SAH Blog

  • The New Flower: Addis Ababa and the Project of African Modernity

    By
    2013 Brooks Fellow Amber N. Wiley
     |
    Dec 4, 2014

    He is a young man.
    He is a young man
    by a steel track.
    He wants the streets
    to be more than streets.
    The Italian boulevard
    the Italians built
    to be more
    than a boulevard.

    The city more
    than a city.
    He has high,
    admirable ideals.
    It is a dangerous world.
    The emperor
    is such a powerful
    man. The Derg
    and the military
    the most violent
    letdown.

    Excerpt from “The Track,” Lena Bezawork Grönlund Callaloo 33, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 295-296

    Addis Ababa, or “New Flower” in Amharic, was founded in 1886. During early imperial times the capital had been located in Axum, Lalibela, and Gondar, as well as several other smaller cities. In modern times, the capital was built anew. Empress Taytu Betul, wife of Emperor Menelik II, first settled in the Entoto hills. This settlement was “little more than a military encampment.”1 She later moved to a valley in the foothills, attracted by natural hot springs on land called Finfinne by the Oromo people who lived there. As historian Getahun Benti argues, “From its earliest days, Addis Ababa was the staging station for the economic exploitation and political control of the conquered provinces of which Oromia was the largest.2 It was at Finfinne that Empress Taytu Betul renamed the city “Addis Ababa,” a strong proclamation of the ambitions of both Taytu and Emperor Menelik II.

    Figure 1
    Figure 1. Major capitals of Ethiopia. Ronald J. Horvath, “The Wandering Capitals of Ethiopia,” Journal of African History 10 no. 2 (1969): 208

    Figure 2

    Figure 2. Partial view of Menelik II’s Palace in the area formerly known as “Gebi,” now grounds of Prime Minister’s residence. Source: Ethiopundit.

    Many recent texts on Addis Ababa explore the founding of the city as a project of modernity, one that Emperor Menelik II undertook after successfully conquering portions of what is today the southern region of Ethiopia. Menelik II’s reign, from 1889 to 1913 brought into existence the modern borders of the country, and he chose to rule from a central location, symbolically bringing together the northern and southern regions. The question of modernity as it applies to Addis Ababa, however, has yet to be answered. This is a direct result of the fact that modernity itself is subject to different definitions and interpretations. Menelik II, in his diplomatic relationships with various countries, believed he was creating the modern state of Ethiopia. His defeat of the Italians at the Battle of Adwa in 1896 proved that Ethiopia had the military prowess to fend off colonization in the “scramble for Africa.” Yet, by the time Emperor Haile I Selassie fled to England as the Italians invaded Ethiopia from Eritrea in 1935, Italian claims of Ethiopian primitivism served as fodder for their imperial conquests.

    Figure-3_Addis_Ababa
    Figure 3. What does it mean to be a modern African capital?  View up Churchill Avenue.

    Early Industrialization and Urbanization in the Imperial City

    The narrative arc of the Addis Ababa Museum, established in 1986 on the centennial of the city’s founding, explained how the city became the epitome of a modern, cosmopolitan entity within a few decades. Exhibition material in Finfinne Hall of the museum highlighted the beauty of the highly detailed wooden structures erected under the early part of Menelik II’s reign. The craftsmen for these structures came from various regions that had trade relationships with Ethiopia, including India. Menelik II's palaces at Finfinne and Addis Alem show clear Indian detailing and architectural motifs. The next room in the museum focused on Alfred Ilg, a Swiss engineer who brought a significant amount of industrial technology to the country (Ilg also extensively photographed Menelik II’s court). The rapid urbanization of the city of Addis Ababa after its founding, the cosmopolitan nature of the market spaces and trade relationships that brought foreign goods to Arada (later Piazza), the introduction of the rail line, electricity, bridges, and other feats of civil engineering are the hallmarks of Menelik II and Taytu’s reign. Mekonnen Worku, in his 2008 urban design master’s thesis proclaimed Menelik II “the great modernizer of Ethiopia.”3

    Figure-4_Addis_Ababa
    Figure 4. Building on the complex of the Central Statistical Agency. While I have not yet discovered the original use of the building, guards told me it was the location of the first Bank of Abyssinia.

    Figure-5_Addis_Ababa
    Figure 5. Residence in the Arada/Piazza area of Addis Ababa.

    Figure-6_Addis_Ababa

    Figure 6. La Gare, constructed in the 1920s. This station linked land-locked Ethiopia to the port of Djibouti.

    Even with the introduction of industrial technologies to the young capital, could one argue that the city was truly modern? Several scholars dispute the claim. Andreas Eshete, former president of Addis Ababa University, where he was also a professor of law and philosophy, argues “there is a crucial distinction between the advent of the idea of modernity on the one hand, and its psychological and institutional realization on the other.”4 He bases his argument on the fact that throughout the first 70 years of the city’s existence, the imperial powers, centrality of Orthodox Christianity, Italian Fascist presence, and communist rule disallowed “popular legitimate rule by free and equal citizens, the abolition of all privileges of birth or inherited position, equality of faiths and cultural communities, industrialization, and secularism.5” Indeed, Ethiopia was an imperial nation until the overthrow of Selassie in 1974, and operated under major themes of exceptionalism – Ethiopia of antiquity, with ruling parties claiming direct descent from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon; Ethiopia, one of the earliest Christian nations; Ethiopia the modern nation that resisted European colonialism.

    For much of the short history of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia has been a country of centralized power, resting with the looming historical figures of Menelik II, Selassie, and Mengistu. This factor allowed for the exploitation of Addis Ababa’s topography for expressions of power. Planning historian Dandena Tufa suggests that Empress Taytu was most influential in the early layout of the town. She wanted military officials and their soldiers to settle around the palace for purposes of defense, so the earliest settlements were on the high grounds of the Finfinne region. Additionally, Tufa states, “This original settlement layout was based on a traditional land use system that was derived from the settlement structure of the northern part of Ethiopia.6

    Figure-7_Addis_Ababa

    Figure 7. Traditional territories in vertical space: garrison “säfär” and a church with village development from Dandena Tufa, “Historical Development of Addis Ababa: Plans and Realities,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 41 no. 1/2 (June-December 2008): 34

    Military and political officials associated with the imperial power were literally “lifted” above the common people, “reshaping of [the] topography to locate and display differences and hierarchies of power, wealth, and status:”

    The most elevated part of the city was reserved for the highest authority in the land—the king— subsequently becoming the nucleus of the city that was being organized concentrically. In a descending order, politically and geographically, land was allotted beginning from top officials to those at the bottom of the socioeconomic order.7

    Embassies were situated close to imperial compounds, also on the high ground. Eshete also discusses how political control was a major factor that “pervaded the organization of Addis Ababa in the 1880s, the restructuring of its space under Italian colonialism in the late 1930s, and its modernization after the 1940s.”8

    These physical realities were very clear to me (and my legs – what a workout!) as I visited significant architectural sites in Addis Ababa. The Addis Ababa Museum, former home of Ras Biru Wolde Gabriel (War Minister of Menelik II), the Beate Maryam Church (Menelik II Museum), the Holy Trinity (Selassie) Cathedral, the St. Giorgis Cathedral, and Ras Makonnen Hall (formerly Guenete Leul Palace, the residence of Haile I Selassie, and currently under the aegis of Addis Ababa University), were all on high ground. While I initially had not studied the planning of Addis Ababa before visiting these sites, the physical realities of their high positions were not lost on me. They certainly would not have been lost on a resident of Addis Ababa in the early stages of the city’s development.

