A European officer and Indian clerks at a
As a template for the modern state, colonial- or imperial-built landscapes have much to tell us. But architectural history has traditionally focused on major urban schemes and grand, monumental buildings – often as expressions of oppressive colonial power – overlooking the impact of more subtle elements, like the everyday organisational systems behind the scenes.
In search of these hidden narratives and lived experiences of colonial architectures, I turned to the early-19th century colonial government of Bengal in India under British rule. This represented a paper-centred culture of documentation, surveys and bureaucratic practices.
I wanted to engage with its architecture, spaces and material culture. I focused on the layouts and narrative accounts of a range of administrative buildings that housed thousands of paper files and paperwork, and the insights that they can offer about the everyday life of the workers and their interactions within these spaces.
By understanding the ordinary administrative buildings which housed the middle and lower tiers of colonial governance in more provincial areas of Bengal, we can start to challenge the idea of the British colonial state as an entity located only in monumental buildings – and open up alternative ways of reading these architectures.
At the very heart of Bengal’s colonial government were the district
These colonial ‘paperworlds’ – and the spaces they shaped – represent, on the one hand, colonial forms of governmental control and the tyranny of their procedural regimes, and on the other, particular types of material, spatial and experiential environments.
Bungalow and barrack type
From the 1820s, the geopolitical context – with various Indian and global wars ending for Britain, and stabilising Indian revenues of British trading giant the East India Company – created the expanding need for office space. A new type of
Bureaucratic work created its own spatial cultures. Historian Christopher Bayly has shown how during the early 19th century, ‘accountancy’ was increasingly viewed as the highest administrative skill. The
As the colonial project of extracting their revenue knowledge advanced, this knowledge was materialised into paper records within record rooms which formed the centre of the
However, as Bayly points out, there were still large gaps between the colonial authorities’ revenue knowledge and the realities of the Indian hinterlands. British officers had to use lower level
These employees had virtually no formal spatial provisions within the
And the logic of paper spilled out into – and was also shaped by – other town spaces such as bazaars and paper supply networks. Despite its attempts to only use imported paper from Britain, the
The accumulative colonial archive of revenue information, alongside the wider context of various bodies of research and colonial surveys, reveal a lot about how the paper-based revenue collection system influenced the architecture that served it.
In showing how this mode of colonial control also diffused into informal, immaterial information systems and a range of amorphous spaces, we discover a far more fragmentary, everyday, contingent and local form of colonial rule often subverted or domesticated by its Indian employees – something that speaks to us throughout the ages, across varied contexts and of complex power-relations.