• Reclaimed: Sites of Conflict, Industry and Population Change in Japan

    by User Not Found | Apr 03, 2017

    Danielle S. Willkens is the 2015 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs and videos are by the author, unless otherwise noted.

    Spring is beginning to make an appearance in Japan. Although the evenings are still cool in central Honshu, the days are getting warmer and some of the sakura [cherry blossoms] are blooming, complementing the deep purple flowers of the plum trees that signify the end of winter. This month, my travels have taken me to islands within the Seto Inland Sea, sites along Osaka Bay, and southern cities in the island of Kyushu. Although I’m fully taking advantage of the incredible public transportation systems in Japan, walking a half-marathon has become a daily occurrence. To fully absorb the scale and organization of a city, I found that walking between architectural sites, museums, and gardens is the best. Walking provides serendipitous opportunities for discovery: an interesting alleyway, an Edo-era merchant house tucked between contemporary, low-rise residential buildings, or the chance to observe the quotidian elements of a place such as the distinctive metal covers for each city’s water, sewer, and power access (Figure 1).

    Figure 1. A collage of Japan’s creative metal covers for elements of urban infrastructure.

    This month I have been able to explore several projects by some of Japan’s most famous, contemporary architects: Tadao Ando (b.1941), Akira Kuryu (b.1947), Kengo Kuma (b.1954), Hiroshi Sembuichi (b.1968), and SANAA [partners Kazuyo Sejima (b.1956) and Ryue Nishizawa (b.1966)]. With a wealth of projects in the nation, I decided to focus my work on their museums and other tourist-centric sites; thankfully, this also allowed for an aligned study of projects with unique material applications and ambitious environmental performance qualities (Figures 2-4).



    Figures 2-4. As one of the first structures built next to the Kobe harbor following the devastating earthquake in 1995, Ando’s Hyōgo Prefectural Museum of Art (2002) features a large urban plaza and several outdoor rooms.

    After spending a few weeks exploring impeccably detailed concrete buildings and structures that interlace the built and natural environments through the use of performative screens and passive strategies for environmental conditioning, I discovered that many projects from the last few decades very successfully respond to the celebrated heritage of adjacent sites and, consequently, enhance the visitor’s experience. For example, the sloping elements of Ando’s Museum of Literature (1991; annex 1996) in Himeji serve as a bridge between a library, museum, and a preserved bokeitei [traditional home] while the concrete promontory and open structural frames direct views to the mountains and towards the city’s most iconic architectural site: the Himeji Castle (Figures 5-7). 



    Figures 5–7. Views of Ando’s Museum of Literature in Himeji.

    Of the more than 3,000 castles that once dominated the Japan’s mountainous landscape, only twelve authentic tenshu [main towers or keeps] remain (Figures 8 and 9).1 A majority of these castles were lost during the Azuchi-Momoyama (1575–1600) and Edo (1603–1876) periods, destroyed by natural disasters or purposeful dismantlement to prevent rival daimiyō from mounting an attack on the ruling government. Castle numbers dwindled further in the modern era due to the cost of maintenance and lack of interest in preserving remnants of the samurai past.2 Grassroots efforts in the early 20th century saved several structures but others perished amid the bombings of World War II (Figures 8–10). 

    Figure 8. A view of Matsumoto Castle (1590–1614) in Nagano Prefecture. Threatened by destruction, the local townspeople purchased the castle in 1877 and funded the first major restoration in 1913.

    Figure 9. A view of the tsukimi-yagura [moon viewing room] at Matsumoto Castle.

    Figure 10. A view of one of the castle’s
    shachihoko, a mythical creature with the head of a tiger and the body of a fish. Its upturned posture at the end of the gable signified the creature expelling water and thereby protecting the castle from fire.

    Reclaiming a significant element of the nation’s built heritage, the Japanese government championed the preservation of extant castles by sponsoring the reconstruction of several fortified sites and even working to elevate one site, Himeji Castle (1577–1602), to UNESCO World Heritage Status (Figures 11 and 12). Located in a strategic location between western Japan and central Honshu, Himeji is the best-preserved castle from the 17th century and visitors arriving to the city by train are immediately presented with a striking view of the fortification: the station was designed on axis with the castle. Although smaller projects were initiated in the 1930s, the castle’s first major restoration occurred between 1956 and 1964, during the Shōwa Era, and another was completed between 2009 and 2015. The most recent project proved that a substantial restoration must be undertaken every fifty years to ensure the integrity of the castle’s walls, roof, and earthen embankments. Although the nation purposefully destroyed castles in the early 20th century, both local and national agencies are now dedicated to the preservation of this building type. Additionally, there is a growing tourist infrastructure around castle sites that typically includes museums, reinvented sōgamae [outer enclosure] and guruwa [bailey] with souvenir shops and food trucks, and even costumed samurai wandering the grounds to take photographs with visitors. 