    Figure-8_Addis_Ababa

    Figure 8. Beate Maryam was accessible only after a steep climb up the Gebi hill on the grounds of the Prime Ministers residence.

    Landscape designer and city planner Sara Zewde, who is currently pursuing her MLA at Harvard School of Design, has been a useful contact during my time in Addis Ababa. A U.S. born second-generation Ethiopian, she split her childhood between New Orleans and Houston. Her research and work has helped me think about urbanism in the Global South in new and exciting ways. Zewde put me in touch with Brook Teklehaimanot, a practicing architect and professor at the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction, and City Development. Teklehaimanot supplied me with the basics of urban development in Ethiopia, and the challenges the city faces today as it undergoes rapid growth and construction.

    Brook Teklehaimanot Lecture “Addis and its Urbanism”

    Italian Colonialism or, The Occupation 1936-1941

    “They got hopes and plans a getting’ rid of me
    I hit ‘em like Ethiopia hit up Italy”

    Black Thought of The Roots
    “The Show (Must Go On)” feat. Common and Dice Raw
    Rising Down, 2008

    I was sitting in my bed reading about the history of Addis Ababa while listening to the unparalleled, multiple Grammy award winning, hip-hop band The Roots when that song lyric resounded in my ears. I was reinvigorated by the intersection of my love for hip-hop with my quest to understand Ethiopian history. One will find, within scholarly texts on Ethiopia that focus on the period between 1936 and 1941, various methods of referring to the Italian presence in the country. The decision to call the time period an occupation, as many pro-Ethiopian and nationalist publications suggest, or colonization, as many studies on Italian Fascism suggest, is a truly political statement. Ethiopian resistance to European colonization is a central part of its historical memory/mythology and exceptionalism. Most architectural publications on the subject, interestingly enough, choose to describe the period as one of colonization.

    Ethiopia, along with Libya, Eritrea, and Italian Somaliland were the countries that made up the entity of l'Africa Orientale Italiana. This region became a site of “engage[ment] in the mystical discovery of the former Roman presence, to feel the miracle of an ancient society coming to life, and to sense a vital spiritual connection with the past.”9 The Italian presence had tangible consequences for Ethiopians. Italy began a campaign of “modernizing” the region in the language of Italian Fascist architecture. Urban plans recreated pre-existing cities into the utopia of an Italian regime. Le Corbusier even submitted a plan for Addis Ababa to Mussolini based on his Radiant City scheme. Thankfully, many of these plans were not fully realized. Architectural developments came in the form of public and governmental buildings such as post offices, banks, and administrative centers. These were the objects of empire, in the same way (though on a much smaller scale) that the circus and theaters of the ancient Roman Empire were established in colonial cities.

    Ethiopians in Addis Ababa as well as other major cities in the “Italian Empire” were subject to “racial segregation at all levels:”

    In the Fascist version of apartheid, districts of all major towns were reserved exclusively for white settlers, conjugal relations between Italians and Africans were criminalized, collective activities were prohibited. The relationship between settlers and subjects was organized along hierarchical lines. In all accounts of empire, the indigenous population was represented as the other of the new imperial structure.10

    These ideals were adapted to the topographical realities of Addis Ababa. While Italian master plans for the city did not acknowledge the topographical layout of the site, the need of Italian imperial powers to be seen as domineering was easily adaptable to the layout of Ethiopian imperial hierarchy in the city. Cultural anthropologist Mia Fuller discusses the implications of Italian segregation practices in the forms of “exposure and visibility.” She argues “The guiding principle was to make blacks, except insofar as their 'quarters' needed to be supervised, as invisible as possible to whites, and to make whites as visible as possible to blacks, in a public, though not a private sense.”11 This discourse on visibility reminded me of several passages I had read many years before in “Duality and Invisibility: Race and Memory in the Urbanism of the American South,” in the volume Sites of Memory: Perspectives on Architecture and Race, written by Craig Barton, current Director of The Design School at Arizona State University. There were also similarities to Getahun Benti’s description of the subjugation of the Oromo peoples in the early founding of Addis Ababa in “A Nation Without a City [A Blind Person Without a Cane]: The Oromo Struggle for Addis Ababa.” One thing that was significant in this intersection of discourse, however, was that ethnic and racial dominance in an urban setting often depended on intricate social engineering of interactions within the public sphere.

    The Promise of Pan-African Modernity

    The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) was established in 1958, while the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was founded in 1963, both in Addis Ababa. Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah was a vocal advocate for the founding of the OAU (now known as the African Union, or AU). There was a particular kinship between Ghana and Ethiopia, Kwame Nkrumah and Haile I. Selassie. It is not a coincidence then, that the first Encyclopedia Africana that W. E. B. Du Bois published while in Ghana actually covered the two countries together. Here the claims for exceptionalism that put the two countries at the forefront of the Pan Africanist movement were strong. Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African nation to gain independence, and Ethiopia, the only nation in Africa to resist European colonization.

    Figure-9_Addis_Ababa

    Figure 9. UNECA building, constructed 1961 by Italian architect Arturo Mezzedimi. It was expanded in 1975.

    Similar to Accra, Addis Ababa looked to outside architects to define its post-war, Pan-Africanist modernity (foreign architects had significant influence in the construction and erection of the most important buildings in Addis Ababa since its founding). The Goethe-Institut in Addis Ababa hosted an exhibition in December 2013 entitled “Addis Modern: Rediscovering the 1960s Architecture of Africa’s Capital City,” that “focus[ed] on series of buildings with contextual, structural, monumental, formal, minimal and sculptural approaches to architecture.”12

    Examples were numerous. Along the monumental Churchill Avenue, laid out by French planner L. De Marien in the 1960s, I found the Ethiopian National Theatre (completed in 1955), the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian Television and Radio Building. They all possessed a very sculpture quality in their construction, and were “modern” landmarks along the Addis Ababa street that was inspired by the Champs-Elysees. To be clear, these singular moments along the street did not give the same type of coherence of urban fabric that one would find in Haussmannian Paris.

    Figure-10_Addis_Aababa
    Figure 10. Commercial building near Churchill Avenue.

    Figure-11_Addis_Ababa

    Figure 11. Undated postcard image of the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia on Churchill Avenue. Source: Postcard Exchange.

