• On Invisibility: Chemification and Material Movements

    by Helena Dean | Aug 29, 2023

    Jasper Ludewig is a 2023 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

    After 2000 kilometers of circuitous driving, I have finally arrived in central narrm/Melbourne, amused as always by the contrast of its orderly, gridded streets and the tortured bombast of so much of its architecture. Today alone I have driven for close to 10 hours, from the far north-western corner of the state, descending after dark onto the plain across which the city unravels. The two-laned road doubles, triples, and then quadruples in quick succession before I eventually pull into a parking facility and scurry through the drizzle to my accommodation. It’s here that I begin this first report of my H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship: in a room in a city I now see as an important threshold in the historical geography my travel attempts to retrace.

    1. Paterson Valley
    Fig. 1. Panoramic view of the Paterson Valley from Mount George. Property boundaries, nature reserves and the curving river are clearly visible.

    2. Hay
    Fig. 2. One of the many agricultural relics on display along the roadsides of the Paterson Valley.

    Over the past month, I have visited different regions along the eastern seaboard of what is now known as Australia looking for evidence of its systematic transformation as Country—the term used by Indigenous Australians to describe the lands, waterways, seas and skies with which they are intimately connected—into the landscapes of colonial agriculture. This transformation commenced in the late eighteenth century, radiating inland from a string of settlements established at river mouths and natural harbours in the colony of New South Wales before accelerating over the course of the nineteenth century, propelled by a growing population, global commodity markets, and the advent of political self-governance. Throughout this process, agricultural expansion was colonial expansion—both in the geographical sense of the actual material dispossession and occupation of Indigenous land (clearing, fencing, planting, building), and in the political economic and juridical sense of state formation and the reification of systems of colonial governance (land regulation, taxation, policing, establishing institutions, etc.). Of course, the supposed absence of agricultural systems—a cynical interpretation of well-documented Aboriginal land management practices—was also used by the British state and its representatives as moral and legal justification for the invasion and violent dispossession of Indigenous land in keeping with the doctrine of terra nullius. One assumption I have therefore made over the past month of traveling is that to interrogate the material history of Australia’s agricultural development is also to consider something essential to the manner in which colonial sovereignty was purported and enacted.

    More specifically, my travels are based on my emerging understanding that the viability of the colonial project in Australia—given this imbrication with agriculture—depended to a large extent on the biological work performed by fertilizer. Sovereignty and fertilizer may seem an incongruent pairing, but their relation encompasses an approach to the organization of people, land, and materials (and eventually also buildings) that both recasts prevailing understandings of the environmental effects of colonization, as well the forms of governance that were elaborated in their service. The sociologist Marion W. Dixon terms this relation—referring to its twentieth-century incarnation—“chemification,” or “the processes by which imperial states gained territories (and land, labour, etc.) through industrial power built on assemblages of production, energy, and materials connected via a handful of chemicals.”1 This fellowship project is something of a meditation on chemification understood as a discrete historical process; from its pre-industrial, colonial origins to its fuller expression in the early twentieth century. What is the historical geography of chemification? What were its spatial—agricultural, infrastructural, technological, architectural, rural, urban—modes of articulation? What kinds of political order did it give rise to? Whose futures did it secure? Whose did it foreclose? And how does chemification, as a methodological lens, enable us to better collocate colonialism and capitalism as interlinked systems that have facilitated humans’ intervention in the processes that govern life within the biosphere?

    3. Paterson Homestead
    Fig. 3. An abandoned turn-of-the-century homestead in the Paterson Valley.

    Evidence in service of my questions is admittedly difficult to recover through travel. Fertilizers leave no visible trace in the places they are applied; and, unlike other agricultural technologies, they are meant, by design, to dissolve and disappear into other things—soil, water, roots, stems, flowers and fruits—which are themselves routinely removed or replenished. The result, I have learned, is that one struggles to find much (any) information about the use and effects of chemical fertilizers in the (many) local history museums dotted throughout the agricultural districts between meanjin/Brisbane and narrm/Melbourne. Instead, it seems that chemification is best approached indirectly, by seeking out its epiphenomena: the statistics of increased crop yields recorded at nineteenth-century experimental farms; importation rates of the raw materials purchased by fertiliser manufactures; the almost total devastation of the landscapes at which these raw materials were extracted; and the land-use patterns and forms of living that fertilizers have sustained in a radically different ecology to those in which European farming systems were originally devised.

    4. Tocal
    Fig. 4. The main buildings of Tocal Estate at sunset.

    5. Tobacco
    Fig. 5. Tocal’s stone barn, constructed in 1830 using convict labour to dry tobacco.

    6. Barracks
    Fig. 6. The barracks built to house Tocal’s 35 convict laborers during its development in the 1830s.

    7. Homestead 1
    Fig. 7. Tocal Homestead was built to the 1841 design of the Scottish architect William Moir. It was constructed from sandstone with a slate roof, most of which was quarried directly from the Tocal site.

    8. Homestead 2
    Fig. 8. Tocal Homestead is sited at the top of a slight rise on the property, elevating its legibility within the landscape.

    Three weeks prior to my arrival in narrm/Melbourne, I arrived in the Paterson Valley, on Wonnarua and Worimi Country, in the Hunter Region of New South Wales. The Paterson Valley is one of the oldest European agricultural districts in Australia, occupied from the early nineteenth century by small-scale farmers supplying Sydney and Newcastle. James Webber was one such colonist, arriving from Britain to take up a land grant in 1822, which he subsequently developed into one of the most successful farms in the colony: Tocal. The main buildings and grounds of Tocal have been carefully preserved, embodying the changing regimes of political order and colonial land use in the district, from the erstwhile tobacco shed (1830) and convict barracks (1835), to the late-Colonial Georgian homestead (1841) and the famous Blacket Barn (1867). Today, Tocal strikes an uneasy balance between its dual role as part open-air colonial heritage display and part bucolic wedding venue—its overabundance of pithy interpretive plaques, affixed to its photogenic buildings, counterposed by the glaring omission of any meaningful engagement with the Indigenous history of the valley. Even the word “tocal,” which the plaques purport to mean “plenty” in the Wonnarua language (the Wonnarua Nation Aboriginal Corporation’s official dictionary suggests otherwise), operates at the level of simulacrum: naturalizing the colonial history of the estate by establishing a false continuity with its Indigenous “past.” Axe-grinding grooves formed by members of the Gringai clan, located on a sandstone outcrop in the middle of a pasture separating Tocal’s main buildings, seem like the only authentic historical remnant on the entire estate.

    9. Blacket Barn 1
    Fig. 9. The Blacket Barn owes its name to the celebrated nineteenth-century colonial architect Edmund Thomas Blacket, known for his churches and public buildings throughout the colony of New South Wales.

    10. Blacket Barn 2
    Fig. 10. The symmetrical floorplan and timber roof trusses have earned Blacket Barn the mantle of the “Cathedral of Barns” from the contemporary architect Philip Cox, commissioned to design nearby Tocal Agricultural College in 1963.

    11. Blacket Barn 3
    Fig. 11. The fine detailing of the Blacket Barn plays a central role in Tocal’s state heritage listing.

    12. Bucolic Times
    Fig. 12. Today, Tocal Estate caters as much to wedding guests as history enthusiasts. Its buildings and grounds are presented to emulate nineteenth-century rural life in the colony.

    The history of Tocal, like so much of Australia’s European history, is largely reducible to its geology. Australian soils are among the most nutrient poor in the world and are especially lacking in phosphorous, which promotes plant growth and improves fruiting. Where government officials such as James Grant, writing from the Paterson Valley in 1801, saw “long luxuriant grass” and “plenty of land for agriculture,” they therefore projected a cultural and ecological imaginary onto the landscape—and into its soils—that anticipated, erroneously, an equivalence with the soils of Britain.2 Invisible to Grant and his contemporaries was the work of the Wonnarua and the Worimi, undertaken over millennia, to manage the non-alluvial areas of this landscape through fire. The famous open forest of the New South Wales hinterland, described by Peter Cunningham in 1827 as in “every way suitable for pasture without cutting down a single tree,” was in fact the intentional result of routine cool burning, which supressed the growth of saplings and thickets, encouraging the germination of native perennial grasses instead.3 Fleet-footed kangaroos, wallabies, emus, and other animals flocked into the forest clearings the fire left behind, providing a reliable food supply alongside native tubers, lilies, flaxes, and sorghums. Mistaking grasses for signs of fecundity, colonists such as Webber poured into the Paterson Valley, stocking the once soft and spongy land with hard-hooved sheep and cattle, and planting cash crops—tobacco, grapes, hops, and maize—along the alluvial corridors. Within only a few years, the colonists had ringbarked the eucalypts for timber while their livestock compacted the earth and razed the grasses, causing widespread erosion and degradation of the already poor soil.

    In search of more fertile tracts of land, colonists quickly moved throughout the Paterson Valley, practicing a land-extensive agricultural system known as “soil mining.” “The consequence of this miserable system,” observed James Atkinson in 1826:

    is that the land in a few years gets exhausted, and having very little tillage, is entirely covered with weeds. […] The plan then adopted is to let this lie fallow, as it is termed, that is, to suffer it to lie untouched for several years, to be overgrown with mimosas, and to become a nursery for rank and noxious weeds of every description; in the mean time, the Settler clears another piece of fresh land, and with this proceeds as before.4

    For the soil miner, managing soil fertility was of secondary importance to the availability of an inexhaustible supply of more land nearby. Attempting to constrain colonial settlement, which was rapidly expanding due to the activities of soil miners and others, the government imposed what became known as the Limits of Location in 1829—a semi-circular perimeter radiating 400 km outwards from Sydney that delineated the area in which settlement was legally permitted. The territory within the Limits was broken into 19 counties, which were surveyed and valued in turn; the available land was organized into different classes, each attracting a different rate per acre based on its agricultural potential; and crops were used as collateral against mortgages to enable capital-poor farmers to take up land within farming districts such as Paterson. In effect, the Limits of Location transformed the interior of the colony into a patchworked, “improved” landscape, still clearly legible in the view over the Paterson Valley from Mount George (Figure 1).5 The Limits are particularly fascinating when understood in relation to contemporary political economic theories of land price, rent, and soil fertility. As David Ricardo notes in his 1817 treatise, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation:

    Rent increases most rapidly, as the disposable land decreases in its productive powers. Wealth increases most rapidly in those countries where the disposable land is most fertile, where importation is least restricted, and where through agricultural improvements, productions can be multiplied without any increase in the proportional quantity of labour, and where consequently the progress of rent is slow.6

    13. Tocal Pasture
    Fig. 13. One of Tocal’s many pastures, heavily transformed through land clearing, grazing, and chemical fertilizers. The main building of Tocal Agricultural College can be seen in the distant background.

    14. Flooding
    Fig. 14. Widespread grazing has suppressed native grasses, compacted the soil, and made large swathes of land highly susceptible to flash flooding and erosion.

    15. Monoculture
    Fig. 15. A field in the vicinity of the former Rutherglen Experimental Farm in northern Victoria.

    16. Rutherglen
    Fig. 16. “Field E” at the former Rutherglen Experimental Farm in northern Victoria, later the Rutherglen Viticulture College and then Rutherglen Research Institute.

    Augmenting the productive powers of a more limited supply of land through the use of fertilizer was therefore not only a question of agricultural production, but also formed part of an incipient colonial property regime in which the value of land was—at least initially—determined by the “indestructible powers of the soil” and the amount of capital/labor required to exploit it. In the Paterson Valley, and throughout the territory delineated by the Limits of Location more broadly, a land-extensive frontier model of soil mining thus gave over to an incipient yeoman ideal focused on regimes of improvement. Tocal occupies a unique position within this history. Its buildings—or, more accurately, what lies beneath them—testify to how the more tightly controlled system of land allocation established by the Limits ultimately reconfigured the biological profiles of Australian soils. Although “hardly a single pre-[European]-contact soil profile survives intact anywhere across the nation,” observes the geographer Stephen Gale, “a rare exception to this generalisation comes from Tocal.”7 Rather than the “well structured, strongly stable” soils found throughout the Paterson Valley today, the soils beneath the original Tocal homestead are “very friable, poorly structured and have a weak aggregate stability.”8 The comparison reveals the cumulative effects of more than a century of colonial attempts to transform Australia’s Indigenous landscape—the sum total of myriad entanglements between the law, capital, agricultural development, and ecological violence descending upon the value latent in the soil. Leaving the valley along the old Paterson Road, which traces a double of Yimmang (Paterson River) along the intensively farmed floodplain, I recall the words of the Gurindji man Daly Pulkara who, when asked by the anthropologist Deborah Bird-Rose what he thought of the denuded—but heavily “improved”—landscape of a cattle station in the Northern Territory, simply remarked: “It’s the wild. Just the wild.”9

    17. Dookie 1
    Fig. 17. Dookie College administration building and museum, formerly the college laboratory.

    18. Dookie 2
    Fig. 18. The Dookie College buildings were designed by the Victorian Public Works Department, which provided similar facilities at the Rutherglen and Longerenong colleges.

    Fertilizers quickly followed the intensification of agriculture in nineteenth-century Australia. They were used to more reliably extract larger harvests from smaller properties on aberrant soils year after year, but also—as Tocal demonstrates—to drastically transform the chemical composition of those soils over time. On my way to the Wimmera district in western Victoria—one of the country’s most diverse grain growing regions—I was fortunate to visit an important site in the uptake of chemical fertilizers in Australia. Dookie Agricultural College and Experimental Farm is the oldest agricultural college in Victoria and today forms part of the University of Melbourne, specializing in land management and restoration, viticulture, and food security research. Dookie seemingly appears out of nowhere, nestled into rolling hills on Yorta Yorta Country in the lee of Mount Major; a distinctly proto-urban setting amidst a sea of serried fields and empty gravel roads. Its history dates to 1877 when the Victorian Board of Agriculture established the Cashel Experimental Farm, tasked with training colonists in the latest scientific methods of rational agriculture. Ten years later, 50 people were on the waiting list to enroll in Dookie, where students tended to the almost 5,000 acres as part of a rigorous program housed in state-of-the-art buildings—laboratories, cellars, and greenhouses—designed by the Public Works Department.10 As reported by a journalist following an inspection tour of Dookie in 1888, “the curriculum includes chemistry, botany, geology, entomology, English, mathematics, surveying, bookkeeping, besides practical farm work in all its branches.”11 Formal training in agriculture was viewed as a matter of economic security in a globalizing world, as well as a domain for state intervention given the value of export duties to annual revenue. “In these days of competition and rapid progress,” proclaimed one local newspaper, “the advantage is with those who know how to make the best of their opportunities, and are acquainted with the latest discoveries in science as applied to the cultivation of the soil.”12 Dookie moved the colony of Victoria in this direction, following the examples set by experimental farms throughout the anglosphere in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand, and demonstrating a more modern approach to agricultural science later emulated throughout the colony at Rutherglen in the northeast (viticulture) and Longerenong in the northwest (wheat growing).

    19. Dookie 3
    Fig. 19. “Agricultural Education in Victoria.” Poster promoting Dookie and Longerenong colleges, c.1895. Source: Victorian Places.

    20. Dookie 4
    Fig. 20. Experimentation continues at Dookie College today as part of the University of Melbourne.

    The archive at Dookie remains beautifully chaotic, its records distributed between a small campus museum—the college’s former laboratory building—and a windowless storage room in which I was permitted to spend multiple hours sifting through boxes. Amidst changing curricula, new pupils, upgraded facilities, and annual reports, the records evince two things in particular: the overwhelming predominance of failed experiments over successful ones, and an obsessional commitment to understanding the natural capacities of the soil:

    Plot 42 – Buck Wheat – Sown August 3rd, came up very well but progressed slowly… Consider this a most useless crop in this dry district. …Plot 43 – Brown Corn – Sown in drills 24 inches apart, August 4th, 1879. Came up very indifferently… Consider this district unsuitable for this crop, as it requires a deep black soil. …Plot 44 – Flax – Sown broad cast in finely prepared soil, 5th August. …The fibre is not of sufficient length to be of any value as a marketable product. This crop certainly cannot be recommended as a sure and profitable one in this district.13

    As the experiments tick over into the 1880s, more and more appear in which traditional fertilizers—bonedust, saltpetre (potassium nitrate), and cow and chicken manure—were being replaced by imported guanos. Although guano can refer to the dried excrement of a wide variety of animals, only seabird guano was used at Dookie. It had been extracted and shipped there from three vastly different island groups spread across two different oceans: the Chincha Islands in the Pacific Ocean near Peru; Malden Island in the Central Pacific Ocean; and the Lacepede Islands off the coast of Western Australia in the Indian Ocean. This geography becomes almost unfathomable when encountered in the abstract on a 150-year-old spreadsheet in an anonymous storage room on an isolated experimental farm in central Victoria. The collapse of physical distance presented in the spreadsheet, however, more clearly frames the historical movement of the guano itself: from the sites of its extraction to those of its application, which, in this case, are the fields that stretch out in every direction from the building in which I am sitting. Guanos quickly appear in almost every experiment I now come across: wheat, potato oats, Norway oats, white Tartarian oats, English barley, Cape barley—all are pickled and mixed with different blends of imported bird excrement, the results recorded as reliable increases in the yield of each crop per acre.

    21. Dookie 5
    Fig. 21. An original timber barn sited opposite Dookie’s historic olive grove from the late 1890s.

    22. Dookie Drilling
    Fig. 22. “The Dookie Agricultural College – Drilling and Rolling.” Drilling typically involved so-called “combines,” which deposited both seeds and superphosphate in furrows at regular intervals and set depths. Source: Victorian Places.

    Guano is much more potent than other manures and immediately delivers more highly concentrated nutrients to plants, as well as protecting them against drought by promoting root development.14 As research stations such as Dookie confirmed these characteristics, nineteenth-century guano traders pushed further into the Central Pacific, as well as onto the Great Barrier Reef Islands off the coast of Queensland, deploying mobile mining infrastructure and contracting indentured laborers into a frontier industry established to serve the growing demand of farmers throughout the Tasman world and beyond.15 By the turn of the twentieth century, the surface guano deposits on most islands had been exhausted. In the interim, however, fertilizer manufacturers had shifted their focus from the importation of guano to the production of a synthetic compound known as superphosphate—or, in typical Australian fashion, simply as “super.” Dookie seems to have been an early adopter of this new agricultural technology, stating that of the manure experiments conducted in 1888, “the greatest results… were obtained from superphosphate for 30 [shillings] worth of which a yield of 35 bushels per acre was obtained,” far outperforming bonedust, Malden Island guano and saltpetre.16 By the late 1800s, super was made by mixing sulphuric acid with roughly equal parts pulverised rock phosphate ore—a kind of geological fusion of weathered surface guano, dead marine life and coral substrate—which delivers a much higher concentration of phosphorous into the soil than guano while remaining soluble enough to nourish plants. Returning to the Pacific and Indian Oceans in search of rock phosphate, a new cast of European companies advanced a second wave of phosphate imperialism on a handful of remote islands boasting the world’s purest deposits: Christmas Island, south of Java; Nauru and Banaba (Ocean Island) in the Central Pacific; Angaur in Palau; and Makatea in French Polynesia.

    23. Wimmera
    Fig. 23. Winter fields in the Wimmera. Minimal trees are left to provide shade during pasturing.

    24. Wimmera
    Fig. 24. A rare sign of the heavily engineered environment beneath the topsoil.

    25. Wimmera
    Fig. 25. Winter fields, shade trees, and a hill covered in prickly pear cactus.

    26. Wimmera
    Fig. 26. Fences, roads, lots, and furrows all point the same way in the Wimmera.

    27. Wimmera
    Fig. 27. The only curves found in the Wimmera, other than the creeks and rivers, are at the corners of its fields, where tractors and machinery complete a ninety-degree sweeping turn.

    By 1910, adoption of superphosphate for the fertilization of wheat—Australia’s largest export crop—had risen to around 80 percent from only 25 percent two decades prior.17 By the outbreak of World War One, Australia was the highest user of superphosphate of all land-abundant economies, including the US, Russia, and Canada.18 The effects of superphosphate over this period radically altered entire ecologies such as the Wimmera Mallee—an almost completely flat, once forested sandy plain that was comprehensively cleared to make room for wheat fields. Driving across the Wimmera today, the violence to which the Mallee was subjected is largely invisible. Instead, the fences, gates, irrigation systems, and occasional sheds read as inert props in the performance of an entrenched ruralism, their banality somehow all the more confronting when encountered with the broader material and political history of chemification in mind. The serpentine rivers and creeks appear almost alien in the otherwise orthogonal landscape, redoubled in the dense stands of eucalypts that follow the banks and edges before petering out into stubbly winter fields. Concrete grain silos reappear whenever the road intersects with a deteriorating rail line, infrastructural remnants of a centralized distribution system that once connected the Wimmera’s wheat fields to international markets via the Port of Melbourne. At Murtoa, I stop to walk through the Stick Shed: a vast 265 x 60 meter emergency bulk wheat store, referred to as the Cathedral of the Wimmera, that was constructed during World War Two to preserve up to 3.4 million bushels of grain. More than 500 unmilled Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans) poles reach up to around 18 meters high, fixed to timber roof trusses using galvanized hoop iron and lending the interior a sense of impossible lightness. Integrated into the same rail line as the concrete silos it was designed to replace, the Stick Shed attests to the cumulative development of agricultural systems in the Wimmera, where infrastructural interventions built on and expanded the productive capacities of those that preceded them. Today, growers store their harvests wrapped in plastic and left on the ground in so-called “sausages,” ready for when the market price turns in favour of selling a particular grain.

    28. Silos
    Fig. 28. Concrete wheat silos in Warracknabeal built in the 1930s, now redundant as grain growing has diversified.

    29. Warrack Station
    Fig. 29. The abandoned train station in central Warracknabeal, built in 1886 to connect the booming Wimmera to the Port of Melbourne.

    30. Murtoa
    Fig. 30. The exterior of the Murtoa Stick Shed. Light passes into the interior through thousands of old screw holes in the metal roof sheeting.

    31. Murtoa
    Fig. 31. The unmilled Mountain Ash poles form a central aisle running the length of the Stick Shed. Grains of wheat still fill the cracks in the concrete slab. The smell is a mix of mechanical equipment—oil, diesel, grease—and the sweetness of the wheat.

    32. Murtoa
    Fig. 32. A longer exposure photo of the Stick Shed’s interior. The ties that cross-brace the tall poles wobble with each gust of wind that hits the exterior of the building.

    The straight road eventually deposits me on Wotjobaluk, Jaadwa, Jadawadjali, Wergaia, and Jupagik Country, in the town of Warracknabeal: the capital of the Victorian wheat district and, surprisingly, the birthplace of the musician Nick Cave. Much like Tocal, the history of “Warrack” is one of spectacular landscape transformation in pursuit of profit. As explained in Prosperous and Progressive Warracknabeal, a 1910 pamphlet promoting the development of the town:

    Up till a few years ago it was no uncommon thing for a Land Board to say persuasively to an applicant for Mallee land: “There is a fine block adjoining your land. You can have it, too, if you will only keep the rabbits down.” And in all probability the applicant would say that he had quite enough Mallee already. To-day, if he wanted the same land, he would have to pay anywhere from £5 to £10 per acre for it. It is only a few years ago when it seemed that Warracknabeal would be buried beneath the drifting Mallee sands, but in the same town house rent is higher than in Melbourne. Building is being rushed ahead almost feverishly to keep pace with the demand for houses, and on every side are the evidences of prosperity and expansion.19

    The accumulation of capital in the Mallee was directly linked to the accumulation of phosphorous in its soils and the development of the technologies required to deliver it there. “The Mallee was always fertile,” continues the pamphlet’s author, “but the fact was not known, or, if it was known, the knowledge necessary to take advantage of it was lacking. But the chemist, the implement maker, and the experienced farmer appeared on the scene, and, lo! a transformation.” While the chemists demonstrated “how the use of fertilizers added manifold to the productiveness of the soil,” the implement makers “armed [the settler] for the fight.” Meanwhile, the state extended irrigation channels throughout the northern plains, “with the result that the Wimmera and the Mallee are even now rendered practically drought proof.”20 Once again, the historical record denaturalizes the contemporary landscape, revealing it to be a heavily engineered terrain.

    33. Mallee Roots
    Fig. 33. “15 Ton Truck Mallee Roots, c.1930.” Roots of the Eucalyptus dumosa, known as the Mallee tree: a small Eucalypt with a dense lignotuber, allowing it to survive fire and making it notoriously difficult to clear. Source: State Library of Victoria, Victorian Railways Collection, H92.301/243.

    34. Sunshine
    Fig. 34. A Type AL harvester manufactured by the Sunshine Harvester Works on display at the Wheatlands Agricultural Machinery Museum in Warracknabeal.

    35. Sunshine
    Fig. 35. The Sunprong Pasture Renovator, manufactured at the Sunshine Harvester Works in c.1935. Doses of superphosphate are dropped onto the ground before the rotating prongs turn over the topsoil, mixing in the fertilizer.

    Equipment from the early period of the Mallee’s transformation is exhibited at the Wheatlands Agricultural Machinery Museum on the outskirts of town. Among grain cleaners, seed picklers, harvesters, harrowers, and winnowers from Britain, Canada, and Germany, by far the most impressive machinery on display stems from the Victorian Sunshine Harvester Works. To provide farming machinery to the burgeoning Wimmera district, as well as South Africa and Argentina, a large industrial facility emerged on the outskirts of narrm/Melbourne in the late nineteenth century, forming an entire suburb still today known as Sunshine.21 The recognizable red and yellow paint schemes applied at the Sunshine factory formed part of the company’s marketing strategy, which extended to the model names assigned to each implement. The Mallee Rake, for example, boasted spring-loaded steel teeth that could withstand “the severest strain… If the land is covered thickly with Mallee, it will rake it up quite as easily as if sparsely laid. Nothing left behind.”22 Horse-powered Sun Grain Drills deposited pickled seed in furrows at the correct depth along with a small dose of superphosphate. The Sunprong Pasture Renovator aerated the field with rotating steel prongs while mixing in an adjustable quantity of super prior to planting. Understood as technologies of improvement deployed at the coalface of colonial dispossession and ecological destruction, the bright colors and optimistic marketing produce a jarring effect.

    It should be stressed that the chemical transformation of Australia’s soils through the routine application of increasingly potent fertilizers did not, in fact, erase Country. As explained by the late Big Bill Neidjie, a Bunitj man and Gagudju speaker from the Kakadu area of the Northern Territory, Country is omnipresent, inextinguishable and abiding:

    Our story is in the land […] it is written in those sacred places. My children will look after those places, that’s the law. Dreaming place […] you can’t change it no matter who you are. No matter you rich man, no matter you King. You can’t change it […] Rock stays, earth stays. I die and put my bones in cave or earth. Soon my bones become earth […] all the same. My spirit has gone back to my Country.24

    While they did not displace Country, fertilizers nevertheless enabled the physical transformation of the Australian landscape—into “wilderness,” to paraphrase Daly Pulkara—in pursuit of imported agricultural systems and attendant ideas of political order and sovereignty. Aileen Moreton-Robinson, a scholar and Goenpul woman of the Quandamooka people in Queensland, argues that the legal regimes of the colonizing state place “Indigenous people in a state of homelessness because our ontological relationship to the land, which is the way we hold title, is incommensurable with [the state’s] own exclusive claims of sovereignty.”24 These claims emerged from the imbrication of the law, the atomization of the land as property, and the material practices of improvement to which it was subjected over time. In other words, colonial sovereignty is processual and material as much as it is a historical product of the legal imagination—material in the sense that it takes place and is enacted in discrete ways, and perhaps especially through the extraction of value from and transformation of the soil.

    36. Cuming Smith
    Fig. 36. Cuming Smith & Co.’s Yarraville works in c.1906. Source: “Catalogue of Manures,” 1906–7, Cuming Smith and Company Limited Collection, University of Melbourne Archives,

    37. Plaque
    Fig. 37. Plaque in Yarraville outlining the history of Cuming Smith & Co., from its establishment in 1870 until operations ceased in 2000. The timber attached to the concrete plinth was reclaimed from one of the former factory buildings. The site is now part of a major new infrastructure project.

    38. Dee Cottage
    Fig. 38. Dee Cottage (c.1880), the former residence of James Cuming, founder of Cuming Smith & Co.

    In narrm/Melbourne, I spend time organizing my thoughts after many days of driving on my own. I visit Sunshine but find no real trace of the former factory. I drive to Yarraville, which adjoins the Port of Melbourne, seeking an industrial heritage trail I had read about online. I was eager to see one site on the trail in particular: the former factory of Victoria’s most influential superphosphate manufacturer, Cuming Smith & Co. From the 1870s on, the company imported hundreds of thousands of tons of guano and rock phosphate into the colony, blending them with acids, sulphates, and nitrate of ammonia to offer a diverse range of chemical fertilizers. Its awkward—albeit direct—slogan reappears on the catalogues for its Sickle Brand of manures, which I access the following day at the University of Melbourne archives: “BEFORE USING ‘SICKLE’ MANURES: HARD WORK, NO CROPS. BUT AFTER USING, SPLENDID CROPS, NO WORK, AND THE BANKING ACCOUNT GREW LARGER AND LARGER.”26 In addition to manufacturing superphosphate, Cuming Smith & Co. also conducted its own experiments into topdressing ratios, sponsored a state school propaganda program, organised pasture and crop yield competitions, and was instrumental in the formation of an industrial cartel, the Victorian Fertiliser Association, in 1907. Perhaps attuned to the veneration I had encountered in the heritage interpretation at Tocal, or maybe because I had already read the 200-page report commissioned to inform its contents, I was surprised by the meagre plaque I eventually located at the former factory site. Affixed to a bland polygonal concrete plinth, the plaque disappeared into the overgrown road siding; almost invisible unless—even if—you knew what you were looking for. Further along the road I came across Dee Cottage: the boarded-up former residence of Cuming Smith & Co.’s manager—a building, much like the plaque, seemingly resigned to its untimely demise as foreshadowed by the sprawling construction site that already surrounds it.

    39. Wheat
    Fig. 39. “A Grain of Wheat.” Microscopic view of the main source of wealth in the Wimmera—wheat—painted on a display board at the Wheatlands Agricultural Machinery Museum in Warracknabeal.

    Chemification—its historical geography, effects, residues—is shot through with invisibilities at different registers, a point reiterated here at Yarraville in the diminishing presence of some of its most legible sites and buildings. The type of thinking to which architectural historiography is accustomed (object-oriented, preoccupied with intention and authorship) struggles to accommodate the material movements and displacements inherent in this history. But as the past month of travel has made plain, chemification is also fundamentally a spatial process; a kind of triple displacement in which the transformation of land through the routine application of synthetic fertilizer drew on material and labor elsewhere, which in turn displaced both people and nature in service of the colonial project. This is what the sociologists Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster refer to as the “environmental overdraft,” imperialistically drawing on natural resources to fuel “the social metabolic order of capitalism.”26 Intervening in the biogeochemical cycle in this sense involved a telescoping of space across scales, connecting geological material excavated from the Pacific and Indian Oceans to chemical processes controlled in urban factories in the metropole, to yet more chemical processes in the soils of the Tasman world, producing diverse profits along the way. Buildings, equipment, and infrastructure appear at every turn and with varying degrees of causality—the disaggregated relics of an otherwise largely subterranean and invisible history. It is to its European dimensions that I turn in my upcoming travels.

    1 Marion W. Dixon, “Chemical fertilizer in transformations in world agriculture and the state system, 1870 to interwar period,” Journal of Agrarian Change 18 (2018), 783.

    2 James Grant, “Journal of Exploration of Hunter’s River, 1801,” in Historical Records of Australia, vol. 3, ed. Frederick Watson (Sydney: Government Printer, 1915), 407.

    3 Peter Cunningham, Two Years in New South Wales (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1966 [1827]), 77.

    4 James Atkinson, An Account of the State of Agriculture and Grazing in New South Wales (London: J. Cross, 1826), 31–32.

    5 Atkinson, An Account of the State of Agriculture, 32.

    6 David Ricardo, “On Rent,” in On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (London: John Murray, 1817), 65–66.

    7 Stephen J. Gale, “Making the European Landscape: Early Contact Environmental Impact in Australia 2003,” conference paper, Geographic Society of New South Wales, 2003, 8.

    8 Gale, “Making the European Landscape,” 8.

    9 Deborah Bird-Rose, Reports from A Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2004), 4.

    10 M. A. Clements, “Frank Tate and the Politics of Agricultural Education in Victoria, 1895–1905,” in Melbourne Studies in Education 1977, ed. Stephen Murray-Smith (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1977), 192.