    Figure 11. After World War II, several castles were reconstructed in concrete. From left to right: Osaka Castle (1583; demolished 1868; reconstructed 1931–1953), Okayama Castle (c.1590; demolished 1945; reconstructed 1965), and Hiroshima Castle (1591; abandoned 1874; demolished 1945; reconstructed 1957).


    Figures 12 and 13. Views of the Himeji Castle and its interior, comprised of substantial wooden structural members.

    In addition to reclaiming defensive architecture of the Warring States and Edo periods, Japan is actively promoting sites associated with industrial development during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Located mainly near coastal sites, intensive research and restoration projects for several industrial heritage sites began in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Despite an unsuccessful application to the World Heritage Tentative List in 2007, a consortium effectively pursued listing again in 2009 and in 2015 twenty-three sites were elevated to the UNESCO World Heritage List status as a thematic group: Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining. The consortium produced an incredible record of maps, diagrams, and research articles, promoting visits to the associated sites through group tour programs and a rich website. During my mid-afternoon, weekday visit to the Nirayama Reverberatory Furnaces (1857), more than five buses disembarked at the small site. However, few visitors made the extra trek to see the preserved residence of Hidetatsu Egawa, located near the Nirayama Furukawa River.

    Much like the everyday life around a castle from the 15th to the mid-19th century, many of the sites associated with Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution focused on the construction of defensive structures and the fabrication of weapons; only the methods, tools, and scale changed. Further connecting warring sites in Japan’s pre-modern and modern eras, are yuru-chara. These cartoonish mascots appear at the majority of Japan’s tourist sites, providing photo opportunities for playful shots with costumed characters and elevating souvenir sales. For example, the industrial site of the Nirayama Reverberatory Furnaces was transformed into an endearing character, with the towers as the body and a canon for a nose (Figure 14).

    Figure 14. A collage of various mascots, ranging from a granite sculpture ‘Takamaru-kun’, the hawk-castle of Hirosaki (far left) and Tokyo SkyTree character (far right), to cartoons of mascots (clockwise from top left) for Shimane Prefecture, Nirayama Reverberatory Furnace. Hikone, Himeji Caslte, Kyoto Tower, and the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

    While exploring projects by contemporary architects and World Heritage Sites, another theme emerged within examples of Japan’s architectural landscape: tourism as a way to reclaim and reinterpret the past while ensuring the preservation of certain sites in peril. In the 1990s, tourism in Japan was dominated by travel to theme parks, such as Tokyo Disneyland. But initiatives of the 2000s are ushering in some different tourist destinations: new buildings are framing Japan’s heritage, and architectural contributions, in imaginative ways while other sites are wrestling with some of the most challenging elements of the nation’s history. This month’s post will analyze several, disparate examples of Japan’s ‘reclaimed’ built heritage, ranging from sites that memorialize the impacts of a global war to those that celebrate industry and reveal the changing demographics of the nation.

    Paper Cranes and Battleships

    While in the process of brainstorming themes and associated sites for my application to the SAH Brooks Travelling Fellowship, I contemplated looking at contested sites: places that experienced feverous debates between the case for preservation versus the need for destruction. Within the list of potential destinations was the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and the Genbaku [Atomic Bomb] Dome (Figures 15 and 16). As one of the only structures to survive the bomb, the Genbaku Dome was original designed by Jan Letzel as the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall (1915). After decades of ‘preserve or destroy’ debates following the initial preservation resolution of 1966, the Genbaku Dome was designated a World Heritage Site in 1996 and the site is labeled as an example of ‘conservation for peace.’


    Figures 15 and 16. Views of the Genbaku Dome, located only 160 meters from the hypocenter. The project recently underwent structural conservation to mitigate damage from a possible earthquake.

