SAH Blog

  • 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.

    Go comment!
  • 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.

    Go comment!
  • Guatemalan Western Highlands and Lake Atitlán

    By
    Brooks Fellow Amber N. Wiley
     |
    Oct 9, 2014

    Landscape of loss. German Guatemalans. Sensational cemetery. Underwater wonderland.

    When I laid my head down in my Quetzaltenango hostel I had to laugh. I was lying down in a location I did not know existed just a month prior. This city was not on my itinerary, not even on my radar. I ended up in Quetzaltenango, called “Xela,” by residents, thanks to Lonely Planet and some tourist shuttle agency fliers. My original plan was to visit the Petén Department —Flores and Tikal—during my second month in Guatemala. I opted for a location closer to Antigua after learning how long the bus ride would take. Riding the buses through the mountainous terrain of Guatemala was by far my least favorite part of my time there. This major struggle, full of twists and turns which made me nauseated, re-directed my path to discover places I had never heard of previously.

    Figure 1
    Google Maps snapshot of Guatemalan sites visited in August and September.

    I spent approximately two weeks in Xela, and two weeks in San Pedro La Laguna at Lake Atitlán. The Quetzaltenango and Sololá municipal departments, in which Xela and San Pedro are located, make up part of the Western Highlands region of Guatemala. While numerous and diverse Maya people live in this region, the three ethnic groups I came into contact with the most were the K’iche’, Tz’utujil, and Ladino populations. This ethnic information is important historically and geographically, as the culture and built environment of the Western Highlands is inscribed on the landscape, and very much related to the various ethnic communities that reside in the region.

    The stories the landscape tells – they are powerful and disconcerting. As geographers Michael K. Steinberg and Matthew J. Taylor note:

    Guatemala conjures up both exotic and disturbing images: past and present Maya cultures, Maya ruins, volcanoes and lakes, military dictatorships, and grave human rights violations. Researchers and travelers alike are drawn to Guatemala's beauty and diversity. Yet Guatemala confounds and often repels those who seek to delve deeper into what the landscape means and what it is telling us [emphasis added].[1]

    Steinberg and Taylor identified and recorded landmarks and memorials referencing the Guatemalan Civil War in the Western Highlands. They discovered that three main bodies sought to commemorate the war in the “postconfict landscape” – the Catholic Church, the military, and the government. The siting, location, and subject matter of the memorials illustrated that the wounds of the war were still very the fresh and open. Additionally, these memorials were often ephemeral and understated, easily overlooked. The majority of the massacres during the civil war took place in the ethnically diverse Mayan Western Highlands. As cultural anthropologist Benjamin Michael Willett noted in his dissertation “Ethnic Tourism and Indigenous Activism: Power and Social Change in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala,”

    The period of la violencia was tragic and the effects that it has had on the Indian communities are devastating – ranging from the total destruction of some four hundred villages and municipal centers to periodic sweeps, repression, and violent killings of tens of thousands of Mayas.[2]

    Evidence of these atrocities in the landscape, however, is not readily apparent. Steinberg led a collaborative GIS mapping effort to bring light to this invisible landscape, and the visuals are astounding.

    Figure 2
    Maps comparing the location of indigenous Maya populations with massacre sites during the Guatemalan Civil War. Source: M. K. Steinberg et al., “Mapping Massacres: GIS and State Terror in Guatemala,” Geoforum 37 (2006): 62-68.

    Quetzalteco Exceptionalism

    Lonely Planet’s description of Quetzaltenango is not the most flattering piece of prose I have ever read (especially in comparison to the overview of Antigua), but it was this sentence that captured my imagination and left me intrigued:

    The Guatemalan “layering” effect is at work in the city center – once the Spanish moved out, the Germans moved in and their architecture gives the zone a somber, even Gothic, feel.[3]

    Somber, Gothic, German architecture in Guatemala? I spent a month in extravagant Spanish Baroque Antigua, and I needed to see how this side of architectural expression came to life in the Xela.

