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Response to Review of Broadcasting Buildings: Architecture on the Wireless, 1927-1945

Laura Carter’s assessment of Broadcasting Buildings: Architecture on the Wireless, 1927-1945 is the most generous and thoughtful assessment an author, especially of a first book, could wish for. My short response, therefore, can hardly be a rejoinder. Instead, I want to take this opportunity to extend the conversation and highlight some of the pressing challenges posed by this project that I could not mention in the book without making it a fundamentally different book.

Clearly the publication of this discourse in Reviews in History demonstrates the intersection at which media studies in architecture, cultural history and interdisciplinary practices stand today. But equally insightful is the attention the book has received in British academic and architecture’s professional circles. It suggests that we have arrived at a moment open to the intellectual reciprocity between scholars from former colonizing and colonized cultures. This is not to say that xenophobia among scholars and readers in either place is a thing of the past, but rather that it is slowly but surely becoming acceptable for non-Europeans and non-Americans to write histories of Europe.

At its broadest scope, Broadcasting Buildings is a history of an imperial power painfully morphing from an unjust empire to a narrowly inclusive welfare state. But this statement disregards the author’s situatedness. I belong to the generation of architectural historians whose political consciousness has been shaped by Edward Said’s Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. My narrative offers a view of the contortions the ‘mother country’ was going through in the interwar years and wartime, and how it brought cultural production to bear on it. I am hyper-attentive to the fact that this is a narrative, as it appears to someone whose political consciousness has been shaped in the post-colonial world and whose intellectual training has been carried out in the American academy. This is not a view of the center from the periphery. I am located neither at one nor the other.

My hardest challenge was finding an appropriate tone in which to describe my findings. I did not want a book with any whiff of reverse orientalism or what a European Edward Said could legitimately reject as occidentalism. It could not become a project where an author from the economically and politically weak and historically subjugated East shamed the West for the possession and exercise of power. The only way out was to take a careful look at how a cultural enterprise like architecture, historically the handmaiden of power, was reinvented at the dusk of the empire, in the age of mass media, democratic ideals, egalitarian ethos, and human equality. How did broadcasting architectural discourse help Britain reinvent its public image from a Raj to a welfare state? Conversely, how did radio, which its pioneers celebrated for replacing the troops on the ground with an ‘aerial empire’, repurpose architecture to create new hierarchies, new prejudices, and cultural politics with new rules? The only authorial voice that I could exercise here was of a global citizen and someone who is implicated in the project of cultural production herself. Taking this position is not just an exercise of will and self-awareness. It is something that others allow you to take. It is a collective fiat, valued by one’s peers, encouraged by one’s mentors, publishers, and readers. This is one of the key arguments of the book too. If Broadcasting Building becomes valued for nothing else but just this insight, the years of angst while writing it would have been worth it.