    Another major public work that was created during the 1960s is the John F. Kennedy Library on the campus of Addis Ababa University. The John F. Kennedy Library is situated slightly off the ceremonial path of the university campus that leads from its historic gates to Ras Makonnen Hall. And here is where things get exceedingly interesting. The Washington-based architecture firm McLeod, Ferrara, and Ensign, designed the John F. Kennedy Library. McLeod, Ferrara, and Ensign, at the same time, was working on the construction of Howard D. Woodson High School in Northeast Washington, D.C. They completed the design for Howard D. Woodson High School in 1972; the school was demolished in 2008. The building was featured prominently in my dissertation “Concrete Solutions: Architecture of Public High Schools During the Urban Crisis.” So when I trekked off the main path of Addis Ababa University to see the John F. Kennedy Library (as an American I felt it was my duty somehow, strange as that sounds) I was completely floored by the discovery of the architecture firm.

    Figure-12_Addis_Ababa

    Figure 12. John F. Kennedy Library on the campus of Addis Ababa University.

    Addis Ababa Today: Modernity and Heritage

    Addis Ababa is an exceedingly young capital in a country with an amazing historical legacy, however none of the UNESCO World Heritage sites listed for Ethiopia are located in the country’s capital. Neither are any of the tentative sites. This does not mean that Addis Ababa lacks architectural heritage worthy of preservation. The United States Embassy in Addis Ababa received the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation in 2007 for the restoration of the Mohammed Ali House. According to the World Monuments Fund website, which listed the building on its watch in 2008:

    Minas Kherbekian, a well-known Armenian architect from the region, constructed the house to be the headquarters of the powerful trading firm G.M. Mohammadali. The structure echoes the diversity of styles and materials of the buildings surrounding it, exhibiting traces of Indian, Arab, and Ethiopian influences.13

    U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation is a truly exciting initiative from the Department of State, granting direct funds to projects around the world. The work of preservation should not just rest with organizations dedicated to architecture, but those dedicated to the political diplomacy as well.

    The socio-cultural battle for Addis Ababa, the modern “capital city of Africa” is not yet over. The struggle is embedded within the urban fabric of the city through the erection of key political and cultural buildings. The Oromia Cultural Center, currently under construction, carries with it the hopes of the Oromo people to re-establish authority in the capital city. The Architectural Design and Research Institute of Shanghai’s Tongji University designed the new African Union building, the tallest building in the Addis Ababa skyline. The Chinese government funded construction. Scholar Lloyd G. Adu Amoah argues Chinese “soft imperium” is undermining African claims of sovereignty and modernity in Addis Ababa as well as in Accra. The topic of Chinese involvement in rapidly expanding African cities is also covered in design critic Justin Zhuang’s Metropolis article “How Chinese Urbanism Is Transforming African Cities.” Visible presence in the built environment of the city is important for entities seeking legitimization and a strengthened profile in the African capital city. Historian Shimelis Bonsa Gulema in “City as Nation: Imagining and Practicing Addis Ababa as a Modern and National Space,” contends:

    On the one hand, the multiplicity of narratives demands constructing the city as a city of modernity, but also as a modern city of tradition, a city that could negotiate between its past and the past of the nation on the one hand and the modernist aspirations of its leaders and occupants on the other. It also requires cultivating and displaying the city’s various origins and characters as Ethiopian, African, and cosmopolitan urban space but also as national, imperial, and revolutionary.14

    This has been the dilemma of the “New Flower” and the project of African modernity in the twentieth century. There is money to be spent in Addis Ababa, evident by the McMansions sprouting up in the stylish Bole area. Despite a conservative culture, Ethiopians are also avant-garde and trendy, as fashionistas strolling down major thoroughfares can confirm. There is a palpable energy in Addis Ababa (also felt in Accra) that the city is contributing to the trend of “Africa Rising” in the twenty-first century. The city has been banking on the notion since 1886.

    Figure-13_Addis_Ababa
    Figure 13. Lion of Judah statue. Junction of Churchill Avenue and plaza in front of La Gare. Construction of new elevated metro seen in lower region of photograph, as well as construction of skyscraper to the right.

    H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship Google Map

    Recommended reading:

    Hussein Ahmed, “Faith and Trade: The Market Stalls around the Anwar Mosque in Addis Ababa during Ramadan,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 19 no. 2 (1999): 261-268

    Getahun Benti, “A Nation Without a City [A Blind Person Without a Cane]: The Oromo Struggle for Addis Ababa” Northeast African Studies 9 no. 3 (2002): 115-131

    Charles Burdett, “Italian Fascism and Utopia,” History of the Human Sciences 16 no. 1 (2003): 93-108

    Maurice De Young, “An African Emporium, The Addis Märkato,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 5 no. 2 (July 1967): 103-122

    Mia Fuller, “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Fascist Plans for the Colonial City of Addis Ababa and the Colonizing Suburb of EUR '42,” Journal of Contemporary History 31 no. 2 (April 1996): 397-418

    Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis, ed. Special Issue: Engaging the Image of Art, Culture, and Philosophy: Particular Perspectives on Ethiopian Modernity and Modernism

    Northeast African Studies 13 no. 1 (2013)

    Fasil Giorghis & Denis Gérard, Addis Ababa 1886-1941: The City and Its Architectural Heritage (Addis Ababa: Shama Books, 2007)

    Shimelis Bonsa Gulema, “City as Nation: Imagining and Practicing Addis Ababa as a Modern and National Space,” Northeast African Studies 13 no. 1 (2013): 167-213

    Ronald J. Horvath, “The Wandering Capitals of Ethiopia,” Journal of African History 10 no. 2 (1969): 205-219

    Mark Jarzombek, “Fasil Giorghis, Ethiopia and the Borderland of the Architectural Avant-garde,” Construction Ahead (May-August 2008): 38-42

    Belle Asante Tarsitani, “Linking Centralised Politics to Custodianship of

    Cultural Heritage in Ethiopia: Examples of National-Level Museums in Addis Ababa,” African Studies 70 no. 2 (2011): 302-320

    Dandena Tufa, “Historical Development of Addis Ababa: Plans and Realities,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 41 no. 1/2 (June-December 2008): 27-59

    Dagmawi Woubshet, Salamishah Tillet, and Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis, eds. Special Issue: Ethiopia, Literature, Art and Culture Callaloo 33 no. 1 (Winter 2010)

    Mekonnen Worku, “Heritage Conservation Oriented Planning: Heritage Policy in Light of Sustainable Urban Planning, The Case of Piazza LDP, Addis Ababa,” (Master’s thesis, Addis Ababa University, 2008)

    Mulatu Wubneh, “Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – Africa’s Diplomatic Capital,” Cities 35 (2013): 255-269



    1. “The Finfinne Hall,” Exhibit. Addis Ababa Museum.
    2. Getahun Benti, “A Nation Without a City [A Blind Person Without a Cane]: The Oromo Struggle for Addis Ababa” Northeast African Studies 9 no. 3 (2002): 117.