    Quetzaltenango is the Nahuatl (Aztec) name for the town, meaning “place of the Quetzal bird.” The conquistador Pedro de Alvarado called the city Quetzaltenango after conquering the city for Spain. The Nahuatl were some of his allies in conquest. The town was previously known by indigenous Maya Mam and K’iche’ populations as Xelajú Noj, or “Under the Ten Mountains.” Today the city residents and most Guatemaltecos call it Xela – an act of resistance. The indigenous presence and political power in Xela is stronger than in Guatemala City or Antigua because there is a sizable and influential urban K’iche’ Maya population. As historian Greg Grandin notes:

    K’iche’ elites helped to bring the railroad to Quetzaltenango, built public buildings and monuments, established patriotic beauty contests, and gave nationalists speeches. By hitching national fulfillment to cultural renewal, K’iche’s justified their position of community authority to the local and national ladino state. Conversely, by linking ethnic improvement to the advancement of the nation, they legitimized to other Mayans their continued political power. [4]

    On my first Sunday in Xela I walked to the Parque Centro América and stumbled across public speeches given by young ladies running for Pequeña Flor de Xela. They averaged around 10 years old, and they were captivating! The content of their speeches and their stage presence was impeccable. They covered topics like the importance of Mayan history and the need to keep the indigenous culture alive. Historian Betsy Ogburn Konefal states in her article “Defending the Pueblo: Indigenous Identity and Struggles for Social Justice in Guatemala, 1970 to 1980” that this tradition of “consciousness-raising” started in the 1970s with young reina contestants, and that they used their time on stage with a public audience to “urge spectators to embrace indigenous identity and take pride in la raza.” [5]

    Figure 3
    La Municipalidad in Parque Centro América.

    The Xela and Guatemala flags were strewn all over the park before the week was out in anticipation of Guatemalan independence activities on September 15. Flags on the Municipalidad, on the Corinthian columns in the park, and on the Casa de la Cultura. The architectural eclecticism of the Xela Parque Centro is noteworthy. It felt nothing like the other cities I had visited in Latin America.

    Figure 4
    Catedral Metropolitana de Los Altos (Catedral del Espiritu Santo) in Xela. Original sixteenth century façade sits in front of newer, more muted and stark late nineteenth/early twentieth century edifice.

    Figure 5
    Catedral Metropolitana de Los Altos.

    The cultural layers of Xela are fascinating, but fly below the radar for most tourists seeking to learn about Guatemala’s architectural heritage. This might change if ground is gained with the “Route of the Agroindustry and the Architecture Victoriana” that is on the tentative UNESCO World Heritage List for Guatemala. The route, submitted to UNESCO by the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture and Sports, is “constituted by a series of rail stations, buildings of offices, hotels and built residences between the last three decades of the XIX century and the first half of the XX century, to support the development of the export agroindustry that was implemented during that time in Guatemala.”[6] Xela, in addition to its Maya and Spanish roots, had a strong late nineteenth and twentieth century German presence. The Germans came in the late nineteenth century to participate in the coffee industry and contributed significantly to the architectural heritage of Xela. If the idea of what represents “authentic” Guatemalan culture expands, then Xela would place higher on the tourist map. Xela has an urban K’iche’ population, Spanish and German eclecticism, agroindustry and trade, and even more, one of the most strikingly beautiful cemeteries I have ever seen.

    Cementerio General

    The general cemetery in Xela took my breath away. I lived in New Orleans for three years, and visited and documented some of our most spectacular cemeteries there. Xela had something that the New Orleans cemeteries did not have – vivacity in color. This fact alone brought liveliness to the city of the dead. I went to the cementerio general on a Sunday, and the necropolis was full of life. It was how I imagined Mount Auburn in Boston at the height of the Victorian era – complete with people who passed time in the cemetery for both recreational and commemorative purposes. Xela’s general cemetery was not only a place of quiet respite, but also a place of action. Families are the primary caretakers of the plots. Young and old, men and women wielded axes and machetes to chop the undergrowth, procured water from the countless fountains to wash the memorials, and planted fresh flowers in and around the plots.

    Figure 6
    A German plot in the general cemetery.

    There is not much written about the cementerio general in Xela, which is a shame because it is a wondrous place. It is also a testament to the deep social stratification of the city, from grand shrines of city elites to a mass grave, as well as the ethnic diversity – I came across two different German plots. There is every kind of revival shrine in the cemetery – Greek, Egyptian, Gothic – and some fiercely modern designs that speak to changing tastes over the past century.

