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Cracks in the Modernist Foundation: On the Necessity of Challenging Dominant Narratives


There are and there always have been cracks in the foundations of coloniality, colonialism, modernity, and architectural modernism. These cracks have emancipatory potential; it is to these cracks that we might turn to conceptualize change in the present and in the future. This essay aims to locate, synthesize, and analyze these cracks, with a view toward widening them until their edifices decisively rupture. This disruption might include interventions that demodernize architecture, or rupture may take other forms.

Walter D. Mignolo argues that the two terms ‘modernity’ and ‘coloniality’ are inextricably linked in the complex matrix of power invented and controlled by the West since the sixteenth century. The concept and reality of modernity/coloniality are supported on one side by the construct of race – as the monstrous apex of the neologism of ‘free trade’ – and on the other, by a rhetoric of salvation (conversion, civilization, progress, and development), which places Europe at the end point of historical time.1 Marshall Berman’s canonical definition of modernity as the experience of living in a time when previous certainties ‘melt into air’, along with other celebratory narratives, are then not simply uncritical descriptions of the phenomenon, but are themselves intrinsic to modernity’s insidious logic.2 There is some confusion about colonialism’s relationship to this concept of modernity/coloniality. Where modernity/coloniality is an epistemological frame through which much of the world’s history can be understood, colonialism is often interpreted as a finite project in which one group subjugates another by inhabiting their land.3 However, theorists of European colonialism often conceptualize it as a much more prevalent beast that overlaps with imperialism and the rhetoric of Europe’s cultural dominance and right to exploit the world’s resources, dating from the sixteenth century (or even earlier) to the present.4 For this reason, I use coloniality and colonialism interchangeably.

How does architecture relate to all of this? Modernism, as distinct from modernity, is widely understood as a ‘loose affiliation of aesthetic movements that unfolded in the first half of the twentieth century,’ breaking radically with existing artistic practices in an effort to contend with the profound transformations of modernity.5 I note here Susan Stanford Friedman’s convincing argument that modernism is not and has never been singular. If we reject the thesis of multiple or alternative modernities on the basis that it continues to reify Euro-American modernity as paramount, Friedman’s contention of multiple modernisms stands, since modernism brooks no definitional fixity even in its most narrow Euro-American conceptualization.6 In architectural studies, however, modernism is still largely understood as a singular stylistic and formal meditation on ‘linear progress, absolute truths, and rational planning of ideal social orders’, developed by elite, avant-garde guardians of high taste, primarily in Europe and the United States.7 The formula is familiar – cubical forms, white walls, flat roofs, plenty of glass and other industrially produced materials – and applies even when non-Western regions and architects are added to the pantheon, and even when modernism’s conventional narrative of aesthetic rupture with the past is acknowledged as a strategic invention.8 Indeed, modernism in this form is almost an official culture within professional education and practice in the United States, for example, where forms and practices classified as ‘traditional’ are seen, by default, as conservative, anachronistic and unappealing.9