    3. Mekonnen Worku, “Heritage Conservation Oriented Planning: Heritage Policy in Light of Sustainable Urban Planning, The Case of Piazza LDP, Addis Ababa,” (Master’s thesis, Addis Ababa University, 2008), 3.
    4. Andreas Eshete, “Modernity: Its Title to Uniqueness and its Advent in Ethiopia: From the Lecture What is ‘Zemenawinet? – Perspectives on Ethiopian Modernity,” Northeast African Studies 13 no. 1 (2013): 12.
    5. Ibid.

    6. Dandena Tufa, “Historical Development of Addis Ababa: Plans and Realities,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 41 no. 1/2 (June-December 2008): 32.

    7. Shimelis Bonsa Gulema, “City as Nation: Imagining and Practicing Addis Ababa as a Modern and National Space,” Northeast African Studies 13 no. 1 (2013): 171.

    8. Gulema, 173.

    9. Charles Burdett, “Italian Fascism and Utopia,” History of the Human Sciences 16 no. 1 (2003): 99.

    10. Burdett, 102.

    11. Mia Fuller, “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Fascist Plans for the Colonial City of Addis Ababa and the Colonizing Suburb of EUR '42,” Journal of Contemporary History 31 no. 2 (April 1996): 405.

    12. The Goethe-Institut hosts a great variety of exhibits and talks on architecture and urbanism in Africa generally, and Addis Ababa more specifically.

    13. “Mohammad Ali House,” World Monuments Fund http://www.wmf.org/project/mohammad-ali-house.

    14. Gulema, City as Nation, 191.
    Go comment!
  • Greater Accra and Cape Coast

    By
    Brooks Fellow Amber N. Wiley
     |
    Nov 7, 2014

    I was not ready to leave Ghana. I had not yet visited Kumasi, walked the campus of KNUST, or seen the Asante traditional buildings that survived British destruction in 1874. I truncated my trip due to the pressures of the health epidemic in West Africa (although no cases of Ebola were reported in Ghana), and left a month to the day that I arrived. My purpose was to research architectural heritage and urbanism in Accra, Cape Coast, Kumasi, and (optimistically, if I had enough time) the Northern Region. As I began to meet people around Accra and describe my plans to do first-hand study of architecture in Ghana, I was often countered with the question “Why Ghana?” I address this question in an essay in the forthcoming Ghana Institute of Architects Journal produced by ArchiAfrika. When I talked about the history of architecture in the country I was accused of romanticizing the vernacular tradition that many of my critics considered “backwards,” while highlighting the ugly history of slavery. My task was to paint a picture of more than “mud huts” and “slave castles” (I understand the derogatory nature of the former term, and the dark nature of the latter). I wanted to highlight and emphasize the many lessons to be learned both in the construction and the cultural histories embedded within the structures.

    Ghana_Figure-1
    Figure 1. Vernacular wattle-and-daub building near Kpong.

    Ghana_Figure-2
    Figure 2. Cape Coast Castle.

    Greater Accra

    I had the most wonderful fortune in making strong connections in Accra. I reached out to Yale Club of Ghana president Kofi Blankson Ocansey who took the time to meet with me and introduce me to his good friend, architect Joe Osae-Addo. I sat and talked with the two at a trendy gelato shop, Ci Gusta, in the Airport Residential neighborhood of Accra. The scene was indicative of the bustling and chic nature of Accra’s nightlife, with countless groups of people filing in and out of the shop.

    The Yale alumni connection to Ghana had been growing over the last few years.1 In 2012 and 2013 the Yale Alumni Service Corps hosted a trip to the village of Yamoransa in Central Ghana near Cape Coast. In 2013 the Yale Club of Ghana, in cooperation with the Association of Yale Alumni and the Yale Black Alumni Association, held the conference “From Success to Significance: Thought Leaders in the African Renaissance.” Finally, in 2014 the Ghana club launched the Yale Green Ghana Campaign. All of these exciting endeavors meant that I would have ready access to a network of leaders in the country who are interested in social responsibility and social entrepreneurship, environmental issues, economics, history, culture, and how all of these topics relate to Ghana’s future.

    Architect Joe Osae-Addo introduced me to contacts with whom to discuss architectural history and current trends in Ghana, including former mayor and architectural historian Nat Nuno-Amarteifio. I joined Amarteifio and representatives of the DOEN Foundation for a tour of Accra one bright Ghana morning. Amarteifio narrated a succinct history of the greater metropolitan area before we left his office. I understood why people refer to him as “Uncle Nat.” His narrative was spoken in the proverbial manner of a wise elder. His story started with the settlement of the Ga people in what is today Accra. The settlement location was ideally central in a trade route that stretched from Mauritania and Senegal in the west to Nigeria and Cameroon in the east then north passing through the Asante kingdom and all the way up to Morocco. This trade, along with fishing, is how Accra flourished and sustained itself in the seventeenth century. Amarteifio noted that although there were no gold deposits in Accra, gold was the primary trade commodity in the region – hence the name the “Gold Coast.”

    European traders were able to gain three pieces of land on which to build their forts in the vicinity of the city. As Amarteifio proclaimed “Now this was the beginning of Accra as well as the end of Accra.” The slave trade became central to the region, with Accra still maintaining its influence due to its ideal location along a well-established trade route. Amarteifio stated that the Ga people survived in this situation by being highly adaptable, becoming middlemen in a network of so much power and money. The power, however, did not rest with the Ga because their local hegemony got in the way. Despite the turmoil of European settlement and power struggles with the Asante to the north, Accra “remained the fulcrum of power” because it became the headquarters of the British Gold Coast colonial administration in 1877.2

    Ghana_Figure-3
    Figure 3. Former slaveholding site now a family compound, James Town, Accra.

    Ghana_Figure-4
    Figure 4. Wato Club, Ussher Town, Accra.

    Ghana_Figure-5
    Figure 5. Structure near Christiansborg (Osu) Castle, Osu, Accra.

    Amarteifio rode us through the distinct neighborhoods of the city. The remnants of the British (James Town), Dutch (Ussher Town) and Danish (Osu) settlements were fascinating. These neighborhoods have controversial histories and create an urban fabric that is entrenched in, and inseparable from, the fabric of contemporary Accra. One finds within the neighborhoods buildings of fine and unique architectural stock hidden within plain sight.

     These buildings are inextricably tied to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, as is much of the history of the former Gold Coast. Aaron Kofi Badu Yankholmes, a doctoral student of hotel and tourism management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University conducted a series of surveys after 2009 and found that most residents of Danish Osu knew about the history of the slave trade in their neighborhood, and supported large scale tourism efforts around that heritage.