    Figure 7
    View in the general cemetery.

    Troubled Water: Lake Atitlán

    My time at Lake Atitlán was focused on appreciating and attempting to understand the natural landscape. Lake Atitlán is a caldera lake that was formed 84 thousand years ago. I spent most of my time at the lake in the town of San Pedro La Laguna. There was not much public information regarding the history of the lake. I visited the tiny Museo Tzu’nun Ya’ which had rare historic images of San Pedro La Laguna before the invasion of concrete block structures. The museum also had beautiful interior murals, and a whole room dedicated to the geophysical properties of the lake. Since the majority of the display was in Spanish and the Tz’utujil language, it was difficult to grasp the history of geology displayed in the museum.

    Figure 8
    “Callejon de ranchos (Path with thatched houses),” Pedro Rafael Gonzalez Chavajay, 1999. This oil painting by Tz’utujil Maya artist depicts the traditional thatched houses with steeply pitched roof of the San Pedro La Laguna.

    Figure 9
    View of contemporary San Pedro La Laguna from main cathedral.

    One of the most recent and fascinating finds at Lake Atitlán is the submerged Mayan city Samabaj, the “Mayan Atlantis.” Samabaj was a sacred pilgrimage site located on an island in the lake, and was lost when the lake waters rose for reasons still unknown to archaeologists. This site, discovered in 1996 by local diver Roberto Samayoa, was submerged around 250 AD. Lead site archaeologist Sonia Medrano reported that her team found six ceremonial monuments and four altars as well as houses for about 150 people in the ruins of the underwater city.[7]

    “La Atlántida Maya,” National Geographic Channel

    This discovery is related to another phenomenon that is currently affecting the lake and the communities around it. The city of Samabaj is a reminder that Lake Atitlán is not a static entity – it grows and wanes, has cycles, and changes as the climate and the earth’s crust changes. The lake has risen dramatically in the last decade, submerging lakeside buildings constructed to take advantage of the beautiful views. Author Joyce Maynard writes about this problem in her New York Times article “Paradise Lost.” Maynard mentions the wisdom of a shaman candle seller, who imparted ancient knowledge to explain the changes in the lake: “To the Mayan people, everything is about cycles.” Maynard continues this thought by proclaiming, “Rain comes down. Plants grow up. The lake rises. The lake falls. The lake rises again.”[8] Lake Atitlán is also on the World Heritage Tentative list for UNESCO, and was submitted Ministry of Culture and Sports in 2002, the same year as the “Agroindustry Route.”[9]

    Figure 10
    Submerged structure in Lake Atitlán.

    I spent time at Lake Atitlán developing a collage series utilizing magazines collected in Guatemala. The series had a number of different themes, from self-reflection, to active visualization of goals, to organizing random thoughts on architecture and design, to highlighting the mystical powers of women. My final collage for Guatemala is central to my thoughts about the trip. In that collage I reconsidered the “dangerous and poor” Guatemalan narrative projected by various tourist and travel agencies, and contrasted that with the images of Guatemala that left a strong impression on me. The messages that the world circulates about the country do not do it justice. Es un país pequeño con un corazón grande, hermoso.

    Figure 11
    “Dear Guatemala, Thank you for everything.”

     

    H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship Google Map

    Recommended Reading:

    Wallace W. Atwood, “Lake Atitlán,” Geological Society of America Bulletin 44 no. 3 (1933): 661-668

    Max Paul Friedman, “Private Memory, Public Records, and Contested Terrain: Weighing Oral Testimony in the Deportation of Germans from Latin America during World War II,” Oral History Review 27 no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2000): 1-15

    Greg Grandin, “Can the Subaltern Be Seen? Photography and the Affects of Nationalism,” Hispanic American Historical Review 84 no. 1 (February 2004): 83-111

    Greg Grandin, “Everyday Forms of State Decomposition: Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, 1954,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 19 no. 3 (July 2000): 303-320

    Leah Alexandra Huff, “Sacred Sustenance: Maize, Storytelling, and a Maya Sense of Place,” Journal of Latin American Geography 5 no. 1 (2006): 79-96