    There were an estimated 350,000 people in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb “Little Boy” detonated at 8:15 am on August 6, 1945 (Figure 17). The hypocenter was near the Nakajima district; a densely populated and active island filled with Edo era buildings, located in the heart of downtown Hiroshima between the Motoyasu-gawa and Honkawa Rivers. The built features of this area made the Nakajima district the primary target: a set of distinctive wooden bridges and the T-shaped Aioi-bashi Bridge made an H-shaped formation at the northern end of this island. A site in the former Nakajima district was selected for a memorial and museum, to educate visitors about the impacts of nuclear war. Kenzo Tange (1913–2005) was commissioned to complete the project and the Hiroshima Peace Center and Memorial Park (1955) represented his first large-scale urban commission (Figures 18 and 19). The East Building of the museum is currently undergoing a substantial renovation and exhibit redesign as part of a comprehensive renovation project scheduled for completion in summer 2018. The noise from hammers and mechanical equipment provided the only soundscape for the Peace Memorial Park (Figures 20–22). It was, largely, a silent public space: a group of adolescent Japanese students quietly placed a chain of paper cranes at the Children's Memorial while others made their way from the museum to the Genbaku Dome.

    Figure 17. A large-scale model in the Peace Museum illustrates the immediate destruction to the built environment.


    Figures 18 and 19. The reinforced concrete structure and use of both
    piloti and beton brut at the Peace Museum reflect the influence of Le Corbusier’s work on Tange’s postwar architecture.

    Figure 20. The Memorial Cenotaph (1952) in the Peace Memorial Park frames views between the Peace Museum and the Genbaku Dome.


    Figure 21 and 22. Designed by Kazuo Kikuchi and Kiyoshi Ikbe for the grounds of the Peace Memorial Park, the Children’s Peace Monument (1958) memorializes the life of Sadako Sasaki (1943–1955). Sadako was a
    hibakusha, a person affected by the bomb, since exposure to radiation at age two eventually triggered Leukemia in her pre-teen years. Determined to beat the disease, she undertook a project to fold 1,000 paper cranes, a symbol of peace. In memory of Sadako and other children who were victims, visitors leave paper cranes in the protected acetate niches of the memorial.

    Although the reconstructed castle, several parks, and religious sites in Hiroshima are popular tourist destinations, the city is dominated by ‘peace’ tourism. The train station and select sites provide walking tour maps of sites associated with the fallout of the atomic bomb and these associated sites charge a modest entry fee while others are free. Although the Peace Memorial Park, Museum and Genbaku Dome have been established memorial sites for more than fifty years, a few sites have recently undergone renovations and they serve as lesser known building-fragments-as-memorials and Peace Museums with rotating exhibits and artistic installations (Figures 23–26).

    Figure 23. The stone façade of the Former Bank of Japan, Hiroshima Branch (1936) withstood the blast. Since the bomb detonated in the early morning hours, the bank was not yet open and the iron shutters were closed on the first and second floors, protecting the interior. The third floor, however, was largely destroyed. The integrity of the structure allowed banking operations to resume two days after the bombing and since the mid-1990s the building has been a cultural site for exhibitions and lectures.

    Both the Fukuro-machi Elementary School (b.1872) and the Honkawa Elementary School (founded 1873; 1928 wing) were made of ferro-concrete and although heavily damaged in the blast, classes resumed in the portions of the buildings’ shells by the spring of 1946. Today, these small Peace Museums are both surrounded by active schools and at the Honkawa Elementary School visitors use a buzzer at the school's side gate to gain entrance to the registration office. Here, they are issued with visitor's passes and instructed to walk towards the small, one-story concrete structure, essentially a preserved corner of the former school, to enter the Peace Museum.

    Figure 24. The ferro-concrete West Wing (1973) of the Fukuro-machi Elementary School survived the bomb and served as a first aid station and shelter for locals. Although the majority of students had been evacuated to four neighboring villages by April 1945, several teachers and approximately 100 students were in the school at the time of the bombing. During the 2002 restoration, the removal of layers of plaster revealed messages on old blackboards and in char along the walls of the stairs, hallways, and preserved classroom. A structural stabilization project from this restoration also revealed that the radiation from the blast carbonized the wooden blocking in the school’s walls.


    Figures 25 and 26. The Honkawa Elementary School was Hiroshima’s first three-story ferro-concrete building and although it could hold nearly 1,000 students, the spring evacuations left only 400 students in the building at the time of the bomb. The site was designated a Peace City Memorial School by the Ministry of Education in 1950 and a new school was built in 1988, preserving a portion of the 1928 building as a museum.