    I toured James Town with Nii Teiko Tagoe, project director of the Ga Mashie Development Agency (GAMADA). Ga Mashie, the area originally inhabited by the Ga people, then successfully settled by British (James Town) and Dutch (Ussher Town), is the oldest portion of Accra. The labyrinthine residential fabric of James Town reminded me of the hutong complexes I saw over a decade ago in Beijing. The double-story compound house is the dominant structure type in the area. According to a report of the Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI):

    Very often these houses are arranged into clusters connected to each other via alleyways. From the aerial viewpoint, the buildings appear scattered and unplanned… the Gas’ style of cluster home design came about as a result of the frequent slave raids during the era of slave-trading. Since most of the structures were built over 80 years ago and have been passed on by, and to, generations of family members, the most common form of home ownership is a communal one, by the extended family.3

    James Town was once one of the richest portions of the city because its residents were allied with the British. Today, however, it is one of the poorest and most neglected neighborhoods. The move of port activity from James Town to Tema negatively affected the fishermen who had worked in the area for centuries.

    The Millennium Cities Initiative is a project by the Earth Institute of Columbia University to “help selected, under-resourced municipalities across sub-Saharan Africa eradicate searing urban poverty and attain the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).”4 The preliminary research conducted under this initiative in the Ga Mashie area of James Town focuses on:

    Identify[ing] and develop[ing] urban and economic development interventions that can help create a balanced plan that both preserves the unique Ga Mashie cultural heritage and character, while revitalizing the area’s local economy, in particular, tourism development and social entrepreneurship in the “informal sector.” 5

    The report includes the “identification of 150 buildings deemed to be of historical importance.”6 A formal plan is being developed to stabilize and preserve these structures.

    Ghana_Figure-6
    Figure 6. Millennium Development Goals.

    Tagoe discussed his work in the area, highlighting housing needs and tasks for urban revitalization. Some of the biggest challenges facing the area are lack of adequate sanitation and the related public health problems, lack of open green space, and the pressure of overpopulation coupled with a housing crisis. The housing crisis is due to the unaffordability of new construction, but also derives from the age-old tradition of generations and branches of families living within one single compound. This situation has been exacerbated by high poverty rates, and the need of families to supplement resources by taking in ever increasing numbers of family members. The GAMADA has worked to alleviate some of these issues by strategically paving roads, planting trees, and supplying plastic buckets for sanitation needs. Large scale projects such as the construction of more housing has been stalled due to a lack of monetary resources, but Tagoe – born and raised in James Town – is both optimistic and tireless in his efforts to improve living conditions in the neighborhood.

    One part of this puzzle is the promotion of cultural heritage and the arts in James Town. GAMADA has co-sponsored a number of festivals in the area such as the Chale Wote street art festival and Kpanlogo Musical Fiesta. The Chale Wote festival:

    Re-imagines African folktales through a variety of art forms - graffiti murals, large photography displays, interactive art installations, live street performances, extreme sports stunting, an African film festival, a fashion parade, a DJ jam block party, beach music concert, fashion and food marketplace.”7

    These efforts bring outside interest and investment to the area, while highlighting the cultural power of the past and the present in the neighborhood. Granted, many of the urban interventions are ephemeral, however, the renewed public and international interest in the neighborhood aids the efforts in local promotion and social entrepreneurship.

    Cape Coast

    The centuries-old legacy of slavery and its effects were ever-present in the urban fabric of Accra. Slavery is also the basis of heritage tourism along the Cape Coast, where Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle, designated UNESCO World Heritage sites, are the center of tourism interests in the region. Twenty years ago UNESCO developed the Slave Route Project with three main objectives:

    • Contribute to a better understanding of the causes, forms of operation, issues and consequences of slavery in the world (Africa, Europe, the Americas, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, Middle East and Asia);
    • Highlight the global transformations and cultural interactions that have resulted from this history; and
    • Contribute to a culture of peace by promoting reflection on cultural pluralism, intercultural dialogue and the construction of new identities and citizenships.8

    In 2007 the Ghana Ministry of Tourism launched the Joseph Project, an initiative to coincide with the Golden Jubilee celebration of independence and the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. These projects and their respective sites build on the idea of “roots tourism,” and the Joseph Project in particular meant to attract members of the African diaspora (and particularly African Americans with American dollars to spend) searching for cultural linkage backs to Ghana. These projects, however, are not without critique of their effectiveness and intended audience.

    Despite various motives and missions, these projects have a fundamental concept in common – that the Transatlantic Slave Trade was a major global phenomenon, linking the “old” and “new” worlds. As landscape architect and historian Kwesi J. Degraft-Hanson notes, “Atlantic slavery involved many people and places in Europe, Africa and the Americas.”9 He describes the concept of a “landscape of slavery” as:

    Places that were significantly impacted by Atlantic slavery. It includes European ports like Lisbon, Liverpool, Nantes and Copenhagen, where ships were outfitted for the trade, and the forts, castles and communities in the interior or along the African coast that were slaves’ point of origin or holding areas. It also describes destination coasts, warehouses, slave marts and plantations where slaves were taken in the Americas.10

    The immense breadth and depth of the landscape of slavery is evident in the number of current and tentative World Heritage Sites that UNESCO identifies as related to the slave trade through the Slave Route Project. Fourteen sites are inscribed to the World Heritage List for criteria directly related to slavery. These include the forts and castles of Ghana, as well as the Statue of Liberty. Twenty-eight sites are linked to slavery and slave routes but are not inscribed for that criterion. Independence Hall, Monticello, and the University of Virginia are included on that list. Finally, thirty-eight tentative sites for inclusion on the list are related to slavery and slave routes. These include places linked to sugar production in the Caribbean, as well as churches and forts in Africa.

    Tourism scholars Rasul A. Mowatt and H. Charles Chancellor argue in their article “Visiting Death and Life: Dark Tourism and Slave Castles,” that this method of tourism promotion relies on constructed memories, “real and imagined pasts.” This shared past develops a worldview that is “stretched across nationalities and has created a super transnational identity.”11 The conflation of identity as described in the article, however, it is a bit too idealistic and romanticized. Mowatt and Chancellor argue, “Subtle ethnic differences between Africans and individuals of African descent born in the Americas and the Caribbean are virtually washed away at Slave Castles.”12

    I beg to differ, as my personal experiences at Cape Coast and Elmina castles have proven otherwise. The educational systems of various countries treat the topic of slavery in exceedingly different ways. This was markedly clear on my tour of Elmina Castle. Led by a native Ghanaian, the tour included myself – an African-American descendant of slaves; my good friend of African-American and Ghanaian descent; her boyfriend, born in Ireland and raised in the United States; a Zimbabwean, and a Ghanaian. The types of questions asked by each tourist and the topics covered by the tour guide indicated that there was no universal understanding or structure of feeling regarding the site. Additionally, each person’s physical presence within the castle was particularly revealing. I observed how some people lingered in specific spaces longer than others, and whether they touched the building to feel the cold, harsh realities of the walls. Some people felt comfortable taking pictures of themselves in slave dungeons and by the Door of No Return. I did not, and neither did my American compatriots. I was more comfortable taking pictures of the structures and discreet documentary pictures of my friends touring the castles than taking pictures of myself in the structures. This was, for me, a very telling difference – I felt I would dishonor my ancestors with a selfie or a Facebook profile pic. This was not the case for all on the tour. In writing this expository I, in no means, aim to judge. I just want to illustrate the marked difference of experience and relationship to the structures themselves that I witnessed between members of various nationalities.