    11 “Visit to Dookie Experimental Farm, Cashel, Victoria,” South Australian Register, 10 November 1888, 6.

    12 “Agricultural Colleges,” The Horsham Times, 11 November 1884, 2.

    13 “Table Showing Result of Experiments Conducted at Government Experimental Farm, 1879,” University of Melbourne, Dookie Historical Collection, LJ20.

    14 Jane Hutton, Reciprocal Landscapes: Stories of Material Movements (New York: Routledge, 2020), 28.

    15 Jasper Ludewig, “‘Lonely Dots’: John Thomas Arundel and the Architecture of Greater British Enterprise in the Pacific,” Fabrications 32, no. 1 (2022): 340–67.

    16 “Visit to Dookie Experimental Farm, Cashel, Victoria,” 6.

    17 Derek Byerlee, “The Super State: The Political Economy of Phosphate Fertilizer Use in South Australia, 1880–1940,” Jahrbuch für Wirtschaftsgeschichte/Economic History Yearbook 62, no. 1 (2021), 108.

    18 Byerlee, “The Super State,” 100.

    19 J. Edward Robertson, Prosperous and Progressive Warracknabeal, Victoria’s Greatest Wheat-Growing District, Present and Future (Melbourne: Wilke, Mitchell & Co., 1910).

    20 Robertson, Prosperous and Progressive Warracknabeal.

    21 Ken Arnold, ed., Sunshine Harvester Works. H. V. McKay: An Agricultural Icon (Bendigo, Vic.: Crown Castleton Publishers, 2005), 8

    22 Arnold, Sunshine Harvester Works, 12.

    23 Quoted in Aileen Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty (Minneapolis, Min.: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 3.

    24 Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive, 16.

    25 Cuming Smith & Coy Propy Ltd., Sickle Brand Manures, Winners of All First Prizes in Australasia since 1873, Catalogue of manures, 1905–6, Records of Cuming Smith & Company Limited, University of Melbourne Archives, 15.1.4.

    26 Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “Ecological Imperialism and the Global Metabolic Rift: Unequal Exchange and the Guano/Nitrates Trade,” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 50, no. 3–4 (2009): 311–34.

  • Neo-Andean Architecture in El Alto, Bolivia

    by Helena Dean | Aug 25, 2023

    Annie Schentag is a 2023 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

    The streets of El Alto, Bolivia, are a delight of pure chaos—a refreshing sense of confusion that contrasts to many South American cities with their well-ordered streets and colonial squares. As the highest major city in the world (over 13,500 feet above sea level), it presents a series of unique challenges that left me short of breath.

    El Alto is essentially the Aymara capital of the Andes. The city is both strongly Indigenous and deeply connected to international economies. During the mid-to-late twentieth century, many Indigenous communities were displaced from the Bolivian countryside due to a series of political, economic, and environmental forces. Aymara populations, in particular, settled in El Alto, which was previously an informal settlement on a high plateau outside of the city of La Paz. In 1987, El Alto was officially incorporated as a city, politically apart from La Paz as its own urban entity. The city proved itself to be a formidable force in the gas conflicts of the early 2000s, demonstrating the political power that an urban Indigenous population could wield during the Evo Morales years.1 About 80 percent of the population is Aymara today, with substantial Quechua and Mestizo populations as well.

    Figure 1
    Figure 1. The Mi Teleférico cable car system leading from La Paz to El Alto. These two cities are connected by a multi-line cable car system, the longest and highest in the world.

    Figure 2
    Figure 2. View of El Alto from the teleferico transit system. A cholet stands out amongst a sea of red brick architecture.

    The city is a place of high contrasts, evident in the cold air and hot sun that cast sharp shadows in many of my photos. El Alto is growing so rapidly that public infrastructure struggles to keep pace, particularly at the city’s edges where there are many unpaved roads, a lack of consistent electricity, poor access to running water, and insufficient garbage disposal. It has surpassed La Paz in population, but is connected to that city through the highly sophisticated Mi Teleférico cable car system. Below that futuristic vision of silent cable cars, most of the streets are crowded by several undefined lanes of traffic, with trufis (shared minivans) and taxis competing for space with Indigenous street vendors.

    You can buy anything in El Alto for a ridiculously low price, if you negotiate in Aymara for goods made in China. This city has one of the largest informal marketplaces in Latin America. While Bolivian officials cultivate relationships with China for larger trade networks and lithium extraction, the Chinese presence is pervasive at the pedestrian level in El Alto. Business owners in El Alto learn Mandarin rather than English to better negotiate with Chinese dealers. One Aymara businessman, who made his fortune in trading Chinese fireworks, built his cholet to reflect the origins of his fortune.

    Figure 3
    Figure 3. A cholet constructed for an Aymara family who made their fortune selling Chinese fireworks in El Alto.

    Figure 4
    Figure 4. A page from the Bolivian graphic novel "El Altopia," which envisions a futuristic El Alto.2 This page includes an Aymara cholet with a strongly Chinese-influenced design, particularly in the residence at the top of the tower.

    El Alto demonstrates that indigeneity can indeed be urban. Contemporary identities can be both rooted in and resistant of colonial traditions in modern Bolivia. The colorful textiles of Aymara cholitas (female Indigenous women, often entrepreneurs) coexist with the capitalist cultivation of profits by selling Chinese imports obtained in a global trade system. These foreign and Indigenous elements manifest simultaneously in the physical environment, in the way that only an urban set of contrasting forces could. As scholar Agnus McNelly has reflected, “Modernity in Latin America contains multiple, overlapping and contradictory temporalities, which coalesce into the appearance of outward-facing, globalized capitalism juxtaposed with traditional indigenous political forms and practices.”3 This is tangible in El Alto at every turn, and nowhere is it more obvious than in the city’s many cholets.

    The Cholet: Architecture as Activism

    The cholet emerged as an architectural expression of urban indigeneity over the last two decades. Cholets are multi-storied buildings that are most prevalent in El Alto, but there are some examples in other parts of Bolivia as well. Typically, cholets are built by and for an Indigenous economic elite that is both locally rooted and internationally connected. The word "cholet" combines the Bolivian word "cholo" (urbanized Indigenous highlanders) with a loose reference to the glamour of a Swiss alpine chalet. Cholets are characterized by their brightly colored ornamentation inside and out, with a three-part organization visibly evident from the exterior. The elaborate ornamentation typically features many shapes and colors affiliated primarily with Aymara culture, inspired by symbols such as the chakana, or Andean cross, among others.4

    Figure 5
    Figure 5. Cholets located near a teleferico station in El Alto.

    Figure 6
    Figure 6. An early example of a cholet by architect Freddy Mamani’s work in the 6 De Marzo district in El Alto (constructed ca. 2001).

    Figure 7
    Figure 7. Cholets at an intersection in El Alto.

    Cholets are easy to spot on the streets of El Alto—they are not subtle. Rather than blend in, they stand out as an expression of renewed pride in Indigenous identity and financial success. For many generations, Indigenous communities in Bolivia experienced extreme prejudice. Many children were not taught the Aymara language by their parents, for instance, as a reflection of this marginalization. Change is occurring in Bolivia, however, which is now officially known as the Plurinational State of Bolivia to recognize and incorporate 36 major Indigenous communities and languages. In La Paz, for instance, Aymara appears as an official language on public transit signs. Encouraging a new generation of urban Aymara, the cholets loudly pronounce the identity of their owners rather than hiding or diluting their culture.

    Aymara traditions are part of the conception of a cholet even before the building is constructed. Like many buildings in El Alto and La Paz, to construct a cholet one must first make an offering to Pachamama (akin to Mother Earth) in order to build. This process begins with a trip to the Witches’ Market, where one consults a yatiri (spiritual leader) who assists with the offering. Offering baskets are purchased, typically with a range of sugar candy representations of the type of bounty one hopes the building will bring. Dried baby llama fetuses are typically the centerpiece of these offerings, which I was assured were the result of natural deaths. The llama is a longstanding, multifaceted symbol, as well as a reference to the power of Pachamama to “take care of all.” Because buildings are not part of the earth, these offerings secure a form of safe passage for construction and bond the man-made buildings to the natural power of the earth itself. Placed inside the foundations of the building, these offerings seek, and ideally provide, protection for the construction crew and occupants of the building once it is completed.

    Figure 8
    Figure 8. A basket of sugar symbols and dried llama fetus, typically offered to Pachamama prior to the construction of a cholet. These offerings are located inside the foundations of many buildings in El Alto and La Paz today.

    Figure 9
    Figure 9. The witches’ market in La Paz contains many stores like this one, run by Aymara yatiri who specialize in many types of offerings, potions, and traditions.

    As a typology, cholets serve a mixed-use function that is rooted in financing their construction.

    The ground floor typically holds a commercial storefront, the floors above hold a large event space, and the rooftop level is crowned with a large semi-freestanding residence for the building owner. They are usually designed by an architect as a complete building but are often constructed in multiple stages. Sometimes a building owner is wealthy enough to construct a cholet all at once, but more often they are built in three major stages from the ground up. Once the storefront level has earned enough money to finance the next stage, the upper floor event space is constructed. Finally, the residence is built, now that the lower floors have financed its construction.

    Figure 10
    Figure 10. A cholet under construction reveals the structural importance of columns and the interplay of brick and concrete.

    Figure 11
    Figure 11. Two cholets in El Alto. The completed Girasol cholet on the left contrasts with the cholet on the right, in which the upper floors are still under construction. In the latter, note the details in the doorway of the completed storefront, typical of many cholets that are built in multiple stages.

    In both its construction and its functions once completed, a cholet attests to the financial prowess of its owner. The storefronts serve as important commercial spaces for local businesses, typically selling imported Chinese goods, bodega style snacks, or Aymara textiles. They are the most publicly accessible spaces of a cholet, so I had the privilege of visiting a few under the guise of purchasing an unnecessary toothbrush or bag of chips. Their elaborately painted ceilings do not disappoint.

    Figure 12
    Figure 12. Peeking into the storefront of a cholet designed and constructed by Freddy Mamani, ca. 2001.

    The upper floor event spaces are architectural proof that Aymaras know how to party. Serving as the primary financial driver of cholets, these event spaces compete for customers by providing increasingly lavish, bright, intense rooms. Some employ different themes to brand themselves as the primary event destination of the month. Architecturally, they sure know how to commit to a theme. At least two Transformer-themed cholets exist in El Alto, for instance, where subtlety is not on the party agenda. This type of architecture is an experiment in maximalism that some have called "Bolivian Baroque," well-suited to the Aymara tradition of all-night community parties.5

    Figure 13
    Figure 13. A Transformer-themed cholet designed and constructed by Santos in El Alto.

    I was able to access the event space of one particularly prominent cholet in El Alto, the Imperio del Rey building designed by Aymara architect Freddy Mamani Silvestre. Freddy Mamani, as he is widely known, has established his career as the major architect for designing cholets—a typology that he is credited with inventing. At Imperio del Rey, I can see why.

    Figure 14
    Figure 14. Exterior view of the Imperio del Rey cholet in El Alto, designed and constructed by architect Freddy Mamani.

    A complex series of stepped ornamentation creates layered references to Aymara culture, painted in bright, symbolic colors inside and out. Using a set of oculi, for instance, he simultaneously references the flamingos of Oruro (where the building owners are from) on the exterior and the five eyes of the Aymara sun god, Inti, inside. Plaster-clad steel columns support a large open space for dancing and drinking, painted and adorned with bright, even psychedelic patterns and forms. Drains in the floor are a great example of an element specifically designed to suit the spaces’ function in this cultural context: every time Aymara partygoers cheers one another, a little bit of alcohol must be poured onto the floor for Pachamama.

    Figure 15
    Figure 15. Inside the main event space on the upper floors of the Imperio del Rey cholet. Note the drain on the floor is specifically designed to accommodate Aymara party traditions.

    Figure 16
    Figure 16. Detail of windows inside the Imperio del Rey cholet. This series of shapes references the face of Inti, the Aymara sun god.

    Figure 17
    Figure 17. View of ballroom space, bar, and balcony inside the Imperio del Rey cholet.

    When Aymara communities moved to El Alto, they faced the challenge of adapting their customs to a different living environment. The city lacked the regular sun exposure prevalent in the countryside, which regulated not only time but also spiritual, commercial, and physical rhythms. The residences atop cholets reflect this dedication to the sun, which maximize sun exposure in their orientation, setback, large windows, and other details intended to trap heat and provide plenty of light. Pointed rooftops, pagoda-inspired gables, and numerous ornamental details distinguish the residences and their design inspiration from chalets. Architectural symbols of European financial success are merged with global capital endeavors, Indigenous spiritual references, and colonial practices into a proud Aymara display—a truly El Alto blend.

    Figure 18
    Figure 18. Detail of residence at top of the Imperio del Rey cholet in El Alto, with Mamani’s characteristic pagoda-inspired roofline.

    Drawing Conclusions

    There is so much I did not know about cholets, and so much more that I still do not know. But I do know that I want to see cholets appear in more classrooms, more articles, more conversations in American institutions. To do that, I had to learn about them differently, to somehow see a cholet with different eyes.

    For some crazy reason, I tried drawing a cholet—while on a shaky bus, winding through the Andes, no less. To be more precise, I only drew a portion of a cholet, for the sake of my own sanity. I don’t quite know why I started my own journey into drawing with a cholet, of all buildings. I blame the high altitude, it goes straight to the head.

    I am an architectural historian, not an architect. I draw conclusions, not buildings. I can barely draw a straight line. My students are architects and designers, but I do not design. This has been one of the biggest struggles of my teaching career thus far. I encourage them to draw, yet I do not do it well, nor often. There has been a cognitive dissonance in that.

    So, with the time and distance this fellowship has granted me, I tried drawing as an exercise to see differently, not simply see different places. I tried my hand at drawing a cholet, not to create but to see, rather than merely look.

    Figure 19
    Figure 19. The author’s attempt at freehand drawing, July 2023.

    The result was a humbling, yet educational, disaster. Until now, I had not quite internalized Alain de Botton’s reflection that, “Drawing brutally shows our blindness to the true appearance of things.”6 The very act of drawing can transform a building from an overall impression to a series of interconnected forms, materials, challenges, and values. After drawing a cholet, for instance, I finally saw that windows are not merely windows: they are interlocking systems of impossibly straight lines that could also serve as free spaces between complex patterns. These cholets were far more intricate than my brain would admit.

    It was a deeply imperfect exercise, but that became the point. It was not about the product, but the process. It was an entirely uphill battle of detail, of not quite straight lines in asymmetrical arrangements. But my sad attempt at drawing a cholet still had massive gains for me. The level of ornamental detail on a cholet became even more impressive once I tried to draw one, poorly. I will share cholets with my students this fall semester, but I expect this post will be the only time I share my drawing. I will leave them and their much straighter lines to their own conclusions.

    Like international travel, drawing reminded me just how much there always is to learn. Exploring the unknown requires an approach of determined vulnerability. Drawing helped me become a student again.

    1 Shafik Meghji, “Bolivia’s Soaring City,” Geographical (May 2022), 42–49.

    2 Alejandro Barrientos and Joaquin Cuevas, El Altopia (La Paz, Bolivia: Editorial El Cuervo, 2022), 8.

    3 Angus Mcnelly, “Baroque Modernity in Latin America: Situating Indigeneity, Urban Indigeneity and the Popular Economy,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 41.1 (2022): 6–22.

    4 Franck Poupeau, “Indigenous Cosmogony and Andean Architecture in El Alto, Bolivia,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (2020), 164–175.

    5 Eric Allen, “Architect Freddy Mamani has Transformed El Alto, Bolivia, Into a Mecca of Modern Architecture,” Architectural Digest (July 25, 2018).

    6 Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel (New York: Random House, 2002), 195.

  • A Year on the Road with my Iraqi Passport Studying War and Reconstruction across the World

    by Helena Dean | Aug 01, 2023

    Sundus Al-Bayati is the 2019 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

    I started this fellowship wanting to study cities that have experienced war, to learn which of their urban and spatial qualities today are attributed to decisions that were made during the reconstruction years by what was physically rebuilt after the war, or by policies that govern a city’s development and growth. I wanted to understand the irreversible long-term consequences of wars on place-making across different cultures by observing what kind of cities wars produce.

    I began with the same question in each city I visited: what was driving the narrative of reconstruction when the war ended? Political ideology? Economic rebirth? A need to break from a difficult past? Opportunities to correct certain problems in the urban environment that were suddenly liberated from constraints of historic preservation? 

    Berlin was the perfect city to begin this research because not only was it destroyed during WWII by allied bombing but for 30 years it was a divided city and the ideological battleground between East and West during the Cold War. Berlin is one of the best examples to observe how architecture could be utilized to express and cement political ideologies when looking at the reconstruction of West and East Berlin side by side. It is also a city that still interrogates the assumptions behind what was rebuilt, neglected or demolished after the war and the end of Nazi Germany, always contending between coming to terms with its tainted past or moving past it. The Humboldt Forum in Berlin is a good example of how the questions and debates of post-war reconstruction can continue for decades, because what is eventually built has the power to tell its own version of history.

    collage of news stories
    Figure 1. A snapshot of recent articles following the opening of the Humboldt Forum

    sketch of buildings
    Figure 2. My sketch illustrating the history of the site

    The second guiding question for my research was: what replaced destroyed neighborhoods or buildings of historical importance when the war was over? Who had the power to decide what should be built? In Warsaw, the new communist government and the public were determined to rebuild an exact replica of the Old Town after the Germans obliterated it as they fled Poland. For the Polish people, the attack on Warsaw was akin to cultural cleansing and rebuilding a facsimile of the Old Town was a way to preserve a cherished record of Polish history notwithstanding the lack of architectural documentation that was needed to build the demolished quarter.

    colorful building facades

    plaza with colorful building facades
    Figures 3–4. Warsaw’s Old Town

    While the unique cultural context of each city produced a different approach to reconstruction, as I went from one place to another, I tried to observe what similarities war-torn cities in their reconstructed states share. Were there universal symptoms that plagued the post-war city that could be learned from and avoided as governments, policymakers, planners, architects, and other actors rush to rebuild cities ravaged by wars in Ukraine or the other lesser covered war-torn cities in Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan? Early on in my fellowship travel, it became apparent to me that destruction of architectural and cultural heritage by the development-driven approach of a global free-market capitalism, often led by foreign development companies, pose an equal, if not exceeding, threat than wars on the built environment. War-torn cities are especially vulnerable to this type of sweeping, large-scale urban transformations as it is one of the first viable paths towards economic recovery. In addition, the intervention of the international community bringing investment and aid to the post-war city means that decisions of what should be rebuilt are no longer rooted in the needs and desires of the local context. As I observed in Sarajevo, Istanbul, and Seoul, the result of this market-driven reconstruction is an increasing commodification of urban space that produces a standardized global aesthetic of apartment towers and shopping malls, making cities across different cultures and continents look the same. 

    view of modern building from street
    Figure 5. BBI Centar, a shopping mall in Sarajevo, part of a privately owned development that was built after the war to replace an iconic state-owned department store, Robna kuca Sarajka, that stood on the site since 1975

    modern glass skyscraper
    Figure 6. Sarajevo City Center

    aerial view of city surrounded by mountains

    view of city from mountain
    Figures 7–8. View of Seoul from Inwangsan Mountain

    Seoul is still trying to correct the aggressive government-controlled urban development of the first 30 years after the Korean War. Reconstruction was only a functional means to achieving economic prosperity through accelerated industrialization, and frenzied building was led by industrial conglomerates that controlled South Korea’s economy. However, when the definitions of what it means to be a global city shifted in the early 2000s to encompass cultural, environmental, and historical characteristics of a city, Seoul began to shift its attention to reviving its old palaces and historical quarters that until then were neglected and in ruins. Until today, Seoul continues to struggle to rebrand its image from the efficient industrial city of high-rise towers that was born after the war to a cultural destination. Seoul is a good example of the risks of the early decisions of reconstruction that become lodged in the urban form and almost impossible to undo the losses to the historical and cultural identity of the city.

    Sarajevo’s reconstruction after the Bosnian War in 1995 is a cautionary tale of how a post-war city could be reshaped by external actors such as international aid organizations and foreign governments who, as donors, often set the priorities of reconstruction for the city. For Sarajevo, not only did these interventions ignore real needs like the importance of recovering sites of cultural significance that brought different groups of people together, but the flow of foreign capital followed along political and ethnic lines, exacerbating the divisions between Bosniaks and Serbs in Sarajevo. 

    A paternalistic approach to reconstruction that is disengaged from the local context is not uncommon within the context of international aid in post-conflict cities. In 2020, UNESCO, with the support of the UAE, announced a competition for the reconstruction of Al-Nouri Mosque in Mosul, in my home country of Iraq. The mosque was damaged in 2017 by ISIS. The winning entry by an Egyptian team caused an outcry from Iraqi architects and residents of Mosul who saw the design architecturally divorced from the vernacular of Mosul and closely resembling in materiality and language the architecture of the UAE, who is funding the project. The alien design is currently under construction despite the controversy and pleading from renowned Iraqi architects like Ihsan Fethi.

    damaged mosque

    ruins of mosque and city
    Figures 9–10. A ruined Al-Nouri Mosque in Mosul (Image from archdaily.com)

    architect's rendering of modern mosque
    Figure 11. The winning competition entry to reconstruct Al-Nouri Mosque (Image from https://news.un.org)


    When I came across the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship, I had for a long time this research idea to explore how the numerous wars in Iraq shaped my hometown of Baghdad, including the 2003 war, which I grew up under. It was a topic that I began exploring in some of my research papers in undergraduate and graduate school but couldn’t find a place for within my academic and professional career. I found that when the issue of war and architecture are explored, it is often within the framework of immediate emergency response such as the design of temporary and modular housing to mitigate a refugee crisis. But as someone who had a lived experience of war and who had seen the destruction of my hometown, I understood that rebuilding in such contexts encompassed more abstract notions that related to people’s sense of place and history, considerations that went beyond mere survival. So when I discovered the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship, my research fell into place: in order to begin to understand how to rebuild a city, like Baghdad, that had lost so much of its architectural heritage, I had to look elsewhere, at other cities that have been destroyed and rebuilt to learn what their stories of reconstruction could teach us about the challenges and risks in designing for post-war societies. 

    The most valuable gift of this fellowship was that of time: time spent reading about each city I visited; time spent walking, sketching, writing, and thinking. Even time spent processing some of my own experience of war in relation to the history of wars and conflicts I was studying. Spending a month on average in each city allowed me to observe not only what was destroyed and rebuilt but the quality of the urban experience in terms of access to public transport, walkability, public space, parks, and cultural experiences. This had added a valuable dimension to my research that I had not anticipated. The transformative last year and a half of travel and exploration showed me that research alone is not enough to understand and conclude what a building or a city is like. I am very grateful to the Society of Architectural Historians for granting me the opportunity to launch this research project, which will continue to be part of my future work beyond this fellowship. 

  • Report on Drawing Connections, a Sketchbook-led Walking Tour of the French Quarter of New Orleans

    by Helena Dean | Jul 24, 2023

    Drawing Connections, a sketchbook-led walking tour of the French Quarter of New Orleans funded by an American Architecture and Landscape Field Trip grant from the Society of Architectural Historians, has been created and is now a regular offering of the Friends of the Cabildo (FOC) and Louisiana State Museum (LSM). In total, Drawing Connections has reached 574 students between 3rd grade and college. While the reporting period for the grant may be at a close, this program will continue for years to come; currently there are 228 students from four schools registered for Drawing Connections in July and August of 2023.

    students sketching

    The planning and preparations needed for Drawing Connections guided walking tours consisted of the creation of the guided sketchbook and the training of volunteer tour guides. The sketchbook began in January 2022 with Barbara Holdsworth (FOC) and Chris Cook (LSM) preparing the first rough draft. Consulting architects Sandra Baptie and Charles Ruello first reviewed the sketchbook in February 2022. Both Sandra and Charles also contributed drawings to the sketchbook; Sandra for the Creole Cottage and Shotgun pages, Charles for the Historic Preservation pages. In addition, an early draft of the sketchbook was reviewed and critiqued by architect and Friends of the Cabildo board president Robert Cangelosi, Jr. After edits, the sketchbook rough draft was sent to the graphic designer. Barbara Holdsworth and Chris Cook each contributed over 30 hours to this project, including 14 hours of meetings and 5 hours of trainings.

    students sketch at tables outside

    While work on the sketchbook was ongoing, Barbara Holdsworth and Chris Cook began recruitment efforts for the volunteer tour guides. Using the pool of volunteers available through the Friends of the Cabildo, two potential guides were recruited to help develop the walking tour.

    students looking at statue

    Friends of the Cabildo walking tour guide program graduates Roger Nadeau and Carrie Smith worked with Chris Cook on the timing and number of stops for the walking portion. We piloted this tour in partnership with Historic BK House and Gardens' arKIDtecture Crunp. In three 2.5-hour sessions in June 2022, Roger and Carrie led a total of 36 kids ranging in age from 8 to 13 on the Drawing Connections tour. Despite the heat of New Orleans in June, we were able to adjust the timing as well as devise strategies for weather-driven adaptations. Feedback from the arKIDtecture educators was incorporated into the final draft of the sketchbook. In the fall of 2022, we experimented with college students on this tour, giving it to a total of 62 students from Louisiana State University and Texas A&M University.

    In February, 2023, Chris Cook and Barbara Holdsworth organized a tour guide training session led by Carrie Smith and Sandy Baptie. Seventeen guides completed the training and remain available to lead this tour.

    Between December, 2022, and May, 2023, we were able to serve 476 students between 3rd and 12th grade.

    group of students in front of arch

    Drawing Connections was advertised by mentions in the Louisiana State Museum's educators' newsletter as well as the Friends of the Cabildo's newsletter. Direct outreach efforts included hand-delivery of program flyers to area schools and participation in the April 2023 New Orleans Public School Resource Fair. Chris Cook presented on Drawing Connections at the Louisiana Department of Education's Teacher Leader Summit in New Orleans on May 31, 2023; 168 teachers were registered to attend Chris' session and all received sketchbooks.

    As mentioned above, Drawing Connections is now a regular offering of the Louisiana State Museum and Friends of the Cabildo, and as bookings continue to come in for 2023, we wish to sincerely thank the Society of Architectural Historians for the funding to create and launch this program.

  • Member Stories: Destiny Kirumira

    by Helena Dean | Jul 24, 2023

    Destiny Kirumira is a PhD student in the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture at McGill University. She lives in Montreal, and has been a member of SAH since 2021.

    Can you tell us about your career path?

    After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and Physics from the University of Alberta in 2018, I completed my Master of Architecture at the University of Calgary in 2021. I am currently completing my Ph.D. in Architecture at McGill University, which centers on the architecture of Black settlements in western Canada. My research attempts to reconcile the roots of racism which have limited research on the contributions of Black people in the field. Since being at McGill, I have been awarded the Inaugural Indigenous and Black Engineering and Technology Ph.D. Project (IBET) award, which has opened up doors to so many amazing opportunities and connections. Since then, I have had the pleasure of meeting a plethora of other Black scholars within and surrounding our field who have supported my academic journey greatly.

    What projects are you currently working on?

    Now that I have completed my comprehensive examination, I will be focusing on visiting archives and conducting fieldwork. I want to give this research as much attention as possible and have tried not to overwhelm this time with too many additional projects. That being said, I will also be contributing a chapter to an upcoming book project on racism in universities and the impact of race on the design of university campuses. We are still in the early stages of the project, but I am looking forward to learning more about this topic and working with other incredible scholars on addressing these issues.

    Do you have a particular memory of when you first became aware of the significance of architecture or when you knew you wanted to study it?

    My upbringing taught me about the significance of architecture and the role it can play in people’s lives. I was born in Germany to Ugandan parents who both valued education. Growing up my parents made an effort to surround our family with people from as many walks of life as possible with different ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. This meant I saw some of the most dire and affluent living conditions during my younger years, and it framed how I saw space and the possibility of architecture’s inert power. By the time I was ten, I had seen more than a dozen spatial organizations of apartment living rooms, several ways of decorating that reflected people’s heritage, and the way religion can shape or alter the way we see even the most ordinary of spaces.

    My awe for design and architecture only grew when I was fortunate enough to have a close family friend of mine be an architect whose work I greatly admired. Her modern church designs in a German landscape that was draped in Gothic cathedrals inspired me and left me wanting more. It was then that knew I wanted to study architecture and I have not changed my mind yet.

    What is your biggest professional challenge?

    Throughout my career, my biggest professional challenge has been the devaluation of lived experience and how it has been weaponized against me in an effort to underestimate my expertise. Professors and fellow colleagues have in the day-to-day discussion surrounding my research focus diminished or dismissed the insights that lie in my Black lived experience, and yet praised scholars who relied on the very same wealth of knowledge for their work. The field is still slow to recognize other forms of knowledge, and it has held us back until recently.

    When and how did you become involved with SAH?

    I became involved with the SAH at the beginning of my PhD, in the fall of 2021. My supervisor, Dr. Ipek Türeli, was the Chair of the Minority Scholars Affiliate Group and offered me the position of technical assistant to the affiliate group. Since then, I have been a member of the SAH and have just attended my first SAH conference this past spring.

    Can you tell us about your work with the SAH Minority Scholars Affiliate Group?

    As a technical assistant, I had the opportunity to see behind the curtain and learn what it means to run and organize an affiliate group at the SAH. Beyond running the communications of the affiliate, which included our newsletter, I also organized opportunities for our members to connect with each other through events hosted throughout the academic year. Our newsletters allowed me to see and curate the many new opportunities that were being created both inside and outside the SAH for our members. My position also allowed me an inside look at how governance works in the SAH and received advice from senior minority scholars on how to navigate the academic world. Though I have stepped down from the role to focus on my doctoral studies, I hope to continue supporting the affiliate group and all of its endeavours in the future.

    Do you have a vision for how SAH should evolve in the future?

    SAH needs a cultural shift beyond the inclusion or uplifting of its minority or marginalized members. I think many organizations over the past three years have implemented some structural maneuvers to try to balance the scales. The efficacy of these actions is still under review, and many would argue that they are simply not enough, and they would be right. But perhaps worse yet, is the urgent need for white folks to see the benefit of those who were or are sidelined, and not given opportunities finally having access to reaching their own potential. If this mental shift does not occur, then it will only be a matter of time until we revert to the decades of injustice we had before. Empathy, no matter how radical it is, is not enough. We must see the success of others to be our success. And for many marginalized groups, that has not been the case which means trust needs to be rebuilt.

    What advice would you give to someone who wants to enter your field?

    This may seem as though I am trying to evade the question, but I think the advice I would give would greatly depend on the person who is seeking advice and the extent to which I know them. Moreover, all I can really provide them is largely based on what I have experienced, and perhaps to some extent, the advice others who have similar experiences as mine, would have advised.

    The only advice I can impart is to protect at all costs the very idealistic, impassioned, and perhaps even naïve reason you entered the field in the first place. Above all else, this must be your prized possession, to fuel what it is that excited you about the material and architectural landscape we live in. I know of many "would-have-been-architects" who have made the decision to move to the study of buildings instead of the designing of them: a decision, I cannot say I have fully succumbed to quite yet. Most of them often cite an inability to draw, a disinterest in the design process itself, or a mere fascination with a building or site's historical background as the reasons they don’t regret this decision. But in the midst of securing teaching positions, publishing, securing funding, and somehow finding the energy to be a person, I find they can seldom remember the very reason their topic or building type captivated them in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, it is a human response to an atmosphere that often breeds burnout and demands hyper-productivity, but a younger version of each of us would be astounded by all we have learned and understood about the buildings that predate us and surround us. So, I would advise anyone who wants to enter your field to have a good reason to do so. And hold onto that feeling of wonder and excitement, because it can be fleeting.

    Throughout my studies, I have been approached by many other Black women who either said they thought about doing architecture or studying buildings, but immediately felt inadequate or intimidated by the still largely white and male-dominated field. The inclusivity of marginalized populations into the academic sphere in our field has been a slow one, but one certainly worth the while. It’ll take some time for a Black woman like me to not be the only Black woman in my classes but by then I’ll be done with my PhD. But to the Black women I have encountered both preceding me in my studies and those who have yet to consider it, I would advise you to congratulate your achievements daily. If you have felt the sting of isolation, disdain for our "not white enough" topics or lack of support both in and outside our faculties, you’ll understand how there is a need to celebrate our steadfastness. Our big successes and triumph have only lately received more notoriety, but the daily tenacity needed to imagine yourself in a place you are not welcome and make that a reality, deserves our highest respect. We are due awards and accolades we may not receive or have yet to but let us celebrate all we have survived in the meanwhile.