It is this vision of architectural modernism as a predominantly autonomous stylistic phenomenon that dominates perceptions of its emergence in colonial contexts. A few scholars are beginning to reframe US modernism as a colonial technology for expropriating life and land.10 Previous critiques of modernist mass housing in the United States – such as Pruitt–Igoe in Saint Louis, Missouri, or Lafayette Park in Detroit, Michigan – as misapplications of otherwise worthy modernist tenets of standardization and the interwar ideal of Existenzminimum (subsistence dwelling), should likewise be reframed as part of a larger regime of coloniality in which African Americans and Native Americans have been racialized, displaced, continually exploited for their labor, and condemned to generational poverty. Overwhelmingly, however, in studies of architecture, colonial contexts are still understood as regions in Africa, Asia and Australia that were colonized by Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And modernism is generally seen as a Western invention that was exported to these other geographies at the end of formal colonization starting in the 1940s.11 The work of Jane Drew and Edwin Maxwell Fry in Ghana, Nigeria and India is the quintessential example here.12 Yet scholars of postcolonial architectural history have long argued that the colonies were in fact constitutive of both modernity and modernism, which the West can therefore no longer exclusively claim.13 In most cases, they show that conditions in the colonies forced a certain type of prescient bureaucratic thinking, a commitment to utility and function as drivers of design, and technical innovation, which sometimes prefigured, paralleled, and even inspired new developments in metropolitan architecture especially in England and France.14 The main protagonists of these colonial modernisms were European colonial administrators and settlers, but Indigenous or local individuals were often active agents too.15 Exemplars of colonial modernism – especially in the form of large public buildings and newly planned housing developments, neighborhoods or entire cities – served colonial administrators’ efforts to define specific groups as primitive or traditional: for example, they helped reinforce the idea that the colonized population was not ready for full suffrage in British Nairobi, or enabled egregious population displacements at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, both in the 1940s; or were the sites of forced labor captured during wars of colonial subjugation, in the case of the 1913 Government Secretariat Building in Windhoek, Namibia.16 Even as scholars show that colonial modernism was often an outcome of complex negotiations between colonizers and colonized, the overall picture is one in which a power imbalance is translated into built environment forms and practices that actively undermine the lives of indigenous, colonized and non-European populations. This is the nature of colonial modernism.

This said, modernism is not the only architectural ideology or practice to serve coloniality. There are numerous other examples in history and in the present, from the National Socialists’ rejection of a ‘degenerate’ modernism in favor of monumental neoclassicism fueled by the labor and lives of those condemned to concentration camps, to former US President Donald Trump’s 2020 executive order that required neoclassical architecture to be the style for all new federal government buildings.17 Architectural modernism does not have an exclusive claim to coloniality, but because of its dominance in architectural thinking around the globe in the twenty-first century, it does require interrogation as part of any effort to conceive a non-colonial future.

My introductory sketch of coloniality, colonialism, modernity and architectural modernism already reveals internal inconsistencies in each of these edifices. The problem is that it accepts as fact the totalizing logic of Euro-American modernity. Alternative, Indigenous, entangled, and global modernities still orient themselves in relation to a standard Euro-modernity.18 Against this plurality of modernities, we must ask: Were there no people or places that were never modern or did not aspire to become modern, in the accepted, Eurocentric sense of the term? If tradition is itself already conditioned by what we know as modernity, what name do we give to that which was decidedly something else in spite of the dominating logic of modernity? What name do we give to what appears in the cracks and on the edges of that which modernity failed to reconstitute in its likeness? Perhaps the most obvious contenders are the so-called uncontacted Indigenous groups like the Sentinelese people of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean or the Mascho-Piro group in Peru’s Amazon rainforest. Popular reportage indexes a high level of righteous indignation and resolute incomprehension at these peoples’ refusal to abandon their seemingly restricted lives for our modern cities and occupations, and to subscribe to the ethics of modern society with regard, for example, to welcoming uninvited strangers.19

By the very nature of their refusal, we cannot know the Sentinelese and Mascho-Piro peoples’ architectural alternatives to modernity/coloniality. But perhaps we can imagine something about their shape. In architecture, the language for imagining alternatives to dominant orders is the language of utopia. The beginnings of (Western) architectural imaginaries of utopia are often dated to the sixteenth century, which is the timeframe of modernity/coloniality’s own invention and expansion. Thus, these utopias were complicit with modernity/coloniality even as they reflected concerns with its logics and contained the seeds of alternatives. Many of these utopias were formulated in rejection to capitalism’s promotion of the individual and increasing emphasis on rationality, but few challenged the fundamental coloniality of modernity vis-a-vis its dependence on the expendability of enslaved lives. Revolutionary Haiti was arguably an exception, as were, to some extent, maroon communities in the Caribbean, and villages built to stave off slave raiders in Ghana.20

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Figure 1: Welcome Sign, Oyotunji African Village, South Carolina, United States. (Source: Flicker)