    Ghana_Figure-7
    Figure 7. Male dungeons with evidence of blood, urine, defecation, and vomit still caked onto the ground. Cape Coast Castle.

    This discussion leads to another topic – interpretations and uses of fort in contemporary times. The tours at the castles are aimed at creating both a cerebral and emotional response. Museum displays in Cape Coast Castle include slave shackles and branding equipment. Floors in the dungeon still contain stains from blood, urine, defecation, and vomit. Even with these in-your-face tactics, however, criticism has emerged about the decision to paint the castles white. Critics argue that by doing so, site curators have literally “white-washed” and sanitized an otherwise gruesome history. I would have to disagree with that sentiment, based on the fact that so many other interpretive modes in the spaces work in the opposite manner.

    Ghana_Figure-8
    Figure 8. The tour guide turned the lights off in a male dungeon of Cape Coast Castle to give a better sense of the environmental conditions of bondage.

    There are over 40 extant slave forts and castles throughout Ghana, and these buildings have been in use almost consistently since their construction. Some had been converted to prisons, some housed schools, and others have been the bases of governmental and municipal functions in post-colonial and post-independence times. The first slave fort I visited in Ghana was actually Fort Good Hope on the outskirts of Senya Beraku. I visited on a Sunday. The doors were wide open, music was blasting out the store on the first floor, and my friends and I purchased beers and explored the structure. There was a nice patio set up above the store, so we sat and talked a bit. The fort also served as a guesthouse, so we walked by various rooms that housed visitors, international and domestic alike. The whole time I was there, marveling at the structure, I had no idea I was in a former slave fort. I assumed it was simply a military structure meant for the protection of a settlement. My experience there was decidedly different from my later trips to Elmina and Cape Coast Castle. When I realized my mistake weeks later, I felt ashamed because I did not have the same “appropriate” emotive response to the structure.

    Ghana_Figure-9
    Figure 9. View of the fishing boats in the Gulf of Guinea from Fort Good Hope.

    How could I visit a fort that formerly held slaves and not know it? Fort Good Hope was light on interpretation and heavy on contemporary use. This is the case for many of the slave forts that have a primary function besides diasporic tourism. As historian Elizabeth Macgonagle explains:

    Whether dungeons in less well-known forts under the shadow of Elmina hold crates of beer and a television, as is the case at Senya Beraku, or two children’s bikes, such as at Axim, the shifting use of these spaces reflects a wider historical view beyond the slave trade. Ghanaians demonstrate their preoccupation with the present and their designs for the future through the changing use of the forts. They do not appear to dwell on histories of slavery, for more pressing contemporary needs are evident.13

    Fort Good Hope is a guesthouse, contains a store, and hosts parties and other special celebrations. It is one of the grandest edifices in the immediate region. As such, its function rests within its contemporary use, one that does not emphasize its torturous past.

    Modern and Contemporary Ghanaian Architecture

    One thing that pleasantly surprised me during my time in Ghana was the profusion of “contemporary vernaculars.” While walking through James Town I happened upon a number of tribal chief house and palaces. These spectacularly rich buildings are places of administrative, cultural, and social importance. Many are large and extremely colorful so they stand out amongst the other structures in the area. The Ngleshie Alata Mantse Palace of “Jamestown British Accra” as the façade indicates, is replete with images of traditional regal Ghanaian ceremonies and European military prowess. The low-relief sculpture is emotive and festive.

    Ghana_Figure-10
    Figure 10. Ngleshie Alata Mantse Palace, James Town, Accra.

    Ghana_Figure-11
    Figure 11. Asafo posuban shrine, Elmina.

    Another fascinating contemporary vernacular practice was the erection of the Posuban shrines by various Fante military companies (asafo). These military organizations have histories that pre-date colonial times, however, they changed their purpose to social and civic interests in the face of European military occupation. The Fante military companies have rich dance and flag-making traditions in addition to the manifestation of their power and influence in built form. The origin and evolution of the shrines are well-documented in splendid detail by curator and scholar of West African art Doran H. Ross in the article “‘Come and Try:’ Towards a History of Fante Military Shrines.” Ross describes the eclectic nature of the architectural design as influenced by “a mix of European fortifications, local funerary art, naval architecture, Christian church-building traditions, and indigenous religious practices.14 Today the shrines serve as meeting places where celebrations occur and business is conducted.

    Ghana_Figure-12
    Figure 12. Independence Arch with former Accra mayor and architectural historian Nat Nuno-Amarteifio and representatives of the DOEN Foundation.

    Significant architecture was constructed in Accra to monumentalize Ghana’s important position as the first independent Sub-Saharan nation of Africa. Art historian Janet Berry Hess argues that Kwame Nkrumah adopted a version of the International Style that would “construct community” in the newly independent nation as a “means of managing a heterogeneous cultural environment.15 During the mid-twentieth century the country experienced a boom in tropical regional modernist designs. Architects such as Maxwell Fry, Jane Drew, and Harry Weese were active in this wave of design. Numerous articles in DOCOMOMO Journal 28 Modern Heritage in Africa highlight this movement.

    As an African-American it was important for me to pay homage to the final resting place of W. E. B. Du Bois and understand Ghana’s appeal to black intelligentsia such as Du Bois, Richard Wright, and Maya Angelou in the mid-twentieth century. This call also pulled renowned African-American architect J. Max Bond, Jr. to work in Ghana, where he designed the Bolgatanga Library.

    Ghana_Figure-13
    Figure 13. W. E. B. Du Bois Mausoleum, Accra.

    Ghana_Figure-14
    Figure 14. W. E. B. Du Bois Memorial House, Accra.

    As Hess notes:

    The DuBois Center – which encompasses the former home and mausoleum of the Pan-Africanist and African American activist DuBois -expresses in its modern architectural form, its dedication text, and its installations lauding the achievements of both DuBois and Nkrumah a merging of idealism and architectural modernity.16

    Architectural modernism provided the tabula rasa from whence Ghana could exert its new independence and present itself to the world as a modern African nation. The establishment of the College of Architecture and Planning at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in 1957 helped to further those ideals.