    One might think that Nagasaki, a city destroyed by an atomic bomb three days after Hiroshima, would have similar elements to Hiroshima. However, the overall layout, geography, and approach to interpretation at Nagasaki are palpably different from Hiroshima, as well as other Japanese cities. Streetcar lines crisscrossed cobblestone streets and passed over layered canal embankments (Figure 27). Western-style buildings and Christian churches, with neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque forms, line steep and winding streets by the harbor, their landscapes enlivened with the early blossoms of colorful wildflowers and swaying palm trees (Figures 28 and 29). Throughout the downtown, there are several, bold, commercial and residential examples of postmodernism and these are inherently intriguing structures since Japan was introduced to classicism in the late 19th century. During the Meiji period (1868–1912), the nation was introduced to the professionalization of architecture while it negotiated challenges to traditional practices in building form and production as well as the rapid changes associated with the industrial revolution, ushering in a host of new technologies and building typologies.

    Figure 27. A view of the streetcar network near the famous stone ‘Spectacles Bridge’ spanning Nagasaki’s canal.

    Figure 28. A gatehouse in Glover Garden, a residential district influenced by Scottish merchant Thomas Blake Glover who played a key role in the development of Nagasaki’s harbor and trade infrastructure in the late 19
    th century.

    Figure 29. Oura Catholic Church (1865) survived the atomic bomb and the adjacent structures, once a seminary and residence for missionaries, represent architectural hybrids akin to a Japanese-Charlestonian style.  

    As a city dominated by the harbor, Nagasaki was home to the only international trade during the period of sakoku, Japan's self-imposed isolation from c.1639 to 1853. Nagasaki's early identification as the 'foreigner's city' of Japan was reinforced during my visit since the streets around the harbor were flooded with Australian and European tourists enjoying a shore break from the Queen Mary 2. The active and extensive harbor makes the city receptive to cruise ships, allowing visitors to see sites associated with the industrial revolution, international exchange, and the second atomic bomb (Figures 30 and 31). 

    Figure 30. Design by Akira Kuryu, National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims (2002) commemorates the lives of the estimated 70,000 who perished instantly when the bomb exploded at 11:02 am on August 9, 1945. In the Remembrance Hall, twelve luminescent, glazed pillars frame a view of the memorial column, holding the names of all identified victims. Beyond, the columnar axis positions viewers towards the bomb's hypocenter.

    Figure 31. The pool and gentle cascades of water at the memorial site recall the intense thirst that bombing victims experienced after the blast. At night a field of fiber optics illuminates the pool, as seen
    here on the architect’s website. From certain angles, the pool reflects the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum (1996) and the Noguchi Taro Fine Arts Museum.

    The Nagasaki Prefecture has nearly 1,000 islands; however, not all of these islands are quaint sites for fishing, swimming, or leisurely repose. Several islands were rough sites centered around industrial production, such as coal mining on Takashima and Hashima. Both islands were submarine coalmines: Takashima was the Mitsubishi Mining Company's main coalmine but Hashima, familiarly known as Gunkanjima [battleship island], has become more famous because of its architecture, engineering innovations, and complex history (Video 1 and Figure 32).3 Coal was discovered on Gunkanjima in 1810 and a mine was opened sixty years later. In 1890, the Mitsubishi Company purchased the mine and during nearly a decade of operations the submarine coalmine grew to include five shafts (1887, 1895, 1896, 1925, 1965) and ten tunnels, reaching depths of 1010 m below sea level. Although the main mountain and submarine mine form the core of the island, the habitable landscapes of Gunkanjima were largely manmade: the island was enlarged six times between 1893 and 1931 and these extensions tripled the original size of the island. Between its opening in 1891 and closure on January 15, 1974, it is estimated that more than 15.7 million tons of coal were excavated on the island.4

    Video 1. Scenes from the passenger boat to Gunkanjima

    Figure 32. From this perspective is becomes clear how Hashima earned its nickname Gunkanjima [battleship island] since the densely-inhabited constructed concrete island has a distinctive ‘bow’ and protruding towers akin to a warship.