The impulse to conceive and build utopias can be traced through to the present in the most recent efforts to live off-grid, build small or create intentional communities.21 But here again, specific, enunciated resistance to the racial and patriarchal pillars of coloniality is largely missing. One example is Oyotunji African Village in South Carolina, US, which was founded by African Americans in 1970 in order to reclaim Yoruba religious traditions and associated identities (figure 1). The village, which is materially circumscribed from its surroundings and intentionally adopts a historical Yoruba-based architectural vocabulary, functions as a separate domestic space, whose political and economic structures operate both independently and under the umbrella of the nation state. Kamari Maxine Clarke explains: ‘Through the formation of a “poor” African village in the richest country in the world, perceived continuities (shared African ancestry as lived through blackness, spatial aesthetics, and traditional organizing practices) are used to legitimatize discontinuities and to obfuscate politico-economic configurations that splice class, race, and geographic belonging into new forms of inequality.’22

As the village of Oyotunji indicates, architectural modernism was not the only architectural response to modernity in colonialism/imperialism. Oyotunji’s vocabulary of sculpted wood caryatids supporting verandahs that surround frescoed rectilinear and cylindrical single-story hipped-roof buildings pays homage to the historical tradition of Yoruba architecture while forging a distinctive path. Oyotunji signals an epistemology that is modern but does not sit comfortably within the dominant experience of modernity, and its architecture is similarly modern though not modernist. It is debatable whether Oyotunji has been successful in providing an alternative to modernity, and recent scholarship like that of Clarke indeed suggests that the village, which today is sparsely populated, has an outsized impact transnationally through its long-armed networks of diasporic affiliation, which it owes to globalization and mechanisms of capitalist consumption and production.23

There are other architectural responses to modernity in colonialism/imperialism that may likewise undermine the oppressive force associated with colonial modernism. Ikem Okoye has described the work of James Onwudinjo, an African architect practicing in Eastern Nigeria in the 1910s, as a ‘spatial cipher of the contestation of European metropolitanism, and (the latter’s) assumption of its own centrality’.24 Okoye is referring to Onwudinjo’s Adinembo House, where the architect made rare use of reinforced concrete in a flat-roofed, three-storied house whose tripartite façade seems to evoke Italian Renaissance palazzos at the same time as the abstract, modular reliefs sculpted on its outer skin gesture toward local cultural practices of cicatrization and body painting. The building’s plan inverts the by-then conventional colonial hierarchy of space by placing service spaces at its core. Little information is available on Onwudinjo’s background but it seems unlikely that he was aware of cutting-edge architectural developments in France and Germany in the 1910s. And yet, his design resonates with some modernist experimentation with materials and dynamic cross-sectional planning, even as it resists the association between excessive ornamentation and the primitive Other to the modern European self. Okoye compellingly hypothesizes that Adinembo House is a statement about being modern that decenters Western epistemologies.

The examples of Oyotunji African Village and Adinembo House, which are simultaneously embedded in and break with the overwhelming totality of modernity/coloniality, suggest two further responses to the proposition of demodernizing architecture. First, I want to challenge the assumption that architectural modernism, because of its link to modernity, is itself totalizing. The narrative that modernism (in the particular definition offered at the start of this essay) has dominated architecture at any moment since its multi-origin inception in the nineteenth century is a figment of the collective imagination of professionally trained architects. Writing in the 1980s, Jürgen Habermas asserted: ‘modernist culture has come to penetrate the values of everyday life; the life-world is infected by modernism.’25 What signals this pervasiveness of modernism, in the broad sense, for Habermas is the embrace of the ‘principle of unlimited self-realization, the demand for authentic self-experience and the subjectivism of a hyperstimulated sensitivity’.26 But any survey of the built environment across the globe whether today, in the 1980s or in the 1940s would reveal that the majority of structures do not conform to modernist tenets or aesthetics. Long before postmodernism emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, the majority of builders and users of the built environment in the United States and the United Kingdom, for example, did not equate ‘authentic self-experience’ with brutalist concrete, shiny white boxes or open plans. This is why it was necessary to establish an organization, Docomomo International, dedicated to saving modernist buildings and sites in the face of rampant development.27 Modernism only dominated large sectors of the built environment in a few places, such as Brazil, where it was popularized by builders and laypeople. Here, notably, the modernism that ensued was a transformed version, which did not accept the social, spatial or economic changes suggested by avant-garde models.28 Modernism may have ‘infected life-worlds’ (as per Habermas), but it did not dominate the architectural realm. Perhaps architectural modernism is different in this sense from other cultural modernisms, and from the economic and societal modernizations it accompanied. Ultimately, Brazilian popular modernism did not challenge high modernism’s complicity in the continued occupation of Indigenous land or the structural marginalization of African- and Indigenous-descended people. If anything, it reinscribed problematic social practices inherited from the colonial period. Yet popular modernism does highlight certain openings in which resistance might occur.