    And if somewhere you come across a young Black woman who is thinking about entering our field, tell her immediately that she belongs here. Sometimes we all need a little help imagining ourselves where we are yet to be.

    SAH members engage with the history of the built environment through a broad array of specializations, professional fields, and areas of interest. Member Stories is a regular feature that recognizes the expertise and unique experiences of our members.

  • Composting Crisis into Community

    by Helena Dean | Jul 17, 2023

    Annie Schentag is a 2023 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

    Colombian cities can turn trash into treasure. I mean that literally—some of the most inspiring architecture I experienced in Colombia was built on former garbage dumps. In Medellín and Bogotá, major government initiatives have transformed landfills into libraries. Crime zones have become community centers. The least loved places have become the most central to the nation’s urban regeneration. In terms of urban design and public policies, the United States has a lot to learn from this nation. I spent almost a month in Colombia, absorbing every lesson like a sponge that I am still wringing out.

    Bogotá’s public libraries inspire grandiose dreams of writing novels on rainy days. There is something moody and intellectual about the city overall, full of turtlenecks and coffee shops and charming fireplace-heated nooks in which to read and write. The libraries scattered across the city manifest this atmosphere in concrete, brick, and wood, each interpreting it in their own way. In an ideal life, I’d spend each week writing from a different library in Bogotá. There are over a dozen of them, constructed across disparate parts of the city as major public spaces.

    Intended to serve as community anchors, these libraries not only hold books but also host events, provide free classes, and serve as distribution centers for major public services. Most of these libraries were constructed in the last 10–50 years, and many of them are located in neighborhoods that once had little else to boast about. All of them are architect-designed wonders that feature different utopic visions of literacy as the path towards community and connectivity.

    Figure 1
    Figure 1. The main reading room at the Virgilio Barco Library in Bogotá.

    The Virgilio Barco Library is perhaps one of the better-known examples of Rogelio Salmona’s work in Bogotá. Constructed in 2001 as part of the three mega-library projects across Bogotá, this library is a major destination today, visited by about 60,000 people per month.1 The site posed several challenges to the architect, one of the biggest names in contemporary Colombian architecture. The large triangular site was located on a former dump for construction materials. Rather than constructing a more obvious triangular-shaped building, Salmona designed the library as a snail-shaped edifice in harmonious dialogue with a large, landscaped park. Its plan and orientation require a rambling pace, winding through ramps and promenades inside and out.

    Figure 2
    Figure 2. Exterior entrance to the Virgilio Barco Library.

    Figure 3
    Figure 3. A series of stepped water features leads to the main entrance of the Virgilio Barco Library.

    Entrance to the Virgilio Barco Library occurs through a series of modern lintels that provides a sense of compression and release, following a pathway of water features that connects to moat-like elements throughout the park. Inside, spirals unfold in graceful curvature. Salmona’s characteristic attention to detail shines through in materials, evident in his own design for a specific wood grain reference in pre-cast concrete and hand-selected glazed bricks in elegant patterns. In addition to the main reading rooms, the three-story building includes an open-air auditorium, multi-purpose gathering spaces, a cafeteria, shops, and exhibition space. At every turn, large pane glass windows frame thoughtfully curated views of the park outside.

    Figure 4. A scale model of the Virgilio Barco Library.

    Figure 5. Brick, concrete, and wood details grace one of the stairways inside the Virgilio Barco Library.

    Figure 6. The Virgilio Barco Library is designed to frame views that connect the inside to the park outside.

    Across the city of Bogotá to the southwest, the El Tintal Public Library is a study in diffused lighting and urban rejuvenation. Located—you guessed it—on a former garbage dump, the building was designed to reference its prior use in both topography and design. Designed by architect Daniel Bermudez Samper in 2001, the library was formed from a partial reuse of an abandoned two-story concrete waste management plant on the site. The upper floor is approached directly from the outside via a reused slope formerly used for truck entrances, now absorbed into a large public park surrounding the building.

    Figure 7. Exterior view of El Tintal Public Library in Bogotá. A public services fair occurred that day under the tent.

    Figure 8. Raised entrance on former truck approach to the El Tintal Public Library.

    Figure 9. Second floor lobby accessed from former truck entrance. 

    In the main reading room, a sequence of lateral lightwells serve both an aesthetic and practical function. The apparent simplicity of these lightwells, which look almost like garbage exhaust ventilation on the exterior, is remarkable. They diffuse the lighting to protect the books inside, but also transform concrete walls into a visual attraction itself. They serve as a graceful reminder that design can transform some of the least-valued places into successful public spaces.

    Figure 10. Spiral stair in El Tintal Public Library.

    Figure 11. View of reading room with concrete wall skylights visible to the left.

    In Medellín, the Moravian Cultural Center hosts a constant array of after-school programs, social events, classes, and recreational facilities. Designed by Rogelio Salmona from 2004 to 2007, the building exhibits his signature use of red brick in a series of asymmetrical curves and angles. Situated atop a former landfill hill alongside a small creek, the building responds to the context of its urban environment rather than dominating it. This building has transformed a former garbage dump into an active hub, providing well-used public space that intentionally keeps at-risk youth away from drug activity by connecting them to one another instead.

    Figure 12. The Moravian Cultural Center in Medellín.

    Figure 13. View of the Moravian Cultural Center in the context of its site, on a former garbage dump next to a creek.

    It was impossible to get a "clean" picture of this building, without people in it—and that’s the point of its design. I could not participate in more traditional forms of architectural photography that typically separate the building from the people using it. Instead, the daily crowds of people surrounding the building demonstrate its success. This building is used in many ways and at many times of day by many people. It is the opposite of a landfill. It cultivates community.

    This community center is also just blocks away from the Jardín Botánico, a stunning, free public botanic garden that provides a strong dose of nature within the density of the city. It is connected to the working-class Moravia neighborhood by bike lanes busy with teenagers riding free public bikes to connect to the metro, the planetarium, a science museum, and several major public squares. On a Friday afternoon, each of these places were filled with local residents of all ages- walking, biking, eating, talking, playing music, doing whatever people do on a Friday afternoon. This neighborhood was alive, vivid, lived-in like a familiar shoe.

    Figure 14. The Orquideorama at the Jardín Botánico in Medellín.

    Figure 15. Public space at the Parque de Deseos in Medellín.

    The designs for these buildings and spaces are gorgeous, but what is even more incredible to me is that people use these spaces, daily. In urban design, that often seems to be the biggest challenge, the x-factor that we can’t quite figure out. How do we attract people to public spaces and make sure they will adopt these places as their own? Medellín has figured out that magic formula.


    Changing the Conversation

    Public architecture, public spaces, public transportation, and public programming—this has been a major series of interconnected investments aimed to improve quality of life for Colombian residents. Basic human rights and quality of life are clear priorities in the nation’s policies and practices, ranging from affordable housing to public health to socially inclusive legislation. The nation has installed its own fiber-optic network cables to provide free internet access in all public spaces and increased transportation networks to serve the poorest communities.

    Figure 16. Colombia’s approach to high design for the common good is evident in examples such as Rogelio Salmona’s Torres del Parque (1968–1970), a public housing tower with elegant, shared spaces and individual balconies in Bogotá.

    Colombia is not a silenced state. Both authorities and residents have acknowledged the negative, persistent realities that the country faces as a method of collective improvement. The nation faces the challenge of overcoming a reputation that is no longer a reality in most places. Visiting Colombia, you will not encounter the land of that shall-not-be-named Netflix show and the shall-not-be-named infamous drug lord. His name is so controversial in Medellín, actually, that some tour guides will not say it aloud. Colombian residents do not hide that reality, but they seem more interested in moving forward.

    Frankly, I am not interested in discussing Colombia in relation to its violent drug-fueled history. Most people I met were not particularly interested in discussing it either. They acknowledge it as an unfortunate fact, as a frustrating era of unfathomably complex opinions and losses. People do not pretend it never happened. They incorporate it as one major aspect of a far more complex, diverse, and rich national identity. There is so much Colombia to discuss, outside of drugs. They are working hard to change that conversation, and I am happy to follow their lead.

    Even as an outsider, a week in Bogotá provided a quick, introductory level education to the major issues faced in the city right now: debates over oil production, legalizing marijuana sales, displaced residents and refugees, sexuality inclusive policies, and femicide. Organized demonstrations occur regularly and generally peacefully in the nation’s capital, typically in major public squares and in front of government buildings. Artful signage with compelling language hangs on official police barricades right in front of military buildings, officially embraced as a form of dialogue for everyone to see even if it is explicitly criticizing the military or government.

    Figure 17. The Plaza de Bolivar is a major public space for demonstrations and celebrations in Bogotá.  

    I learned all of this mostly by simply walking around, being in the city. By viewing visual, performative, and political dialogue, the city makes it easy to learn the discussions at hand and the stakes involved. It is a place in conversation, with each other and with officials and with the city itself. Public spaces such as Plaza de Bolivar serve so many key functions, especially in hosting demonstrations, debates, and celebrations. The nation’s capital does not hide its challenges but instead takes pride in the ability to work them out collectively and publicly. Despite, even because of, all of these challenges and problems, the overwhelming attitude seems to be a sense of pride in urban regeneration. There is a lot to be proud of.


    Transformation and Tourism

    The Medellín neighborhood of Comuna 13 is an often-cited example of the city’s urban regeneration practices. This community was originally an informal settlement that experienced some of the worst violence during the 1990s and 2000s, but today it is a major destination for learning about Medellín’s transformation.

    Figure 18. Comuna 13 is a neighborhood located on steep hills at the edge of Medellín.

    Figure 19. Public pathways in Comuna 13, with the central city in the distant valley.

    The area’s steep hills and location at the west edge of the city made it a key point for controlling shipment networks. As a result, Comuna 13 was essentially under control of cartels for many years. The area was also physically disconnected from the civic resources in the center city of Medellín, requiring a steep climb along narrow, disconnected paths of stairs for nearly an hour in order to reach major hospitals, schools, and places of employment. Even once Escobar was killed in 1993, Comuna 13 continued to suffer from the lack of basic public resources.

    The installation of the cable car system in 2004 and a series of escalators in 2011 proved to be major turning points for Comuna 13. The escalators reduced a difficult climb to a pleasant five-minute ride. Connected by a series of landings, these long escalators provided a free ride up and down the steep hills, covered to protect riders from sun and rain. At the bottom of the hill, one could leave Comuna 13 and ride the cable car into the city, where it connects to the metro to access any major part of Medellín—and along with it, hospitals, schools, markets, and other essential services.

    Figure 20. Entrance to one of the public escalators in Comuna 13.

    Figure 21. Artwork adorns many surfaces in Comuna 13, with shops accessed by long sets of stairs alongside the escalators.

    The city did not build expensive new schools or hospitals in Comuna 13, it instead invested in connecting this community to other communities as a first step. It is a mind-blowing example that provides a major lesson: public transportation can be one of the most effective ways to address and ameliorate poverty, violence, and injustice. In 1991, Comuna 13 was the "murder capital of the world." Thirty years later, it is a major tourist destination on the rise.

    I had the privilege of visiting Comuna 13 five years ago in 2018, when only two tours were offered. Visiting again in June 2023, it is clear this community has become a tourist hotspot for many types of national and international visitors. Now there are dozens of tours, a whole street of vendors, Comuna 13 branded t-shirts and hats designed by local artists, and even nightlife that occurs in select locations after dark. The area has clearly embraced tourism as part of its economic regeneration.

    Figure 22. View of street at entrance to Comuna 13 in 2018.

    Figure 23. Tourists watch a breakdancing demonstration on the same street in 2023.

    The ongoing story of Comuna 13 is presented on tours as one of resilience and regeneration, not solely of victimized suffering. Many of these tours are led by former gang members, who established their own tour companies and obtained funding partially as a result of the 2016 peace deal. Just to be clear: that means that the Colombian government funds the telling of these stories and does not control the way they are told. Instead, it provides employment that simultaneously strengthens the local economy and empowers residents to transform and translate their own history.

    Bullet holes still dot the sides of buildings in Comuna 13, but they are incorporated into official public murals. Rather than gang-related graffiti, the public art of Comuna 13 is celebrated worldwide. Major competitions occur in order to paint in Comuna 13, with famous names like Chota13 and YesGraff represented alongside those of local residents. These pieces are a major form of storytelling, which attract many tourists on art-specific tours. They are also places of play, expression, and narrative exploration for residents, a part of daily life as it continues to unfold.

    Figure 24. A glimpse of daily life in Medellín’s Comuna 13.

    Making Connections

    Public transportation is a major point of pride in Medellín and Bogotá, and I can see why. They are the cleanest, most efficient, and most affordable systems I have ever experienced. Celebrated as best practices of public transportation worldwide, these systems prioritize the daily needs of the communities they serve. It is a form of urban activism in Colombian cities, installed and used as a means to connect assistance to those who need it most.

    The Metro and Tranvia cable car system in Medellín was first constructed in the mid 1990s and expanded in the early 2000s, during a time when the city was experiencing major violence and unrest in the midst of drug trade conflicts. Today it serves the city of about 2.5 million people, connecting the informal settlements on the Andean foothills with the many central neighborhoods in the Aburra Valley for the cost of about 75 cents (USD) per ride.

    Figure 25. Typical station on the Medellín Metro system.

    Figure 26. The cable car system in Medellín.

    In Bogotá, the Transmillenio was first constructed in 2000 and expanded again in 2006, the second system of its kind in the world after Curitiba, Brazil. Essentially operating as a metro in disguise, this Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system has large buses occupy their own lanes with designated stops around the city and into the tall peaks of the Andes for about .70 cents (USD) per ride. Many urban studies have already praised Medellín and Bogotá’s systems for their quick construction, environmentally sensitive technology, effective routes, and socioeconomic impacts.2

    Figure 27. The Transmilenio BRT system in Bogotá features separate lanes designated for buses, with specific stations at the center of the street such as this one.

    Figure 28. Every Sunday in Bogotá, over 10 miles of streets are closed to vehicular traffic for the Ciclovia for 7 hours. This biking- and pedestrian-centered event has been so successful that it occurs every Sunday in other Colombian cities as well.

    What often gets lost in these discussions, however, is the sheer joy of riding these networks. In their routes and signage, they encourage safe and friendly human connections. In Medellín, a voice recording on the overhead speaker periodically reminds everyone to inhale and exhale amidst announcements. Small signs dot the trains, stating "calidad de vida" (quality of life) as a reminder of the motivations behind the Metro.

    Commissioned artwork adorns major stations, but the trains remain squeaky clean inside and out. I did not witness a single piece of litter in any train, bus, or station in Colombia. I did not witness nor experience any interactions that were anything less than cordial—no violence, no pickpocketing, no harassment. I felt safe in Colombia, which seemed as important to locals as it did to me. I felt safe because the nation works hard to create a sense of perceived safety and takes great pride in that safety. No one will mess with the Medellín Metro. It is a known and celebrated asset, and it is often the safest place to be.

    On Medellín’s Metro and Bogotá’s Transmillenio, I witnessed and experienced numerous acts of kindness that might seem extraordinary in other places. Strangers of disparate socioeconomic backgrounds sharing kind words, sharing seats, sharing food. Just a typical commute that provides the "calidad de vida" that Colombia has earned the hard way and now revels in, every day. It embraces a romance of mundanity that can feel like a privilege after it has not felt like a right for so long. In short, riding public transportation in Medellín and Bogotá felt like a microcosm of how living in cities should feel and can be, at its best.

    1 Laura Saenz, “Architecture Classics: Virgilio Barco Library,” Arch Daily (May 17, 2023). Accessed July 2, 2023 at https://www.archdaily.com/1000228/architecture-classics-virgilio-barco-library-rogelio-salmona

    2 There are at least dozens of studies by accomplished and emerging scholars on these transit systems. Perhaps the one that has influenced me the most (about Bogota in general) is: Berney, Rachel. Learning from Bogotá: Pedagogical Urbanism and the Reshaping of Public Space. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017.

  • Freedom and Confinement: Voyages to Colombia

    by Helena Dean | Jun 28, 2023

    Annie Schentag is a 2023 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

    The decision to sail from Panama to Colombia, rather than fly, may seem like an odd choice for my itinerary. Famously, there are not many buildings around for an architectural historian to view while at sea. There are actually more than you might think, but that wasn’t the initial motivation behind the journey anyway.

    The city of Cartagena, Colombia, is connected to Panama City through a complex system of historic and contemporary shipping networks. Both cities were and are still part of an extensive system of Atlantic trade, historically functioning as key ports in the ever-present triangle of enslaved people, natural resources, and manufactured goods. Due to their geographical positions along the coast, both cities were among the earliest permanent European settlements in the Americas. As a result, both also faced the challenge of protecting their resources from pirates and European confrontations vying for control of the New World on the Caribbean Sea.

    ruins of fort along coast
    Figure 1: Ruins of San Lorenzo Fort in Panama

    view from beneath rounded arch
    Figure 2: Detail of round arched brick ceiling with view of Chagres River at San Lorenzo Fort

    view of city from fort
    Figure 3: View atop San Castillo Fort in Cartagena

    Aside from the canal, these historic shipping networks are still visibly present at their UNESCO-designated forts: San Lorenzo and Portobelo in Panama and the San Castillo Fort and Fortification Walls in Cartagena. These forts all face the Caribbean Sea, and together comprise the most extensive and one of the most complete systems of fortifications in South America. Having visited each of these forts, I can say that they tell similar narratives of swashbuckling pirates and colonialism. Some walls are original, others have been reconstructed. In any case, tourists sure do like seeing those cannons pointed outwards.

    view of skyline from atop a fort
    Figure 4: Canons aimed towards the Caribbean Sea at San Castillo Fort. Bocagrande district of Cartagena in the distance

    I wanted to understand the historic relationship between these two cities, so I needed to view both according to their original primary entrances: from the sea. I spent five days sailing from Panama to Colombia on Alessandra, an 85’ wooden schooner that was built in New Zealand in 1988 as a near-replica of a 16th-century pirate ship. It was both more glamorous and less glamorous than you might imagine.

    boat docked near the shore
    Figure 5: The Alessandra, my transport through the San Blas Islands

    There is something ancient about sailing. In contrast to the mechanized sights and sounds of the cargo boats passing through the Panama Canal, sailing is full of creaks and breezes. Sailing provides a tangible reality of the in-between that is often unspoken in histories of seafaring. After only five days at sea, I became strongly aware of all of the nothingness in between destinations. I also became strongly aware of the lack of plumbing and fresh water.

    Sailors and pirates surely must have fought boredom between conquests. They must have entertained themselves with social dramas and nightly storytelling in ways that do not often surface in contemporary tales of their own historic adventures. Sailing as transportation is time made visible, a manifestation of distance. After days at sea on a sailboat, "where" becomes "when," with only a vast expanse of "now" forming swells to propel you forward. Until the destination appears out of nowhere, and everything becomes "suddenly."

    view of small island from boat
    Figure 6: View from the Alessandra of one the many San Blas Islands

    Yet even this vision of a "vast expanse of nothing but sea," is not true. We sailed through the Comarca de San Blas, a semi-autonomous province that belongs to the Guna Yala. This Indigenous population of about 60,000 has multiple villages across the 365 San Blas islands. Many of these islands are sandbars that are too perfect to photograph, paradise made unbelievable by decades of computer screensavers. Other islands host dense, sophisticated villages.

    view of road in village
    Figure 7: View of road in Guna Yala village

    central court surrounded by huts
    Figure 8: This court forms a major public space in the village

    carved wooden doorway
    Figure 9: Detail of typical wooden entrance to Guna Yala storefront, likely hand carved local Mahogany


    The Guna Yala villages present a complex urban reality that appear seemingly out of nowhere. At one community of about 900–1,000 people, I could see there was indoor plumbing via PVC piping in straight lines visible under dirt roads. Public buildings are constructed of concrete while residences are of bamboo, each with an internal courtyard. A grid-like plan is oriented around key public spaces, with paved basketball courts, governance centers, and a public square designated for drinking a locally fermented alcohol on days where a female child is born. Coconuts are a form of currency and solar panels charge satellite dishes above palm-thatched roofs.

    solar panel near residence
    Figure 10: Detail of solar panel for individual residence

    residence with "Pepsi" logo
    Figure 11: Modernity mixes with tradition throughout this Guna Yala village

    Once we left the San Blas islands and headed to open sea, the term "new world" made a little more sense to me after having sailed across the Colombian border. Days at sea were punctuated by a distant shoreline of dense jungle on steep cliffs. There were whole days where no other boats were in sight, no visible buildings on the distant shoreline, only open sea in many directions. I couldn’t help but think of those European explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries, seeing this same coastline of dense jungle with no buildings. From this perspective on a boat, where everything is rich and green, so threateningly dense with forest, the New World they did not "discover" can still appear so completely illegible and alluring at the same time.

    The Colombia-Panama border is abstracted at sea, and only designated as a border in 1903 anyway. There were no boats or customs officers in sight, just a craggy outcropping. That is a truly delightful way to cross a border, borderless. I could not help but think that the Darién Gap looks a lot more romantic from sea than on land. Right now, there are thousands of vulnerable, determined individuals crossing that jungle to head north to the United States border.1 That jungle was too dense for Europeans to survive in hundreds of years ago, and for good reasons it is still labeled as "impassable" today. Yet here I am, waxing poetic about that jungle as a gorgeous, distant coastline. The way we approach a place deeply effects the way we understand its value, even if we only see it as a façade presented to the outside.

    sea with green hills in background
    Figure 12: View of border crossing at sea. The rocky outcropping marks the Colombian border and the jungle to the right is a portion of the Darién Gap.

    In travel, the way we first arrive somewhere foreign is rarely a great experience—usually it is a mess of baggage and vendors, traffic congestion and confusion, a vulnerable jostle of strangers at an airport or train station. But in sailing, I’ve experienced the privileged anticipation of a slow approach, the first appearance of land far in the distance, the civility of stone walls and chaotic markets as a promise to come.

    view from fort with canons
    Figure 13: Atop the walls of Cartagena as a ship docks

    The true façade of Cartagena is only visible when approaching from the ocean. On land it is delicious confusion, hard to tell where the primary "entrance" to the old city is except through the Clock Tower gate at the rear. Massive walls surround the perimeter of the UNESCO-designated old city, constructed of stone and coral in the 16th century to protect European claims to the city against pirates and other nations. According to UNESCO, these walls are the most remarkable system of fortifications in all of Latin America. Approaching from the sea, those walls seem impenetrable from the outside. For others, those walls may have resembled a cage to keep them inside instead.

    For many years, Cartagena de Indias was the primary port in South America for receiving enslaved peoples brought from Africa. Tour guides, preservation strategies, and museum exhibitions embrace the realities of this history. Much of the tourist infrastructure celebrates the mix of African, Indigenous Caribe, West Indies, and other cultures that comprise Cartagena’s population. Right outside the gates of the old town, the former Plaza de las Negras (Black Plaza) was renamed the Plaza de la Paz (Plaza of Peace), where demonstrations of African-influenced folkloric dances such as the Mapalé occur nightly.  This square historically functioned as a place where both enslaved and free blacks sold produce and meats at market.

    The museum at the Palace of the Inquisition tells a story of oppression in a different light. Housed in a set of three interconnected 18th-century houses forming a palace, it is one of the city’s most impressive examples of Spanish Colonial architecture. As the museum notes, however, focusing solely on the building’s architectural qualities would conceal the stories of unjust suffering and persecution that occurred inside. The Court of the Holy Office of the Inquisition was established in Cartagena in 1610, the third in the Americas after Mexico and Lima. During its 200 years of operation in the city, the Court investigated, tortured, and punished almost 900 people.

    The exhibits provide a remarkably nuanced, refreshing take on the Spanish Inquisition in South America. Details were provided regarding individual names and accusations, including information that countered those investigations. Exhibits on local medicinal and spiritual practices were arranged in direct contrast to accusations of witchcraft, for instance. The museum explicitly acknowledges torture and suffering without veering too far into fetishized dark tourism strategies. Above all, it promotes a clear message of tolerance and human rights. These exhibits, combined with the graffiti outside the museum doors, provide an unexpected contrast to the more typical educational plaques and whitewashed walls at the city’s restored Cathedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría, a major tourist destination just a few blocks away.

    platform surrounded by palm trees
    Figure 14: Courtyard of the Palace of the Inquisition

    Figure 15: Mural outside the entrance to the Palace of the Inquisition reads "Acknowledging our demons will set us free. Bye Inquisition!"

    nave of cathedral
    Figure 16: Inside the Cathedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría

    Cartagena is also the place where the first independence processes in America took place. It was the first province to become independent from Spain in 1811. Long before then, it also hosted the first free settlement of Africans on the continent, the town of Palenque de San Basillo. The town was founded in the 16th century by Benkos Biohó, a former African king from either the Democratic Republic of Congo or Angola, who was sold into slavery and escaped the slave port of Cartagena in 1599. Established over the next several decades due to a sophisticated, hidden information network that included braided hair in codes, Palenque became a refuge for Africans and those of African descent. Local authorities recognized the freedom of its inhabitants with mixed results in the early 1600s, and the town was officially declared free by the Spanish Crown in 1691. This made them the first free Africans in the Americas and Palenque the first free settlement on the continent. Today, women from Palenque still travel into Cartagena, wearing colorful dresses and carrying fruits atop their head to pose for photos with tourists, a modern incarnation of the palenquero.

    three men talk, graffiti on buildings in background
    Figure 17: The school of dance in Palenque, with palenquero language on the walls

    monument with figure of man reaching to the sky
    Figure 18: Monument to the founder of Palenque, Benkos Biohó

    I visited the town of Palenque on an impossibly hot day in June, about an hour’s drive inland from Cartagena. UNESCO declared the town a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005, and since then only a small number of tourists actually make their way to Palenque from Cartagena. I took a tour with Black Legacy Experiences, a company with strong ethics surrounding tourist engagement via participation in activities that promote and perpetuate the heritage of Palenque. Needless to say, I was the only white person on the tour and in the town. I noticed my awkwardness at that, then I got over it (mostly). I learned to dance a traditional dance (badly) with a group of school children, took a boxing lesson (badly), sampled some herbal medicines (tasty), helped prepare corn meal from scratch (badly), and formed a few sentences in the Palenquero language (barely).

    As the UNESCO designation indicates, Palenque has an oral heritage, an "intangible one." The buildings were all built in the last couple decades out of concrete. They were not the main attraction. How does one visit something officially deemed intangible? In other words, it was way outside of the comfort zone of a white American architectural historian who does not really study those methods or subjects.

    Without having earned it, I was warmly welcomed by people who were very excited to share their heritage with me. This is a living culture with open arms. Although I found myself wanting to be invisible, I could not hide behind a camera in order to take pictures of old buildings. I could not hide at all. I could not view or analyze from a distance, instead I had to participate in order to understand. It was the extremely uncomfortable type of cultural engagement that I’ll be forcing myself to do more often.

    1 Julie Turkewitz, “In Record Numbers, Venezuelans Risk a Deadly Trek To Reach the U.S. Border,” New York Times (October 7, 2022).

  • Member Stories: Maria Elisa Navarro Morales

    by Helena Dean | Jun 26, 2023

    Navarro Morales in front of the ColoseumMaria Elisa Navarro Morales is an architect and architectural historian. She lives in Dublin and has been a member of SAH since 2012.

    Can you tell us about your career path?

    My career developed slowly. I studied architecture at the Universidad de Los Andes in Colombia, a program I joined at a very young age and, as many others, I saw in architecture a good compromise between my love for math and my interest in art history. I was lucky to have studied at Los Andes in the late ‘90s in a program envisioned by a young director, Dr. Fabio Restrepo, who saw the importance of balancing design studio with the humanities and technology. This helped me appreciate aspects of the discipline beyond design, something that ultimately impacted my career. I graduated from a five-year professional program in 1999. After, I worked for a couple of years in offices in Bogota, but as most of the people of my generation, I ended up leaving a war-stricken Colombia in 2001. I think back at those years and realize how difficult it was to find your feet after leaving your country unwillingly, something many young people are faced with today. In 2005 while living in the US, I decided to apply to the MArch program in History and Theory at McGill University. I was familiar with the program since in 1998 I went to Montreal as an exchange student and took Prof. Alberto Pérez-Gómez's course, Architectural Intentions. When I arrived at the History and Theory program at McGill, I felt I had found my way and I decided to apply to the PhD program, a possibility I never considered as a young Colombian architect. I completed a PhD on the architectural theory of Juan Caramuel de Lobkowitz in 2013 under Prof. Pérez-Gómez´s supervision. While at McGill I  had the opportunity to teach as a summer replacement in the School of Architecture at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, in 2010. The following year I moved to Halifax to work as assistant professor at Dalhousie. At the end of 2013, the possibility to move back to Colombia appeared and in January 2014 I moved back to Colombia to work at the School of Architecture at Universidad de Los Andes. After spending five years in Colombia it became clear that the  opportunities for doing research and get the experience and exposure I sought are still very limited in Colombia, so I moved to Dublin in 2019, where I work as an assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin.

    What projects are you currently working on?

    My main project right now is a monograph on the architectural theory of Caramuel de Lobkowitz. This is a project that has developed over the last 10 years, first with my doctoral research where I read very carefully Caramuel´s treatise “Archtectura Civil Recta y Obliqua” and wrote a critical edition. More recently while doing archival work I discovered the unpublished fourth volume of “Architectura Civil” at the archives in Vigevano, which demonstrates that Caramuel’s treatise was published incomplete and makes necessary a revision of our interpretation of the treatise to date. In my book, I show how Caramuel used architecture to investigate political, philosophical, historical, theological, and astronomical questions. Through an in-depth study of Caramuel´s treatise, including the unpublished fourth volume, my book explores how early modern architecture was a tool and method for knowing the world.

    In addition to the manuscript, I am also preparing a transcription of the found manuscript, which I intend to publish in a digital edition.

    Do you have a particular memory of when you first became aware of the significance of architecture or when you knew you wanted to study it?

    One experience that marked me was working as a young architect in Bogotá at the end of the nineties. At the time the mayors of the city, Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñaloza, developed a policy to improve the living conditions of the city, and the office of urban planing developed many projects including the construction of sidewalks along some of the main commercial streets. Before this project, sidewalks in Bogota were considered private parking spaces for the shops facing it. They were developed in a patchwork manner without any consideration for continuity or accessibility. The project was designed at the central planning office and developed by individual architects’ firms, including the one I was working for at the time. There was a lot of resistance to the project at the time, especially shop owners who were concerned that removing the parking was going to affect their sales. When the project was finished, the city had many kilometers of public space, and the city was transformed. The sidewalks were real public space where people meet, walk, and go shopping and where everyone has the same rights to it.  I think this project is one of the first that showed me the importance of architecture and how the build environment can completely transform the lives of people with simple interventions.

    What is your biggest professional challenge?

    I think one challenge historians of any sort face today is how to negotiate a work that takes a very long time to produce with the immediacy that characterizes our society. I feel there is a lot of pressure to respond to current questions with our research and these questions change very quickly without us having time to think and respond to them. I think the challenge then is to remain focused and trust the importance of the research we do outside from current trends and be able to communicate this importance and timelessness.

    When and how did you become involved with SAH?

    I became part of SAH when I was doing my PhD and I presented a paper at the annual conference in 2013 in Buffalo, NY. I have been a member since then and presented papers in some of the annual meetings including Pasadena 2016 and the online conference in 2020. At this conference I met Prof. Jesus Escobar, whom I consider a mentor. Through SAH and the opportunities it advertises, I learned about the research project “Spanish Italy and the Iberian Americas,” which I joined from 2016 until 2023. Being a member of SAH has helped me build a network of scholars working that has significantly impacted my work.

    Do you have a vision for how SAH should evolve in the future?

    I think SAH is an impressive organization that supports architectural historians in many ways. I think the current initiatives of SAH IDEAS on inclusion, diversity, equity, accountability, and sustainability are commendable, and I hope to see them continue in the future. I have seen more and more the diversity of themes and geographies included in the conferences and in the journal. The Society supports students and academics in early stages and is active in supporting those with precarious or contingent positions. Personally, I find it reassuring to have an institution like SAH lobbying for us on these matters in the U.S.

    I think as a leader in the Americas SAH should find partners that will allow it to extend that support to Latin America. While other associations in the UK and Europe exist, scholars from Central and South America are less fortunate. I would love to see a Latin American chapter for SAH.

    What advice would you give to someone who wants to enter your field?