    With arduous shift work and difficult conditions, miners received higher wages than the average Japanese worker and were, thus, willing to live on an isolated site, sharing only one telephone line for the entire complex and subsisting on strict fresh water rations. Although there were numerous operational restrictions on the island, it was also a site for innovations in architecture and engineering. The seawall protecting the site from typhoon damage was one of the most fortified in Japan and the built environment used space effectively. In 1960 when the island’s population peaked at 5,300 inhabitants, the island was the most densely populated in all of Japan. With limited space, building rooftops were used as playgrounds and reinvented as some of Japan’s earliest green roofs with plots for vegetable gardens. Natural light, too, was precious on the dense, urbanized island so the building program prioritized light and view for the residential buildings and school while placing commercial and service spaces, such as grocery stores, pachinko halls, communal baths in the lower levels and basements of buildings. Only senior officials for the mining company had private bathing facilities in their residences so the island had a network of public baths that used boiled seawater. Due to the coal dust, the miners had their own two-stage bathing complex: after exiting one of the two-story steel transportation cages in the mine, they would first submerge themselves fully in their uniforms before proceeding to a ‘clean’ bath.

    Not counting the ruinous structures related to the mine, the island has seventy-one crumbling buildings, built between 1916 and 1970 (Figures 33–36). The seven-story building labeled no. 30 on the island, known as ‘Glover’s House’ (1916), was Japan's first reinforced concrete apartment block. With a central courtyard to bring light to the inner apartments, this building was home to over 700 residents at one point and families shared cramped quarters in their 6-tatami mat apartments. With a growing population in the early 20th century, an elementary school opened in 1934 and a larger, seven-story building was constructed in 1958 (no. 70) to accommodate an elementary school and junior high as well as auxiliary spaces such as a library and auditorium. The two-story addition (no.71, built 1970) to this building was the last structure built on the island and it included a gymnasium as well as the only elevator on the island.

    Figure 33. A view of building no. 30, ‘Glover’s House’, from the final viewing platform on the island.


    Figure 34 and 35. Views of the island’s crumbing elementary and junior high schools

    Figure 36. These trabeated concrete forms are the remnants of the coal storage area's conveyor belt.

    Featured in Skyfall (2012) as the villain’s liar within a decaying, dystopian landscape, Gunkanjima was opened to tourists in 2009. With goals to raise awareness about the history of the island and generate revenue to initiate preservation projects, a handful of companies were given authorization to access the island through an advanced reservation system. Unpredictable, rough weather frequently cancels tours and those lucky enough to secure a successful tour are limited to a closely monitored experience on the island, relegated to a concrete and steel pathway that parallels the ruins of the original mine buildings on the southern side of the island. Both the tour of the island and the hour-long journey to and from the site are narrated but those wishing to explore the site in greater depth can visit the newly opened and interactive Gunkamjima Digital Museum (2015) near the ferry terminal. As the name implies, the museum uses cutting-edge technology to relay the history of mining on the island and explore the lives of the concrete island’s occupants: using captured footage from a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) and aerial photogrammetry, the team created an accurate digital model. This model, paired with Google Maps Street View footage and panoramic imagery, was also used to generate a virtual reality experience at the museum that allows visitors to 'walk through' portions of the island that are no longer safe or accessible.

    Although much of the interpretation on the island focuses on architecture, engineering, invaluable contributions to the Japanese Industrial Revolution, and the spirit of Japanese citizens who thrived in the island’s unusual environment, there are few elements that fully address the darker sides of the island’s history. The lives lost in the precarious mines, accidents related to toxic gases and natural disasters, and the island’s role as a work camp during World War II elicited opposition to the site’s inclusion in the thematic UNESCO World Heritage listing for the Meiji Industrial Revolution. Nonetheless, the site was included.

    As a site far from the viewshed of the Nagasaki harbor, Gunkanjima could easily be a ‘forgotten’ heritage site, or one documented only because of its deteriorated state; however, it seems clear that Nagasaki is dedicated to the preservation of the island. Interestingly, with goals for eventual restoration and extended tourism, the site is billed as something more than a ‘bucket list’ attraction: the Gunkanjima Concierge Company, one of the few tourist companies authorized to access the island, offers visitors a free visit to after three trips.


    Art Islands

    The reclaimed sites discussed thus far focus on urban areas however there is another series of projects in the Seto Inland Sea that cannot be overlooked in this brief analysis of reinvention projects in Japan: the ‘art islands’ of Inujima, Naoshima, and Teshima. Varying in scale and materiality, projects on these islands make use of the built and natural landscapes while addressing the declining population. At each of the site-specific projects, the physical environment plays an integral role, whether through the use topography, the adaptation of historic vernacular structures, or the influence of weather within an unpredictable, coastal climate (Videos 2 and 3).