Lastly, in addition to architectural modernism’s failure to achieve totality, I would like to point to the oft-belabored argument of the incompleteness of modernity itself, and the significance of this for modernism. Habermas explained that the project of modernity was an effort by French Enlightenment philosophers to develop ‘objective science, universal morality and law, and autonomous art according to their inner logic’, and for the goals of enriching everyday life, expanding human understanding, moral progress, justice and happiness.29 However, the project stalled, in part because it was so efficient at developing individual spheres of knowledge that they became disconnected from the everyday life that they were intended to improve. Habermas critiques the postmodern backlash against modernist architecture as an attack on the symptoms rather than the cause. He advocates trying to realize what he sees as modernity’s emancipatory ideals, in part by placing limits on the unchecked ‘colonization of the life-world through the imperatives of autonomous economic and administrative systems of action’.30 Decolonial scholars have criticized Habermas’s theory for its Eurocentrism, and for failing to grasp the fundamental coloniality of modernity. Habermas’s defenders have pointed out in turn that his theory nonetheless recognizes modernity’s pathologies and that his concept of an unfinished project leaves room for multiple modernities and diverse forms of life.31

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Figure 2: View of the abandoned El Roye building on Ashmun Street, Monrovia. Tim Hetherington, 2006. (Source: Magnum)

What did it mean to advocate modernism in the 1980s? If advancing modernism was about achieving the supposedly emancipatory potential of modernity, then an examination of modernist architecture in colonial contexts during this period is instructive. Anthropologist Danny Hoffman introduced architectural historians to arguably one of the last large-scale modernist building campaigns of the twentieth century with his book, Monrovia Modern: Urban Form and Political Imagination in Liberia.32 Hoffman tells the story of four modernist structures built in Monrovia, Liberia, between the 1960s and 1980s with the assistance of multinational expertise and funding from Israel and the United States, and thus deeply embedded in Liberia’s founding history of colonization and structural dependency. With their immense cellular, reinforced concrete frames raised on plinths and relieved occasionally by curved forms and public art, the buildings towered over the urban landscape on which they were strategically sited. When civil war erupted in 1989 as an outcome of the historical establishment of Liberia as a settler colonial state, the buildings, which were closely associated with the ruling party of the Americo-Liberian elite, became targets and theaters of the war against settler hegemony. Rebels and soldiers alike fired from the blown-out windows and balconies of the brutalist structures, and sought refuge behind their concrete fins and still-intact shafts. Two of the buildings were incomplete when the war started, and by its end in 2003, all four buildings had reached a deep state of ruination (figure 2). At the end of the war, thousands of demobilized ex-combatants, unattended to in peacekeeping agreements, found shelter in the scarred shells of these structures. Theirs is not a triumphal occupation of previous sites of oppression, or a powerful reclamation of what is rightfully theirs. Rather, they eke out life and shelter with discarded materials and no access to the utilities grid. Hoffman suggests that the buildings pose an opportunity for inhabitants to make ‘place-based claims to a right to the city’, and for architects, politicians and the general public to reconfigure their futures.33 But, due to the continued insecurity of life and livelihood in Liberia, no one has stepped through these openings. The incomplete modernist ruins in Monrovia are not a passive backdrop to failed promises of postcolonial prosperity or a blank state for a hopeful future to come. They are a dynamic actor in the ‘urban aftermodern’, where ‘built form and political imagination remain in tension and in dialogue.’34

In addition to colonial modernism, there exist architectures that were never modern as well as those that were otherwise modern. In focusing on demodernizing architecture, we must be careful to resist the totalizing logic of modernity by assuming modernism’s dominance. Finding cracks in the edifice will help guide us to the other side.

