Colonial Hybridization in Architecture

Angela Copes and Steven Carlson

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Transformation of Architecture always follows colonization. The Spanish, starting in the mid-16th century, built grand cathedrals in Latin America to simultaneously support conversion efforts and demonstrate power over pre-Columbian societies. In the 19th and 20th centuries, British colonial power integrated more cohesively into Indian culture than the Spanish, and the grand public buildings that resulted from this partnership have an appropriately equal mix of British and Indian ornamentation. No better example of architecture as power can be found than Soviet architecture after World War II; the construction of startlingly monumental skyscrapers and ruthless propagation of the Stalinist aesthetic sent a clear message to the Eastern Block that the authority of the Soviets was unilateral and infallible. These examples work together to support the following assertion: With the process of colonization, comes a mixing of cultures and hybridization of architecture, which reinforces hierarchies between the conquered and the conquerors.

Spanish Colonization in Latin America

When Columbus returned to Spain after his first expedition in 1492, Queen Isabella claimed all natives in the New World as her subjects. By 1521, conquistador Hernán Cortés had successfully subdued the Aztec Empire, shortly after Francisco Pizarro did the same for the Incas in South America, and the Viceroyalty of New Spain was established in 1535. With support from Pope Alexander VI, the Spanish made it their mission to covert the local population to Roman Catholicism. And as missionaries began to flood the new world, the building of missions and cathedrals became a critical element in encouraging the fruitfulness of conversion efforts. Native spiritual beliefs were well seeded and difficult to uproot, so in most cases new construction was intimately related to pre-existing native constructs, and many feature native religious symbolism used in conjunction with Catholic imagery in the ornamentation of the new buildings.

Cathedral of Santo Domingo, Cusco, Peru, 1559-1654, Juan Miguel de Veramendi

santodomingo (1)
Front Façade of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo (Wikipedia Contributors)
Cusco Cathedral atop the Ruins of the Sun Temple (Bensozia)
Cusco Cathedral atop the Ruins of the Sun Temple (Bensozia)

The Cathedral of Santo Domingo in Cusco fits this archetype easily. The Cathedral was built directly on top of the most important spiritual site in the Incan Empire; the Qurikancha, or ‘Sun House’. The temple was destroyed swiftly once it was ceded to the Dominican order of the Catholic Church (by Juan Pizarro, brother of Francisco). Construction of a Gothic-Renaissance Church on the foundations of the old temple began soon after. The plan of the church is a Latin cross, and uses the spectacularly accurate curved foundation of the Qurikancha temple to support a vault that mimics the curvature of the original temple walls. The almost completely gilded interior hearkens back to the original temple’s gilded interior; which appropriately was melted down by the Incas during the war with Pizarro to pay a ransom for their captured leader, Atahualpa. Some Incan imagery (especially of the Jaguar) was re-used alongside Catholic motifs, as if to maintain just enough continuity of religious identity.

Metropolitan Cathedral, Mexico City, Mexico, 1573-1813, Claudio de Arciniega

metcathmc (1)
Front Façade of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City (Andersson)
The ‘Wall of Sculls’ in the Aztec Ruins behind the Metropolitan Cathedral (DailyMail)
The ‘Wall of Sculls’ in the Aztec Ruins behind the Metropolitan Cathedral (DailyMail)

Another key and widely cited example of colonial architecture is the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City. Upon defeating the Aztec civilization, Cortés moved quickly and decisively to consolidate power. He had his troops level the Templo Mayor, a massive complex at the center of the capital city of Tenochtitlan. He then started constructing a Catholic church upon the base of the temple; quite literally, in fact, as it is even rumored that Cortés laid the cornerstone of the new church himself. As New Spain expanded and Mexico City became the clear center of the new empire, a grander and more assertive cathedral was deemed necessary. Claudio de Arciniega, a Spanish master architect, drew up plans for the largest cathedral in the region using the old Gothic Cathedrals of Spain as a precedent. In keeping with standard practice in the new world, some indigenous design elements were incorporated into the cathedral; most prominently the use of native plant species in decorative carvings. This ornamental move did its part in encouraging native ownership of Catholicism, but in the act of supplanting native buildings with their own, the Spanish sent a clear message to native populations that they were to submit and convert; or be crushed.