    Video 2. Scenes of rough seas and changing skies from the ferries and passenger boats between Naoshima, Teshima, and Inujima.

    Video 3. Scenes from an electric bike on Naoshima.

    Naoshima, perhaps the best known of the islands and the most developed in terms of its supporting infrastructure of hotels, hostels, cafes, and transportation options, consists of several projects by Tado Ando: the Benesse House Museum (1992) with several supporting galleries and hospitality structures built in the last decade, the Chichu Art Museum (2004) that contains installation-specific galleries for the work of Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter De Maria, the Lee Ufan Museum (2010), and the Ando Museum (2013), a gallery that houses the architect’s sketches and models within an adapted wooden home from the early 20th century (Figure 37).5 In addition to the galleries, the island is home to an ever-growing collection of sculptures, installations, and the on-going work of the Art House Project. Initiated in 1998, this project transforms empty homes and deteriorating sites into works of art that emphasize experience and experimentation (Figures 38–43).

    Figure 37. Photographs are not permitted in and around the majority of the island’s galleries, however this view showcases the approach to the Lee Ufan Museum that integrates elements of the coastal site, sculptures, and architecture.

    Figure 38. A view of Yoyoi Kusama’s Red Pumpkin from the ferry at Naoshima’s Miyanoura Port.

    Figure 39. The geometric Naoshima Pavilion (2015), made of steel, was designed by architect Suo Fujimoto as Naoshima’s ‘28
    th’ uninhabited island.

    Figure 40. A fiberglass and wood bicycle pavilion marks Naoshima’s other port, Honmura, and provides a place for visitors to park their rented transportation while visiting the Art House Projects.


    Figures 41 and 42. Two structures, the restored Go-o Shrine (c.1338–1573) and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s installation
    Appropriate Structures (2002), occupy this wooded, hilltop site. A set of thick, stacked glass stairs symbolically connects the material world with the spiritual one.

    Figure 43. Some of the island’s inhabitants decorate their homes with their own artistic creations, such as these miniature pumpkins in homage of Kusama’s work.  

    Although similar in area to Naoshima, the ‘art island’ aspects of Teshima are primarily composed of smaller installations and collaborative projects, such as the special and environmental wonder of the Teshima Art Museum, the Yokoo House, and the Needle Factory (Figure 44). Like sites on Naoshima, the majority of the sites on Teshima prohibit both photography and sketching therefore visitors are fully immersed in the sensory experiences of the installations and repurposed structures. With these conditions in mind, it is easy to imagine how each site changes during different seasons and weather conditions, making the ‘art islands’ perpetually fascinating for both new and repeat visitors.

    Figure 44. As a product of architect Ryue Nishizawa and artist Rei Naito, the Teshima Art Museum is a large and lofty concrete shell with an integrated water system that pushes droplets from weep holes in the polished concrete floor. Adjacent to the museum space is a small café and gallery.

    As smallest of the art islands, Inujima is, arguably, the best example of the integration of architecture, art, and the environment through the Inujima Seirensho Art Museum (2008) and the Art House Project. The average age of residents on the island is eighty, therefore the projects were intended to revive the site and encourage a new pathway towards a sustainable future on the island known for its local stone and once dominated by a copper refinery.

    Designed by Sambuichi, the Seirensho Art Museum utilizes the island’s signature stone and elements of the abandoned Edo era copper refinery, such as the preserved chimneystack and labyrinth of rooms formed by slag bricks (Figures 45–48). Composed of two galleries and two halls, the museum uses natural elements such as sun, wind, and light to manipulate temperatures and views within the building. These systems work with nature, instead of trying to forcefully, and mechanically, control it. Additionally, the changing environmental conditions within the pavilion activate elements of the installation, such as the Yukinori Yanagi’s Hero Dry Cell (2008). This piece suspends deconstructed building fragments from the abandoned home of writer Yukio Mishima’s (1925–1970), a critic of Japan’s industrial modernization and postwar cultural crisis.




    Figures 45–48. Views of the low-lying new construction elements and the preserved sections of the Seirensho copper refinery.