Walter D. Mignolo, ‘Coloniality and globalization: a decolonial take’, Globalizations, vol. 8, no. 3, 2020, pp. 1–18; Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity, Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.
Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine Walsh, On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis, Durham: Duke University Press, 2018, p. 116.
Stephen Slemon, ‘The Scramble for Post-colonialism’, in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (ed.), Taylor & Francis: New York, 1994, pp. 45–52; Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (ed.) Postcolonial Studies: The Key Concepts, London: Routledge, 2000, p. 126. Cf. Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine Walsh, On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis, Durham: Duke University Press, 2018, p. 116.
Susan Stanford Friedman, ‘Periodizing Modernism: Postcolonial Modernities and the Space/Time Borders of Modernist Studies’, Modernism/modernity, vol. 13, no. 3, 2006, pp. 425–43 (p. 426); Susan Sanford Friedman, ‘Definitional Excursions: The Meanings of Modern/Modernity/Modernism’, Modernism/modernity, vol. 8, no. 3, 2001, pp. 493–513.
Mignolo, The Darker Side, p. 5.
Friedman, ‘Definitional’, p. 497.
Duanfang Lu, ‘Entangled Modernities in Architecture’, in The SAGE Handbook of Architectural Theory, C. Greig Crysler, Stephen Cairns, and Hilde Heynen (ed.), pp. 231–46, New York: SAGE, 2012. See also Fernando Lara, The Rise of Popular Modernist Architecture in Brazil, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008; Maiken Umbach and Bernd Hüppauf, Vernacular Modernism: Heimat, Globalization, and the Built Environment, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2005.
See Lucien Steil, In the Mood for Architecture: Tradition, Modernism and Serendipity, Tübingen: Ernst Wasmuth Verlag, 2018.
Kelema Lee Moses, ‘Shorelines and Settlements’, The Avery Review, vol. 49, 2020, (accessed 14 June 2021); Manuel Shvartzberg Carrió, ‘Prefabricated Steel Houses, Automation, and Settler Colonialism in Postwar America, 1943–1968’, in Productive Universals—Specific Situations: Critical Engagements in Art, Architecture and Urbanism, Anne Kockelkorn and Nina Zschocke (ed.), pp. 160–211, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2019.
Kathleen James-Chakraborty, ‘Beyond postcolonialism: New directions for the history of nonwestern architecture’, Frontiers of Architectural Research, vol. 3, no. 1, 2013, pp. 1–9.
Iain Jackson and Jessica Holland, Architecture of Edwin Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew: Twentieth Century Architecture, Pioneer Modernism and the Tropics, New York: Routledge, 2016; Rodri Windsor Liscombe, ‘Modernism in Late Imperial British West Africa: The Work of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, 1946-56’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 65, no. 2, 2006, pp. 188–215.
Lu, ‘Entangled Modernities’, p. 236; James-Chakraborty, ‘Postcolonial Thought and the Emergence of Global Architectural Histories’, forthcoming; Itohan Osayimwese, Colonialism and Modern Architecture in Germany, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017.
See for example, Peter Scriver, ‘Empire-Building and Thinking in the Public Works Department of British India’, in Colonial Modernities: Building, Dwelling and Architecture in British India and Ceylon, Peter Scriver and Vikramaditya Prakash (ed.), London: Routledge, 2007, pp. 69–92; Jiat-Hwee Chang, A Genealogy of Tropical Architecture: Colonial Networks, Nature and Technoscience, New York: Routledge, 2016.
Jyoti Hosagrahar, Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism, New York: Routledge, 2005.
