Architecture as Evidence: Reflections on Doing Architectural History in the Legal Archive

Dr Kah-wee Lee1

1National University Of Singapore, , Singapore

Historians have always had to assemble their own archive. As architectural scholarship becomes more interdisciplinary and less fixated on the building as an art-object, the work of assembling the archive has also turned to less conventional sources. This paper draws upon micro-history and post-colonial theory to reflect on the ambitions, rewards and challenges of turning an architectural eye to law. In particular, it traces a specific law – the Common Gaming Houses Ordinance – designed to attack popular gambling across the British Empire by using architecture as evidence of crime. The paper makes two arguments. First, it argues that the legal archive – consisting of commentaries, testimonials, court proceedings, judgments and expert opinions – offers a penetrative insight into the spatiality of law at the level of everyday life. By tracing specific cases, one is transported back to the crime scene and led through the streets and rooms where law accosts its subjects. Second, the legal archive, though itself an institution of the modern state, records the scars of its own un-making. State power is challenged from within and without – the collective criminal genius of the population confounds the best legal minds, while judges and lawyers themselves question the justifications of state violence and the limits of justice. At the very centre of power, the relationship between space and power – a perennial concern of architectural history – is both fractious and intimate.


Kah-Wee Lee is Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore. He works on the relationship between space and power, particularly through the lenses of modern expertise such as architecture and law. He is the author of Las Vegas in Singapore: Violence, Progress and the Crisis of Nationalist Modernity (2019).


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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