Book review – Buildings of Empire

Denis Judd assesses an exploration of the spread of the British empire through the physical structures it left behind

Buildings of Empire
Author: Ashley Jackson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Reviewed by: Denis Judd
Price (RRP): £30

The residue of the British empire is complex and awe-inspiring. It ranges from the position of English as the world’s language of international communication to sports such as rugby, football and cricket; from the Westminster model of government to a bewildering array of infrastructure and buildings to be found on every continent.

In his new book, Ashley Jackson devotes his attention to one such aspect: buildings. He is not the first to have done so. For instance, Jan Morris and Simon Winchester published Stones of Empire: The Buildings of the Raj in 2005, and before that Mark Crinson wrote Empire Building: Orientalism and Victorian Architecture (Routledge, 1996). Oxford University Press is also set to publish a volume on architecture in their prestigious British empire series.

The approach that Jackson has taken here is markedly different from that in the previously published books, however. It is far more comprehensive and inclusive: although inevitably, given the huge legacy of empire building, also selective and particular.

Beginning with Dublin Castle in England’s first colony, the book nears its end with the stadium that opened at Wembley in 1923 for the British Empire Exhibition held the following year. This was the point at which the empire- Commonwealth was at its greatest extent, and British policymakers were urgently trying to find ways of celebrating imperial achievements and bringing them to the attention of an increasingly consumerist and distracted public.

The book is a trifle disappointing in appearance, giving the impression of being produced with an anxious eye on the cost. The black-and-white illustrations are often indistinct and monotone, contrasting sadly with the dozen coloured images. Happily, none of this affects the fine quality of Jackson’s research nor the power and insight of his writing.

What is most striking about Jackon’s book is the scale and variety of the buildings and developments he has analysed. They range from the Viceregal Lodge at Simla to the Kuala Lumpur railway station; from the Raffles hotel in Singapore to the HSBC skyscraper in Hong Kong, and many more besides.

The purposes of these buildings were just as varied. Some were designed to impress imperial subjects with their majesty while some were transport hubs, and some fortifications. Others were designed for the leisure and delight of local people or – as with the Gordon Memorial College in Khartoum – to honour imperial heroes.

While some of the structures required the services of the best architects and armies of skilled and semi-skilled workers, others were – perhaps surprisingly – prefabricated and erected on the cheap. Moreover, the British, more often than not, sought to preserve much indigenous architecture rather than destroy and displace it.

In this outstanding and subtle book, Jackson brings vividly to life the complex relationship that the empire’s rulers and ruled alike had with the built environment around them.

Hugh Bowden is the author of Alexander the Great: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2014)

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