Rixt Woudstra, ‘Planning the “Multiracial” City: Architecture, Decolonization and the Design of Stability in British Africa, 1945-1957’, PhD Dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2020; Tim Livsey, ‘The University Age: Development and Decolonisation in Nigeria, 1930 to 1966’, PhD Dissertation, University of London, 2014; Osayimwese, Colonialism, p. 149; Itohan Osayimwese, ‘Networks and Systems as Tools of Empire in Post-Independence Nigeria: The International Institute for Tropical Agriculture’, Perspecta, vol. 52, Summer 2019, pp. 263–77.
Despina Stratigakos, Hitler at Home, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015; Paul Jaskot, The Architecture of Oppression: The SS, Forced Labor and the Nazi Monumental Building Economy, New York: Routledge, 2000; Samia Henni, ‘The Coloniality of an Executive Order’, Journeys and Translations, Canadian Center of Architecture, 23 June 2020, (accessed 14 June 2021).
Mignolo, The Darker Side, p. 5.
Cameron Clark, ‘All Quiet on the Water-Front: Uncontacted Tribes in the Modern Era’, Harvard International Review, vol. 40, no. 2, 2019, pp. 10–11; Scott Wallace, ‘Some Isolated Tribes in the Amazon Are Initiating Contact’, National Geographic, 13 August 2015, (accessed 14 June 2021); J. Oliver Conroy, ‘The life and death of John Chau, the man who tried to convert his killers’, The Guardian, 3 February 2019, (accessed 14 June 2021).
Lyman Tower Sargent, ‘African Americans and Utopia: Visions of a Better Life’, Utopian Studies, vol. 31, no. 1, 2020, pp, 25–96; Leslie Alexander, ‘Black Utopia: Haiti and Black Transnational Consciousness in the Early Nineteenth Century’, The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 2, 2021, pp. 215–22; Amber Foster, ‘Nancy Prince’s Utopias: Reimagining the African American Utopian Tradition’, Utopian Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, 2013, pp. 329–48; Brooke Takala, ‘A Survey of Sites and Relics on the Slave Trade in Ghana: A History Archaeology Perspective’, African Diaspora ISPs, 83, 2003, (accessed 14 June 2021).
Rachel Goldlust, ‘Going Off Grid: A History of Power, Protest and the Environment, 1890–2016’, PhD Dissertation, La Trobe University, 2020; Lisa Alexander, ‘Tiny Homes for the Homeless’, Journal of Affordable Housing & Community Development Law, vol. 26, no. 1, 2017, pp. 39–42.
Kamari Maxine Clarke, ‘Transnational Yoruba Revivalism and the Diasporic Politics of Heritage’, American Ethnologist, vol. 34, no. 4, 2007, pp. 721–34 (p. 722).
Clarke, ‘Transnational’.
Ikem Okoye, ‘Unmapped Trajectories: Early Sculpture and Architecture of a “Nigerian” Modernity’, in Exiles, Diasporas and Strangers, Kobena Mercer (ed.), Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008, pp. 28–44 (p. 33).
Jürgen Habermas, ‘Modernity—An Incomplete Project’, in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Hal Foster (ed.), Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1983, pp. 3–15 (p. 6).
Maristella Casciato, ‘Modern Monuments and Heritage at Risk’, Heritage @ Risk, 2006, pp. 22–23.
Fernando Lara, The Rise of Popular Modernist Architecture in Brazil, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008.
Habermas, ‘Modernity’, p. 9.
Jürgen Habermas, ‘Modern and Postmodern Architecture’, in Architecture Theory Since 1968, K. Michael Hays (ed.), Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998, pp. 412–27 (p. 425).
Raymond Morrow, ‘Defending Habermas against Eurocentrism: Latin America and Mignolo’s Decolonial Challenge’, in Deprovincializing Habermas: Global Perspectives, Tom Bailey (ed.), New York: Routledge, 2013, pp. 117–36 (p. 129).
Danny Hoffman, Monrovia Modern: Urban Form and Political Imagination in Liberia, Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.
Hoffman, Monrovia, synopsis, p. 176.

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