    Using existing, repurposed, and reinvented homes, the Art House Project was inaugurated by architect Kazuyo Seijima as a way for the island's inhabitants and visitors to have new interactions with the local landscape and vernacular architecture through the incorporation of new materials, pathways, and contemporary art installations. Three homes, with abbreviated names referencing the former owners (F-Art House, S-Art House, and I-Art House, 2010) and a steel pavilion were built on the island in 2010, but the experiment continues to grow with two additional homes (A-Art House and C-Art House, 2013), an installation at the site of a former stonecutter’s house, and a series of impromptu renovation and repurposing projects by locals, whether as new sites for art or small in-home cafes catering to visitors (Figures 49–57).

    Figure 49. The deconstructed F-Art House currently houses
    Biota (2013) by Kohei Nawa.



    Figures 50–52. The linear, acrylic gallery of the S-Art House is currently home to an installation called
    contact lens (2013) by Haruka Kojin that encourages visitors to see the existing built and natural landscapes from new perspectives.

    Figure 53. As a circular version of the S-Art House, the A-Art House holds an installation,
    relfectwo (2013), by Kojin that is reminiscent of the vibrant wildflowers on the island.

    Figure 54. The installation
    Ether (2015) by Chinatsu Shimodaira weaves a series of strings through the timber structure of the C-Art House.

    Figure 55. A view of the former site of a stonecutter’s house, with Yusuke Asai’s
    Listen to the Voices of Yesterday Like the Voices of Ancient Times (2013–2016).


    Figures 56-57. In addition to visitors, guides, and a few residents, the island had a number of active builders and gardeners working to develop new sites and productive plots of land.

    It should be noted that trips to the art islands require some serious logistical planning and supporting funds. Many of the visitors to the islands were part of organized groups that coordinated ferry schedules, on-island transportation, entrance fees, and other necessities such as food and lodging. Although it is entirely feasible to coordinate visits to Iujima, Naoshima, and Teshima independently, be prepared to spend significant time prior to traveling: create a list of timetables to coordinate train travel to ports with the schedules of ferries or passenger boats. Weather in the Seto Inland Sea can be rough and water traffic prioritizes the local passengers, not tourists, so visitors need to arrive early to ports to purchase the proper tickets and receive numbered boarding cards.


    New Sites; New Ruins

    Beyond its natural beauty and scenic overlook, Mount Rokkō receives approximately 100,000 visitors a year. Comprised of architectural pilgrimage sites such as Sambuichi’s new Rokkō-Shidare (2010) as well as Ando’s projects at Rokkō Housing (1983; 1993; 1998) and the Chapel on Mount Rokkō (1986), the region is a distinct destination for architectural tourists.6



    Figures 58–60. On sunny days, the wooden core of the observatory becomes a surface for the play of shadows from the steel skin. This video
    , by the architect, illustrates the way the building responds to the harsh winter climate.

    Figure 61.The building’s core, designed to use the chimney effect for passive cooling, contains a spiraling entry path leading to an inner chamber.

    This does not, however, ensure the ongoing maintenance of projects. Sadly, the hotel that once provided access to Ando’s Chapel, and commissioned the project as an exclusive on-site wedding chapel, has been abandoned and is quickly slipping into disrepair. A series of plastic partitions, chain link fencing and a concrete wall surround the entire complex, preventing access to the chapel (Figure 62). In fact, upon closer inspection and when moving away from prescribed paths and cafes on the mountaintop, it becomes clear that much of Mount Rokkō has been abandoned: the summer homes of Kobe residents, built in the 20th century as a place to escape the heat of summer in the city, are vacant, and several of the area’s hotels, built into the cliffside, are crumbling. As Japan reclaims its built heritage from the era of samurai and the Meiji Industrial Revolution, it will be critical that the sites of the recent past, especially those that helped ignite the careers of contemporary architects, are not forgotten.

    Figure 62. One of the only accessible views of the Chapel on Mount Rokkō, as seen through a chain link fence.


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    Mitchelhill, Jennifer. Castles of the Samurai: Power and Beauty. Edited by David Green Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2003.

    Molinari, Luca, ed. Tadao Ando Museums. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009.

    Pare, Richard, and Tom Heneghan. The Colours of Light: Tadao Ando Architecture. London: Phaidon, 2000.

    "Sambuichi." JA: The Japan Architect 81 (2011).


