1 November 2022
‘DocTalks x MoMA’

A Thirsty Empire:
Architecture and Hydro-Control
between the British and the Bedouin
in the Middle East (1921-1946)


Respondent: Nitin Bathla, ETH Zurich

Members of the Huwaytat Bedouin tribe watering camels at a well in Jordan’s southern desert, photographed 1937 by John Glubb, CO 831/46/9, The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom.

One of imperial Britain’s main responsibilities during the period of British Mandatory rule in Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq was the project of “civilizing” the Mandate territories’ desert regions. Perceived as wild and underdeveloped, and populated by nomadic pastoralist Bedouin tribes who resisted imperial authority, the deserts of the Middle East represented a threat to imperial rule and economic and security interests. Mandate Britain set out to solve this “problem” through a program of architectural and infrastructural surveillance and control, utilizing networks of forts, police stations, and prisons to establish an imperial presence in the desert zones. A key means by which Bedouin populations were subdued was through the restriction of access to water resources. As one British administrator articulated this strategy and its effectiveness: “The desert of course depends on wells, most of the year, so we built a fort on every well, with eight or ten men in it. The result was the tribes couldn't get water unless they came in under the control of the forts. And that in turn established complete control of the tribes.”

This paper examines imperial Britain’s strategy for control of water, and of colonial subjects by extension, through architecture. However, rather than framing this strategy solely as a top-down mechanism of imperial control, I also highlight precedents in which Bedouin tribal leaders similarly used militarized forts to establish rights of access to water. I compare how the British and the Bedouin used architecture as a mechanism of control over water, and how control of water in turn denoted territorial and social control. This paper thus suggests a new category of buildings in the desert regions of the Middle East, namely those commissioned by both British and Bedouin patrons for purposes of “hydro-control.”


The North Sea, Water Agency
and the Making of Coastal Space,

UCL Bartlett

Respondent: André Tavares,
Faculty of Architecture, University of Porto

Unbuilt plan for Antwerp dock expansion, 1890. The Felix Archive, Antwerp, MA-HB#54.

How do environments make architectural space? Rather than there being an interplay between built and natural environments, is there a way of telling architectural histories that can resituate human habitations within the multiple webs of relation in which human culture is inevitably entangled? What might such a history look like?

Empirically, this presentation explores these questions through an examination of the North Sea coastlines of England, Flanders and the Netherlands in the modern era. This region has often been a research focus for the medieval and early modern periods, but is generally divided into national specialisms for later centuries (Liszka and Walker, 2001; Pye, 2017). Connections across the North Sea, however, did not necessarily cease as other networks expanded. While Europe was utterly changed by Atlantic crossings and global colonial connections, this did not end the importance of smaller regions and seas. This analysis focuses on the ports of Antwerp, London and Rotterdam as key sites in the making of the coastal zone through the entanglement of local and global histories.

Theoretically, it seeks to bring the developing field of environmental architectural history into conversation with traditions of indigenous, feminist and anti/postcolonial thought that historians have not insufficiently engaged with. Architectural scholars have brought the environment into their histories through studies of (among other things): energy (Barber, 2020; Calder and Bremner, 2021); materiality (Hutton, 2019); ecological relations (Da Cunha, 2018; Rawes, 2013) and infrastructure (Chattopadhyay, 2012; Christensen, 2017). This paper follows water bodies, especially the North Sea, as actors in architectural making, approaching water as a material that connects us all while also always overflowing comfortable definitions and clear delineations (Chen, MacLeod and Neimanis, 2013; Neimanis, 2017).

This paper aims to open-up discussions of how we can think about built histories beyond false binaries between the natural and artificial.

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