    Cultural Capital

    One can begin to understand how the flow of capital affects architectural construction – whether it is a trade pilgrimage route of northwestern Ghana that gave rise to a networks of mosques in the region in pre-colonial times; British, Danish, and Dutch capital that formed distinct neighborhoods in Accra and a network of forts along the coast in colonial Ghana; or Chinese capital in post-colonial Ghana that supplies construction needs and financed the erection of the National Theatre. Scholar Lloyd G. Adu Amoah notes, “The very visible and undisguised presence of China’s architectural signature in Accra represents in style and concrete a contemporary fortress-like expression of China’s attempt at constructing a soft imperium in Africa.” He continues:

    This construction of China’s ‘soft power’ seems to be directed at two publics. The first public is the government and the people of Ghana for whom the message is growing Chinese fraternity, benevolence and influence. The other public is China’s geo-strategic political and economic competitors in Ghana and Africa: for them, the message is that China has become a force to reckon with.17

    One has to question historical paradigms framing Ghana’s past and present only in terms of its relationship to colonialism and foreign capitalist expansion. Ghanaian agency is often overlooked in these types of narrative. The discussion moves from architecture and economics to political realities and aspirations. How can we begin to talk about the position of the country in the twenty-first century in ways that take into account other historical, cultural, or social paradigms? How can architecture, design, and cultural heritage help shape the country’s narrative in contemporary times?

    Ghana_Figure-15
    Figure 15. National Theatre of Ghana financed by China and designed by Chinese architect Cheng Taining.

    One organization that is taking up this charge is ArchiAfrika. ArchiAfrika is a self-described “design-based ‘community’ based in- and inspired by- Africa! We are architects, artists, musicians, writers, film makers and creative people who through their work, chronicle the ‘African condition.’”18

    The organization works to “promote design strategies developed within the continent that address the challenges of our future and engage the next generation of professionals in this critical dialogue.”19 The organization is pan-Africanist and international, with board members in Ghana, Morocco, South Africa, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. ArchiAfrika hosts speaker series and conferences, promotes an educational network across various African universities of design, and produces a magazine. ArchiAfrika is well-positioned to lead the charge of highlighting and safeguarding the diverse cultural heritage of Ghana and promoting current Ghanaian architects, but the vision is much bigger and encompasses an ideal of pan-African unity, showing there is strength in numbers.

    1 Full disclosure: I have worked in Yale alumni affairs for over six years in various capacities, so it is particularly exciting to see how the groundwork has been laid by Yale alumni in Ghana.

    2 Conversation with Amarteifio on October 7, 2014.

    3 Abibata Shanni Mahama, Ama Twumwaa Acheampong, Oti Boateng Peprah, and Yaw Agyeman Boafo, “Preliminary Report for Ga Mashie: Urban Design Lab. Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI) The Earth Institute at Columbia University Spring 2011, 7.

    4 Millennium Cities Initiative, “About,” http://mci.ei.columbia.edu/about/

    5 Mahama et al., vi.

    6 Ibid., 27.

    7 Accra Expat.com, “Chale Wote,” http://www.accraexpat.com/events/?story=581&type=event

    8 UNESCO, “The Slave Route,” http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/dialogue/the-slave-route/

    9 Kwesi J. Degraft-Hanson, “The Cultural Landscape of Slavery at Kormantsin, Ghana,” Landscape Research 30 no. 4 (2005): 461.

    10 Ibid.

    11 Rasul A. Mowatt and H. Charles Chancellor, “Visiting Death and Life: Dark Tourism and Slave Castles,” Annals of Tourism Research 38 no. 4 (2011): 1414.

    12 Mowatt and Chancellor, 1415.

    13 Elizabeth Macgonagle, “From Dungeons to Dance Parties: Contested Histories of Ghana's Slave Forts,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 24 no. 2, (2006): 251.

    14 Doran H. Ross, “‘Come and Try:’ Towards a History of Fante Military Shrines,” African Arts 40 no. 3 (Autumn 2007): 23.

    15 Janet Berry Hess, “Imagining Architecture: The Structure of Nationalism in Accra, Ghana,” Africa Today 47 no. 2 (Spring 2000): 42, 45.

    16 Hess, 54.

    17 Lloyd G. Adu Amoah, “China, Architecture and Ghana’s Spaces: Concrete Signs of a Soft Chinese Imperium?” Journal of Asian and African Studies (2014): 1, 2

    18 ArchiAfrika, “About Us,” http://www.archiafrika.org/about-us/

    19 Ibid.

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  • Distance (and) Learning: Thoughts on Online Tools in the Teaching of Architectural History

    By
    Amanda Reeser Lawrence and Lucy M. Maulsby
     |
    Oct 31, 2014

    With the ever-rising tide of online education now seeping into the sacred precincts of the American university campus—if not having broken the levees altogether—many academics find themselves struggling to adjust to the newly fluid landscape of higher education. Indeed the parallel to the effects of global warming is intentional and instructive. Academics, with responses ranging from Chicken Little sky-is-falling hysteria to willful disbelief, now confront the certainty of change along with uncertainty about the degree to which online tools will affect the structure and aims of college and university systems. Coverage in the academic press as well as the mainstream media reinforce the notion that education has become a battle ground and that the continuing investment in online courses has prompted a crisis, even as it has created opportunities.

    As two assistant professors in the School of Architecture at Northeastern University in Boston, MA, we find ourselves in the midst of this transformation and have sought to address the changing expectations of our students and take advantage of new technologies as they become available. Already online content is expanding within our classrooms; in our large history survey courses we quiz students regularly through the Blackboard site, as a way to take attendance and measure comprehension; in large and small classes alike we ask students to post responses on class blogs and listservs; and we use an ever-expanding archive of images and videos available online—truly one of the most radical changes in the teaching of architectural history over the past generation. We have been asked to help consider which courses in our department might lend themselves to an online platform, and have attended seminars and workshops about the development of online courses. We have learned a new vocabulary—instructor neutral, MOOC, SPOCs, modules, and the “flipped” classroom—and shared this information with colleagues.

    But throughout this process we have had little time or opportunity to consider more global questions that move past a narrowly reactive set of responses to a more proactive position. How can these new online tools further and potentially even help clarify and enrich our goals as educators? Since many online course models favor content that is oriented toward learning a skill or mastering information, what are the online opportunities for areas of study traditionally based on a process of inquiry and critique in which human interactions (between students and between students and teachers) are at the center of the learning process? What does online teaching mean for disciplines, like architecture, that encourage students to appreciate and understand the world around them with the goal of responding innovatively to current challenges? How can we best participate in the growing number of conversations about how (as well as what) to teach in the context of a rapidly transforming educational landscape?

    stereopticon
    Slide Lecture on St. Peter's Basilica, 1897. From T. H. McAllister Company, Manufacturing Opticians, New York, catalogue, 1897. 