    Marga Jann and Stephen Platt, “Philanthropic Architecture: Nongovernmental Development Projects in Latin America,” Journal of Architectural Education 62 no. 4 (2009): 82-91

    Betsy Ogburn Konefal, “Defending the Pueblo: Indigenous Identity and Struggles for Social Justice in Guatemala, 1970 to 1980,” Social Justice 30 no. 3, The Intersection of Ideologies of Violence (2003): 32-47

    W. George Lovell, “The Archive That Never Was: State Terror and Historical Memory in Guatemala,” Geographical Review 103 no. 2 (April 2013): 199-209

    Sidney D. Markman, “The Plaza Mayor of Guatemala City,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 25 no. 3 (October 1966): 181-196

    Mario Roberto Morales, “Scenes of Lake Atitlán,” Literary Review 41 no.1 (Fall 1997): 5-19

    Sandra L. Orellana, The Tz’utujil Mayas: Continuity and Change 1250-1630 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984)

    Elisabet Dueholm Rasch, “Representing Mayas: Indigenous Authorities and Citizenship Demands in Guatemala,” Social Analysis 55 no. 3 (Winter 2011): 54-73

    Blake D. Ratner and Alberto Rivera Gutierrez, “Reasserting Community: The Social Challenge of Wastewater Management in Panajachel, Guatemala,” Human Organization 63 no. 1 (Spring 2004): 47-56

    Catherine Rendón, “Temples of Tribute and Illusion,” Américas 54 no. 4 (July/August 2002): 16-23

    B. G. Smith and D. Ley, “Sustainable Tourism and Clean Water Project for Two Guatemalan Communities: A Case Study,” Desalination 248 (2009): 225-232

    Jeffrey S. Smith, “The Highlands of Contemporary Guatemala,” Focus On Geography 49 no. 1 (Summer 2006): 16-26

    Michael K. Steinberg, Carrie Height, Rosemary Mosher, and Mathew Bampton, “Mapping Massacres: GIS and State Terror in Guatemala,” Geoforum 37 (2006): 62-68

    Michael K. Steinberg and Matthew J. Taylor, “Public Memory and Political Power in Guatemala's Postconflict Landscape,” Geographical Review 93 no. 4 (October 2003): 449-468

    Matthew Tegelberg, “Framing Maya Culture: Tourism, Representation and the Case of Quetzaltenango,” Tourist Studies 13 no. 1 (2013): 81-98

    James W. Vallance, Lee Siebert, William I. Rose Jr., Jorge Raul Girón,

    and Norman G. Banks, “Edifice Collapse and Related Hazards in Guatemala,”

     Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 66 (1995): 337-355

    Daniel Winterbottom, “Garbage to Garden: Developing a Safe, Nurturing and Therapeutic Environment for the Children of the Garbage Pickers Utilizing an Academic Design/Build Service Learning Model,” Children, Youth and

    Environments 18 no. 1 Children and Disasters (2008): 435-455

    _______________________________

    [1] Michael K. Steinberg and Matthew J. Taylor, “Public Memory and Political Power in Guatemala's Postconflict Landscape,” Geographical Review 93 no. 4 (October 2003): 450.

    [2] Benjamin Michael Willett, “Ethnic Tourism and Indigenous Activism: Power and Social Change in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala,” (PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2007), 13.

    [3] Lonely Planet, “Introducing Quetzaltenango” 

    [4] Greg Grandin, “Can the Subaltern Be Seen? Photography and the Affects of Nationalism,” Hispanic American Historical Review 84 no. 1 (February 2004): 91

    [5] Betsy Ogburn Konefal, “Defending the Pueblo: Indigenous Identity and Struggles for Social Justice in Guatemala, 1970 to 1980,” Social Justice 30 no. 3, The Intersection of Ideologies of Violence (2003): 36

    [6] UNESCO, “Route of the Agroindustry and the Architecture Victoriana”

    [7] Sarah Grainger, “Divers probe Mayan ruins submerged in Guatemala lake,” Reuters October 30, 2009 

    [8] Joyce Maynard, “Paradise Lost,” New York Times May 20, 2012

    [9] UNESCO, “Protected area of Lake Atitlán: multiple use,”

     

    Go comment!