The “Classicist architecture” of Southeast Asia

The term “classical” in contemporary architecture does not refer to a specific style, but rather to a variety of expressions that may include neo-classical, neo-historical, neo-traditionalist, eclectic or simply retro elements. This diversity of approaches is evident in many cities in Southeast Asia, where, over the last twenty years, there has been a growing interest in buildings with a “classical” aesthetic in both the public and private sectors. This phenomenon was fueled by significant economic investments by the banking, real estate and construction markets. The adoption of architectural styles drawn from the past can be seen as an experimental process in the context of the modernization of Asian society in general. These buildings represent an attempt to reinterpret and reconcile cultural traditions (often linked to a colonial past which, although distant, is part of the modern history of some countries) with the aspiration to modernity and progress.

In Asian cities, traditional conceptions of architecture as a useful or aesthetic element are challenged by a phenomenon of “genetic modification” of the city, as it is conceived in Europe. Internal immigration towards large population centers, driven by developing economies in this part of the world, has profoundly altered the concept of identity and authenticity of architectural heritage. The colonial buildings, once symbols of power and status, have been demolished or incorporated by intensive construction that seeks to satisfy the growing commercial and housing needs aimed above all at providing a roof for the new workforce.

The growth of urban suburbs, particularly in Southeast Asian cities, is characterized by rapid and massive expansion, high density and often a lack of adequate infrastructure. These territories therefore become the battlefield between development needs and the need for civic participation. The boundary between “landscape” and “city” is often blurred and dynamic, influenced by cultural, economic and environmental factors. In these conditions it is difficult to judge or direct interventions on one or the other. If we then think that in South-East Asia, where the average population of a single metropolis is equivalent to that of the whole of Austria, it is easy to understand how, in general, governance is incapable of changing the paradigm of urban planning beyond outside of economic reductionism or slogans such as smart and sustainable, supported by technological progress (transport, energy, production methods, artificial intelligence, etc …).

However, this phenomenon also raises questions about the adaptation and impact on the built environment and the conservation of the traditional architectural heritage, unfortunately almost completely compromised by development processes that took place too quickly and often without regulatory and training support regarding conservation of the architectural and urban heritage. In this framework, the spread of “historicized” buildings can be interpreted as a reflection of ongoing social and cultural changes, but also as one of the responses to economic pressures and global influences, raising important questions regarding urban identity, memory history and the future of cities. This is a complex process that requires in-depth analysis and active involvement of all stakeholders to ensure resilient and inclusive urban development.

“Classicist architecture” has always played a fundamental role in marking moments of historical and cultural transition. Its adoption in key periods of history has made it possible to express new ideals and legitimize profound changes in political and social structures. Whether it is the Renaissance, neoclassicism or the architecture of the dictatorships of the 20th century, this “aesthetics of building” continues to be a powerful symbol of evolution and transformation, capable of transmitting complex messages through the language of built forms. Singular is the fact that traces of this rediscovery of the symbols of the past are proliferating not in Europe, where everything was born, but in Asia. In fact, while in the Old Continent contemporary architecture has almost banished these reminiscences of styles according to a “cancel culture” also imposed by the “ideology of sustainability”, on the other side of the world theatres, courts, schools, shopping centres and homes are being built taking inspiration from symbols of the past. But that’s another story.

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