    This is a difficult question. The first thing I would say is that they are entering a fascinating and exciting field and that I hope they enjoy it as much as I do. I think it is important to be passionate about the topic one studies as it takes most of our time and lives. You have to be in love with what you study to stay interested and endure the hardships of academic life.

    My advice to people entering architectural history is to take time making decisions and informing themselves on the opportunities available to them. Architectural history is a rich field and I think it is important to take time deciding things like where and with whom to do a PhD as well as understanding what are the professional opportunities available. Academia is very competitive and with schools of architecture reducing their offerings on architectural history more and more, the jobs are few and competition very high.

    I think the future of architectural history is in the hands of those entering in the field, and they have a difficult challenge in making changes that are necessary. We need to strive for more jobs with more stability and we have a long way to go to achieve equity and diversity. But I believe if newcomers are aware of the challenges and the value of their work, architectural history will be in good hands.

    SAH members engage with the history of the built environment through a broad array of specializations, professional fields, and areas of interest. Member Stories is a regular feature that recognizes the expertise and unique experiences of our members.

  • From Local to Global: Interpreting the Golden Arch in Panama City

    by Helena Dean | Jun 12, 2023

    Annie Schentag is a 2023 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

    Of all the incredible buildings in Panama City, it was actually a McDonald’s that surprised me the most. It certainly was not on my itinerary. In my first week on the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship, those golden arches were the last thing I wanted to see. This adventure was meant to put me at the doorstep of ‘true’ Panamanian architecture, a mythical local landscape far beyond American influence. I had not anticipated that this particular McDonald’s would be an excellent place to study the architecture of American imperialism.

    McDonald's sign with building in background
    Figure 1: McDonald’s adjacent to the Administration Building in Balboa, Panama City

    McDonald's in train station
    Figure 2: McDonald’s located inside former Balboa train station

    Positioned in direct contrast to the Panama Canal Administration Building in the former Canal Zone, this fast-food nuisance tells a nuanced story of international relations between America and Panama during the twentieth century. Situated at the edge of the town of Balboa in the former Canal Zone, this McDonald’s is located in an area that still conveys strong historic associations with twentieth-century American occupation of Panama. About 10 miles wide and 50 miles long spanning the width and length of the Panama Canal, the Canal Zone was created as part of the 1903 Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty. Written in English by the United States, this treaty declared Panama’s independence from Colombia. In order to protect American interests and investments in constructing the canal, the treaty also included a major clause that designated the Canal Zone land for American use as if it were their own sovereign land. This essentially created a strip of American land within the country of Panama, where generations of canal workers, military personnel, and their families lived as American citizens until it was officially given back to Panama on December 31, 1999.1

    The architecture of the Canal Zone that remains today was largely built by and for Americans, with former military bases, residences, schools, and a cemetery attesting to this near-century of occupation. Commercial buildings and restaurants there once catered to American families, providing a strange sort of whiplash of American architecture slicing across Panama. Travel writer Paul Theroux described the Canal Zone as a “company town, simultaneously comprised of a military base dressed up like the suburbs, a government department, and colonialism in its purest form.”2 The former refers to the Ciudad Del Saber, a suburban style community that adaptively reused the Clayton military base used by the United States forces during the early twentieth century and during the U.S. Invasion of Panama City in 1989. Occupied mostly by Panamanians today, the Ciudad Del Saber is now a cushy residential area with one of the city’s best schools today. It even has a McDonald’s nearby.

    three-story building with field in foreground
    Figure 3: Ciudad del Saber, in the former U.S. Clayton military base

    The town of Balboa was founded as the administrative capital of the Canal Zone in the early twentieth century. It was carefully planned and designed by architect Austin Lord from 1912 to 1914 to serve as the administrative center for the construction and operation of the Panama Canal by the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC). Richard Guy Wilson, among the first architectural historians to study the Canal Zone as American imperialistic architecture, compared Balboa to the National Mall from the McMillan Plan for Washington, DC, and the Court of Honor at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. In short, he stated, “it personifies power.”3

    stairway leading up to a building on hill
    Figure 4:  Administration Building at Balboa

    Utilizing City Beautiful principles, Balboa is oriented with the Administration Building at the top of Lone Tree Hill and the Prado lined with tidy rows of palm trees on a broad grass median below. The positioning of streets and buildings reinforces a strong axiality that is central to the plan. Smaller, two-story office buildings line the boulevard within constant view of the authoritatively placed Administration Building at the top of the hill. Since the territory was turned over to Panama in December 1999, these buildings are now occupied by the Panama Canal Authority, still serving an administrative function overseeing canal operations today. Ancon Hill looms in the distance, with the national flag of Panama as a reminder of the successful struggle for Panamanian sovereignty.

    fountain surrounded by a square
    Figure 5: View of Goethals’ monument and Prado from Administration Building

    parkway with palm trees
    Figure 6: Looking along Prado towards smaller administration buildings

    The Administration Building itself is a grand sight, an E-shaped steel-framed concrete building that faces in two directions. Designed in 1912 to house the ICC, the building set the standard for future construction in the Canal Zone, with a red tiled roof and a blend of Spanish and Italian Renaissance Revival style details. A 1954 monument to the engineer George W. Goethals was situated at the intersection of the Prado and the base of the steps leading to the imposing Administration Building. Together, the Administration Building, monument, and boulevard lined with smaller offices presented a clear sense of design intentions to convey American organization and power. Always wary of that kind of architecturally-imposed authority, I took the requisite photos, marveled at the pristinely preserved building amidst the 90-degree heat, then politely asked if we could visit the McDonald’s on the other side of the hill.

    This was not just any McDonald’s. It was located inside a former railroad station building, a stop on the railroad that ran between Colon and Balboa since the 1850s. Originally built by an American company to accommodate the increased demand of travelers and shipments going to and from the California Gold Rush, the rail lines essentially formed the first complete path across the Panamanian isthmus and the first transcontinental railroad in the world. This route later inspired the route of the Panama Canal, although this later required some alterations to these lines in a few places. This particular station was constructed as the Balboa stop, an early twentieth-century American addition to the passenger rail service that still runs across a portion of the isthmus for cruise ship passengers today.  

    McDonald's parking lot
    Figure 7: View of McDonald’s central entrance and railroad platform

    old rail tracks and sign
    Figure 8: Original rail tracks and sign for Panama located at the edge of the drive-through

    It is the kind of relatively modest train station that you might see at a whistle stop in the American Midwest or in the smaller stations of the Northeast. The one-story brick and concrete building has a red tiled gabled roof, with a wood overhanging roof supported by simple wood brackets to shelter passengers on the raised platform. Quatrefoil windows attest to European stylistic influence at one end of the building, and a fading painted sign for a ‘lavanderia’ (laundry) attests to previous other uses at the rear. A glass box framed by thick square concrete piers has been expanded and enclosed from the original entrance to house the McDonald's. Any alterations that have been made are relatively modest and do not detract from a clear understanding of the building as a former train station. If there were any doubt about the original function, the train tracks are still present. They lead directly up to the drive through before they are stopped at the asphalt paving, where a former ticket booth became a service window, demonstrating changes in transportation over time.

    McDonald's drive-through
    Figure 9: Drive-through window along original platform

    Our driver, Levy, was clearly confused as to why I would want to leave the monumental buildings up the hill to take photographs of the McDonald’s down the road instead. My Zonian tour guide, Tereza Harp, was excited that I was excited about it, however. She had fond memories of eating there in the late 1980s. “You have to understand,” she shared, “when I was a little girl, there was no fast food in Panama. So the only place you could go to get fast food was the Canal Zone area. That McDonald’s was the first ever in Panama, it was a special treat.” To her it was a childhood symbol of modernity, a destination for the shiny food Americans can buy with gasoline as they rush about their busy, comfortable lives. I bought the most forgettable fries in order to take photos inside.

    Inside, well, it looks mostly like a late 1980's McDonald’s in America. An apathetic teenager at the counter served the same fried food in American currency, since Panama still uses the U.S. Dollar as currency. Linoleum tiles, acoustic drop ceilings, sticky cushion benches, and fixed glass pane windows characterized the space. Somehow this was even more disorienting, as if I had teleported or time traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1985 rather than come all this way to Panama City in 2023. In a manner similar to McDonald’s everywhere, American influence left a trail of breadcrumbs and French fries behind, even before they officially turned over the Canal Zone to Panama in 1999. No one wanted to help me eat any of the fries.

    There is no greater emblem of American influence in Panama than that particular McDonald’s. And conversely, there is perhaps no greater example of Panamanian adaptation than the reuse of an American-built train station to become the country’s first major fast-food destination. American influence is omnipresent in Panama, but that McDonald’s is the first place where I could begin to see these intertwined histories manifested in architecture.

    I did not learn any of this history in school. Despite receiving an excellent American education in a college-preparatory high school, high-ranking private college, and an Ivy League Ph.D., I am ashamed that I did not learn anything substantial about the Canal Zone. At home in Buffalo, I live only a few blocks away from the site where Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated as U.S. President, after U.S. President McKinley was shot for his involvement in the Spanish American War at the Pan-American Exposition down the road. There was no mention of American involvement in treaties, territories, and displacement, only the glory of the Panama Canal itself. The 1989 U.S. Invasion to capture Manuel Antonio Noriega is only a very vague memory to me as I was four at the time. I do not remember hearing of the final days of America leaving Panama in 1999 amidst the more popular media coverage of the impending Y2K phenomenon that December. Even as a historian of the Erie Canal, the Panama Canal and Canal Zone very rarely is mentioned in my academic circles. My partner, who majored in International Studies and is an immigration lawyer, did not learn anything of these treaties or the Canal Zone either. So, I feel only slightly less embarrassed at my lack of knowledge on the subject prior to visiting Panama.

    I suspect some of this ignorance is due to generational differences in media exposure to current events and some due to educational specializations. Regardless, it illustrates the absence of nuanced conversation in American higher education about American foreign policy and architecture in Panama. I willingly acknowledge that I am new to these subjects—Panamanian history and American Imperialism in Panama—but I suspect I am amongst a large group of younger Americans who know very little about this. I am only beginning to learn the many complexities of these stories through research, readings, and conversations, but I can already tell you these absences manifest in the tourist industry in Panama in a few distinct ways.

    I feel a strong affinity for places that emerged as shipping and transport hubs, so it was an obvious choice for me to begin my itinerary in Panama City. As a historian of Buffalo, I could not ignore the similarities between Panama City and my own city. In Buffalo, ahem, we also have an important canal. With that canal came industrial innovations, growth and wealth, diverse racial and ethnic communities, a flourishing of arts and culture, and architecture that still embraces and expresses those origins. These cities are clearly quite different, with very different historic and contemporary contexts. Regardless, every time a tour, exhibition, or conversation in Panama City celebrated those aspects it felt like a shared celebration for my city as well. In acknowledging that, I can feel a tectonic shift beneath the surface of my own Buffalo-focused work. I will be bringing home a lot of lessons I am still learning about heritage planning in the context of canal towns, from Panama City, in particular.

    Every tour and museum tells a different story of the Panama Canal, depending on the intended audience. Like historiography, heritage tourism practices reveal the creative processes of remembering and forgetting. The tourism industry in Panama faces a major challenge that many ex-colonial places do: how to integrate colonial heritage with a reinterpretation of both Indigenous and modern history.

    people on platform observing a lock
    Figure 10: Observation platform at the Miraflores Visitor Center

    stand-up display advertising for movie
    Figure 11: Posterboard for IMAX movie at the Miraflores Visitor Center

    The story of the Panama Canal is told to American tourists with great sensation in Panama City. I took two such tours, which each went to different ends of the canal. Tours like those at Miraflores and Agua Clara Visitors Centers emphasize the difficult environmental conditions of the canal’s construction, the marvel of its complex engineering, and its commercial benefits in a global economic system. A 40-minute IMAX movie at Miraflores boasts this in 3D, where Morgan Freeman narrates a rapid transition from Indigenous canoes heading down the Chagres River through the apparently linear path of western progress towards a sophisticated technological system that shapes global shipping networks. At the locks, auditorium style seating provides a view of the canal in action, with massive cargo ships passing through slowly as every step is described on a megaphone. This emphasis on the canal as a feat of engineering is certainly warranted—it is indeed a marvel. But it also conceals many of the social aspects of its history, as if by design.

    The Museo de Canal (Panama Canal Museum) tells a different story, aimed towards a broader audience of Panamanians, Zonians, and foreign tourists. The building itself embodies the many stages of Panama City’s history that the exhibitions discuss inside. Constructed in 1874 as a hotel, it became the head office of the French canal company. In the early 1900s it was the headquarters of the U.S. ICC, until that same organization moved into the newly constructed Administration Building in Balboa in 1912. It served as a post office from that time onwards until 1997, when it became the Museo del Canal. Like many buildings in Panama City, the building’s significance occurs in many layers of multiple nationalities and historic relationships to the canal.

    This museum was about an entirely different canal, one experienced by diverse groups of people in different ways over time. It provided primarily a social history: one that empathized with the workers of the canal, illustrated the disparity of wealth in the built environment, and took pride in the great diversity of races and cultures that came to Panama to work on the canal. Several panels and videos were devoted to discussing the Gold and Silver payroll system for workers on the canal, where white Americans were paid in gold and the rest of the workers from the West Indies, China, and beyond were paid in silver. This racially segregated payroll system was also reflected in the built environment of worker housing at the time, where gold-level housing featured grander buildings with window screens, with better educational and entertainment facilities. Silver housing resembled barracks, with fewer amenities, smaller spaces, and substandard social and educational facilities. This type of racial segregation is obviously familiar to Americans, a lamentable transplant of national practices to Panama at the time. This museum was the first and only major place that I encountered that discussion. There was not a megaphone or IMAX in sight.

    three black and white photographs displayed on a wall
    Figure 12: Photographs illustrating differences between Gold and Silver architectural conditions at the Museo del Canal

    There is yet another major story missing from many tours and exhibitions of the Panama Canal. In 1912, the U.S. ICC took steps towards depopulating several towns along the Chagres River. Located within the Canal Zone according to the 1903 treaty, towns such as Gorgona were forced to relocate once the U.S. determined it would be necessary to flood the area to create Lake Gatun to assist with the operation of the Panama Canal. This town, along with several others along the Chagres River, had thrived as a hub for commercial transport between the oceans even before the railroad was constructed in the 1850s. At a time when slavery still existed in America, the town of Gorgona had a Black mayor who oversaw a substantial community. Once the population was forced to relocate in 1912, the town was flooded.4 I took a boat tour across Lake Gatun, which pointed out several monkeys and birds but never mentioned that we were floating above entire towns that were destroyed to construct the canal in the early twentieth century.

    In order to get this perspective on the Canal Zone, I was thrilled to meet with Panamanian historian Marixa Lasso while in Panama City. Dr. Lasso’s book, Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal (2019), reveals and analyzes the often untold stories of these former towns along the Chagres River. Her book was deeply influential to me before I traveled to Panama, and even more so now. We sat in a café in Casco Viejo, where our coffees sweat almost as much as I did. When I asked her, with doe-eyed optimism, if there was anything left at all to see of these former towns, she said there was only one part of one church wall. That’s it. One part of one wall of one building of one town, all that is left of several towns that were all dismantled and flooded.

    A few months ago, I had never even heard of these communities. Now, I was deflated to hear there was nothing substantial enough left to visit. I cannot even imagine how the descendants of those populations must feel. There is no permanent exhibition to address this, yet. After serving as tenured associate professor at Case Western Reserve University for many years, Lasso returned to Panama City to establish a research center for Panamanian heritage. In an effort to connect her expertise with local and national heritage efforts, she is organizing guest lectures, consulting on exhibitions, and creating a center for researching Panamanian history from multiple perspectives. There may only be a few stones left, but Lasso’s efforts aim to leave none unturned.

    There are juxtapositions in Panama City everywhere: ones that complicate traditional binaries between old and new, east and west, nature and industry, invention and tradition, local and global. Every view offers new lessons in harmonious contrasts and multifaceted memories.

    view of skyline from complex
    Figure 13: View of downtown Panama City from Casco Viejo


    1 For more on the complexities of this controversial treaty and notions of sovereignty, see Katherine A. Zien, Sovereign Acts: Performing Race, Space, and Belonging  in Panama and the Canal Zone (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017).

    2 Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979), 204.

    3 Richard Guy Wilson, "Imperial American Identity at the Panama Canal,” Modulus (1981), 26.

    4 Marixa Lasso, Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019).

  • Member Stories: Stathis G. Yeros

    by Helena Dean | Jun 06, 2023
    Stathis Yeros has dark hair and wears a red sweater

    Stathis G. Yeros is an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Florida. He lives between Gainesville and New York and has been a member of SAH since 2021.

    Can you tell us about your career path?

    My big passions that have shaped my choices in educational and career paths are art and politics. So it makes sense then that architecture, combining both, was the right choice. But the course was not straightforward. My first degree is in art history and theater, where I focused on experimental performance and feminist theory influenced by debates at the time about women's representation in the art world. I studied in Glasgow, Scotland, a city with a robust alternative music, art, and performance scene, which opened my horizons and allowed me to experiment with art as a way of life that transcends any single form.

    These experimentations opened the door to architecture. As a master's student at UC Berkeley, I paired formal training with my interest in the social side of making space. After a brief time as a designer in San Francisco, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. that combined my interest in alternative cultures—queer and trans cultural expressions in this case—with their political dimensions. My doctoral training was a period of intellectual growth and soul-searching to find the right combination of design as art and social practice. As an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Florida, where I moved last year, I am lucky to be able to engage both with design through studios and with history/theory through seminars and research initiatives.    

    What projects are you currently working on?

    The project that occupies most of my time is finishing my first book, Queering Urbanism: Architecture, Embodiment, and Queer Citizenship, which is currently under contract with the University of California Press. The book examines queering as a historical, economic, and cultural process whose meaning changes as it encounters neoliberal urban governance regimes in San Francisco and Oakland, home to some of the most symbolic sites for LGBTQ+ rights activism and contemporary debates about gentrification. I argue that everyday decisions about how people live and the aesthetics of queer and transgender spaces, for example, leather or camp, shape and are shaped by what I define as insurgent queer citizenship. Using a citizenship lens, I identify how alternative forms of kinship and subaltern urban minority coalitions based on race and class lead to claims for "the right to the city" that shape queer social politics and urban public life.

    As I complete this project in the next few months, I am beginning two new ones. The first is a study of queer and trans spaces in the U.S. Deep South (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and parts of Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, and Florida) that I tentatively call Building the Queer South. I am structuring this as a set of itineraries through the Deep South to interview people and observe queer and trans social life in the spaces where it takes place. Recent legislation against drag shows and trans athletes and my move to Florida to teach led me to dig deeper into the themes of my previous work: how do LGBTQ+ people resist mainstream assimilation; how do physical spaces inform the construction of insurgent LGBTQ+ cultural identities; and how do their politics work with and against state institutions to safeguard LGBTQ+ people's rights to these spaces and ways of life?

    The second project extends the thread of queer citizenship, a critical analytical lens for studying space in my work. For this project, I plan to explore local attachments to physical spaces and the politics of design through contemporary citizenship transnationally. What do designers mean when they talk about citizen participation? And what can contemporary discourse about queer, insurgent, minority, and urban citizenships offer to design for spatial justice in different global contexts?

    Do you have a particular memory of when you first became aware of the significance of architecture or when you knew you wanted to study it?

    The first time I considered the power of design to influence people's lives was in fourth or fifth grade in primary school, when I wrote a report for my teacher to deliver to the Mayor of Kos, the town where I grew up. The report outlined what I thought were urgently needed infrastructural improvements. They included everything from re-paving the port to adding traffic lights and even the specific intersections where I thought they would make the most significant difference. In retrospect, it was maybe inevitable that I studied urbanism. Architectural design was another passion that I developed early on. In middle school, I spent long hours drawing my future home, eventually landing on a design hybrid between a greenhouse for plants with an area for living with movable partitions and a creek passing through the kitchen. In fact, if I were not an architect, I would probably be a horticulturalist. My parents encouraged this passion and even helped me get some experience in gardening by planting a small vegetable garden that lasted for a couple of summers. I hope I get a chance to build that greenhouse attachment to my home one day!

    What is your biggest professional challenge?

    My biggest challenge in embarking on an academic career is finding a clear way to explain my work's central focus in order to develop a legible profile as a scholar and professional. My research could fit under several academic disciplines studying space and social life. The most important thing I had to do was to clarify—for myself first—what would sustain my interest in research and teaching long-term. Design was an important part of it. That allowed me to better explain the different parts of my work as one trajectory combining design teaching, practice, and a research agenda that employs historical and ethnographic methods to understand social life in the present.

    On a more practical note, I learned through a lot of trial and error that clarifying a new project's research goals and contributions early on and seeking out as much feedback as possible is imperative for successful grant applications. Unfortunately, this process can sometimes take years and can be a significant source of anxiety in building a career as an academic.

    When and how did you become involved with SAH?

    I first learned about SAH when my studio instructor over a decade ago attended a conference, and I remember perusing the program online. I was impressed by the breadth of topics, but I was not yet ready to fully comprehend what architectural historians do. I became involved with SAH much later, toward the end of my doctoral studies, when I was ready to share my research with colleagues and contribute to field discussions. I did not consider my research as primarily historical for a long time. However, during this year's SAH conference and ongoing virtual programming, I found many colleagues sharing similar interests and a rich intellectual environment to grow as a scholar.  

    Do you have a vision for how SAH should evolve in the future?

    I am new in my engagement with SAH and still learning about the organization's history. After attending the latest conference in Montréal, I returned with renewed energy to engage with colleagues who explore different ways of "doing" architectural history. I think the balance that SAH strikes among its members' various methods and research interests is one of its strongest assets, and I hope future conferences maintain this breadth. I am also really interested in how we can better integrate architectural history in design education in architecture schools. To that end, I believe that SAH could expand existing programming to help junior faculty like me learn from more experienced teachers.

    What advice would you give to someone who wants to enter your field?

    Each person's trajectory is different. Reflecting on what brought me here, I can offer three of my mistakes as examples of what I had to improve over the years. First, I learned to approach my colleagues and, consequently, the field with humility. When I began my Ph.D. I often jumped to expressing my opinion or disagreement before listening carefully. Second, I had to clarify the big picture of why I wanted to do this job. Sometimes legitimate worries about funding, a project deadline, or even a course paper obscured the long-term commitment to my work and brought thoughts of quitting. Though it is impossible to eliminate those thoughts altogether, after considerable efforts to change this, I now bounce back sooner. And finally, I had to develop a listening ear and appreciate critical feedback as a gift that only someone who cares about my work enough to engage with it thoughtfully would offer. 

    SAH members engage with the history of the built environment through a broad array of specializations, professional fields, and areas of interest. Member Stories is a regular feature that recognizes the expertise and unique experiences of our members.
  • The Sound of Architecture

    by Helena Dean | May 30, 2023

    How a conference session evolved into a published collection of essays

    In 2022, Leuven University Press published 
    The Sound of Architecture: Acoustic Atmospheres in Place, edited by Angeliki Sioli and Elisavet Kiourtsoglou. The book came out of an SAH conference session organized by the two scholars. We interviewed the two collaborators to find out how an SAH session became an edited volume.

    Sioli and Kiourtsoglou

    Angeliki Sioli and Elisavet Kiourtsoglou have been friends since 1999, when they met during the first year of their bachelor’s program at the University of Thessaly. After graduation, they pursued PhDs at different schools—Sioli in the history and theory of architecture at McGill University and Kiourtsoglou in architecture from Université Paris 8—but kept in close contact through weekly Skype calls. It wasn’t until 2018, however, that they decided to collaborate professionally.

    “At some point we were like, ‘Why don’t we try something together?’ So, we tried to bring together our interests,” Sioli explains. Sioli, now an assistant professor in the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at Delft University of Technology, and Kiourtsoglou, an assistant professor in the Department of Culture, Creative Media and Industries at the University of Thessaly, decided to submit a session proposal for the Society of Architectural Historians’ 2019 Annual International Conference.

    The session, “The Sound of Architecture: Acoustic Atmospheres in Place,” was included in the call for papers distributed by SAH in April 2018. According to Sioli, the two friends and collaborators were interested in examining “how the experience of sound within particular locations, in situ, very specifically, could actually allow us to study and understand space differently.” This, adds Kiourtsoglou, is because “sound is an element of our memory, that comes into our understanding and experience of the place. Atmosphere is also part of our history in a way.”

    The topic struck a chord with other scholars. More than 25 abstracts were submitted for consideration and Sioli and Kiourtsoglou had the difficult and unenviable task of whittling them down to the few that would ultimately comprise their session. To make their selections, the pair booked a two-week stay at a rental house on the island of Aegina in the summer of 2018. “We already knew that there was interesting material, so there were some options and ideas, but at that moment we were focused on figuring out how we could put them together and what would be the best grouping,” Sioli explains. “It was quite hard,” Kiourtsoglou continues, “we had all the abstracts on the wall, trying to figure out which is the best, what we have to pull out… It was kind of a puzzle.”

    As Sioli and Kiourtsoglou were close to making their final decisions, they got an email from Mirjam Truwant, acquisitions editor at Leuven University Press. Truwant had read their session description in SAH’s call for papers, knew the topic was of interest to the press, and asked if they would be interested in developing the session into a book.

    Sioli and Kiourtsoglou were excited by the request. Says Sioli, “The beauty is that Leuven University Press really follows SAH.”

    Sioli and Kourtsoglou told Truwant that they were interested in developing the session into a book proposal. “For us it was very helpful and very honoring to have this proposal from Leuven University Press,” Kiourtsoglou says. “This took us on a very long journey of two years.”

    In April 2019, Sioli and Kiourtsoglou traveled to Providence, Rhode Island, to co-chair their session at the SAH conference. It was Sioli’s second SAH conference and Kiourtsoglou’s first. Despite having just broken her leg, Kiourtsoglou said that there was no way she would have missed the conference. She found the variety of topics at the conference appealing. Having been trained as an architect and not an architectural historian, Kiourtsoglou felt “it was a window to a totally different way of working.”

    “There is a high level of rigor and quality in the discourse that is super refreshing and, of course, that is why you want to be a part of it,” Sioli notes. Sioli added that social events such as the breakfast for session chairs and speakers are an important part of the conference. “There is a very beautiful social aspect that the conference provides. That is really valuable.”

    Their session was well received, but Sioli and Kiourtsoglou decided to wait until the summer of 2019 to start work on the book proposal. “We wanted to wait to see the outcomes of the conference, because at the conference we had four fully developed papers. We knew of the quality,” Sioli says. “And that’s why we started with the book proposal afterwards, because we wanted to make sure that we had something strong.”

    Their advice to those looking to publish is to start with the book proposal and work from there. “Check online, because most presses have a template for what they need when it comes to book proposals,” Sioli suggests. While there are some similarities between what presses are looking for—such as how a book will fit into the existing bibliography—they each have specific areas that are of interest to them. Sioli found that looking at the requested format for the book proposal before drafting it “worked for me in a very imaginative way,” and helped shape the manuscript. “I think it would be a different book if it were addressed to a different press.”

    Sioli and Kiourtsoglou submitted the book proposal in December 2020 and spent a year working on the manuscript. They invited some of the contributors who submitted abstracts for their session as well as others who specialized in the field to be a part of the publication. The editors and contributors faced many challenges during the pandemic, including limited access to archives.

    “I have to say, people were very determined,” Sioli says. With contributors throughout Europe and the U.S., constant communication was vital to let everyone know how the project was progressing. “We didn’t know all these people in person, but after all this it felt like we knew them so well.” Kiourtsoglou says, “It was like a family.”

    Even still, “editing a book like that, it was also learning about managing people,” Kiourtsoglou points out. It was about learning how to go through texts and critique people’s work in a very tactful way. “If diplomacy’s not your strong suit, you shouldn’t try it at all. Write a monograph!” Sioli adds with a laugh.


    Their edited volume, The Sound of Architecture: Acoustic Atmospheres in Place, was published by Leuven University Press in 2022. The collection of essays explores the acoustic atmospheres of diverse architectural environments and examines how sound and its atmospheres transform architecture and space. Contributors to The Sound of Architecture include Anna Ulrikke Andersen (University of Oxford), Timothy Carey (Independent Scholar), Ricardo L. Castro (McGill University), Joseph L. Clarke (University of Toronto), Carlotta Darò (ENSA Paris-Malaquais), Michael de Beer (Independent Scholar), James Deaville (Carleton University), Ross K. Elfline (Carleton College), Clemens Finkelstein (Princeton University), Federica Goffi (Carleton University), Klaske Havik (TU Delft), Paul Holmquist (Louisiana State University), Pamela Jordan (University of Amsterdam), Elisavet Kiourtsoglou (University of Thessaly), Alberto Pérez-Gómez (McGill University), Cécile Regnault (Lyon School of Architecture), Angeliki Sioli (TU Delft), Karen Van Lengen (University of Virginia), and Michael Windover (Carleton University).

    When Sioli and Kiourtsoglou first proposed their session five years ago, they had no idea that their collaboration would evolve into a published collection of essays by a group of international contributors. Reflecting on their journey, Kiourtsoglou shares that “what this process also taught us is that small steps make a big difference.”

  • The Re-Making of Hiroshima as Peace Memorial City after the Bomb

    by Helena Dean | May 12, 2023

    Sundus Al-Bayati is the 2019 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

    One of the first things I read at the beginning of this fellowship journey was John Hersey’s Hiroshima. A small pocket-sized book, it was hard to get through its page after page of graphic content of the first few moments and days after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima by the US military. In the book, six survivors of the bomb at various distances from the hypocenter recount their stories before, during, and after the explosion. It’s hard to unlearn what could happen to the human body when exposed to the heatwaves of a nuclear blast. These stories came back to me when I arrived to Hiroshima, the city-turned-memorial to the event of August 6, 1945. After the war, Hiroshima was a nuclear wasteland: more than a third of its population, around 140,000 people, had perished in the explosion and the effects of radiation several days and months after the bomb.1 With more than 70% of its buildings destroyed and its industrial sector disbanded, the city had very little of a path forward.

    Not long after the war ended, Hiroshima quickly went from a city ravaged by the atomic bomb to the poster image of international peace. The narrative that immediately began to dominate the post-bomb climate in Japan promoted images of rebirth and new beginnings:  the dawn of a new Hiroshima that was a symbol of peace and hope rather than the reality evident in its radioactive landscape, that the city was the tragic recipient of the first nuclear bomb in history.

    The acceptance and advancement of this narrative by Japan and Hiroshima’s local leaders was essential, however enforced, for the city’s survival and growth under the American occupation that lasted until 1952. The occupation’s mission to “democratize” Japan meant controlling the country politically and economically as a whole, and in the case of Hiroshima, a direct censorship of journalistic investigation and scientific and medical research into bomb-related damage and radiation effects on victims.2 Instead, the United States promoted imperialist propaganda that regarded the atomic bomb as an American scientific achievement that was crucial to ending World War II and thus bringing peace to the world, justifying the human cost of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    Japan’s defeat in the war was announced on the radio when the emperor of Japan spoke to the Japanese people directly for the first time and presented Japan’s surrender as necessary and even heroic to prevent more senseless deaths of Japanese citizens. Japan’s only path towards reinventing its economy and rebuilding after the war was through accepting and promoting reconciliation of US-Japan relations.3 In Hiroshima, the local government, desperate to rebuild, began to publicly embrace a similar view of the bomb as the colonizer’s, that Hiroshima’s suffering and sacrifice was a prerequisite for peace.4 This is not to say that there wasn’t a sincere desire by Hiroshima’s citizens to envision a new city that symbolized peace and hope for a better future after the most devastating experience in their history but being under the US occupation, Japan had little agency in crafting its own story. The interpretation of the atomic bomb as an impetus of peace was beneficial to the US interests in Japan as an ally in the Cold War. For Hiroshima, historically a major military center, rebuilding with the message of peace also provided a possible path to economic recovery during the challenging post-war years.

