstable, diffuse and ad-hoc one.
My research has received much appreciation on many platforms, including being shortlisted for the RIBA Presidents’ Award for Outstanding PhD Thesis 2011. Parts of it are being published in leading refereed journals spanning urban history to architectural and art history/ visual cultures studies. Drawing on my belief in transdisciplinary concepts and methodologies, I am also an active participant in a few inter-disciplinary forums. I recently completed two visiting research fellowships, one at the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies (ZMO), Berlin – an institute devoted to interdisciplinary and comparative study of the Middle East, Africa, South and South-east Asia from a historical perspective - and the other, at the Karl Jaspers Centre for Advanced Transcultural Studies, Heidelberg. At the latter, I worked on ‘Conceptual and methodological imperatives in researching global architectural history: transcultural flows in architecture and urbanism of nineteenth century provincial towns in colonial Eastern India’, under an Action titled "European Architecture beyond Europe: Sharing Research and Knowledge on Dissemination Processes, Historical Data and Material Legacy (19th-20th centuries)", having been awarded a prestigious grant by the European Cooperation in Science and Technology. In addition, I contribute to the workings of the Working Group 2 (‘Actors and Networks of Enterprise’) of the same Action. I am also an invited speaker for a talk at the Wellcome Unit for Medical History Research, Oxford University (annual seminar 2011 on disciplinary approaches to medical history) in November 2011 titled ‘Intersections: health, well being and spatial cultures in small town colonial India, nineteenth century’. I have, along with a colleague (principal researcher), recently been doing research for a project on mosque architecture in Britain, and am presently working on a book project, based at the Bartlett, on Architectural Design as a form of research and knowledge (led by Murray Fraser) alongside working on a manuscript to publish my thesis as a book.
My present role at the Bartlett involves teaching and coordination of the history-theory modules for second and fourth years. As part of this I deliver a seminar on ‘Typology and buildings as cultural practice’ which problematises the notion of ‘types’ and looks critically at typology as a way of understanding the built environment. It interrogates ideas of the ‘original’, ‘unique’ and the ‘typical’ historically; looks at the relationship between form and cultural practice, and at tools and sources employed in typological studies including their underlying assumptions. It explores types in relation to transcultural processes and time, types as symbolic, everyday and urban entities. Crucially, it looks at typification as a political tool, as also at the emerging dimensions of a typological approach.
Other than my role at the Bartlett, I have also been teaching, since 2009, on the Masters course on ‘Architecture, Globalisation and Cultural identity’ at the University of Westminster, London. In 2008, I was invited to present a set of lectures on Asian urbanism and its historical contexts, at the Department of Urbanism, University of Rennes, France. Prior to this, I taught in a number of eminent architecture schools in India, including as full-time faculty at the TVB School of Habitat Studies, New Delhi, a school particularly known for its alternative and socially oriented agenda. In India, I taught architectural, art and urban-design history-theory and supervised architectural dissertation and thesis projects on historical-theoretical issues. I was also part of dialogues and professional development workshops focusing on issues related to the teaching of history in architecture. Other than my specific experience in the historical lineage of settlements and buildings of South Asia, I have equally been engaged in and taught on paradigms of Western architectural history and theory – largely because my own work and interest are precisely to do with links and flows between such apparently diverse paradigms and how notions of simplistic ‘polarities’ actually get complicated when these run into one another.
I have also taught extensively in design studios in India and along with a colleague, explored specific teaching techniques to interrogate history through the mode of design, and history also as a prospective and speculative domain. I have thus also been particularly interested in the precise connections between the teaching of architectural history-theory and the design studio.
BiographyAn architect, urban designer and architectural and urban historian, my primary research and teaching interest and expertise lie in colonial and post colonial studies on architecture and urbanism, more broadly in the global history of spatial cultures and their production through transnational and transcultural processes – especially those traversing Europe and Asia. Further, my work engages with a range of themes such as colonial architecture and urbanism, localisation of global culture and spaces, governance and its spatial imagination, spatial structures of domesticity, and architecture/ urbanism in South Asia and its historical interpretations.
Presently a Lecturer in Architectural History-theory at the Bartlett, I have taught and done research in a range of cultural and educational environments. My teaching has been at both undergraduate and post-graduate levels, on architectural history-theory as well as design, at different scales/ domains (urban design, architecture and art), on different contexts (Western and South-Asian) and in different contexts (Britain, India, France). I recently completed my PhD from the University of Westminster on architecture and urban form of provincial towns in colonial India in the nineteenth century, which was shortlisted for the Royal Institute of British Architects President’s Research Award for Outstanding PhD Thesis 2011. I also teach in the Masters course on ‘Architecture, Globalisation and Cultural Identity’ at the University of Westminster, and have worked with or been invited speaker on various inter-disciplinary platforms such as the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin, the Karl Jaspers Centre for Transcultural Studies, Heidelberg, and the Wellcome Unit for Medical History Research, Oxford.
Through teaching and research, my attempt has been to explore a few larger conceptual issues in the field of architectural history-theory. These are: transnational and trans-cultural processes in architecture and urbanism; the reading of architectural history not merely through monumental and iconic buildings but also through everyday and ‘ordinary’ architecture and through ‘margins’ and ‘peripheral’ sites often ignored within mainstream historical discourse which is largely preoccupied with dominant centres such as large cities; innovative methodologies combining rigorous on-ground field research with formal and informal archival work, and empirical field work with postcolonial and socio-spatial theory; the specific possibilities offered by working between a range of scales - from urban form, to the architecture of individual buildings down to building details and ‘paraphernalia’; the potential of architecture in generating newer readings of disciplines like social and political history, cultural studies and cultural anthropology, and vice versa. One of the central areas of interest and enquiry, for me, has been the intersection of larger, macro level, centralised or normative processes on the one hand, and of everyday, localised practices on the other, in the production of the built environment. This throws up particularly important methodological issues including transgressing disciplinary boundaries and finding a creative space of exploration at that interface. One of my key motivations also lies in expanding the prevalent discourse in architectural history-theory to narratives from parts of the world beyond the Euro-American axis.