British Colonization in India

The Industrial Revolution marked the last major surge of global colonization. The British Empire had one of the farthest-reaching colonial networks at the time, mostly stemming from their trading ventures, with Britain’s East India Company monopolizing India’s cotton and textile industry. In 1858, India was officially brought under British rule and made part of the Commonwealth. As more and more British officers, merchants, and their families inundated the country, British authorities needed to establish their power and presence in a physical and concrete manner. New government buildings and public spaces were created in a blend of European and Indian styles, but on the grand scale of the British Empire to symbolize the order of the country. After the British had to deal with multiple rebellions, they decided a blending of styles as opposed to a complete domination would help both parties relate to each other and therefore make it easier for the British to control their new subjects.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai, India, 1888, Frederick William Stevens

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus Front Façade (The Crusader)
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus Front Façade (The Crusader)
Statuary Detailing: Heads of the Heads of the Railway at time of Construction (UNESCO)
Statuary Detailing: Heads of the Heads of the Railway at time of Construction (UNESCO)

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai (the Victoria Terminus prior to 1996) is a prime example of this blending in prominent urban architecture. Built in 1888 and designed by English architect Frederick William Stevens, this highly trafficked station was roughly modeled after St. Pancras station in London in a blend of Victorian Gothic Architecture and traditional Indian palace architecture. The styles ultimately blend very well considering both allow for architectural ornamentation and a prominent use of color in their designs. A mix of Italian marble and Indian sand and limestone was used for the structure as well as for the ornamentation.Traditional Indian pointed arches are seen along glazed tiles from England. The almost equal balance of stylistic elements very nicely parallels the political set up of colonial British India; the British are in control and regulate the comings and goings but they aren’t destroying the existing cultural system that has been in place much longer that England was ever a country. But, the British Empire is still the dominant one, and therefore they have their statue of Lady Progress towering over the central dome of the station.

Victoria Memorial, Calcutta, India, 1906-1921, Sir William Emerson

Front Façade of the Victoria Memorial (Walker)
Front Façade of the Victoria Memorial (Walker)
Victoria Statue in Front of her Memorial (Karthiknanda)
Victoria Statue in Front of her Memorial (Karthiknanda)

Another example of this blending of styles is the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, designed by Sir William Emerson, whose foundation was laid in 1906. Emerson was commissioned for the building by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, who wanted a memorial to the late queen as well as to British colonization of the country. The building was funded completely by private donations from the Indian people, which is a testament to the collaborative power of the two countries. The parti of the plan as well as the materiality resemble the Taj Mahal but the building and gardens are consistently studded with statues of the British Imperial figures. So, even though the styles seem to be equally meshed, the British always made sure their influence was in the peripherals.

Soviet Assimilation of Eastern Europe

Vyborg Library, Vyborg, Russia (Finland), 1927-1935, Alvar Aalto

Vyborg Library Exterior (Rieke)
Vyborg Library Exterior (Rieke)
Vyborg Auditorium: Aalto’s Signature Wooden Curves (SPSU)
Vyborg Auditorium: Aalto’s Signature Wooden Curves (SPSU)

European nations have been fighting over the borders of their respective countries for centuries. Given their high density and closeness, the borderlands often have a blended identity. Vyborg, Russia on the Karelin Isthmus is no exception, being the bridge between Russia and its Scandinavian neighbors. After a consistent back and forth between Swedish control, Finnish independence, and Russian absorption, the city is currently within Russian borders. Before Russia gained the city in a treaty after World War II, Vyborg commissioned renowned Finnish architect Alvar Aalto to design their Municipal Library, completed in 1935. Aalto mixed elements of Nordic Classism with Functional Modernist style in his design, and used wood (the traditional building material of Scandinavian countries) along with the concrete structure. The most distinctive space of the building was the auditorium which featured a distinctive wavy ceiling. Unfortunately, when the city was ceded to Soviet Russia, the building was already damaged from the war and its repair was not a priority to its new government. Plans were drawn up for it to be renovated in a Stalinist style but lack of funds and a general apathy toward the largely vacated city never saw them to fruition. The fall of the Soviet regime saw the end of this unfulfilled plan to wipe out Finnish identity.

Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw, Poland, 1952-1955, Lev Rudnev

Front Façade of the Palace of Culture and Science (University of Tennessee Knoxville)
Front Façade of the Palace of Culture and Science (University of Tennessee Knoxville)
Statue of the Ideal Soviet: Marx Engals Lenin (Stalin Struck Off): Unsuccessful destalinization of the Palace of Science of Culture (Kirsty Collar)
Statue of the Ideal Soviet: Marx Engals Lenin (Stalin Struck Off): Unsuccessful destalinization of the Palace of Science of Culture (Kirsty Collar)

Even before the end of World War II, Joseph Stalin and the Soviets had made considerable headway in pulling Poland into its sphere of influence. By 1948, after pumping the country full of soldiers and rigging a few elections, Stalin had done so. Almost 50,000 Poles were in prison for political reasons by 1952. Needless to say, Stalin was not well-liked by the Poles. He conceived then, a dramatic gesture of goodwill towards the people of Poland by commissioning the Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science. It was designed by Lev Rudnev, the Russian architect and master of Stalinist architecture. He toured Poland while designing the skyscraper and as a result incorporated ornamentation modeled after decorative elements of Polish architecture. Despite Polish desire to have a modest building built, Stalin rejected their requests and had a 237-meter-tall skyscraper built instead. To this day, it is the tallest building in Poland and the sixth tallest in the European Union. Several sites within the ruined city were considered, but Stalin chose a site directly at the center of old Warsaw, imposing harsh aesthetic dissonance. The decorative Polish elements used by Rudnev did little to mask the monumental Stalinist building, his ornamental work did little to win over the Polish public, and the building has hence become known as ‘the elephant in lacy underwear’. The building still stands sentinel over the city, as it did when it was completed in 1955, brooding over the ruined city. It was proposed as a gift, in friendship, from the Soviets to the Poles, but in reality was nothing more than a thinly veiled assertion of Stalin’s power. The building is largely hated, not only because of its urban insensitivity, but because the building is such a strong symbol of Soviet domination of Poland.


The implications of colonization have been far-reaching and long-lasting. The resulting colonial architectural endeavors have implications and connotations of their own. The Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City is a frequent witness to protests. Despite de-Stalinization efforts, the Palace of Science and Culture is a similarly controversial site, a constant reminder of Poland’s horrible history under Stalin, worn by the city like a black eye. Conversely, the hybridization of British and Indian architecture was so successful that it is now recognized as its own architectural style in and of itself, under the Indo-Saracenic architecture badge. Architecture is a tactile record of the many-layered history of the world; a palimpsest of many interventions by many cultures over many years, that affords the modern world a glimpse into our shared dynamic past.


1500-1750 Spanish Colonization in Latin America

Brillembourg, Carlos F. “Latin American Architecture.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Accessed October 6, 2013.

Cochran, Ford. “Beyond Machu Picchu.” National Geographic Intelligent Travel. Last modified October 16, 2012. Accessed October 13, 2013.

“Viceroyalty of Peru.” In Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. N.p.: Encyclopædia Britannica, n.d. Accessed October 20, 2013.

Wikipedia Contributors. “Cathedral of Santo Domingo, Cusco.” In Wikipedia. Accessed October 13, 2013.,_Cusco.

Wikipedia Contributors. “Claudio De Arciniega.” In Wikipedia. Accessed October 20, 2013.

Wikipedia Contributors. “Templo Mayor.” In Wikipedia. Accessed October 20, 2013.

Scholarly Article

Low, Setha M. “Indigenous Architecture and the Spanish American Plaza in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean.” American Anthropologist 97, no. 4 (October 28, 2009): 748-59. Accessed October 7, 2013. doi:10.1525/aa.1995.97.4.02a00160.


Massey, Jonathan. “ARC 134 Modernizations.” Last modified September 2013. Digital file. Website

Arquidiócesis de México Tenochtitlan. “Catedral Metropolitana de la Ciudad de México” [Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City]. Arquidiócesis México En Red. Last modified 2009. Accessed October 20, 2013.

Enjoy Corp. “Santo Domingo Church and Convent.” Cusco Peru. Accessed October 20, 2013.