    With many Japanese cities devastated by the end of the war and limited government funding available for reconstructing industrial infrastructures, Hiroshima pursued a special consideration for assistance from the national government for its unique condition as a victim of a nuclear bomb.5 While reconstruction efforts began shortly after the war, in 1946, the vision of rebuilding Hiroshima as a memorial city became a viable opportunity with the enactment of Hiroshima Peace Memorial City Construction Law of 1949. The law directed special financial assistance and national land to aid in Hiroshima’s reconstruction, even when other major Japanese cities, like Tokyo, had suffered greater physical damage. A group of architects led by Kenzo Tange won the competition to plan and design Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, encompassing the area that fell under the bomb’s hypocenter. The park occupies a large area of the city, roughly 122,000 square meters, in what used to be a bustling and central downtown district prior to its annihilation by the atomic bomb. It is not so common that a city decides to transform its most central and valuable real estate district into an open memorial park in the reconstruction years, but rebuilding Hiroshima carried a symbolic importance greater than all the other badly damaged Japanese cities, including Tokyo. Hiroshima’s destruction was unique. As early as 1946, tourists, encouraged by tourism pamphlets produced by the US army, began to flock to Hiroshima to see the ruined site of the “Atomic City.” This proved that Hiroshima’s future could be found in the preservation of its history as the site of the first atomic bomb.6

    I arrived at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park from the east side after crossing the Motoyasubashi bridge, which miraculously survived the blast, despite being only 100 meters away from the hypocenter. It was a rainy day, which made the memorial park feel even more somber. My first stop was the Children's Peace Monument that commemorates the children of Hiroshima who died as the result of the bomb. The monument is dedicated to Sadako Sasaki, who died at the age of 12 after struggling for 10 years from exposure to radiation during the blast when she was two. The monument consists of a statue of Sadako holding a crane over her head and surrounded by glass cases full of colorful paper cranes. Origami paper cranes are a symbol of healing and long life in Japanese culture, and they became associated with Sadako’s story because she folded 1,000 cranes during her final months in the hospital.

    metal sculpture in plaza
    Figure 1. Children’s Peace Monument

    In the distance, I could see the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum’s main building floating over the park, sitting at the end of the axis that pulls visitors through the Flame of Peace and the Cenotaph for the A-Bomb Victims first before arriving at the museum, where they will come in close contact with the grim details of August 6, 1945. I entered the main building, the part of the museum that is dedicated to the damage of the bomb to Hiroshima and the effects of the blast and radiation on victims. Exhibits of dark gray walls take visitors through room after room in semi-darkness, creating an oppressive atmosphere where visitors have no choice but to face the difficult artifacts presented under the spotlights. The contents of this section included personal articles of clothing and objects that were on the victims when they vanished in the blast and large graphic photographs of irradiated victims with harrowing injuries and deformities. Passing by these photographs, I began to quicken my pace to reach the end of the exhibit course as I began to feel heavy and confined. Conveniently, this dark section ends with releasing visitors into the airy and light-filled volume of the gallery hall overlooking the memorial park where visitors can stop to rest, take in the views of the park, and sit with their discomfort in this dark city.

    gardens around sunken courtyard

    people walk through plaza on rainy day
    Figures 2–3. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park


    Figures 4–5. Cenotaph for the A-Bomb Victims

    people walk through plaza

    people on walkway with umbrellas

    people walking with umbrellas

    plaza surrounded by modern buildings

    elevated building

    modern buildings

    concrete stairway

    concrete pillars

    concrete pillars
    Figures 6–14. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

    people in hallway with tall windows
    Figure 15. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum’s main building gallery looking out into the memorial park

    people holding umbrellas walking
    Figure 16. View from Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum towards the memorial park and A-Bomb Dome

    Leaving the museum, I headed towards the most iconic building in Hiroshima and where most tourists can be found, the Atomic Bomb Dome (Genbaku Dome). Standing on the east side of the Motoyasu River is a skeletal structure of what remained of the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, which was right at the center of the blast and somehow remained standing. In its glory days, the building served as an exhibition space that was used for displaying the prefectural industrial products of Hiroshima. Genbaku Dome, which later became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, is perhaps the most visited site in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. But its preservation was controversial as most Hiroshima residents wanted the building removed because it was a reminder of a very dark and painful day. Nonetheless, junior and high school students persisted to advocate for the building’s preservation as an important part of the city’s history, and the city council of Hiroshima decided to preserve the building in 1966.7

    building ruins

    bomb dome alongside river

    bomb dome

    ruined building


    Figures 17–25. A Bomb Dome, Hiroshima

    Figures 26–27. Hiroshima Castle, a reconstruction from 1958 of the 1590s original building that was destroyed during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima

    building along river

    river with buildings on either side


    Figures 28–31. Views from Hiroshima Castle

    Being in Hiroshima, immersed in the memories of the atomic bombing, I reflected back on Tokyo’s lack of a trace or a memorial to the firebombing of 1945. One of the first destinations I outlined for Tokyo was the Center of Tokyo Raids and War Damage. I went there during the first week of my fellowship, eager to start my research in what I thought was a major museum on the history of the US’ firebombing of Tokyo. Surely such a historic and painful episode in the history of Japan that claimed 100,000 lives in a single night would be documented and exhibited extensively, I thought. I was confused when I arrived at what resembled a three-story apartment building from the outside, set in the residential and quiet neighborhood of Koto City. The entrance was marked with a small eyebrow awning and the location on my Google maps all pointed to this being the center I was looking for. I entered. The place was empty. I peeked around and found someone working in a small administrative office. I asked him if I was in the right place and he confirmed but let me know that the center was closed that day. I told him their website said otherwise. He tried to explain something in broken English, then gave up and came over to cut me a ticket and told me that I could enter even though it was closed. So I had the whole place to myself for an hour and a half. The kind man pointed me to the first room of the exhibit and disappeared. Again, I was surprised. This was just a small room with some printed materials on the walls, not the museum experience I was imagining for such a historic event. The large prints on the wall started with a timeline leading up to the night of March 10, 1945, when the US dropped 1,665 tons of incendiary bombs on Tokyo. There were maps outlining damage to Tokyo’s neighborhoods, objects from victims, photographs and original art of the night of the raid and a model of the bombs carried by the B-29 bombers. Warning signs on the walls asked visitors not to take photos of the paintings and personal artifacts exhibited in the rooms.

    The last room briefly discusses the efforts that led to the establishment of the center, which started documenting and collecting artifacts about Tokyo’s air raid damage since 1970. The center was built in 2002 from exclusively private donations when government plans to build a memorial hall for the firebombing of Tokyo fell through in 1999. The center doesn’t elaborate more on the Japanese state’s neglect to memorialize the events of March 10, 1945, but there are few theories as to why Tokyo’s reconstruction steered clear from creating spaces of remembrance. For one, Japan’s need to sustain its relationship with its new ally, the United States, necessitated an avoidance to memorialize the atrocities committed by the US military in Japan. Second, a memorial site to the firebombing of Tokyo would call into question Japan’s own legacy of firebombing Chinese cities.8

    Examining Tokyo and Hiroshima side by side, two Japanese cities that have experienced a similar degree of destruction and trauma but with one city determined to remember and the other to forget, shows the power of reconstruction as a political tool to reach certain ideological and economic outcomes, often times divorced from the real needs of a place after war. The narrative of peace allowed Hiroshima to gain support for its reconstruction from both the Japanese national government and the US. For Japan, Hiroshima’s new identity as a Peace City would rebrand Japan’s image on the world stage after the war from the atrocities it had itself committed in China and Korea. For the US, shifting the conversation of the bomb from a war crime to that of peace was favorable to its own narrative of the bomb as a saver of lives.


    1 Koichiro Matsuo, “Urban Reconstruction and Symbol Systems: How Hiroshima Became a Peace Memorial City.” The Teikyo University Economic Review, 49(2): 123–137, (2016).

    2 John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: W.W. Norton & C./New Press, 2000).

    3 Ibid.

    4 Ran Zwigenberg, “The Atomic City: Military Tourism and Urban Identity in Postwar Hiroshima,” American Quarterly 68, no. 3 (2016): pp. 617–642, https://doi.org/10.1353/aq.2016.0056.

    5 Koichiro Matsuo, “Urban Reconstruction and Symbol Systems: How Hiroshima Became a Peace Memorial City.” The Teikyo University Economic Review, 49(2): 123–137, (2016).

    6 Ran Zwigenberg, “The Atomic City: Military Tourism and Urban Identity in Postwar Hiroshima,” American Quarterly 68, no. 3 (2016): pp. 617–642, https://doi.org/10.1353/aq.2016.0056.

    7 Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

    8 Yoshikuni Igarashi, Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945–1970 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

  • The City Designs itself: Tokyo in the Post-War Years

    by Helena Dean | Apr 04, 2023

    Sundus Al-Bayati is the 2019 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

    Architecture of War

    The firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 claimed more lives and caused more urban destruction than the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few months later. The plan for Tokyo’s burning started 5000 miles away, in a secluded site in Utah desert where the US Army had been experimenting with biological and chemical agents, such as napalm, to ensure effective and maximum destruction of cities and “morale” in both Japan and Germany during the Second World War.1 In 1942, Standard Oil contracted the Czech American architect Antonin Raymond to design a replica of a Japanese middle-class neighborhood for the US Army to test how effectively they would burn once set ablaze by incendiary bombs. The Dugway Proving Ground, where the Japanese Village and its German sister were secretly built, lies to the southwest of Salt Lake City. It was established by the US Army in 1942 as a test site for chemical warfare and included a five-square-mile complex for the precise construction of a Japanese housing block and German mietskaserne tenement apartments, which were repeatedly bombed and reconstructed at least three times. The Japanese Village consisted of twelve apartments of Tokyo’s typical wood construction, complete with traditional interior furnishings, faithfully curated by set designers from Hollywood. Perhaps what is more shocking than Antonin Raymond’s work in Dugway Proving Ground, is that one of the most renowned architects of the 20th century, Erich Mendelsohn, was responsible for the design and construction of the German Village in Utah’s desert.2 Berlin’s cheap and overcrowded tenement blocks housed poor and low-income industrial workers. Debates over inaccurate “area” bombing versus “precision” bombing directed at military bases all but faded in this stage of war as the target in both the Japan and German villages was unquestionably the everyday worker. 

    On my first day in Tokyo, I went to the Asakusa district where the popular Nakamise Shopping Street stretches in a straight line from the Kaminarimon Gate to the monumental Senso-ji Temple, lined along the way with shops selling traditional Japanese foods and crafts. Not able to take more than two steps at a time, I slowly made my way through the crowded Nakamise Street, vowing to come another day, not on a weekend, to properly explore this historical quarter. In Edo, as Tokyo was known until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, temples and shrines weren’t only gathering spaces for religious ceremonies and festivities but were also the primary forms of public and green space, equivalent to the role of public parks in a Western city.3 Entertainment districts and commercial establishments flourished near temples, similar to the rows of businesses that form Nakamise Street. During the Meiji Restoration period, public land around temples became the property of the Tokyo Metropolitan government. Commercial establishments along Nakamise Street that were allowed by the Edo Shogunate to set up to serve the large numbers of pilgrims and visitors to the temple were removed and replaced with modern brick buildings.4 These Meiji-era buildings and Nakamise Street were destroyed in the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and the street was rebuilt again in 1925. Incidentally, this area near the Sumida River was the first to burn when USAAF’s B-29 bombers dropped napalm incendiary bombs over Tokyo, putting their successful chemical experiment at Dugway Proving Grounds into action. The raid, which occurred on March 10, 1945, after midnight, became the deadliest single raid in history claiming the lives of 100,000 civilians and unhousing one million Japanese residents. Nakamise Street and Senso-ji Temple were part of the 16-square-mile area that were engulfed in flames that night.

    crowd with temple in background

    crowd of people outside temple
    Figures 1–2. Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo

    pagoda lit up at night
    Figure 3. Five-story pagoda in Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo

    The Fires of Edo

    A cycle of destruction and reconstruction have historically been a characteristic of Japanese urbanism. Great fires were so frequent in Edo that a popular saying goes: “Fights and Fires are the Flowers of Edo.”5 As Japanese cities were traditionally built of wood and paper, fires repeatedly burned their tightly built neighborhoods to the ground. Despite numerous reconstructions, changes to Edo’s urban form were minimal. As soon as the fires were extinguished, people rebuilt their homes and businesses themselves in the same location with the same building materials, improving little in the process to minimize their losses when the next fire hits. “Indeed, the Japanese seem to have accepted the recurrent advent of urban destruction in general. The location and function of many disaster-battered cities were rarely, if ever, challenged.”6 In general, there is an acceptance of the notion of impermanence as part of the cycle of death and renewal in Japanese culture, found specifically in the core beliefs of the country’s two main religions, Shintoism and Buddhism. The best example of this tradition is found in the cyclical destruction and reconstruction of the Grand Shrine of Ise, Japan’s most sacred Shinto structure: every 20 years, the shrine buildings are destroyed and reconstructed as a way of preserving traditional ways of building and passing on that knowledge to the next generation.

    The Great Kanto Earthquake

    Twenty-two years before the firebombing of Tokyo in World War II, the city had undergone one of the most catastrophic earthquakes in its history. The 1923 Great Kanto earthquake leveled much of Tokyo when massive firestorms spread across the city, swallowing swaths of Tokyo’s wooden neighborhoods, killing over 120,000 people and leaving two million people homeless. The damage from the Great Kanto earthquake paralleled what Tokyo would experience years later in 1945. Both the 1923 earthquake and firebombing of Tokyo produced a similar burned out landscape that inspired grandiose and idealistic reconstruction proposals that were never implemented as Tokyo’s urban form and planning tradition proved more reluctant to change than other disaster-stricken cities.

    Tokyo’s flattened landscape after the earthquake appeared as the perfect clean slate to implement radical plans for a new modern metropolis that expressed Japan’s rise to join the industrializing nations in the West. An elite class of ambitious bureaucrats, politicians, and urban planners proposed reconstruction schemes for a rational city with broad avenues, monumental public buildings, public parks, and green belts that would act as firebreaks to prevent the quick spread of fire that had plagued Tokyo for centuries.7 But the production of a calamity-resistant city was only one part of the ambitious plans for Tokyo’s reconstruction: the earthquake was viewed as an opportunity to recreate imperial Tokyo and eradicate the social ills of industrialization such as the impoverished and densely-built slums that contributed to the fire-prone character of the city. But the overly ambitious reconstruction proposal, led by Tokyo’s Home Minister Goto Shinpei at a budget of 4 billion yen, was contested by government officials and cabinet members who balked at the financial infeasibility of the project.8  

    Furthermore, strong patterns of landownership revealed that Tokyo wasn’t the clean slate it looked to be after the earthquake. The plan was strongly resisted by Tokyoites who were eager to return to a sense of normalcy by rebuilding their homes and livelihoods as quickly as possible.9 For a traumatized citizenry that had lost everything, the five-year reconstruction proposal was idealistic and disconnected from their immediate needs. Makeshift homes of wood and tin had already proliferated all over Tokyo shortly after fires were extinguished. Eventually, the dream plan for a new Tokyo was reduced in scope to a budget of 700 million yen. The implementation of the plans to reconstruct Tokyo were limited to the process of Land Readjustment where the government was allowed to appropriate ten percent of private land without compensation to widen roads, add firebreaks, build parks, and increase public space to create a more resilient and fire-resistant city. Land Readjustment would later become the dominant planning method in Japanese cities after the war.10

    A Second Fire

    Only two decades after the destructive 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, Tokyo was a scorched plane again, along with 215 other Japanese cities. Tokyo’s post-war reconstruction didn’t produce drastic or innovative changes to the urban form but was pragmatic and slow as the state concentrated its efforts on expanding the country’s industrial infrastructure and transportation systems to kick-start its broken economy, leaving the rebuilding of individual neighborhoods and housing to the private sector and individual citizens.11 This explains the ad-hoc and eclectic architectural character of Tokyo’s neighborhoods that persist until today. What makes Tokyo such a dynamic city is the constant variation of urban experience as one walks down its streets from intimate residential neighborhoods to narrow alleyways of commercial establishments. The city reflects how its residents adapt and adorn their urban environment with a variety of styles, textures, and ornamental plants and pots that soften the edges of its streets and adds a green element in a city that doesn’t offer a lot of park space.

    two-story wooden building
    Figure 4. Typical wood construction in Yanaka neighborhood, one of the few neighborhoods in Tokyo that escaped the firebombing in WWII

    black and white aerial photo of destroyed city
    Figure 5. Tokyo after March 10, 1945

    Although visionary schemes for rebuilding Tokyo emerged before the war’s end, the ideal city was never built. Ishikawa Hideaka, the head of planning of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, proposed an ambitious plan to fundamentally restructure Tokyo and transform it into a network of smaller, population-controlled sub-cities, separated by green belts and parks.12 However, the Japanese government didn’t have the financial capacity to undertake such a radical reconstruction in Tokyo, as many other Japanese cities lay in ruins and required rehabilitation funds as well. In addition, the urban planning tradition in Japan was relatively new, and since its introduction to the Japanese administrative government, was limited to the task of modernizing specific industrial or business centers rather than developing urban regeneration projects of entire districts.13 As an island nation that was closed off to the world for centuries, industrialization and modernization projects didn’t start in Japan until after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the beginning of the Meiji Restoration in 1868. During this period, national, prefectural, and municipal government functions were established to facilitate industrial development. Government-led modernization projects were primarily concerned with building industrial infrastructure, leaving the rest of Tokyo’s development such as residential neighborhoods to the private sector.14

    There weren’t the same contentious debates in Tokyo like there were in European war-torn cities like Berlin or Warsaw over the social and political implications of reconstruction. The post-war plan for Tokyo didn’t hold the same symbolic meanings, and any ambitious plans were significantly curtailed during the first few years after the war in lieu of a pragmatist approach. This is also because Japan was an occupied nation and was restricted from dreaming up massive reconstruction campaigns that glorified the rebuilding of its cities. Instead, the Japanese government continued its pre-war reliance on Land Readjustment procedures that were used after the Great Kanto earthquake to make improvements to the urban environment.15 In addition, persistent patterns of landownership and a citizenry that was accustomed to rebuilding their cities after disaster as quickly as possible mounted considerable resistance to such idealistic schemes that proposed rebuilding beyond the damaged areas of Tokyo.16 Compared to Seoul, where the war resulted in the construction of a completely new city, Tokyo’s reconstruction was rather a continuation of existing, pre-war plans to modernize the city. As a result, planning efforts in Tokyo didn’t go beyond widening and straightening of streets and adding more public and green spaces.

    It is essentially the failure to implement a central masterplan for Tokyo’s reconstruction that allowed the city’s many unique urbanisms to flourish and retain some aspects of its traditional urban layout. In my first month in Tokyo, I stayed in the glitzy commercial district of Shinjuku near the world’s busiest train station, where bustling and crowded streets, lined with neon-lit billboards unfold in every direction, tucking underneath a chain of restaurants, bars, claw machine parlors, electronic stores, and other endless shopping opportunities. The administrative functions of the city like the Kenzo Tange-designed building for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government lies in Shinjuku’s business district among a group of other glass skyscrapers. A 20-minute walk away from the station area and Shinjuku’s busy thoroughfares and tall skyscrapers disappear and the city transforms into what feels like a small town.

     In one of my walks, I set out to explore the neighborhood of Shimokitazawa, one of Tokyo’s unique neighborhoods that had escaped wartime destruction and had strongly resisted the city’s redevelopment efforts to preserve what had evolved to become a counterculture district that attracted artists, musicians, and anti-Vietnam war protestors. Music clubs, vintage clothes stores, and many small restaurants sit intimately within a residential neighborhood of winding small streets. I started my walk from Shinjuku westward, passing the outskirts of Shibuya. I was surprised when shortly into my walk the noises of the bustling metropolis seemed to have vanished: I had stepped into a different city. Suddenly I was walking in small neighborhoods that encompassed a mix of functions: single family homes and low-rise apartment buildings of two to six stories, schools, small neighborhood parks, and convenience stores all within walking distance. Planters and bollards mark the edges of pedestrian-only streets whose surfaces are covered with kid-friendly rubber material. How is this one of the densest and busiest cities in the world when you could walk a few blocks from a major business and entertainment district and seem to have stepped into a quiet semi-suburban neighborhood? Unfortunately, corporate-led urban developments are catching up in Tokyo and are beginning to change its urban layout that had survived a multitude of fires and wars. Will Tokyo’s unique urban qualities emerge again after the dust settles from the accelerating market-driven developments?

    view down street with shops on either side
    Figure 6. Ameyoko shopping district, Tokyo

    underground shops
    Figure 7. 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan, shopping street under the JR railway tracks, Tokyo

    shops under train tracks along a street
    Figure 8. Businesses and shops under the JR railway tracks, Tokyo

    shopping mall interior with skylight
    Figure 9. Koenji Pal shopping street, Tokyo

    outdoor mall with pedestrian walkway
    Figure 10. A river that was paved over in 1974 flows under the Kuhonbutsu promenade in Tokyo

    aerial view of city
    Figure 11. A typical mix of housing types in one of Shinjuku neighborhoods viewed from the Yayoi Kusama Museum, Tokyo

    multi-story building next to two-story building

    housing of various styles along street

    shops lit up along street at night

    intersection with eclectic mix of buildings

    buildings of various sizes and colors at intersection

    residential housing along street

    buildings of various styles along street

    building facade with awnings and balconies
    Figures 11–19. Eclectic mix of styles, scales and functions in Tokyo’s neighborhoods.

    pedestrian walkway weaves through buildings

    red pedestrian walkway flanked by lowrise buildings

    walkway with painted metal structures

    walkway with planters flanked by buildings

    plants and planters along base of building

    bicycles parked along path between buildings
    Figures 20–25. Pedestrian-only streets in Tokyo’s residential neighborhoods not too far from Shinjuku’s urban core

    construction site between two buildings
    Figure 26. Infill development in progress in Tokyo


    1 Davis, Mike. Dead Cities and Other Tales. New Press, 2004.

    2 Ibid.

    3 Sorensen André. The Making of Urban Japan: Cities and Planning from Edo to the Twenty-First Century. London: Routledge, 2006.

    4 Ibid.

    5 Hein, Carola. “Resilient Tokyo: Disaster and Transformation in the Japanese City.” Essay. In The Resilient City How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, edited by Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    6 Ibid.

    7 Schencking, J. Charles. The Great Kantō Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

    8 Sorensen André. The Making of Urban Japan: Cities and Planning from Edo to the Twenty-First Century. London: Routledge, 2006.

    9 Hein, Carola. “Resilient Tokyo: Disaster and Transformation in the Japanese City.” Essay. In The Resilient City How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, edited by Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    10 Ibid.

    11 Sorensen André. The Making of Urban Japan: Cities and Planning from Edo to the Twenty-First Century. London: Routledge, 2006.

    12 Ibid.

    13 Hein, Carola. “Resilient Tokyo: Disaster and Transformation in the Japanese City.” Essay. In The Resilient City How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, edited by Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    14 Ibid.

    15 Sorensen André. The Making of Urban Japan: Cities and Planning from Edo to the Twenty-First Century. London: Routledge, 2006.

    16 Hein, Carola. “Resilient Tokyo: Disaster and Transformation in the Japanese City.” Essay. In The Resilient City How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, edited by Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

  • 7 Final Thoughts

    by Helena Dean | Mar 08, 2023

    Anne Delano Steinert is a recipient of the 2022 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

    Over the course of 89 days I visited 27 cities and towns. I arrived home at 11:00 pm on a Wednesday and gave a graduate orientation walking tour at 1:00 pm the next day. My faculty retreat was Friday morning, and school started Monday. Only now, months later, am I able to get the distance from the trip I need to see the big patterns and connect the dots of my experiences.

    I have written and rewritten this final report more times than I care to count. At one point it was over four times the word limit! In that process I have figured out that I can’t possibly talk about all the places I traveled or all the things I wondered. All I can do is offer examples of how this trip has impacted my thinking and my teaching. For those of you interested in a chronological catalog of my journey, I provide a list here. As you look at the list, note some of these were just day trips, while our longest stay, in Venice, was almost two weeks.

    Here are the places I went:

    France  - Paris, Versailles, Chartres, Marseilles
    Spain - Barcelona
    Italy - Verona, Florence, Venice, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Rome, Pompeii, Bari (for the ferry)
    Greece - Piraeus, Athens, Tinos, Syros, Santorini
    Italy again - Venice, Parma
    Austria - Vienna, Salzburg
    Hungary - Budapest
    Czech Republic - Prague, Kunta Hora
    Germany - Berlin, Hamburg, Bremen, Bremerhaven, Baden-Baden
    France again - Strasbourg and Paris

    Here are some thoughts:

    1. It is hard to teach a place without seeing it.

    I set my itinerary largely to cover European sites I have taught in a “History of Urban Form” course. Though I had seen plenty of images of Athens and Rome, I had never been to either. The impact of finally visiting these places was incredible and I think lives true to H. Allen Brooks’ vision for the fellowship. I am sure this will sound naive and am embarrassed to even write this, but I had no understanding that the Tiber was so narrow or that the Acropolis was so deeply embedded in Athens’ dense urban fabric. Being physically in those spaces has transformed my ability to teach about them and their larger context.

    Tiber River
    The Tiber River is not very big.

    Back when I was in preservation school in the 1990s, the architectural history courses I took with Robert Stern and others were taught to highlight works of architecture as beautiful objects on display, separate from their environment. I don’t think that approach works. I now see how much about these places I failed to understand. When I saw that the Acropolis was part of a functioning city rather than a rarified archaeological site, or that Corbusier’s Unite d’habitation in Marseilles and Berlin actually work as housing in a way their descendants in the U.S. never did, it completely complicated my understanding of the architecture I study and teach and the interconnected continuum of architectural innovation across time.

    Corbu Marseille
    Corbusier’s Cite Radieuse in Marseilles makes a lot more sense in its Mediterranean context.

    2. Buildings need interpretation.

    Another goal of my trip was to look for ways the built environment was able to speak or tell its story and/or how people were able to make meaning of the world around them. I had hoped that there were some basic interpretive patterns people use to make meaning of buildings and landscapes and that I could start to catalog or order these strategies. I would say this quest was a pretty significant failure. I traveled with an 18-year-old babysitter and my 12-year-old son thinking that I would observe their process. What I found was an lack of curiosity among these children of the digital age and that, unless there was a very heavy human hand involved (as in Raymond Isidore’s Maison Picassiette in Chartres) their ability to ask questions as an initial step toward investigation was limited.

    Maison Picassiette Chair
    Maison Picassiette sparked plenty of questions. This photo is a tile-covered chain in the interior. It doesn’t look very comfortable!

    I found that without an interpretive interlocutor, most people, sometimes including myself, can’t make sense of buildings. The lesson in this is that we, as historians and preservationists, need to get busy interpreting buildings for people on the streets so that they value and save them. One great example of this is the digital Brno Architectural Manual which I learned about from my new friend, Vendula Hidnkova, while in Prague.1 The site combines architectural information with photos and a map in a digital format accessible from your phone, allowing passersby to learn about architecture in their midst. It seems clear to me that the fields of architectural history and historic preservation need to connect with public history to tell place-based stories in ways that will resonate with a broad public audience. The expertise is already out there if we can bridge our disciplinary silos.

    3. People need connections to make places meaningful.

    As you would expect, we were able to retain more information when we had something already in our heads to connect it with. In Rome, one of the rare moments my son got engaged in looking at architecture was when we visited the Colosseum. I had him watch a little Kahn Academy movie about the history of the building beforehand, which gave him details he could connect to. I have already written about the Forum light show. He will still say, “I wasn’t really paying attention until they said the Caesar had stepped where I was stepping.” The highlight of his whole trip was seeing buildings in Salzburg where the Sound of Music was filmed. In both places, he was more prepared to make meaning of buildings when he had pre-knowledge to attach them to. My son, Seneca (aptly named for this circumstance), became more engaged when he knew that he was in a space that connected him to historical figure or a beloved, if fictionalized, family chorale. The question then is how we link the history of buildings to things that people already know in a way that is authentic and meaningful and will enrich student understandings rather than merely pile on dates and styles to memorize.

    Salzburg Pavillion
    The pavilion where “I am Sixteen Going on Seventeen” supposedly took place has been moved to a public park in Salzburg.

    4. Experiencing places where things happened matters.

    Most of our students cannot travel to all the places we teach about, and we will always need classroom experiences to bring them to far off places, but we also need to take advantage of nearby opportunities for place-based experience. I have previously written about my experience at the Museum of the Liberation of Rome, and I had similar experiences of a close connection to the past in places like the Ballinstadt Emigration Museum in Hamburg, or even in my youth hostel there, which turned out to have been a Nazi work camp in a previous life.2 Experiential education—the experience of really being in a place where something happened—is an incredibly powerful motivational force that makes education more meaningful and builds connections between student learning and “real life.”

    Hamburg Hostel Panel
    Interpretive panels in my hostel about the building’s previous use as a Nazi work camp.

    5. Learning happens best in multi-sensory settings.

    One of the most powerful experiences of my visit was in the Jewish ghetto of Venice. I approached the ghetto through a tunnel under a tall tenement. I emerged from the darkness into a sunshiny open plaza where I found scores of Jewish men huddled up in a circle, arms in arm, singing in Hebrew. The moment had an otherworldly feeling, which held on until their tour guide chastised them that they needed to move on. The echoey sound in the enclosed space added a multi-sensory dimension that instantly made the place more powerful. As I toured Venice’s Jewish ghetto (the origin of the word ghetto) with a guide I saw a Jewish retirement home, two synagogues, a Jewish school and shops. These places became more meaningful because my sensory receptors had been opened up by the singing at the start of the tour. I was especially moved by the marks of missing (and extant) mezuzahs on entryways throughout the neighborhood which stood silent witness to the Jews now missing from this place.

    Missing Mezuzah
    A missing mezuzah on a door frame in Venice’s Jewish ghetto.

    6. There is magic in ruins.

    In a bookstore in Athens aptly named Flaneur, I discovered the book, Walking in Athens, by journalist and photographer Nikos Vatopoulos. This sweet little collection of essays captured everything I loved about Athens (and later Budapest). It is a meditation on the power of ruins and forgotten places. I am always struck by the buildings that seem just about to tumble down—right at the very edge of the possibility of saving. It seems to me that their exposed condition lets me into their secrets and stories. I have been thinking about how to harness the power of ruins to use it with students. I think it is rooted in feeling like you have found a secret and intimate window into the past that may not be there much longer—like you have a special opportunity. Maybe also an element of danger? Or adventure? Could I ask my students to write a paper about why ruins speak to us?

    Ruin in Athens
    Athens has a wonderful stock of enchanting ruins like this one.

    7. Preservationists need to be careful about human connections to place.

    Before this trip, I remembered Chartres cathedral as a dark cavernous space pierced with light. Yet, when I visited the cathedral this time, most of the darkness had been replaced by clean bright walls restored by the French ministry of culture to their original appearance as part of a decades-long conservation project detailed in the 2017 New York Times article, “A Controversial Restoration that Wipes Away the Past.”3 For me, like many others, removing the dark layers of dirt accumulated over centuries felt like removing my connection to the generations of people who had visited this place before, laid their hand on a column, and left behind a little oil and dirt which, when combined with candles and incense, covered the building’s interior in a patina of the past. Part of the reason that historic places speak to me, and I think most of us, is that they connect us to those who have come before and remind us that we are part of a continuum of human experience over time. They tell us that we are not alone in the world with our one little life, but that we are a part of something bigger, even a marvel like Chartres Cathedral. I understand that the conservation of the church is what is believed to be best for the stone, that it returns the cathedral to its original appearance, and it allows visitors to see painted details long obscured, but those things come at a cost. I no longer felt like Chartres cathedral was a place I could feel the past humming around me and connect with the ancestors of this place. It now feels shiny and new—which I feel sad about. I know I’m not alone in this. I found this powerfully worded comment on a blog about the restoration, “My wife and I…used to go out of our way to stop-over in Chartres... Even for a confirmed atheist such as myself the cathedral interior was the most spiritual and awe-inspiring building that I have ever experienced and it truly became an inspirational place of pilgrimage for us. We were shocked and heart-broken, indeed out-raged, when we visited last year to find that the French had willfully embarked on this catastrophic campaign of so-called restoration. The result is that now we sadly have no wish to return, as we prefer to retain the memories of this Gothic masterpiece when it still retained the accretions of centuries which were responsible for so much of ifs mystical character.”4 I think that in our quest to save buildings and spaces for future generations we sometimes overlook the connections they hold for people living today.

    Chartres Cleaning In-Progress
    Partially cleaned pier at Chartres Cathedral showing the contrast between pre- and post-restoration.

    These snapshots are just a small fragment of everything I saw and thought about. I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to take this trip. It will forever impact my teaching and scholarship. Thank you, SAH, and thank you, H. Allen Brooks.