    In April 2014, we convened a group of architectural historians from area institutions to address some of these questions. The workshop, “The Practice of Teaching,” brought together faculty—some of whom have little to no experience with online education—and doctoral candidates, nearly all of whom are intimately involved in the construction of online courses. Each presenter was asked to respond to a distinct but related set of questions, which were given in advance. Our aim was to bring different perspectives to bear on some of the challenges as well as opportunities made possible by the online teaching of architectural history, as well as establish a basis for conversation among the larger group assembled. While the focus was on the concerns particular to our discipline, our hope was that the conversation would open up perspectives on online teaching more broadly.

    What emerged from the presentations and in the discussion that followed came as a surprise. Not because of any radical new findings about online teaching, but rather because the questions and issues raised are consistent with those that have always been at the center of our efforts to be more effective teachers. If anything, the conversation reinforced a shared commitment to teaching and a desire to employ any number of tools (online or otherwise) to foster an environment in which understanding is gained through an active and critical engagement with the material presented. In this context, an expanding array of visual material, which might include a flythrough of a digitally reconstructed Roman forum, a photograph of an original drawing held in an archival collection in Paris, or a live webcam from an archaeological dig underway in rural China, allows us to present a richer, more complex, and more immediate picture of the material remains of the past. Online discussion forums provide all students with a means to express their opinions, ask questions, and craft their responses, not just those that are the first to raise their hand. These tools, with their remarkable diversity, flexibility, and interactivity, evidence ways in which online approaches can overcome some of the limits of the traditional classroom

    Indeed, as Associate Professor Marc Neveu made clear in his presentation, changes in the kinds of tools available have historically altered the contours of the discipline. German art historian Heinrich Wölfflin’s now iconic pairings of projected images played a critical role in the development of formal analysis as a cornerstone of art and architectural history in the first decades of the twentieth century. In more recent history, the transition from lantern slides to 35mm slide projectors to digital presentations has enabled instructors to include multiple images as well as text and videos on a single ‘slide.’ The abundance of information reflects the quantity of material now available to instructors as well as the expectations of an information-rich (perhaps overloaded) generation. Although we tend to think of these changes as largely progressive, there are mishaps and miscalculations and certain things are lost. One of the most frequent laments of those who teach online classes is their relative lack of flexibility and the speed with which they become, in whole or in part, obsolete, despite the extraordinary effort dedicated to their making. In addition, while we have for the most part eagerly incorporated new visual material into our courses, there has been little reflection about how this material has shaped students’ engagement or comprehension. Does a multimedia slide bewilder students new to the material, or encourage memorization rather than critical thinking? Is there such a thing as too many images? How do we teach our students (or ourselves for that matter) to investigate where an image comes from, and how that affects our understanding of it? 

    One of the most consistent threads in the conversation had to do with shifting our focus from how we teach to how our students learn. How can we best use new technologies to reinforce “learning objectives”? A multimedia classroom experience may provide new opportunities, but those opportunities are only as valuable as the instructor’s ability to direct them toward meaningful goals. How might faculty engage with the growing literature about students’ retention and comprehension? How can we better measure students’ understanding of course material? What role should new technologies play in this process? The pairing of new technologies with educational platforms intended for large numbers of students challenges educators to think about increasingly heterogeneous student populations with a diverse range of skills, backgrounds, and ambitions. What role might these technologies play in smaller classes? In seminars and colloquia? Or even design studios?

    The concept of distance, which was introduced by Assistant Professor Paolo Scrivano, provided a powerful lens through which to consider many of the challenges facing instructors. The traditional lecture hall establishes and reinforces the physical and intellectual distance between the teacher and students. The instructor transmits information (sometimes equated with knowledge) to students, typically rendered anonymous by their sheer number, with varying degrees of success. Among the challenges of this model is overcoming the distance not only between the students and the teacher but also between the students and the course material. Smaller lecture classes or seminars present a different but related set of challenges. What is the value of learning about the settlement patterns that structured life in ancient Mesopotamia for first year students who have only just decided on their major? What is the connection between vernacular building traditions employed in some countries and the glass residential towers that define urban life in other regions of the world?

    In some respects, online teaching has the potential to decrease this distance. Although massive online open courses (or MOOCs), with their thousands of students, represent the loss of the human dynamic brought into play when students and teachers occupy the same physical space, they also, paradoxically, have the potential to bring the instructor and the material ‘closer’ in a number of ways. MIT Professor Mark Jarzombek’s Global History of Architecture—the first architectural history MOOC—provides novel means for students from around the world to share, through photos, videos, and text, with instructors as well as fellow students their response to the material being taught. As Ana Maria Leon Crespo and Jordan Kauffman, both doctoral candidates at MIT and active participants in the making and operating of the course, explained, the ability of students to share local knowledge through photographs and first hand accounts, often from remote locations not covered in scholarly literature, dramatically expanded the scope of the course. Distance was decreased between student and professor as well as between student and the material under study.

    The design and implementation of online courses demands the commitment of significant financial and human resources and the talents of a range of experts. These experts might include not only education specialists and professors but also instructional designers and technologists, project managers, and producers. As Marikka Trotter made clear in her presentation about the tremendous effort that went into the creation of “The Architectural Imaginary,” a small private online class (SPOC) for incoming students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, developed with HarvardX, the process, while rewarding, is costly and time consuming. As a result, rather than put the full course online, the Harvard team instead opted for a hybrid model in which a portion of the course material is presented online before students gather in the classroom.

    The hybrid model perhaps offers the most powerful opportunity to bring together the ‘closeness’ of traditional teaching models with online tools that engage students in novel ways. Indeed, the inherent variety, flexibility, and adaptability of the hybrid model makes it uniquely resilient in an educational and technological landscape defined by rapid change. Within this context the focus of inquiry should be less on whether or not to teach courses online (most of us already incorporate online tools and will do so increasingly) but rather on more clearly articulating our goals as educators. How can online tools help us to develop courses that respond to the many different ways in which students learn? How can we better draw on the particulars of our disciples to direct the learning process not only toward specific areas of knowledge but also toward the development of essential skills? In short, how can we best equip our students to address the challenges they will face in the coming decades? In this context, developing resilience in the face of the dramatic changes facing higher education requires intelligently deploying all of the tools at our disposal—online or otherwise—as a means to bring our students closer. 

    Amanda Reeser Lawrence
    Lucy M. Maulsby
    Northeastern University

    Amanda Reeser Lawrence holds a Ph.D. in architectural history and theory from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. She is an assistant professor at the School of Architecture at Northeastern University. Her book, James Stirling: Revisionary Modernist (Yale University Press, 2013), was funded by the Graham Foundation and the Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art. A licensed architect, Lawrence is founding co-editor of the award-winning journal, Praxis, which was selected as Deputy Commissioner of the 2013 Architectural Biennale in Venice.

    Lucy M. Maulsby was trained as an architectural historian at Columbia University.  She is an assistant professor at Northeastern University where she teaches courses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century architectural history. Her book, Fascism, Architecture and the Claiming of Modern Milan, 1922–43, was published by University of Toronto University Press 2014.

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