Hayes, Holly. “Koricancha and Santo Domingo, Cusco.” Sacred Destinations Online. Accessed October 20, 2013.

———. “Metropolitan Cathedral, Mexico City.” Sacred Destinations. Accessed October 20, 2013.

Red Hill Productions and Community Television of Southern California. “When Worlds Collide: The Untold Story of the Americas after Columbus.” PBS Online. Accessed October 20, 2013.

1750-1900 British Colonization in India

Wikipedia Contributors. “Colonial India.” Wikipedia. Last modified July 31, 2013. Accessed October 6, 2013. Wikipedia Contributors. “Architecture of India.” Wikipedia. Last modified September 29, 2013. Accessed October 7, 2013. Wikipedia Contributors. “Architecture of India: Colonial Architecture.” Culturopedia. Accessed October 7, 2013. Wikipedia Contributors. “Indo-Saracenic Revival Architecture.” Wikipedia. Last modified October 3, 2013. Accessed October 7, 2013. Wikipedia Contributors. “Victoria Memorial (India).” Wikipedia. Last modified October 3, 2013. Accessed October 7, 2013.

Scholarly Article

Marshall, Peter. “The British Presence in India in the 18th Century.” BBC-History. Last modified February 17, 2011. Accessed October 6, 2013. Gomez, Fernando T. “Cities of Dreams: Examining the Ideology of Colonial Architecture in India.” PhD diss., University of Buffalo.


“Colonial Architecture in Mumbai- India Travel.” YouTube. Video file, 03:46. Posted by Geobeats, April 14, 2011. Accessed October 7, 2013.

1900-1989 Russian Assimilation of Eastern Europe

“Russification.” Wikipedia. Last modified September 30, 2013. Accessed October 7, 2013. “Russification of Finland.” Wikipedia. Last modified February 26, 2013. Accessed October 7, 2013. “Vyborg.” Wikipedia. Last modified October 4, 2013. Accessed October 7, 2013. “Vyborg Library.” Wikipedia. Last modified August 31, 2013. Accessed October 7, 2013.

Scholarly Article

“Decades of Finnish Architecture 1900-1970.” Museum of Finnish Architecture. Accessed October 7, 2013.

Web Site

Emporis GMBH. “Palace of Culture and Science.” Emporis Building Statistics. Accessed October 20, 2013.

OldSalt. “Poland – Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw.” Lets Talk Stamps (blog). Entry posted December 17, 2010. Accessed October 20, 2013.

Image Citations

Alamy. Templo Mayor Ruins and the Metropolitan Cathedral. Photograph. Daily Mail Online. January 12, 2012. Accessed October 27, 2013.

Andersson, Gustav. The Cathedral. Photograph. The Modern Nomad. December 19, 2011.

Bensozia. Cusco Cathedral Atop the Ruins of the Sun Temple. Photograph. Blogspot. June 16, 2013. Accessed October 27, 2013.

Ideal Socialist Statue, Stalin Plastered Over. Photograph. Kirsty Collar WordPress. August 19, 2012. Accessed October 27, 2013.

Interior of Auditorium at the Vyborg Library. Photograph. Southern Polytechnic State University Online Archives. Accessed October 27, 2013.

Karthiknanda. Statue of Queen Victoria in Front of Victoria Memorial Hall, Calcutta. Photograph. Wikipedia. February 23, 2012. Accessed October 27, 2013.,_Calcutta.jpg.

Palace of Culture and Science 2. Photograph. University of Tennessee Knoxville Online Archives. June 21, 2009. Accessed October 27, 2013.

Rieke, Jonathan. Viipuri Library (3). Photograph. Flickr. July 23, 2012. Accessed October 27, 2013.

Victoria Railway Terminus Front Facade. Photograph. The Crusader. Accessed October 27, 2013.

Victoria Railway Terminus Statue Detail. Photograph. UNESCO. 2004. Accessed October 27, 2013.

Walker, Ken. Victoria Memorial Kolkata. Photograph. Wikipedia. March 2, 2008. Accessed October 27, 2013.

Wikipedia Contributors. Cusco Cathedral Front Facade. Photograph. Wikipedia. December 2007. Accessed October 27, 2013.

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