  • The Continuous Reinvention of Seoul

    by Helena Dean | Jan 24, 2023

    Sundus Al-Bayati is the 2019 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

    I have to admit that I arrived in Seoul with a bias, ready to confirm my long-held suspicions that, out of all the cities I’ve explored, Seoul is a stark example of how post-war redevelopment can completely decimate a city’s architectural and cultural identity, resulting in the generic globalist aesthetic that is infecting our cities everywhere, making them all look the same. I already knew what to expect, the reason for my being here: the much anticipated sight of the ubiquitous high-rise apartment towers that became the defining image of Seoul. I was ready to take note of what didn’t work in Seoul. I was surprised to find what works here, works very well. 

    When I took a taxi from Seoul Station to where I would be staying for a month, I was concerned that I made a mistake booking an accommodation at the south edge of Bukhansan Mountain, which on the map looked far from the city center. By then, I hadn't been introduced to Seoul’s efficient and extensive public transit options: the subway, buses, and taxis. It only took me 30 minutes to get from my accommodation to the city center by bus. Even as a foreigner, the mass transit system in Seoul is easy to navigate: signs and announcements are in Korean and English. The more time I spent in Seoul getting around, the more my appreciation grew for this city’s exceptional infrastructure and multimodal system of mobility. Coming from the United States, where the view of public transit is social welfare meant for the urban poor who can’t afford to own a car, is reflected in the inadequate and sometimes non-existent infrastructure for public transportation in most parts of the country, with the exception of a few big cities. Even the best the American transit system has to offer doesn’t come close to the efficiency, cleanliness, accessibility and affordability of Seoul’s mass transit. One only needs one transportation card, the T-money card, to ride everything, even taxis. Seoul’s transit even covers the so-called ‘‘First Mile/Last Mile’’ problem that affects ridership and adequate access to transit in urban centers with neighborhood buses called Maeul Buses or Village buses. These are small green buses that can accommodate 8–10 people and run in a loop within a neighborhood connecting residents to the main bus or subway lines. 

    Seoul looked very different half a century ago. In the span of 30 years, South Korea transformed from a war-torn and impoverished agrarian society that struggled through 35 years of Japanese colonial rule, World War II and the Korean Civil War to become one of the strongest industrial economies in the world. Seoul’s rapid industrialization, a process that took European and North American cities over a century to achieve, was condensed in a short period of time, spurring unprecedented economic growth and radical state-led urbanization. Seoul’s character today is largely the result of this period of intense modernization between 1960s and 1990s that produced a global metropolis, often referred to as the “miracle on the Han River.”


    Old Seoul 

    To find a distinctly Korean architecture and imagine what Seoul might have looked like prior to the colonial Japanese rule and the Korean War, I started exploring the historical palaces in downtown Seoul. Traditional Korean buildings employed the same principles and architectural components for different building types: a wood frame structure topped with tiled or thatched roof. Size and level of ornamentation and detail distinguish a palace from a shrine from a house. I began in the palace complex of Changdeokgung and the Secret Garden dating back to 1412.1 Although the palace had been damaged and rebuilt multiple times, most recently after the Japanese invasion, it remains one of the most faithful examples of traditional Korean architecture and garden design from the Joseon Empire (1392–1897). There is a harmony between the palace structures and the landscape, unlike the linear and imposing form of Gyeongbokgung just to the west. Gyeongbokgung is the biggest of the Five Grand Palaces in Seoul and as an important symbol of Korean sovereignty, the Japanese leveled most of it and built the Japanese Government General Building right in front of the biggest structure of the palace, the throne hall, to intentionally block its view from the public. The building was demolished in 1996 after a controversial debate on Japanese colonial legacy in Seoul. For many, the Japanese Government General Building, which assumed official functions for the Korean Republic from the end of Japanese imperialism until 1996, was an image of Japanese subjugation of Korean heritage and culture and had to be removed to allow restoration of Gyeongbokgung.2 

    The Japanese systemically desecrated other palaces from the Korean Joseon Dynasty era: most of the buildings in Deoksugung were demolished and the palace grounds were converted to a park; Gyeonghuigung was destroyed and a school for Japanese citizens was built in its place; Changgyeongung was dismantled and turned into a zoo. Reconstruction of palaces destroyed by the Japanese didn’t begin until the 1990s when the government turned its attention to reviving neglected historical parts of Seoul after years of relentless urbanization projects. Pro-democracy mass protests ultimately led to South Korea’s transition to a democratically-elected government in 1987. The political movement was also critical of Seoul’s urbanism under the developmental state and conversations that were suppressed in the previous dictatorship, such as the issue of Japanese history in Seoul, began to take place.3

    Figure 1 Donhwamun Gate

    Figures 2–5 Changdeokgung Palace

    Figures 6–7 Secret Garden in Changdeokgung Palace

    Figures 8–10 Gyeongbokgung Palace

    Across the street from Deoksugung, the debate over Japanese architectural heritage manifests physically in the old and new city hall buildings by Seoul Plaza. The old city hall, which now hosts Seoul Metropolitan Library, is a neo-classical style structure built by the Japanese in 1925. Soaring behind the old city hall in what looks like a wave that is about to crash over it, is the new futuristic all glass Seoul City Hall. The new building was part of the government’s urban renewal mega-projects of the aughts to make Seoul a global city. The city government wanted to demolish the old city hall, justifying it as a symbol of Japanese imperialism, but historic preservation committees were against it, positing that the building is an architectural and technological record of the time. In 2008, without permission or notice, the city government began demolition of the old city hall until the Cultural Heritage Committee quickly designated the building as a Historic Property and put an end to the demolition. What remained of the original building by then were only the front façade and tower.4 

    Figures 11–15 Seoul Metropolitan Library in the foreground (the old city hall building) and the new Seoul City Hall in the back


    The Efficient City 

    Seoul’s first phase of modernization after the Korean War began in 1961 under the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee that spearheaded South Korea’s economic miracle and turned it to an industrial powerhouse.5 The state’s obsession with accelerated industrialization at all costs drastically changed the urban character of Seoul, one that persists until today. The government’s strict and developmental program of rapid urbanization produced an efficient and a utilitarian city but largely ignored the social, historical, and environmental implications of clearing out vast areas and replacing them with new commercial and residential towers.

    Figure 16 view of Seoul and the Han River. Lotte World Tower in the background.

    For many years after the war, Seoul remained stagnant and underdeveloped in a period rendered with corruption and dependence on U.S. aid. The full force of post-war reconstruction in Seoul launched under Park Chung-hee, who propelled economic growth by empowering family-run industrial conglomerates, known as chaebols, through low-interest loans, import exemptions, and other kinds of state assistance to improve the industrial capacity of South Korea. Chaebols started out as small private family enterprises but with the state’s full support, some grew into giant corporations, like Hyundai, Samsung, and LG, that amassed power and influence over the political and economic reforms of South Korea.6 Chaebols’ power extended to the built environment through construction and real estate development that was backed by the state’s drive to produce a modern and an efficient city very quickly to reflect the success of the South Korean state to the world and especially to its rival North Korea, who had already achieved economic stability by then. Chaebols' urbanism model, facilitated by development incentives and close ties with the state, manifested in the continuous construction of apartment complexes, shopping malls, and entertainment businesses that relied on their services and products.7

    After the Korean War ended, Seoul was completely devastated and poor. A growing population of returning Seoulites, North Korean refugees, and migrants from rural areas poured into Seoul and exacerbated the post-war housing shortage leading to the formation of shantytowns and slums all around the city. The apartment towers that came to define the image of Seoul first started rising in central areas, replacing shantytowns that dominated Seoul’s landscape in an effort to address the housing shortage and improve the image of the city.8 The urban poor that lived in these settlements were evicted and pushed out of the city center to make room for new developments. One infamous example is the Cheonggye Stream where migrants settled in makeshift homes along its banks until the government cleared them out in 1958 and paved over the stream to make a roadway.


    Figure 17 Makeshift homes on the banks of Cheonggyecheon (credit: The Korea Times)

    The displacement of poor populations further out of the city persists in Seoul as the city continues to expand and develop every fragment of land. For some time, “moon villages,” informal neighborhoods that have grown on the hills around Seoul for decades, have become the target of urban renewal projects. New developments are usually geared towards middle and upper class families leaving displaced residents with no option to continue to live in their neighborhoods. One of the last remaining “moon villages” is Guryong Village, which has become a popular destination for Youtubers traveling in Seoul to shine a light on the other, darker side of the city.


    Gangnam Style: “Apart-ization” of Seoul 

    The rise of dense apartment complexes through aggressive state-driven urbanization efforts were at its height during the 1970s and 1980s in Seoul.9 The demand for more housing continued to exceed supply as Seoul’s population doubled from 1960 to 1970 to 5 million and over 8 million in 1980. In need for more expansion, the state turned its efforts to developing the riverbanks of the Han River and the agricultural land south of it. The Gangnam area (which translates to land south of the river), known to the world as Seoul’s upscale district of modern skyscrapers, luxury apartments and high end shopping malls and restaurants, was not more than a scarcely populated farmland until 1970.10 

    To encourage a population transfer from the overcrowded northern part of the city to Gangnam, the government relaxed regulations and provided tax incentives to attract real estate development there. At the same time, the state curbed new construction in central Seoul to force commercial and entertainment businesses to establish themselves in Gangnam. The area started to become a desirable place to live for middle and upper class families and especially after the state relocated prestigious high schools from central Seoul to draw families to the new district.11 Real estate speculation, enabled by development-friendly policies, became a viable path to wealth for many; as more apartment towers went up, so did their prices. State and chaebol-led urban renewal projects, as well as a class keen on social mobility through real estate development, kept Seoul in an endless cycle of construction and exponential increase of home prices.12 Apartment prices continue to surge in Seoul today and, according to a study cited by The Korean Herald, is one of the contributing factors to the nation’s low birth rate, which is one of the lowest in the world.

    Figures 18–20 view of Seoul from Inwangsan Mountain


    The Cultural City

    In the early 2000s, however, a new type of urban development began in Seoul as South Korea sought to join the global economy following the Asian economic crisis of 1997. To promote Seoul as a global city and improve tourism, the government needed to reflect a new image of urban development that presented Seoul not as an industrial “hard” city but as a cultural “soft” city.13 The state’s focus shifted back to Gangbuk, or north of the river, after years of concentrated development in Gangnam. Gangbuk possessed what Gangnam lacked: a historical identity that was visible in what remains of the palaces of Joseon Dynasty and Bukchon, the area between the Gyeongbokgung and Changgyeonggung, where traditional Korean architecture was still extant, although mostly deteriorated. 

    After years of neglect during the industrialization fever of the past century, the government turned its attention to recover the history of Seoul in the remaking of Bukchon Village through the Bukchon Hanok Regeneration Project in 2000.14 A hanok is a traditional Korean single-story house made of wood structure, ondol—underfloor heating system—and tiled or thatched roof. To revive what remains of Korean vernacular architecture in Bukchon and turn it into a tourist hub, the government subsidized hanok owners to repair or rebuild their hanoks by providing grants and low-interest loans, a departure from the previous century’s policies that prevented the smallest changes to these buildings, which ultimately led to their dilapidation. The new preservation policies, however, led to even more destruction of original hanoks as owners were able to demolish and rebuild their residences to add another story or to entirely modernize them and switch their use to become a bar or a restaurant, for example.15 The Bukchon Hanok Village is one of the most touristy spots in Seoul, because it seemingly provides a glimpse into the history of the city but most of the hanoks that exist there are only a facsimile. Although, among a landscape of repetitive grey buildings, being in Bukchon or Ikseondong, another neighborhood that retains some hanoks, is a much more pleasant experience.   


    Figures 21–25 Bukchon Hanok Village

    In addition to a revival of vernacular architecture to raise Seoul’s cultural profile, the state initiated several iconic mega-projects like the restoration of Cheonggye Stream and the construction of Dongdaemun Design Plaza by Zaha Hadid. Both projects were controversial for the fear of displacing local communities, shops, and markets that developed there over decades.16  

    Perhaps one of the most symbolic projects of the government’s effort to rebrand Seoul’s image is the restoration of Cheonggye Stream, which was covered with concrete and turned into a roadway in 1958. In 1976, an elevated highway was built on top of it and remained in use until the stream was restored in 2005. The project became central to Mayor Lee Myung-bak’s bid for election, for he promised to improve Seoul’s cityscape and revitalize its economy through major urban interventions that increase tourism.17 The project gained public support as it removed the elevated highway, a symbol of the developmental state’s urbanism, uncovered the drying stream underneath the concrete, and introduced a pedestrian recreational space in a very congested part of the city. While the project does create a unique urban experience that provides a much needed respite from the hustle of the city, environmentally it does little.18 It’s not a true stream. One scholar described it as a fountain where “running water is pumped up and sent flowing along the course. Moreover, because the bottom of the stream is made of concrete, and therefore nearly incapable of performing any purification functions, it stands to reason in some sense that the water would become progressively unclean.”19 Following the Cheonggye Stream eastward, one arrives at the alien-looking structure of Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP). The DPP was built after the destruction of Dongdaemun Stadium that stood there since 1925.The flea markets that were displaced from the Cheonggye restoration project had used the stadium as their new location until they were eliminated to build the iconic DDP.20

    Figures 26–29 Chyeonggye Stream

    Figure 30 Dongdaemun Design Plaza

    Figure 31 Dongdaemun Design Plaza with ruins of the old Dongdaemun Stadium


    Seoul is Always Ready for Change

    If we consider a successful postwar reconstruction a resumption of economic activity, return of displaced populations, physical recovery of infrastructure and transportation networks, then Seoul has all the markers of an effective reconstruction. Seoul’s remarkable rebirth as a global metropolis in a short time makes it hard to remember that it had ever experienced war in its recent history. There are not many reminders of the Korean War in Seoul, perhaps with the exception of the War Memorial of Korea. In many of the cities I’ve visited during the fellowship, the effects of war often still manifested as physical scars or memorials that expressed what story the city wanted to tell about its past, based on what was memorialized and by whom. Seoul is a special example in that its postwar narrative was always more concerned about its future rather than past. The prevalent description of Seoul as a city that had risen from the ashes or a “miracle on the Han River” limits the discussion of Seoul’s urban ecology after the Korean War to a parable of how a city overcame adversity and succeeded to become one of the richest economies in the world. This narrative was mainly born out of the heavy-handed government-controlled development of the first three decades after the war, where city-making was only a means to achieve economic goals. Efficiency and functionalism became the neutralizing brush that painted over Seoul’s urban landscape, producing neighborhoods of lookalike towers distinguished only by numbers, compromising in the process its cultural and historical identity.

    However, Seoul’s commitment to modernize and reinvents itself began long before the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. The last king of the Joseon Dynasty, King Gojong, opened the country’s ports to trades in the late 19th century, which led to the introduction of new ideas and technologies. Western architectural styles that were popular in Japanese cities then began to emerge in Seoul, like in the King’s own Seokjojeon Hall, built in a Neo-Renaissance style, which stands side by side with vernacular Korean structures in Deoksugung Palace. While most of Seoul’s modernization occurred under the control of imperial Japan and the authoritarian regime after the war, a drive for innovation had always been part of its history. 

    Figure 32 Seokjojeon Hall, built in 1910

    Figure 33 Deoksugung Palace buildings

    Even to the detriment of its architectural heritage, what makes Seoul a unique city is its willingness to change and experiment in city-making, whether it is converting an old railway line into the dynamic Gyeongui Line Forest Park to add more public space or to turn metro stations into art galleries as in the Ui-Sinseol subway line. For a visitor, it might be hard to distinguish one street lined with towers and department stores from another, but once you veer off the big thoroughfares and turn into a side street or an alley, Seoul’s rich spirit unfolds in a dynamic unpredictability of scenes, eclectic street facades, and a strong social life that populate its cafes, restaurants, and food markets at any time in the day and night. 

    Figure 34–36 Gyeongui Line Forest Park

    Perhaps a concrete jungle is not the urban image Seoul wants for itself, but its post-war model of development became a distinctly South Korean expertise that the country exports to other war-torn societies in the world to aid in their reconstruction. In my own home city of Baghdad, the Korean construction conglomerate Hanwha leads the first and largest urban development of Bismayah New City, a planned community that consists of apartment towers, schools, hospitals, and other public facilities. Bismayah is the first of its kind in Baghdad’s low-rise sprawling urbanism but now the city is seeing a multiplication of this form of development as more gated and planned communities rise up in its skyline. South Korean officials are already meeting with the Ukrainian government to discuss post-war reconstruction and city planning of destroyed Ukrainian cities. Planning post-war cities has become an essential block of the South Korean economy.


    1 Seoul Museum of History

    2 Yun, Jieheerah. Globalizing Seoul: The City's Cultural and Urban Change. Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.

    3 Ibid.

    4 Kal, Hong. “Seoul Spectacle The City Hall, the Plaza and the Public.” City Halls and Civic Materialism: Towards a  Global History of Urban Public Space, 2014.

    5 Yun, Jieheerah. Globalizing Seoul: The City's Cultural and Urban Change. Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.

    6 Douglass, Mike. “Creative Communities and the Cultural Economy — Insadong, Chaebol Urbanism and the Local State in Seoul.” Cities 56 (2016): 148–55. doi:10.1016/J.CITIES.2015.09.007.

    7 Ibid.

    8 Jung, Inha. Architecture and Urbanism in Modern Korea. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014.

    9 Yun, Jieheerah. Globalizing Seoul: The City's Cultural and Urban Change. Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.

    10 Ibid.

    11 Jung, Inha. Architecture and Urbanism in Modern Korea. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014.

    12 Douglass, Mike. “Creative Communities and the Cultural Economy — Insadong, Chaebol Urbanism and the Local State in Seoul.” Cities 56 (2016): 148–55. doi:10.1016/J.CITIES.2015.09.007.

    13 Yun, Jieheerah. Globalizing Seoul: The City's Cultural and Urban Change. Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.

    14 Ibid.

    15 Ibid.

    16 Jung, Inha. Architecture and Urbanism in Modern Korea. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014.

    17 Ibid.

    18 Marshall, Colin. “Story of Cities #50: the Reclaimed Stream Bringing Life to the Heart of Seoul.” The Gaurdian, May 25, 2016.

    19 Ibid.

    20 Ibid.

  • Member Stories: Magdalena Miłosz

    by Helena Dean | Jan 03, 2023
    magdalena milosz

    Magdalena Miłosz is a historian at Parks Canada. She lives in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, and has been a member of SAH since 2017.

    Tell us about your career path.

    I grew up in Toronto and attended the undergraduate program in architectural studies at the University of Waterloo in Cambridge, Ontario. I enjoyed the emphasis on cultural history in the program: reading, writing, visiting buildings, watching films, and looking at works of art were respites from grueling days in the studio. The co-op program allowed me to get a sense for different forms of architectural practice, as well as trying out related fields like urban design and planning.

    After graduation, I worked in the Toronto practice of Moffet & Duncan for a couple of years, focusing mostly on schools as well as getting involved in the business side through writing proposals. I returned to UW to complete a professional master’s, working with the late Andrew Levitt, Robert Jan van Pelt, and William Woodworth. I wanted to write a research-based thesis, eventually settling on the architectural history of residential schools as a topic, at the suggestion of John McMinn. As an immigrant to and settler in Canada, I had had the typical experience of learning next to nothing about Indigenous issues before going to university. The legacy of residential schools was gaining more public visibility at the time due to the struggle of survivors for acknowledgment of and compensation for their experiences in these institutions. I became really interested in the role of architecture in this history.

    After I defended my thesis, I worked as an intern architect at a local firm, but found myself drawn back to the work I had started in graduate school. I began my PhD in architecture shortly thereafter, under the supervision of Annmarie Adams at McGill University in Montreal, with Ipek Türeli and David Fortin, now of the University of Waterloo, on my committee. Recently, I started working as an architectural historian with Parks Canada as I finish up my dissertation.

    What projects are you currently working on?

    My main project outside of work is, of course, my doctoral dissertation. It currently has the slightly too-long title, “‘They Have Decided What Houses Will Be Built’: Indigenous Peoples, Architecture, and the Settler-Colonial State, 1920–1970s.” I look at the built environment as a site of encounter between Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian government, particularly the role of architecture in materializing oppressive federal policies against Indigenous communities in the mid-twentieth century. I have recently wrapped up a few pieces of writing as I figure out how to balance employment, dissertating, and side passion projects (it’s hard—pick two). These include a book review of Cheryl Cowdy’s Canadian Suburban: Reimagining Space and Place in Postwar English Canadian Fiction on H-Net Environment and an entry on the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67 for Smarthistory. Since 2019, I have also served as a board member of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada and in this role have enjoyed working primarily in communications.

    In my role at Parks Canada, I’m working on public history, heritage, and commemoration projects, specifically places nominated by the public for consideration as national historic sites, as well as federally owned heritage buildings. So far, I have been involved in projects touching on Indigenous and settler-colonial histories, the history of education, and the history of medicine, all through an architectural lens. I’m still quite new to this role, but so far I see it in many ways as both a continuation of my previous work as well as a sideways move outside of academia. I’m excited about everything I’ve learned so far, and I look forward to seeing where the work goes.

    Do you have a particular memory of when you first became aware of the significance of architecture or when you knew you wanted to study it?

    Like many architecture students, I was inspired to enter the field because I had a lot of interests and couldn’t quite settle on one side of the arts/science divide. And my high school guidance counsellor suggested it as a profession that might be a good fit! Aside from these somewhat clichéd experiences, I was really moved by the teaching of Robert Jan van Pelt in my first year of studies. As a Holocaust historian, Robert Jan had us thinking early on about difficult histories and their relationship to architecture. I can now see the impact of that in my academic interests.

    What is your biggest professional challenge?

    I’m currently learning a lot about neurodiversity and different ways of thinking, working, learning, and understanding the world. In particular, I am interested in how these differences manifest within work environments and are or are not allowed to be expressed. One of my biggest challenges has been trying to navigate educational and professional settings based on neurotypical standards and not understanding why I often felt like I was falling short. For example, as an architecture student I often found the studio to be an overstimulating and draining environment, something I couldn’t reconcile with the expectation to spend long hours there (the same was true for open-plan offices later on).

    I want to acknowledge that lockdowns, and the pandemic in general, have been extremely difficult for many people in very different ways. For me, and I think for some others who gained the privilege of working from home during the last few years, there was an epiphany that there are alternatives to force-fitting oneself into neurotypical molds. Realizing and coming to terms with my neurodivergence is an ongoing process, and I am still learning how to talk about it. However, I wanted to put it out there in case it resonates for anyone else!

    Another challenge, not unrelated, is the issue of moving outside of academia in the midst of or after completing a PhD. Coming from a professional, rather than academic, background, I wasn’t fully aware of what a PhD meant when I decided to pursue it, nor of the typical academic career path until I was well into my studies. While that path is right for some, I realized along the way that it wasn’t a good fit for me and began to explore alternatives. I think the PhD can be a great experience and have tremendous value for careers outside of academia proper, including university administration, government, heritage, the GLAM sector (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums)—and beyond. There are a lot of challenges along the way, but my sense is that this type of shift is becoming a much more common and even desirable option.

    When and how did you become involved with SAH?

    My first encounter with SAH was in 2018, when I attended the annual conference in Saint Paul, Minnesota, to present at the Graduate Student Lightning Talks. I really appreciated the other presenters’ ability to pare down super complex topics into engaging, yet succinct, five-minute talks—an essential skill with which I still sometimes struggle! That year, I was also a volunteer to get a feel for what happens behind the scenes of a major conference, as well as to take advantage of the reduced registration fee. I highly recommend this experience to students and anyone else interested in getting a bit more involved during conferences.

    I learned a lot at the sessions that year and had a great time discovering the Twin Cities. In particular, I really enjoyed the tour of University Avenue, which took us between the downtowns of Saint Paul and Minneapolis on the Green Line LRT. Every few stops, we got off to look at some cool historic buildings, including several that had been adaptively reused or were being restored. It was a wonderful way to experience the urban history of the area.

    How has SAH enriched your experience in architectural history?

    Being involved with SAH has expanded my network of colleagues in architectural history, exposed me to new methods and ways of thinking about the field, and resulted in some great learning opportunities, such as helping to coordinate the SAH Annual Conference Student Diversity Fellowship in 2021–2022. I’ve also gotten to travel to conferences and experience directly the built environment in places I may not otherwise have visited.

    Do you have a vision for how SAH should evolve in the future?

    In the years since I joined SAH, I think the organization has made commendable strides towards becoming more diverse and inclusive. The IDEAS committee is doing fantastic work in this area, as are various affiliate groups. I think as someone from Canada, I am very much US-adjacent and not necessarily aware of the barriers to participation that scholars from other parts of the world may experience. I love the idea of a more global, multilingual SAH.

    What advice would you give to someone who wants to enter your field?

    Network. As a neurodivergent introvert, I used to dread the very idea of networking. But then I heard it explained this way: “It just means staying in touch.” (Apologies to the author of this fantastic reframing; your identity has slipped my mind, but your advice has stayed with me). Whether it’s waiting until after the conference to write a note to someone whose ideas intrigued you, picking up the thread of correspondence with an old colleague, being open to helping someone who asks, or seeking advice from a mentor, you will come out stronger when cultivating community in the ways that are available to you.

    And stay open to possibilities. There are many ways to do architectural history, both in terms of methodology/approach and in the sense of a career path. Explore!

    SAH members engage with the history of the built environment through a broad array of specializations, professional fields, and areas of interest. Member Stories is a regular feature that recognizes the expertise and unique experiences of our members.
  • Conversations around Temples: Integrating Myth in a Study of a Ritual Landscape in Eastern India

    by Helena Dean | Dec 05, 2022

    Sara Varanese is the 2022 recipient of the SAH Dissertation Research Fellowship. She is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History at Rutgers University. All figures author’s own.

    I am in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha in Eastern India. Since I arrived, I am spending days and days at each of the many temples of this medieval city. I get to know the material slowly by going through each detail, taking notes, describing the iconography and location of each image. I measure each of the empty niches where icons are missing, maybe carried off to some museum, maybe lost to the antiquities trade. I take notes by hand, I sketch the layouts, I draw the base moldings.

    In this process of just being with the temples, I encounter another kind of source. Temple goers, curious to see me there, stop and ask questions. Sometimes they tell me the reason why they are at the temple. Sometimes they explain the stories behind the temples and the deities. The Brahmins ask what I am doing, why I am there every day. I show them my notebook, the sketches. I explain that I am a researcher. And in these encounters, I can also start asking questions.

    Figure 1: The Shatrughneswara, Bharateswara and Lakshmaneswara temples are all located in the same enclosure and were all built at the same time, at the end of the sixth century CE.


    Rameswara temple
    Figure 2: The Rameswara temple dates from the twelfth century, but is built on top of remains of a preexisting temple.


    site of the Rameswara temple
    Figure 3: The site of the Rameswara temple, with the three temples dedicated to his brothers located just across the street. Behind the Rameswara is a large water reservoir, the Ashoka Jhara.


    I am sitting in front of three of Bhubaneswar’s oldest temples, dating from the sixth century (Figure 1). A man has been performing a ritual for his son’s wedding. When he understands that I am working on the medieval city, he volunteers the story of the temples. The heroes of the Ramayana, one of the most known epic tales of India, came here to repay their karmic debt after slaying their enemy, Ravana, who was a demon but also a Brahmin.1 "This is where Ram and his brothers sat and did penance," I am told. The three temples are named after Lakshmana, Bharata, and Shatrughna, Ram’s three brothers. A bigger temple just in front of them and across the street is named Rameswara, after Ram himself (Figures 2 and 3). In the oral history of Bhubaneswar, these temples are the petrification of a mythological event.

    The next day I am at the temples again, and a Brahmin gives me the second half of the story. To reward the brothers for their penance, the god Shiva descended and showed himself to them, thus establishing himself in Bhubaneswar. This event also corresponds to a physical site in the city. The main temple in Bhubaneswar, the Lingaraj temple, is built around a svayambhu lingam, a natural rock formation that is believed to be a manifestation of Shiva (Figure 4).2

    The sequence of events transmitted by communal memory is confirmed by the landscape. Oral history establishes a series of events in time, and connects them to the site of the Rameswara, where the three brothers sit, then to the site of the Lingaraja, where Shiva appears (Figure 5). The dating of the temples themselves, in their earliest iteration, places all of them at the very beginning of temple-building activity in Bhubaneswar, around the sixth and seventh centuries.3 They are all equally ancient, part of the earliest ritual foundations of the city. However, another element of the landscape suggests a greater antiquity for the Rameswara site. Just behind the temple, a water reservoir named Ashoka Jhara is the find site of a capital dating from the third century BCE.4 The name of the Ashoka Jhara and the archaeological findings here indicate that the site does in fact pre-date the Lingaraja temple.5

    Lingaraja temple
    Figure 4: The Lingaraja temple dates from the eleventh century, but its enclosure contains sculptures and fragments dating from the seventh century. Historical texts also suggest the existence of a structure here at least from the sixth to seventh century.

    Figure 5: The sites of the Rameswara and Lingaraja temples in the context of Bhubaneswar. The grey outline marks the approximate extent and distribution of the medieval material in Bhubaneswar. A denser urban core is surrounded by satellite clusters around a mile away from the central area. One of these clusters is the Rameswara group.


    As I spend time in the field, I understand more about the role of oral history in my research. I started working on the landscape of Bhubaneswar from maps and satellite imagery, referencing secondary bibliography and scholars’ dating of its many temples and archaeological sites. I mapped the temples in a digital software and connected each element of the landscape to a database, literally a collection of "data," as I tried to understand the history of this city and reconstruct a chronology of its urbanization. Now that I am in the field, I realize that my analysis of the physical landscape, of materiality and spatiality, is not enough to describe its ritual spaces. When grounded in the lived experience of the temples, my project takes on additional layers, which must somehow coexist with the "data," even while confusing it sometimes. I am still learning to navigate these forms of tradition and knowledge that have been passed on from person to person—sometimes eventually written—in what is known as "twilight language," sandhya, where information is kept beneath the wavering surface of narration and symbol. Oral history and the language or myth are not "data," yet they are a fundamental part of the experience of the city and essential to its understanding. At least for the area around the Rameswara temple, oral history and archaeological material coincide in identifying this as one of the oldest sites in the settlement’s history, predating the construction of the first temples by almost a millennia.

    water reservoir
    Figure 6: View of the water reservoir of the Ashoka Jhara, slightly depleted during the dry season. The spire of the Rameswara temple is just visible behind the trees in the background.


    1 The Sanskrit epic of the Ramayana was composed between the seventh century BCE and the fourth century CE. In the story, the hero Ram and his three brothers slay the demon Ravana. However, Ravana is a Brahmin, and his killing is considered one of the most terrible sins that can be committed. To recover from their karmic debt, Ram and his brothers turn to the god Shiva, who orders them to go to Bhubaneswar to worship him in order to atone for their act.

    2 A svayambhu lingam is an especially potent natural occurrence that automatically establishes a sacred landscape, as it indicates a place that was chosen by the deity itself to establish their presence in the landscape. Svayambhu literally means "self-created" or "self-manifested." A lingam is an aniconic representation of the deity Shiva, considered to be more powerful than his anthropomorphic icons. It has a phallic shape, symbolizing creation and fertility.

    3 The Rameshwara dates from the early twelfth century, but is built on seventh-century remains of an earlier stucture, possibly contemporary to the three smaller temples of the Shatrughneshwara, Bharateshwara, and Lakshmaneshwara, all dating from the sixth century themselves. The extant Lingaraja temple dates from the late eleventh century, but the earliest date reported by historical texts for the existence of a shrine at this site is the seventh century. See Thomas E. Donaldson, Hindu Temple Art of Orissa, vol 1, Studies in South Asian Culture, v. 12 (Leiden: New York : E.J. Brill, 1985); Chandra Krishna Panigrahi, Archaeological Remains at Bhubaneswar (Orient Longman, 1961); Charles Louis Fabri, History of the Art of Orissa (Bombay: Orient Longman, 1974).

    4 The site of Bhubaneswar in general has a long archaeological history that is connected to the Mauryan period (c. fourth to second century BCE) and to the emperor Ashoka, whose capital, Toshali, has been identified by some scholars in a ruined fortification just southeast of the medieval city. See Chandra Krishna Panigrahi, Archaeological Remains at Bhubaneswar (Orient Longman, 1961), 178–180.

    5 Scholars consider contemporary ritual performance in Bhubaneswar as additional proof of the preexistence of the Rameswara. "The sanctity of this site is still celebrated today by a festive visit once a year on the day of Ashokastami in the month of Chaitra (March–April) by the movable images of the lord Tribhuvaneswara (Lingaraja) and his family members, a ritual suggesting the deity of a later shrine paying homage to the deity of an earlier shrine." Chandra Krishna Panigrahi, Archaeological Remains at Bhubaneswar (Orient Longman, 1961), 190. See also Thomas E. Donaldson, Hindu Temple Art of Orissa, vol 1, Studies in South Asian Culture, v. 12 (Leiden: New York : E.J. Brill, 1985), 31.

  • Reflections on Indigeneity, circumpolarity, oral history making, and architecture—in a comparative framework

    by Helena Dean | Oct 19, 2022

    Adil Mansure is a 2022 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

    Various Indigenous peoples have dwelt for thousands of years along the Arctic circle. Here, time, frost, and colonial oppression have inevitably vetted out stellar models of living sustainably. What are these architectures of adaptation, buoyancy, and persistence? And what about them don’t we still understand and are not able to pin—and pen—down? Many of these peoples never took to writing or drawing, yet, their elders, who they deem to be spiritual librarians of their communities, transfer thousands of years of architectural knowledge through their stories. This traditional and ecological knowledge is rich, holistic, and not siloed into narrow knowledge domains; architecture, too, is a phase in the life cycle of carbon chemistry involving food, clothing, energy, and shelter. Architecture is thus important in mitigating change pertaining to migration, climate, and resource management, and not merely an outcome of industrial production. For this traveling fellowship, I sought to speak to the elders and knowledge-keepers of various Indigenous peoples about the architectural knowledge that lay intertwined in their stories, myth, and worldviews. It is precisely in the ‘unwritten-ness’ of their knowledge that its adaptability and sustainability lies—and this oral epistemological format thus compels an ‘oral history’ project. Given similarities in climate and other geographical conditions along similar latitudes, and also to some extent similarities in how Indigenous peoples were colonized, I proposed a comparative, circumpolar, oral history project. Thanks to the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship, I traveled to Iceland to talk to the Icelanders, to Southern Yukon to talk to various Yukon First Nations, and to Haida Gwaii to talk to the Haida.

    I want to use this brief essay to discuss some ideas common to the various conversations I have had during my travels. Examples that discuss these themes in further detail can be found in each of the monthly fellowship reports I have written, which I will point to in this essay. I also want to note that, like previous reports, any accounts I am sharing are deliberately being kept anonymous. This report is not the space to disclose personal stories or make ‘human subjects’ out of the people who were kind enough to have conversations with me. I have made promises to not record or transcribe, but simply describe through abstract and third-person narratives, the attitudes and ideas that have struck me as most remarkable.

    I must clarify first that I am not myself Indigenous, and prior to these travels, knew little about the Indigenous communities I wished to speak to for this oral history project. I am of Indian and Pakistani origin, belonging to an Indian minority, and now a Canadian minority. Being from a colony of the British empire, I relate somewhat to the oppression that many Indigenous communities have endured on the grounds of language, race, religion, public identity, and spatial expression. Language is particularly important here, both from a personal and global perspective. I think of English as my second language—‘second,’ however, not to any one ‘first.’ And this is something that I have discovered to share with several elders and artists of the Indigenous communities I have spoken with. The imposition of English upon the now-Canadian First Nations and banning the use of their languages—especially in the residential schools that Indigenous children were coerced into—was a major weapon of colonization that even today continues to manifest its deleterious effects. The Indigenous communities I have spoken to are now witnessing a crucial multi-generational void, and ruptures of both a cultural and an epistemic nature. Where then might strands of continuity be found for the fostering and regeneration of Indigenous traditional knowledge and culture?

    Not by any means a scholar of Indigenous culture or architecture, I came to this project primarily with an interest in and some prior work on language and space. I am deeply interested in how world-building occurs primarily through language. Not only are we compelled to language from our very beginnings, but we make sense of the world significantly through the terms of common parlance. In Louis Althusser’s terms, we are interpellated by language; that is we become ourselves as mediated through and by the languages we speak.1 However, we are not only shaped by language, we also simultaneously and collectively shape the languages we speak. Personalities are influenced and shaped by, but by no means entirely decided by language. Like any technology—architecture included—creation and identity occur and recur in the interstices between the coda of any convention. This nature of language, this shared technology abundant with entropy, is not only incredibly complex but also mysterious and intriguing to study—especially in the language uses of the Canadian Indigenous peoples I have spoken to, even in their use of English. With them, it is evident that ‘meaning’ lies beyond and in-between their common symbols, structures, grammar, and rules of language use, and it is only by engaging with them personally that I have even a slight understanding of their culture and knowledge. So with language, we find ourselves to be in a double bind: we approach community and culture through language, we shape it and are shaped by it, but ultimately we reach that point where we know that what lies beyond escapes it. It forms both the local and general at the same time. How language escapes the symbolic for the peoples I have met interests me very much, since I conjecture that architectural knowledge tests the symbolic in similar ways. Language, engaged with in this way is precisely what it shares with architecture: it yields the very spaces where we can model how we are immersed in our societies, technology, cultures, and indeed the environment.

    I chose to begin in Iceland; an unconventional choice, one might think, given that Icelanders might not be considered to be Indigenous, per se. However, as I explained in my first SAH fellowship report—beyond being a sub-Arctic land sharing geographical similarities with other Indigenous communities I spoke to—not only does the island have a history of austerity, impoverishment, and (soft) colonization, but furthermore, it has a unique history of literary arts (evident in the Sagas and Eddas, for example) that exhibits an intriguing interplay between writing and orality. Although writing has been a significant endeavor that numerous Icelanders undertook, and despite being a uniquely highly literate society in world history having vast readership, recitation and (oral) story-telling in Iceland formed significant activities of cultural life around which other activities of familial life were organized. So writing and orality here are not in opposition, on the contrary, and to echo Walter Ong, each advances the other.2 Speaking to Icelanders about this interplay between the written and the oral has provoked incredibly fruitful conversations about the shaping of various Icelandic topoi (notions of space that exist somewhere between linguistic and architectural space). As I elaborated on in my SAH fellowship report focused on Iceland, such topos are evident in their legends and myths shaped about and around particular landforms of the rather active Icelandic geo-scape; for example, how the features of trolls, ogres, elves, and other huldufólk (hidden folk) are shaped by and relate to specific places and features of the land.

    Fig 1: Basalt rock formations at Reynisfjara; commonly spoken about as a petrified troll

    Fig 2: Basalt rock formations at Reynisfjara, mirrored in the Hallgrímskirkja, and the National Theater of Iceland buildings in Reykjavik

    I have found such stories to be a circumpolar theme: not only in Iceland, but across Canada, and in Lapland (where I did not travel but spoke to members of the Sami peoples), features of the various species on the land and the landforms alike are extended, augmented, and metamorphosed to yield protagonist personae of their stories. It must be noted that these stories are inseparable from their spatio-temporal contexts of telling: in Iceland, for example, they were recited (often read from manuscripts) at gatherings within their domestic spaces (usually turf houses) during their long winters; or told during wayfaring, where the stories indirectly contained vital information about where to go or not go, and how to do so. 

    Fig 3: Reconstructed turf house complex, transported to and exhibited at the Skógar Museum, Iceland

    Fig 4 & 5: Interior of the main/living room at the turf house complex renovated by Hannes Lárusson, Austur-Meðalholt

    Fig 6: Kitchen of the reconstructed turf house complex, transported to and exhibited at the Skógar Museum, Iceland

    Fig 7: Abandoned turf house at Drangurinn í Drangshlíð

    The landforms and various animate species co-exist as protagonists, as it were, in an ongoing environmental theater—where both species and spaces are brought into existence with their features shaped by (or with) constant exchanges with the other. Similarly, people from the Yukon and Northwest Territories I have spoken to have spoken about encountering tall creatures whose features were shaped by their ecosystems; and likewise people from Haida Gwaii have gestured to creatures shaped by the dynamism of the intertidal zone—or the chaw saalii in the Haida language3—that the Haida inhabited. In fact, Haida and other coastal peoples’ very conceptions of space reflects what they observe other creatures’ patterns of spatial inhabitation to be; for example, they perceive the worlds of killer whales under the surfaces of waves to be mirrors of sorts, of the spatial patterns the Haida produce. Conceptually speaking, such exchanges between places and people, the significance of which I will try to articulate further in what follows, I have found to be common themes between various regions of the sub-Arctic North. What is of importance here is not the ‘legitimacy’ of any claims of having witnessed so-called mythical creatures, but the way human behavior, society, and space are shaped about their common beliefs. Not only do information exchanges here best occur through oral language, but modeling the shaping of their information, cosmologies, and worldviews is best done by studying their oral exchanges and dispersions.

    I have found these stories to be information-rich, in ways that have only recently been appreciated by various scientific communities. The stories I encountered contained archaeological information and information pertinent to environmental history that could be deciphered, so to speak, by coupling, carefully looking at landscapes with relating them back to incidents in the stories. This, too, is a northern circumpolar theme: the marriage of traditional knowledge and its means of formation and sustenance; in other words, oral epistemologies with scientific means—especially geology and archaeology. In Iceland, in the Yukon, and other parts of Canada, stories have contained vital information about not only how the lands have been shaped for thousands of years by various geological factors, but also how the ancestors of the storytellers reacted to these environmental changes and how their patterns of life, migration, and sustenance came to be.4 It must be noted that these stories are told not simply for curing intellectual interest, rather, they contain vital know-how for sustenance and for taking care of the environment. Through my travels, I have spoken to anthropologists and geologists who highlighted that it was by forming vital relationships with particular Indigenous communities that they came upon precious knowledge about both the land and the people. (Of course, many of these relationships are rather contentious as scientists have often disrespected the generosity of the Canadian First Nations and dug up their ancestors’ graves, lied about various stories for their academic glory, and engaged in other misdemeanors. I have been fortunate to speak to a few people where the relationships continue to be ones of mutual respect, and furthermore, I have been very fortunate to speak to both sides.) These stories and this knowledge deal with long durations and vast geographies, and exhibit varied knowledge-keeping methods—unlike the ‘analysis and inference’ processes of recent scientific research methods. The peoples look at the mountains, movements of glaciers and rivers, and other geographical features, and identify how times have passed differently in the various places their ancestors encountered. And although I have not been able to circumambulate the globe along sub-Arctic latitudes as originally planned, I have spoken to some members of the Sami (from Lapland) and the Inuit (from Canada and Greenland) at a circumpolar Indigenous festival in the Yukon, and finding such value in their information-rich stories appears to be very common indeed in the circumpolar North. Thus, not only are natural occurrences of various scales and magnitudes recorded by shaping protagonists in stories that correspond to them, but geological, natural, and environmental history are themselves mediated by way of oratory practice and recital. 

    A significant feature of this oral epistemological format is that it is evident how the information pre-exists the categories of information that we have forced knowledge into since the Enlightenment. Stories flow freely from imagination to life lessons to teaching about morality to passing on valuable skills required in everyday life. The vital presence of these stories and the contexts in which they come to be are significant parts—and indeed forms—of life itself and cannot be sheared away into measured quanta of informational material. Much of the knowledge is tacit, or even tactile. The stories thus live on somewhere between matter and mind; between Descartes’ infamous categories of res cogito and res extensa.5 Neither are categories such as form and content, or narrative and content, applicable here. Architecture, too, in such knowledge comes through not as a discipline but as a phase in the life cycle of carbon chemistry, and is intermingled with food, clothing, energy, and shelter.

    Fig 8 & 9: Hut for drying cod fish in the turf house complex renovated by Hannes Lárusson, Austur-Meðalholt. Similar buildings for processing fish have been built along the coasts of circumpolar sub-Arctic regions.

    A point I want to emphasize that underlies this project is: the depth and richness of information of Indigenous knowledge come from an ethos and a culture of care invested in the survival of all species and spaces, and not from atomizing knowledge into bits of information to generate speculative value and use. And this is perhaps also why their language deployed so has (at least until recently) escaped writing and other forms of inscription that attempt to freeze language into visual and uni-sensory quantifiable forms. The imperatives toward their oral epistemology are especially prescient today, and these imperatives are precisely what we must learn from various Indigenous peoples.



    Long ago  ·   it was   ·   she said,  ·   my mom,  ·   water  ·   flooded   ·   earth  ·   on.

    No  ·   land  ·   area seen.

    Bald eagle  ·   and  ·   Raven  ·   driftwood  ·   on  ·   they sat.

    Fish little  ·   and  ·   seaweed  ·   they eat,  ·   that  ·   by  ·   they lived.6

    As this short excerpt from a transcript of a tale told by Nakhela—Hazel Bunbury in the Southern Tutchone language (from Southern Yukon) shows, the deployment of language is direct, with periods and intonations punctuating long and silent, but heterogeneous durations. As is evident above, the emphasis of storytellers is often on acts or activities and objects, which are expressed in succinct phraseology. Not only did the impetus to speak come from places I was quite unfamiliar with, but with meters and rhythms strikingly particular. Unlike many a European language, where the strict grammar, sentence constructions, and other rules of language use take prominence and attention—thus, also disciplining their speakers—Indigenous linguistic experience appears to yield more tolerance, give, and dynamism. Although hardly any native speakers of these languages survive, the voice of the author has effects that I find to resonate and resound even in transcriptions—but only having witnessed the telling of some of these stories. And it is precisely the spirit of such orations and narrations that I have witnessed the elders I encountered on my trip to foster, even in their use of the English language. Catherine McClelland has discussed the role that language played for the Yukon First Nations and emphasized that it was used rather sparingly.7 Words, acts, and other symbols carried an emphasis that clued the fact that the gestures to be communicated lay somewhere just beyond the realms of the symbols used. Elders were verbose only in times when important knowledge was to be passed on, when expression was coupled with the intensity of (non-linguistic) action. Such patterns of silence, followed sometimes by enthusiastic and focused narrations, are precisely what I recognized in the conversations I have had with the Canadian First Nations. It can generally be said that language was valued because of a restraint that was usually at work, a linguistic restraint and culture of valuing that mirrors other facets of their life.

    In many of the stories told, some that I witnessed directly and others that I discussed with artists and elders, the voice of the storyteller caught my intrigue. I was struck by not only the oratory patterns and acoustic resonances, but also by the positioning and authority of the narrator. Stories were often told in a ‘first-person’ voice, as if the teller was present in the (historical or mythical) time that the stories took place. The Ice Ages, for example, which I thought to be far and distant in both history and geography before my travels, I found to be ever-so-fresh in many of the stories that I witnessed—as if it had just happened! Such a notion of time is perhaps what the scholar of ancient cultures Mircea Eliade refers to as illud tempore (in ‘that time’, a mythical time that legitimizes the repetitions of a culture’s rituals and practices).8 By no means did the first-person voice stand for a transcendental force or God, but merely one who had witnessed many incidents over the years, learned the stories from their ancestors (by repeating verbatim), and thus could weave together ways of presenting best practices and modes of adapting for survival and care-taking to subsequent generations. Such a voice, in addition to conveying important information, also produces immense affect and induces a life-like presence in the very time and space of the present or recent telling of the story. It is the voice of an individual, but also of their ancestors and peoples. Tenses as well as the identity of the author are not fixed, but shift positions between various historical and present times, in accordance with the subjects or listeners being addressed. To be sure, such affects of presencing are not superadded, and neither are they representational or purely leisurely. They are the very lifeline of the peoples, since history, myth, morality, and so on, were inextricably interwoven in their stories. Such a voice is thus also how the common ground of the people is continuously sustained and reinvigorated.

    The imperatives of such voicing are perhaps best discussed with an almost forgotten domain or discipline: rhetoric. However, rather than discuss the stories and knowledge using the concepts and terms of rhetoric, I want to shift slightly the discussion about the voice of the storyteller to how the rhetoric associated with such voicing operates through art. In previous reports, I have discussed numerous works of art and the conversations I have had with their creators: I am thinking of those reconstructing turf houses in Iceland and sod-houses in many parts of the Canadian North (Fig 10 & 11); of those tanning and stringing the hides of caribou and moose in the Yukon (Fig 12); of those building kayaks using dried animal hides (Fig 13 & 14); and of those carving totem poles and dug-out canoes in Haida Gwaii (Fig 15 & 16). 

    Fig 10 & 11: Turf house complex renovated by Hannes Lárusson at Austur-Meðalholt in South-Iceland

    Fig 12: Vadzaih dhòh (Caribou Skin) by Copper Caribou (Montana Prysnuk and Delaney Prysnuk), exhibited at the Yukon Arts Center, Whitehorse, 2022

    Fig 13 & 14: A kayak and canoe made from animal hide by Doug Smarch (and others) from Teslin, exhibited at the Adäka Festival 2022 in Whitehorse, Yukon

    Fig 15 & 16: Formline comparison between: A Gitxsan totem pole in Gitanyow, BC, and a Haida totem pole in Old Masset

    Fig 17, 18, 19: Formline comparison between: A Gitxsan totem pole in Gitanyow, BC, a
     Haida totem pole in Old Masset (Note the flat and fat lip. This was a symbol of a higher-ranked individual in the Haida social matrix), and a Gitxsan totem pole at the Ksan Historical village in Hazelton, BC

    Fig 20 & 21: Dug-out canoes at the Haida Gwaii Museum, Skidegate.

    In retrieving the tools of their ancestors, reforming contact with the sources and contexts of their materials, and attempting to (re)invent their most vital skills and know-how, are they not embodying precisely the first-person voice of a storyteller? Not only are these Indigenous artists inevitably positioned as repositories of their peoples’ knowledge—and their artistic processes being key means of retrieving further knowledge—but they also recall and collapse into the moment of artistic creation, precisely those historic and mythical times (illud tempore, as per Eliade) of their heritage. If the first-person voice and authority of the storyteller are vital in regenerating the common knowledge and conversational fabric of a peoples, is not art serving a similar role and regenerating the common skills, artistic heritage, and being a conduit to other forms of knowledge and memory? Even if rhetoric as a discipline or mode of inquiry is largely forgotten, its modes of operation are thus very much active through the artistic practices of the circumpolar North I have witnessed.


    Animism and empathy

    It is evident that a non-human-centric perspective is adopted in the conceptions of knowledge I have surveyed. I have hinted at this, but let us discuss it further. Significant tropes of such a perspective are animism and empathy (which I have also discussed with examples in each of my monthly SAH fellowship reports). As Mallgrave and Ikonomou have discussed in their book, Empathy, Form, and Space, ‘empathy’ emerged as a significant term, at least in nineteenth-century discourses of German aesthetics pertinent to architecture.9 In these theories, humans are described to perceive architectural and other objects by projecting upon them human-centric tropes and characteristics. As Wölfflin has suggested (in the above-mentioned book), ‘proportion’ as conceived in a Humanist framework relies on precisely such a conception of empathy and, since the Renaissance, has become tethered to the dimensions of the human body (which also has a history of being taken a bit too literally, as is the case with Francesco di Giorgio’s comparison of a sprawled-out human body to a cross church plan!)10 What is valuable in Wölfflin and the other ‘empathy’ theorists’ work is their insistence on space being not a pre-existing category of human intuition, but in fact coming into being in our very act of perception, in the dynamic and kinesthetic relations born in the moment of our seeing and cognizing that seeing. What I do find restrictive, however, is the object being limited to sculpture or architecture and the subject to humans. What about non-human animals? What about non-animal species? A further question that I have after witnessing Indigenous notions of space is: if we can see tropes of ‘human’ in buildings and other objects, how could we not extend them with human notions of care? Why is this Humanism not humane to all humans and other species? In what follows I will discuss how, in a non-human-centric worldview, the projections (of human to space) are much more complex and empathetic; how the ‘projectiles,’ as it were, of projection are not just uni-directional but form a complex web through which humans, animals, and objects/spaces interact and co-evolve.

    First, unlike Western conceptions of neutral or homogenous space, the spaces that we are dealing with here are not understood in the abstract, but rather, quite directly from the various animal organs out of which objects of daily use were made.11 I highlighted in prior reports, how the Yukon First Nations used the intestines of moose and caribou as vessels to store in, and their stomachs used as vessels to boil and cook in. These organs and membranes have astonishing plasticity and variances, and these properties are evident in the peoples’ very conceptualization of space. The geometry that they work with is astoundingly complex, dealing with topologies of both curvature and flexibility. The knowledge of how to work these surfaces is very much tactile—and even tacit—and propagated by being practiced communally. Along the Arctic circle, the Inuit often used whale bones as structural skeletons for their own shelter. These were usually covered with animal hide. In the case of the Haida, and other peoples influenced by the dynamism of littoral zones, the geometry of marine animal bodies, seashells, and so on influences their conception of space. Not only is the initial conception of space highly influenced by the topology of the animal body that is (re)discovered in each act of harvesting, but (and especially in the case of the whale bone structure, which also involves enveloping human bodies with animal hides and furs) humans ‘place’ themselves within the animal bodies they consume. Furthermore, the spatial conceptions of various Indigenous peoples are not simply influenced by the internal spaces of animals, but also by the ways in which they observe shoals/herds/groups of animals to pattern and produce space. And to zoom out a magnitude further, both the animal and human body and relations between various species do not occur in a closed system, but are dynamic and changing as shaped by environmental factors. What happens within an animal body is a reflection of what occurs outside, and vice versa. This is evident in many Indigenous cosmologies, for example, for the Sami people from Lapland, the arterial network of reindeer is seen as analogous to their river networks, both of which are key sources of nourishment. I must also note here, as I did in my report on the Yukon, that harvesting an animal did not imply a lack of respect for the animal; in fact, as much of the literature I have discussed in that report shows, relationships between animals and humans are historically and environmentally complex where agency has been relegated equally to animals and humans in various instances.12 I also discussed how humans have not only taken from animals, but also given much; for example, Indigenous peoples harvesting herds of reindeer while also protecting them from other predators—an exchange that various First Peoples believe to be understood and acknowledged by the herds.13 Another point that must be emphasized is that the above notions of space are low on content that can be easily and permanently visualized; rather, they persist somewhere between common and tacit knowledge, tactile memory, and orally-transmitted (yet multi-sensorial) comprehension. Thus, complex relations and topologies of hunter and hunted, consumer and consumed, and outside and inside emerge here. And evident through the notion of empathy is a deep and holistic, information-rich understanding of the various entanglements between human, animal, and environment.

    Finally, such an understanding of empathy does not exclude flora or inanimate objects. In Iceland, for example, the turf houses involve the roots of grass or turf interlocking after the laying of blocks of topsoil and turf to form walls. The structural stability of the buildings depends on life or nature itself to continue its processes upon and into the turf houses. Indigenous peoples in Canada practice a different dimension of empathy involving trees, where they are treated not only as natural resources to be used, but as archives of environmental history. The peoples decipher from their trees the history of the climate, the conditions of the land, and patterns of migration of various species (including humans), to mention a few aspects. This information was vital in deciding which parts of the lands or waters to inhabit and tend to, where materials could be harvested in ways that would benefit the land, and so on. Relationships were developed with each tree as it periodically yielded pitch, bark, resin, and many other resources. The uniqueness and personality, as it were, of each tree was understood. In harvesting trees for any artifacts, such as canoes and totem poles (in the case of the Haida and the Tlingit speaking tribes of the Yukon, British Columbia (BC), and Alaska), the characteristics of trees played an important role in its transformation into its subsequent life form—where ‘life form’ refers to the animated spirit each artifact was attributed to have. For example, in the making of a coastal Tlingit and Haida dug-out canoe, logs are first floated on the water, and the design of the canoe depended on how the log would float. No two canoes could be the same, as no two trees were the same. Furthermore, the connection of each canoe, totem pole, etc., to where it came from is never severed, as the story of its coming into being is shared in stories to be repeated through generations. Here, not only are sophisticated forms of mnemonics at work, but they simultaneously emphasize relationships of care and empathy, while also augmenting the richness of the language, know-how, and stories of the people.

    Fig 22: In-progress portions of the turf house complex being renovated by Hannes Lárusson at Austur-Meðalholt (focus on the interlocking roots of turf that bond the blocks of topsoil together)

    Fig 23 & 24: Trees at the Naikoon Provincial Park


    Networks of information flow

    Although my previous reports have been focused on specific peoples and the lands and waters they inhabited, there has been much information exchange between them. For instance, the connection of the Haida and coastal Tlingit to the inland Tlingit in the Yukon (the Teslin Tlingit First Nation) and northern BC (Atlin Tlingit First Nation). These exchanges are evident in not only the trade networks set up between them—which were further expanded in the last two or three centuries by British traders—but also in the formations of First Nations, tribes, and clans through the languages that consolidated. For example, the inland Tlingit First Nations were highly influenced by their coastal counterparts and the sub-marine cosmologies of the latter are hence evident in their boat making, acoustic instruments such as drums, and their shelters. The language maps, as it were, hence mirror exchanges in the skills, methods, buildings, and arts of the peoples of a region. Such maps are common (oral) knowledge, which have recently also been visualized, for example, the widely circulated maps of the Yukon Indigenous languages.

    Many of these exchanges, and the differences in the worldviews of the peoples can be observed in the various versions of their common stories. For example, in this story told across Yukon, northern BC, and Alaska:

    After Crow made the world, he saw that sea lion owned the only island in the world.
    The rest was water—he’s the only one with land.
    The whole place was ocean!
    Crow rests on a piece of log—he’s tired.
    He sees sea lion with that little island just for himself.
    He wants some land too so he stole that sea lion’s kid.

    “Give me back that kid!” said sea lion.

    “Give me beach, some sand,” says Crow.

    So sea lion gave him sand.
    Crow threw that sand around the world.
    “Be World,” he told it. And it became the world.14

    In this origin story featuring the raven (or crow), depending on where and by whom the story is told, the other characters and details change. For example, in the versions told by the inland First Nations, the sea lion is replaced by a gull, and other elements also reflect the specific peoples’ lay of the land. What remains common in the many versions of this story, is that the narrator affects not a ubiquitous transcendental (or god), but a witness of sorts, one who simply happens to be around various acts of creation. Another common theme is the trickster persona of the Raven, who, in playing tricks for seemingly trivial gains, accidentally gets involved in various creative or originary acts. The accidental nature of much that happens is thus highlighted. In the region this story spread, there are several other commonalities: for example, skills such as boatbuilding, drum-making, and the building of longhouses, most of which were transferred from the coast to inland—whereas skills related to the skinning of animals and producing hides, furs, and so on transferred from inland to the coast. I highlighted in my report on the Yukon, how methods of treating, stretching, and stringing animal hides were common to building kayaks, drums, and tents—and how these led to the artifacts even exhibiting similar aural properties.

    Fig 25, 26, 27, 28: An animal hide canoe made by Doug Smarch from Teslin, exhibited at the Adäka Festival 2022 in Whitehorse, Yukon; 
    Drums from various Canadian First Nations, played at the Adäka Festival 2022 in Whitehorse, Yukon; Vadzaih dhòh (Caribou Skin) by Copper Caribou (Montana Prysnuk and Delaney Prysnuk), exhibited at the Yukon Arts Center, Whitehorse; An animal hide tipi erected at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural center in Whitehorse, for the Adäka Festival 2022

    A significant commonality that persists among Indigenous peoples is the complete absence of the notion of waste. Every part of the animal body harvested is put to some use, and this has also proven to be a stellar source of ingenuity and innovation. The artwork, kayaks, dug-canoes, and longhouses of First Nations with inland Tlingit heritage in the Yukon and northern BC make for interesting examples not only as they form nodes, both geographical and cultural/linguistic between the geographical extremities of the regions discussed, but also as they exhibit exchanges between the domains of transport, music, ritual and celebration, and shelter.

    In the case of the longhouses of the region, common methods of orienting and building them are found. As well, in most cases, the lack of separation between domestic and sacred space is common, and the longhouse is thus generally a monadic space. Of course, a significant way in which longhouses differed from each other was the materials available, for example, only on Haida Gwaii could one find 300-foot cedar trees (which the Haida also gave second lives to as totem poles and canoes). Smaller trees led to longhouses of lesser spans and depths, as well as to different proportions, dictated especially by the angle of the roof.

    Fig 29: Haida longhouses at the Haida Gwaii Museum, Skidegate

    Fig 30: Gitxsan longhouses at the Ksan Historical village in Hazelton, BC

    Fig 31: Carcross/Tagish First Nation longhouses at the CTFN Cultural Center

    Yet, the spatial matrices of the coastal longhouses can be observed in those built inland. As discussed in detail in my report on Haida Gwaii, but consider now as general properties of the spatial axes/matrix of longhouses of the region: the archetype of its horizontal axis involves the weather approaching across the water, through the length of the longhouses, to the forests behind; whereas the archetype of its vertical axis includes the root cellars or caches for storing food, its fire pits and smoke-holes, the stilts where applicable, adjacent totem poles, and surrounding trees spiraling upward.15 The axes of such a spatial matrix are not origins in their space-making processes (like the three-dimensional Cartesian axes or matrices of many Eurocentric spatial conceptions), but rather, are non-visual archetypes that recur in their production of space, informed by their common knowledge, cosmological models, and epistemologies, and transmitted through their stories not only to their younger generations, but also across the lands and waters.

    Fig 32, 33, 34, 35: Construction details of a (nearly complete) Haida longhouse in Old Masset


    Concluding remarks

    I must begin to conclude by stating my infinite gratitude to the Society of Architectural Historians and to the committee of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship for making these travels possible. Not only have I discovered new ways of traveling—staying in places for longer durations and seeking out people for multiple visits and conversations—but I have also discovered new methods of research and writing. I must confess that this essay is not a historical or an anthropological endeavor. I never aspired to legitimize information in the ways of the institutional sciences or even social sciences. Even history, and especially an oral history, can easily suffer the lack of trust when not evidenced by stuff found in dusty archives or heavily footnoted to gain legitimacy from other existing histories. The information here lies somewhere in between received know-how; consonant theories and attitudes to adopt in building, researching, and traveling; and aspirations for worldviews and attitudes to be explored further.

    Generally speaking, in the various stories of these First Nations, and indeed in my conversations with them, I have thoroughly enjoyed the casuality, colloquialism, and incredible leeway for topics to seamlessly drift. After all, is this not one of the wonders of orality: that one can shift between thoughts and sentences, topics, intensities, and emotions? Broken and grammatically incomplete sentences often seem not only fitting but at times even more informative. And these are often not closures or completed understandings of matters but rather questions and openings in the knowledge that only probe further and deeper than one might have previously imagined. 

    I must make a few other concluding remarks about Indigeneity in a Eurocentric world. In the last few decades, much progress has been made in Canada in empowering Indigenous First Nations as well as in other places across the circumpolar north to make amends for centuries of misdoings by the colonizing powers. However, numerous other Indigenous peoples continue to not be acknowledged even today, with little respect given to their ways of life, wisdom, traditions, and heritage. Even among the peoples I have visited in Canada, there are disparities in how amends have been made, and a comparative framework of travel has made these clear. (I will not refer to specific peoples here at the risk of imparting information that is not mine to share.) Despite this, generally speaking, in the Canadian North, wonderful efforts are underway by many First Nations to return themselves to self-governance and to practice their traditions (hunting, trapping, fishing, etc.), many of which they have been denied for many decades. Efforts are also underway in attempting to regenerate their languages, which colonial powers had barred them from speaking, causing severe generational ruptures of knowledge transfer. And as I have discussed, Indigenous artists are supremely important conduits of regeneration, as they renew their traditional art forms by reinvigorating lost methods and even integrating them with contemporary ones. So although most conversations today about becoming whole again and cultural regeneration inevitably begin with residential school experiences, there is also much hope, enthusiasm, and effort expressed in the regeneration of traditional activities, languages, and, importantly, art. An inductive research method such as mine opens one up to the common conversational fabric of the regions I have visited, and thanks to the generosity of the wonderful people I have spoken to, I have been able to grasp a little bit of what it means to regenerate entire civilizations.

    Finally, I must comment that any history reflects, first and foremost, not an objective account of past events or facts, but rather, the shifting concerns and exigencies of the present it is written in. Hence, my plea to listen to the oral histories of the Indigenous people is also a plea to holistically address issues of decolonization, ethnic and spatial equity, and cultural and architectural preservation. I hope that some of the Indigenous methodologies, imperatives, and cultures of care that I have gestured to can be infused into the mainstream of architecture, both in architectural history and practice. Indigenous stories must be ‘listened to’: an effort to listen and understand Indigenous methods is indeed to decolonize, to responsibly globalize—and to apologize.



    1 Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (Monthly Review Press, 1972), p162–174.

    2 Walter J Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Routledge, 1982), p7–11.

    3 “The forest, sea, and sky (…) None of these is the human realm. Humans are only at home on the chaaw salíi, [translated as “the place where the tide has been”] the boundary or intertidal zone, at the conjunction of all three. A few strokes of the paddle or a few steps into the bush are enough to leave the human world behind."

    See Robert Bringhurst, A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Vancouver/Toronto/Berkeley: Douglas & McIntyre, 2011), p157.

    4 For such themes in Iceland, see Emily Lethbridge, “Digital Mapping and the Narrative Stratigraphy of Iceland,” in Historical Geography, GIScience and Textual Analysis (Springer, 2020), p19–32;

    and Emily Lethbridge and Steven Hartman, “Inscribing Environmental Memory in the Icelandic Sagas and the Icelandic Saga Map,” PMLA 131, no. 2 (2016): p381–91.

    5 To be fair, I must note that I am here using Descartes as a strawman of sorts. These conceptions, like many other popular philosopher’s concepts are oversimplified and used in popular intellectual discourses, and this often not only leaves out important nuances but also distorts their meanings and implications.

    6 Kwanlin Dun First Nation, Kwanlin Dün: Dä́kwändür Ghay Ghàkwädīndür--Our Story in Our Words (Figure 1 Publishing, 2021), p42–45.

    7 Catharine McClellan, Part of the Land, Part of the Water: A History of the Yukon Indians (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1987), p110.

    8 Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959), p20–21.

    9 Harry Francis Mallgrave and Eleftherios Ikonomou, eds., Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873–1893 (Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1994).

    10 See Heinrich Wölfflin, “Prolegomena to a Psychology of Architecture,” in Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873–1893 (Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1994).

    11 For detailed descriptions of many more traditional acts, skills, and methods, see McClellan, Part of the Land, Part of the Water: A History of the Yukon Indians (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1987)

    12 Citations included in the report on Yukon include: the introduction of Tim Ingold, ed., What Is an Animal? (Routledge, 2016), and; Tim Ingold, “From Trust to Domination: An Alternative History of Human-Animal Relations,” in Animals and Human Society (Routledge, 2002), p13–34.

    See also: Norman Alexander Easton, “‘It’s Hard Enough to Control Yourself; It’s Ridiculous to Think You Can Control Animals.’ Competing Views on ‘The Bush’ in Contemporary Yukon,” Northern Review, no. 29 (2008): p21–38; Paul Nadasdy, “The Gift in the Animal: The Ontology of Hunting and Human–Animal Sociality,” American Ethnologist 34, no. 1 (2007): and; Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (routledge, 2002)

    13 See Bathsheba Demuth, “Reindeer at the End of the World,” Emergence Magazine, July 5, 2020, https://emergencemagazine.org/essay/reindeer-at-the-end-of-the-world/

    14 From an origin story of the land, as told by Angela Sydney to Julie Cruikshank. See Julie Cruikshank, Life Lived like a Story: Life Stories of Three Yukon Native Elders (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002), p42-44.

    15 In addition to my report on Haida Gwaii, see George F MacDonald, “The World Is as Sharp as a Knife: An Anthology in Honour of Wilson Duff,” in Cosmic Equations in Northwest Coast Indian Art, ed. Wilson Duff, 1977; Here, pertaining to the Haida's cosmic distributions along the vertical axis, he gestures to the five layers of the cosmos above the “sky door” or smoke-hole of their longhouse, as well as five levels in the underworld.

    See also: George F MacDonald, Chiefs of the Sea and Sky: Haida Heritage Sites of the Queen Charlotte Islands (UBC Press, 1989). MacDonald explains how non-human animals consonantly describe the Haida’s conception of space through axes and zones, the three primary divisions being: the strata of the underworld (creatures below the ground and the sea); the middleworld (creatures that live in the forest); and the upperworld (aerial creatures).

  • Haida Gwaii: “at home on the chaaw salíi”

    by Helena Dean | Sep 07, 2022

    Adil Mansure is the 2022 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

    The forest, sea, and sky
    (…) None of these is the human realm. Humans are only at home on the chaaw salíi, [translated as “the place where the tide has been”] the boundary or intertidal zone, at the conjunction of all three. A few strokes of the paddle or a few steps into the bush are enough to leave the human world behind.1

    I write this report from Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the coast of British Columbia in Canada. Called the Queen Charlotte Islands by the British Empire and then Canada, these islands have been inhabited for thousands of years by the Haida. Previously blessed with an abundance of food from the Pacific Ocean, Hecate Straight, and several rivers, the Haida had ample time to advance their literary and visual arts, as well as develop other facets of their civilization. As is commonly referred to on the islands, even until about two centuries ago, as many as ten to twenty good fishing days followed by drying and smoking could sustain the Haida for the whole year. Somewhat different from the Yukon First Nations discussed in my previous fellowship report, the Haida were relatively less Nomadic, and much of their sustenance was met by forming clans and clusters and spreading out along the coastlines of each of the islands of the archipelago, which they all collectively stewarded. Other features of the islands that inform their architectural wisdom are: receding behind each coastline are some of the densest and richest rainforests in the world. Sustained by ample precipitation through the year, Haida Gwaii is home to incredibly bio-diverse flora and fauna. The incredibly tall cedar trees are perhaps the Haida’s most important harvest; these approximately 300-foot-long trees are also given second lives not only as immensely long beams for their longhouses, but also as totem poles and dug-out canoes. (Fig 1) Smaller artifacts from trees include spruce-root hats and baskets, tapestries, and carved masks and boxes. The ocean and the forest gave the Haida more than just food and art: they also developed advanced boat-building and sea-faring abilities, and their culture reflects rich exchanges from lands afar. Another feature of the island is that it is geologically unique and diverse, for example, the stone argillite is found almost exclusively on Haida Gwaii. I have found the Haida to have a unique sense of architectural space, which has undoubtedly emerged from an immense variety of factors, some of which are listed above—this is what I attempt to understand and articulate.

    Fig 1
    Figure 1: A totem pole and a dug-out canoe at the Haida Gwaii Museum, Skidegate

    It must be remembered that colonization has been uniquely detrimental to the Haida Nation. Among some of the atrocities that several North American First Nations faced—such as forcibly bringing their children to residential schools, banning the use of their languages, limiting their fishing and hunting, and compelling Indigenous individuals to give up their status in exchange for permission to buy alcohol and other goods—the population of the Haida uniquely collapsed due to waves of smallpox epidemics in the mid-nineteenth century.2 Only a very small percentage of the population survived this, and they were forced to cluster into two villages: Hlg̱aagilda & G̱aw, now known as Skidegate and Old Masset. In speaking with elders and artists, the smallpox epidemic appears to be a truly dominant feature of their history. The other major atrocity that every Haida talks about is against a different kind of their kin: against marine life. I have been told absolutely shocking tales of bloodshed against species that competed with humans for fish. After such predicaments—and much further worsened in the twentieth century when Haida children were dragged to residential schools on the mainland—what linguistic, cultural, and epistemological continuity could a Nation have?

    To repeat some important features of my oral history project from previous reports: I am repeatedly told that for what I want to do—conduct an oral history project where I talk to elders and knowledge-keepers of various Indigenous peoples to understand how thousands of years of (holistic and sustainable) architectural knowledge is embedded in their myths and stories—I am about 5–10 years too late; the last generation of elders who lived purely off the land, relatively less-influenced by British and Canadian colonization, have recently passed on. Yet, on Haida Gwaii, I witnessed rich strands of continuity in their visual arts. There are also incredible efforts toward the regeneration of their language, other lost arts, and cultural traditions such as potlatches. Another aspect of this project I must mention is the anonymity of those elders and artists who have been kind enough to speak to me. This report is not the space to disclose their personal stories or make "human subjects" out of them. I have made promises to not record or transcribe, but simply describe through abstract and third-person narratives, the attitudes and ideas that have struck me as most remarkable.

    With regard to the regeneration of Haida culture, it is precisely the uniqueness and richness of their arts, especially painting and carving, that have sustained a muscle memory of sorts through the centuries, and now serve as vital conduits for regeneration. As Bill Holm described in Northwest Coast Indian Art: an analysis of form, the paintings (both on flat surfaces as well as on hats, bowls, canoes, totem poles, and so on) and carvings exhibit a unique formline, which is almost a geometric framework that guides each artist to achieve certain proportions, an appropriate balance of positive and negative spaces, and so on.3 (Fig 2 & 3; Fig 4, 5, & 6) The ovoid was an important geometric element of the Haida formline. A key feature that Holm highlights is the varying widths of the lines that gives them an almost calligraphic character. And the analogy to writing (text) here is no coincidence, indeed, Haida artforms such as totem poles, masks, and canoes produced using their formline could be "read" for significant information. For example, the number of rings or horizontal carved layers on a totem pole signified the number of potlatches held by the chief or patron who the pole commemorated. (Fig 7) Such visual principles, however, are only one aspect of their art that continue to thrive and serve to regenerate their culture. With the carvers especially, the knowledge of how to work into their cedar surfaces is very much tactile and even tacit, and has been regenerated by some of the knowledge that has been passed down within families—but importantly, also by artists picking up the tools of their ancestors and reforming connections with the few remaining patches of old growth forests. Another non-visual aspect of Haida art is its contextuality. Haida carvers worked on canoes, wooden beams (and other architectural-structural support members), totem poles, and many other artifacts. These, however, only meant something in a certain place and time. Totem poles, for example, were stories that, if one knew how to "read" them, told of the identity of the Haida families and clans inhabiting the place, their various hierarchies and tribe structures, the other clans that they might be related to or allied with, and so on. Their beauty or visual appeal were not ends in themselves. The placing of totem poles is very important: not only their place-ment in a space but also the very act and event of raising them into place. Pole-raisings are still carried out at potlatches. How a totem pole could be read meant something only at a certain time, and for a certain people, and once raised, they were not meant to be modified, moved, or taken down. Their place, as it were, was with and among those who raised them.

    Fig 2,3
    Figures 2 & 3: Formline comparison between: A Gitxsan totem pole in Gitanyow, BC, and a Haida totem pole in Old Masset

    Fig 4,5,6
    Figure 4, 5 & 6: Formline comparison between: A Gitxsan totem pole in Gitanyow, BC. A Haida totem pole in Old Masset (Note the flat and fat lip. This was a symbol of a higher-ranked individual in the Haida social matrix). A Gitxsan totem pole at the Ksan Historical village in Hazelton, BC

    Fig 7
    Figure 7: A totem pole, Skidegate

    Today, several villages with their totem poles, longhouses, and other structures lay abandoned around the coastlines of Haida Gwaii. To the horror of many heritage conservationists, especially in the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve (which forms the southern tip of the archipelago), Haida elders have decided to simply let this physical heritage be untouched, for these poles to now nourish other members of the bio-diverse lands and waters. Moss, lichen, and new trees now sprout from their remains, and will eventually dissolve and digest them into the ground. (Fig 8) Those villages and peoples have ceased to be, what then can totem poles or any other artifacts mean without those whose stories they tell?

    Fig 8
    Figure 8: Trees at the Naikoon Provincial Park

    The way Haida elders think of the physical heritage of the villages of Gwaii Haanas today is representative of significant features of Haida spirituality. What I have surmised from various conversations with artists and elders of the Haida Nation is that in their cosmology, each pole, each animal (marine or terrestrial), and each canoe is treated as a being and as having a place. Animals, humans, and trees are believed to live in similar spaces, in their appropriate cosmic zones, and to even have similar social organizations.4 As is commonly referred to in Old Masset, elders often thought of the Haida social ties to be analogous to the way the roots of the massive cedar, spruce, and hemlock trees on the archipelago interweave, support, and structure each other. And with the density of forests on Haida Gwaii, such interweaving and the birthing of roots occurs not only under the ground but also in several upper registers or heights of the forest. (Fig 9 & 10) With forests teeming with as much life in the ground, among the trees, and aerially, how could one not think of them as "spirited"? This is perhaps also what Emily Carr captures in her paintings of coastal BC.

    Fig 9
    Figure 9: Tree branches and networks at the Naikoon Provincial Park

    Fig 10
    Figure 10: Trees at the Naikoon Provincial Park

    With the Haida, there is an understanding that behind each being or creature exists a soul (for lack of a better English word). Here again, as in my previous fellowship reports, we are dealing with the notion of animism and empathy as pan-Indigenous themes describing (cosmic) architectural space. The notion of a mask and skin is helpful in the case of the Haida: it is believed that many a supernatural being often wore the skin of a killer whale, seal, halibut, and so on; that is, the outward appearance of a being is thrown in question and it is not known what inner being a mask or skin may conceal—and how it came to do so. Here, humans and animals alike may be masks and/or skins.5 Such spiritual beliefs were also literalized and physicalized: Haida festive attire often included wooden face masks and made use of the skins of fish, seals, rabbits, and other creatures. Respect and empathy, influenced perhaps by caution and fear too, are therefore to be extended to each being. Over and above all, the uncertainties of the oceans are to be navigated with both humility and knowledge, which in turn breed empathy. In Haida mythology, I am told, it is believed that various supernatural beings may have their worlds adjacent to and bordering human worlds. Killer whales, for example, are believed to have their spatial matrix mirror those of human worlds—where the surfaces or edges of waves form not only the axes of mirroring, but also the common edges and thresholds of the worlds of both species.6 As Robert Bringhurst put it, “the primary realm of the gods, in Haida cosmology, is not celestial; it is submarine”. How can it not be, with such an active and dynamic littoral zone?

    On the one hand, the might of the ocean and (possibly supernatural) abilities of certain creatures command respect. On the other, however, there is also an understanding that what sustains the mighty (including humans) are smaller creatures which must not be taken for granted and be given an equal amount of respect. Trees are also understood to be an invaluable part of their ecosystem and given personae, respect, and empathy—in complete contrast to the way loggers extract trees from the old growth forests of Haida Gwaii (Fig 11 & 12). Such empathy is well captured in the Haida artist April White’s series of paintings titled The Herring People. As White herself claims, “Gina waadluxan gud ad kwaagiida or “Everything depends on everything else”.7 The series consists of eight different species such as dolphins, humpback whales, salmon, humans, and others all painted as nested within a large herring, thus highlighting their dependency on herring. The interconnectedness between species is thus highlighted, as well as the pivotal role of herring in the ecosystem. White’s visual representation emphasizes the popular Haida trope of the nesting of figures one within another, as well, their scaling beyond their actual dimensions and proportions. (Fig 13, 14 & 1). The Haida formline elegantly incorporates the nesting of figures, which is evident in their carved totem poles, painted bowls, spruce root hats, canoe paddles, and so on. Similar—but not the same—formlines are also evident in the artwork of other First Nations of the Pacific Northwest (Fig 15). Evident in these are not only reciprocities and dependencies, but also a cyclicality in natural progressions of being nourished and providing nourishment—which humans are part of, and must not disturb the balances of. The work Herring People unites not only Haida cosmological and spiritual ethos with their formline, but it is also a work of activism that draws our attention to the overfishing that has chased shoals of herring away from the region. Fisheries continue to fail to understand the way things are interconnected, forcibly extract, and generate vast amounts of waste that do not return to the ocean to complete their various cycles of life. In complete contrast, to cite an anecdote of how the Haida conceived of human-animal relations: their way of harvesting herring roe was not to force them to spawn using various industrial means, but to lay seaweed on a baton and wait for them to lay their roe. If they were ‘gifted’ roe, they took it as the will of the shoal of herring and not as an extractive process guaranteed to yield. Thus the herring and humans both have agency in the relations the Haida forge with them. In Haida cosmology, a recurring theme is that we must always be cautious, empathetic, and most importantly, appreciate the implications of being in a non-human-centric universe.

    Fig 11
    Figure 11: Burnt remains of post-logging tree bases and roots, Moresby Island

    Fig 12
    Figure 12: Heaps and fields of post-logging burnt remains of trees, Moresby Island

    Fig 13
    Figure 13: A totem pole, Skidegate

    Fig 14
    Figure 14: Gitxsan painting on a longhouse at the Ksan Historical village in Hazelton, BC

    Fig 15
    Figure 15: A longhouse at the Ksan Historical village in Hazelton, BC

    Much of the information-rich and layered cosmology of the Haida also came from the fact that they were advanced seafarers, with exchanges as rich as the mercantile city of Venice (but without its fame or glamor). The Haida knew the resources that were plentiful on their lands but also those that were not and could be brought from elsewhere.8 They undertook long voyages in their masterfully crafted dug-out canoes—which are significant works of both art and science: not only was there much insight and wisdom involved in picking the right cedar that would be destined to be a canoe, and carving it accurately to the grain to achieve optimal performance, weight, and durability; but the carving and painting of canoes was also the realm of extremely talented Haida artists practicing their formline to yield slenderness and aero-dynamism. (Fig 16 & 17) Indeed, the naturally gifted strong vertical axes of the cedar forests of Haida Gwaii were tactfully extended into the horizontal realm through their canoe-making. These skills and their knowledge of how to navigate the ever-surprising oceans made the Haida extremely adept long-distance seafarers. Of course, their exchanges (including marriages and other human exchanges) with the neighboring Nisga’a, Tsimshian, coastal Tlingit, and other First Nations of British Columbia were more frequent than their longer voyages. Copper, for example, discovered in what is now the Yukon, came to be coveted on Haida Gwaii, and formed a significant possession of wealth. Not only was giving a copper shield a means of wealth transfer or a show of immense gratitude or a favor (especially during marriages), but copper also penetrated several spirit and myth-worlds of the Pacific Northwest.9 (Fig 18) Other commonalities and relations in the region are also evident in the common moiety structure of the raven and the eagle, and in several common crests such as killer whales, frogs, wolves, and so on. Other than these relatively shorter trips to neighboring peoples, I am also told by Haida elders how their ancestors were influenced by—and in turn influenced—lands as far as Polynesia, China, and India. Traces are still found in their language, for example, the word naani (used to describe both a grandmother but also an elderly aunt or woman acquaintance) is common to Haida and several Indian languages. These exchanges all ensured the continuous strengthening of the pool of techniques, tricks, and technologies that formed their traditional knowledge and heritage. And the expressions of this knowledge are well-encapsulated in their myths and stories, all passed on through their oral traditions.

    Fig 16
    Figure 16: A dug-out canoe at the Haida Gwaii Museum, Skidegate

    Fig 17
    Figure 17: A dug-out canoe at the Haida Gwaii Museum, Skidegate

    Fig 18
    Figure 18: Base of a totem pole highlighting a copper shield in Old Masset

    Haida space and the longhouse

    The above-described aspects of the Haida civilization—their food harvesting methods, carving, voyaging, and their myth worlds—all form a marine cosmology, from which emerges their notion of architectural space. I have found their geometry and proportions to be not only astoundingly beautiful but also complex; the topologies of both curvature and variation of marine architectures (such as shells) appear to be somehow encapsulated in their seemingly simple and elegant spaces. I don’t quite understand how, and this continues to intrigue and provokes curiosity; and the following writing is a means to articulate what appears to be deeply mystical to me.

    Haida cosmic space appears to consist not just of the oceans and the Hecate Straight approaching from across the horizon, but also of a moisture-laden vertical axis: the ample rain that sustains one of the world’s densest rain forests.10 And indeed the dynamic bio-chemistry and bio-diversity of these rich forests in-form the Haida conception of space, which I characterize as grand and beautifully proportioned, but also flexible, varied, and dynamic. While beams and canoes address the axis of—and toward—the ocean and horizon, the totem poles and smoke-holes in the roofs address the vertical axis or the axis mundi. The longhouses well encapsulate these sensibilities. I must mention that I have not witnessed a traditional longhouse as I have heard it described to exist, and to the best of my knowledge, the ones existing today are only a part of a more elaborate spatial typology. (Fig 19 & 20) And of the ones existing today, I have been most drawn to the longhouse shops built and used by carvers. The traditional longhouse is one I have understood only through oral accounts and memories of those I have spoken to on the island. Not only were they literally long with their dominant axis gesturing to connect the forest with the oceanic horizon, but the houses continued with a quay-like outdoor component built on stilts onto the horizon (which cease to exist today in most cases). Additionally, these horizontal axes were often further extended with small farms or plantations behind the houses, bordering the forest. The axes of the distant voyages as well as the approaching clouds and weather are all encapsulated in this axial gesture of the longhouse. Various vertical axes—the axis of the tall cedar forest, but also of the rain, lightning, and so on—are also gestured to with the longhouse, with its totem poles (Fig 21), smoke holes in the roof (Fig 22), the stilts that wade through the intertidal zones, and with the columns or posts being carved and curved to taper and gently continue vertically past the height of the eaves of the roof. (Fig 23) Haida elders also mentioned the importance of a root cellar to me, which I also find to be an important vertical component of the Haida spatial matrix: it grounds an infinite upward extension, not visually, but conceptually with the common knowledge of the importance of the root cellar in the lives of the Haida.11 MacDonald has described two types of Haida longhouse constructions: one punctuated by a few columns within and a simpler and lighter roof structure (Fig 24); and a second type with a roof supported by—and expressed by—heavy beams along its long axis, which allow for longer spans and an uninterrupted volume within.12 (Fig 25) He describes the latter as having evolved by incorporating wood joinery used by the Europeans, an incorporation that was unique to the Haida and distinguished their longhouses from those of their neighbors in the Pacific Northwest. Thus, while the longhouse is a common typology found in several Indigenous communities in the region, the way space is gestured to and articulated through the Haida longhouse, I hope, situates the uniqueness of its being, and of not taking, but holding cosmic space.

    Fig 19
    Figure 19: Longhouses at the Haida Gwaii Museum, Skidegate

    Fig 20
    Figure 20: Canoe house at the Haida Gwaii Museum, Skidegate

    Fig 21
    Figure 21: Gitxsan longhouses at the Ksan Historical village in Hazelton, BC

    FIg 22
    Figure 22: A Gitxsan longhouse at the Ksan Historical village in Hazelton, BC (The smoke hole apparatus is similar to the first type of Haida longhouse construction described)

    Fig 23

    Fig 23: Construction detail of a longhouse in Old Masset

    Fig 24
    Figure 24: Canoe house at the Haida Gwaii Museum, Skidegate 

    Fig 25
    Figure 25: A (nearly complete) longhouse in Old Masset

    Let us also explore this uniqueness by revisiting some tropes of how the Haida situated humankind with regard to other species and spaces. First, the longhouse, or rather any enclosure was an apparatus to not only mark the passage of time, but also locate their place in the cosmos. The smoke-holes that were used to track the light of the suns and stars were significant. This reminds one of Greek antiquity. However, unlike Greek sacred buildings, they do not only abstractly situate a notion of space, time, and the shape of the cosmos; but they are also telling of the social constructions and lives of the Haida. For example, several members of a clan would share a longhouse and could be identified with the crests on their frontal totem pole (with the appropriate "reading methods" described earlier). Moieties (raven and eagle for the Haida) and associated crests dictated the family structure and thus who could inhabit a longhouse. Entrances of longhouses were often ovoid—which is also a dominant shape of the Haida formline—with their heights positioned such that one would have to bow while entering, thus making themselves vulnerable. This not only served to protect the clan against intruders, but bowing was also a way of paying respect to the sacred space they were about to enter. Such innuendoes told one longhouse apart from another. Unlike the separation of temples and living quarters in Greek society, Haida longhouses were both sacred buildings as well as homes. This difference is highly significant. The divisions in Greek society—of domesticity and private life (oikonomia) on the one side, and sacred and public or civic life on the other (which were placed together in their architectural or urban planning)—did not exist for the Haida. The realm of supernatural beings for the Haida is not in separate spaces that share no contact with human spaces; rather—and as the masks and skins in their beliefs discussed earlier also suggest—supernatural beings can exist among humans, wearing skins of various species, and their worlds are adjacent to or even juxtaposed with ours, only slightly outside our plain-sight. The longhouses, plank-houses, skin-tents, or any other buildings erected by the Haida encapsulate such an understanding: the conditions of architecture in a non-human-centric universe.


    Concluding notes

    We are clearly dealing with a highly complex civilization with an intricate cosmology and a difficult history. In this short report, I have tried to approach a holistic understanding of the beliefs that structure Haida space, as carried through their oral history and embedded in their arts, using an inductive research method has involved talking to elders and artists in various cafes, artist’s shops and studios, and luckily, also attending ceremonies such as a "Headstone Moving." For all of this, I am infinitely grateful to those who were willing to speak with me and invited me into their communities, and to those from the village council of Masset who helped set up the initial meetings. I have been extremely fortunate to have met these lovely people, develop friendships with them, and by doing so, understand a little bit, their rendition of what Haida Gwaii is and used to be. And it is to them that I graciously owe this writing.


    1 While I appreciate and use Robert Bringhurst’s work about the Haida, I also do so hesitantly. I have been informed on the island of how his work and relationship with the people face various ethical dilemmas. Robert Bringhurst, A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Vancouver/Toronto/Berkeley: Douglas & McIntyre, 2011), p 157.

    2 The common Haida belief is that smallpox and other diseases were intentionally spread by the Colonial powers, and were thus bio-weapons used against their people.

    3 Bill Holm, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form (University of Washington Press, 2017).

    4 George F MacDonald, “The World Is as Sharp as a Knife: An Anthology in Honour of Wilson Duff,” in Cosmic Equations in Northwest Coast Indian Art, ed. Wilson Duff, 1977, p 229.

    5 The site of Levi-Strauss’ formative work on a general theory of masks was Haida Gwaii and a few other coastal First Nations of the Pacific Northwest. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Way of the Masks, trans. Sylvia Modelski (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982).

    6 The edge is a popular theme in Haida Gwaii, and this is well encapsulated in many titles of Haida art or about Haida art; for example, the Edge of the Knife (the first Haida language film made) and A story as sharp as a knife (a book about Haida poetry).

    8 Learned via several conversations. For a few accounts, see also George F. MacDonald, Chiefs of the Sea and Sky: Haida Heritage Sites of the Queen Charlotte Islands (UBC Press, 1989), p 21.

    9 Lévi-Strauss describes how copper was used as currency in somewhat similar ways by different peoples of the Pacific Northwest Lévi-Strauss, The Way of the Masks, p 35–39; 89–92; 228.

    10 As MacDonald has pointed out, for the Haida, along this vertical axis are the strata of the underworld (creatures below the ground and the sea); the middleworld (creatures that live in the forest); and the upperworld (aerial creatures). MacDonald, “The World Is as Sharp as a Knife: An Anthology in Honour of Wilson Duff,” p 228.

    11 And as MacDonald has pointed out, along this vertical axis, the Haida perceived of five layers of the cosmos above the “sky door” or smoke-hole of their longhouse, as well as five levels in the underworld. MacDonald, Chiefs of the Sea and Sky: Haida Heritage Sites of the Queen Charlotte Islands, p 17.

    12 See especially his diagram of the two types. MacDonald, p 22.

  • Member Stories: Ashley Gardini

    by Helena Dean | Aug 22, 2022

    Ashley Gardini is an adjunct instructor in the Department of Architecture/Engineering at Diablo Valley College. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been a member of SAH since 2019. She also can often be found on Twitter, @AshleyGardini.

    Ashley Gardini takes notes with laptopCan you tell us about your career path?

    I teach at community colleges. I kind of stumbled into architectural history, but I couldn’t be happier! While attending classes at my local community college, I enrolled in an art history class and absolutely fell in love. What I enjoyed most in those classes was learning about a building’s history and design. At the time, I had no idea architectural history was its own field (it would take me years to figure that out). I went on to earn a BA in art history and after graduation, I spent several years working for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

    After I realized working in museums wasn’t the career path for me, I decided to apply to graduate schools to pursue art history. While there, I ended up studying under an architectural historian, pursuing a thesis on Italian Futurist architecture, and finding my path into architectural history. It was also during graduate school that I realized my passion for teaching. Once I decided I was going to teach, I knew it was going to be at the community college level. Some of the best instructors I’ve ever had were when I was attending community college myself. I wanted to be one of those instructors.

    What projects are you currently working on?

    I’m at a bit of a crossroads for projects, and it’s a nice place to be. Previously, my research focused on Italian Futurist architecture and the legacy of Antonio Sant’Elia. While I still am really fascinated by that period of architectural history, I feel like my role there is complete.

    Since then, I’ve become far more interested in how we teach and engage with architectural history. This really is an influence of my time serving on the Advisory Committee for the SAH Data Project. (I should note here that the SAH Data Project collected a fantastic amount data on our field, and I hope everyone reading this had a chance to check it out!). There were a lot of interesting findings from that project, but one section that has stuck with me is how students are introduced to architectural history. For example, it showed that my experience of not realizing architectural history was a field of study in college—which is why I pursued degrees in art history—is a common experience. So how do we change that? And while, as expected, visits to historic buildings or museums initiated many respondents’ interest in architecture, many students who responded to the survey also pointed to media, such as movies, television, or podcasts, as sources that drew them to architectural history before college. How can we use that in the classroom? How can we use that to grow our field?

    My interest in “how we engage with architectural history” is also shaped by teaching at community colleges. The student body you encounter in your community college classes is incredible—everyone from first-year college students or high school students to those returning to education late in life or simply taking the course for fun. How do you create a class that serves all those needs? This is something that I’ve been analyzing and exploring since I started teaching, but the SAH Data Project gave me a model to think about how obtaining data can provide proof to anecdotal experiences.

    I don’t know where this avenue of research is going to take me. Right now I have a lot of questions and not many answers.

    Who has had the biggest influence your work or career? 

    Ashley posed inside marble buildingThere have been so many people who have supported and influenced my work. From community college to graduate school, I had instructors who challenged me while cultivating my love for this field. Some were also so open and honest about the pros and cons of working in both museums and academia. This allowed me to pursue my career and research with reasonable expectations.

    My writing on Italian Futurism was greatly influenced by two individuals: the author Patricia Albers and the scholar Dr. Günter Berghaus. I was fortunate to meet Albers as an undergraduate and years later she graciously agreed to be on my thesis committee. At the time, she gave me some of the best writing advice I’d ever received and I’m still grateful for the encouragement she gave me during that process. Dr. Berghaus encouraged my research to continue after graduation, resulting in my contributions to the International Yearbook of Futurism Studies.

    My career now has been shaped by many of my fellow instructors—both ones I work with in person and ones I’ve met through Twitter. We support each other. We share teaching material. We sympathize. Academia is a far less lonely place when help is only a text away.

    What is your biggest professional challenge? 

    My biggest challenge is making academia work within a healthy work-life balance. It’s difficult! When I first started teaching, I was working constantly. As any new adjunct developing course material knows, those few hours of lecture each week require hours upon hours of preparation. It also feels hard to say “no” when you’re contingent and are hoping to be offered employment in future semesters. Academia (at least in the United States) rewards those with a workaholic nature.

    As I’ve become more secure in my adjunct career, it’s become easier to say “no.” And recognizing how difficult it was for me at the beginning of my career, I’ve also tried to become more vocal about creating and maintaining a healthy work-life balance for fellow adjuncts and students. Students are often left out of this discussion, but I try really hard to create class policies that respect their time and health. Especially in this moment where we can all work from home, and thus work all the time, it doesn’t benefit anyone to have a burned-out instructor teaching a class of burned-out students.

    Why did you join SAH?  

    I was invited to join. It turned out that SAH was looking for someone with my type of experience—teaching architectural history at community colleges—to serve on the Advisory Board for the SAH Data Project. As a community college adjunct, professional academic organizations never felt like a very welcoming place, and sadly, I’m sure there are still a lot of folks out there who still feel this way. I’m glad to have found a space in an organization that values the diverse perspectives across academia.

    You currently serve on the SAH Board and Membership Committee. Can you tell us about your work at SAH?

    I am really enjoying my time serving SAH. In serving both the SAH Board and Membership Committee, I try to be an advocate for contingent faculty. That’s the voice I represent, but let me emphasize that I’m not the only one serving SAH and bringing up these concerns. This organization is made up of so many committed individuals who recognize the many different academic experiences.

    I should use this profile to mention that I’d absolutely love to hear from SAH members who are emerging scholars and contingent faculty. Please reach out!

    Do you have a vision for how SAH should evolve in the future? 

    Being an advocate for contingent faculty, I’d love to see more support for those of us working precarious positions in academia. That can come in many ways. More financial support is always a plus, but also just making space to recognize and validate our concerns also helps. SAH has spent the last couple of years asking itself how the organization can be more inclusive and more transparent. These are important steps for the organization. I see this bringing positive changes, and I’m excited to see how SAH continues to evolve.

    What advice would you give to someone who wants to enter your field? 

    Go for it! Teaching at the community college level is so fulfilling. At that level, you are introducing so many students to architectural history for the first time. You are literally changing how they see the world around them. It’s truly the best position there is.

    SAH members engage with the history of the built environment through a broad array of specializations, professional fields, and areas of interest. Member Stories is a regular feature that recognizes the expertise and unique experiences of our members.

SAH thanks The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation
for its operating support.
Society of Architectural Historians
1365 N. Astor Street
Chicago, Illinois 60610