    1 The preserved tenshu are: Bitchu-Matsuyama, Okayama (1575), Hikone, Shiga (1603), Himeji, Hyogo (1580), Hirosaki, Aomori (1611), Inuyama, Aichi (1573), Kochi, Kochi (1601-3), Marugame, Kagawa (1597), Maruoka, Fukui (1576), Matsue, Shimane (1607-11), Matsumoto, Nagano (1590-1614). Matsuyama, Ehime (1602-27), and Uwajima, Ehime (1596).

    2 For a well illustrated and much more detailed description of the decline of Japan’s castles, see Jennifer Mitchelhill, Castles of the Samurai: Power and Beauty, ed. David Green (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2003).

    3 See Atsuko Hashimoto and David J. Telfer, "Transformation of Gunkanjima (Battleship Island): From a Coalmine Island to a Modern Industrial Heritage Tourism Site in Japan," Journal of Heritage Tourism 12 (2017); Yves Marchand, Gunkanjima (Göttingen: Steidl, 2013).

    4 After the closure of the mine, the island was entirely decamped on April 20, 1974.

    5 See Naoya Hatakeyama and Ryūji Miyamoto, eds., Chichu Art Museum: Tadao Ando Builds for Walter De Maria, James Turrell, and Claude Monet (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2005); Philip Jodidio, Ando: Complete Works (Köln: Tasche, 2004); Tadao Andō at Naoshima (New York, NY: Rizzoli, 2006); Luca Molinari, ed. Tadao Ando Museums (London: Thames & Hudson, 2009).

    6 For details on Sambuichi’s project see the special issue, "Sambuichi," JA: The Japan Architect 81 (2011). For drawings and descriptions of Ando’s work on Mount Rokkō, see Yukio Futagawa, ed. Tadao Ando Details (Tokyo: A.D.A. Edita, 1991); Jodidio, Ando: Complete Works; Richard Pare and Tom Heneghan, The Colours of Light: Tadao Ando Architecture (London: Phaidon, 2000).

  • Cities and Celebrations in Snow: An Introduction to Tourism in Japan

    by User Not Found | Mar 08, 2017

    Danielle S. Willkens is the 2015 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs and videos are by the author, unless otherwise noted.

    My first few weeks in Japan have been filled with travels around Hokkaido, the northernmost island and largest of Japan’s forty-two prefectures, as well as some of the colder regions of Honshu. With this itinerary, I visited three of the
    snowiest cities in the world and this allowed me to experience some of the sites and events associated with Japan’s famous snow festivals (Figure 1). Navigating icy conditions in both urban areas and on mountainous slopes with crampons strapped to my boots the unwelcome souvenir of a sprained ankle from Cuba, has been a challenge but memories of the warm Caribbean sun kept most shivers at bay on the coldest days.

    Figure 1. A ski jump and moguls temporarily installed in the center of Sapporo.

    Although dramatically different in terms of climate and culture, 2016 marked the largest visitor numbers for all three of the selected islands for this study sponsored by the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. Like Iceland and Cuba, the number of tourists to Japan has nearly doubled since 2012. However, unlike the previous two nations on my travels, only a small number of visitors to Japan come from the United States, tourism is not a main economic driver at only 10% of the nation’s GDP, and as a much larger nation than Iceland or Cuba, geographically and in terms of population, Japan has many more national tourists.1 Nonetheless, leveraging an incredibly efficient system of public transportation and network of accommodations, with growing interest in room sharing possibilities like Airbnb, Japan hopes that the promotion of omotenashi [Japanese hospitality] will grow foreign tourist numbers as the nation looks towards hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. More than 50% of the venues for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics will use existing structures, some of which were constructed for the 1964 Olympic Games. These sites, along with some cultural heritage sites that will feature heavily in the tourist landscape of the games, will be discussed in a future post since Japan hopes to reach 40 million tourists in 2020, a massive and ambitious increase from last year’s unprecedented 24 million visitors.

    Aside from the government’s cultivation of tourism, the development of apps by both Japanese and foreign software companies are also helping to entice visitors and assist with navigation. Like other cities, a number of guidebooks are available as apps and e-books but other apps specifically highlight the architectural heritage of the island. The Japan Architecture Map provides geo-location and basic information for about 6,000 projects, providing a useful compliment to other guidebooks and architectural history references since it predominantly covers projects from the midcentury to the present. Although English signs are prevalent in major cities such as Kyoto and Tokyo, Google Translate app’s instant camera translation option has been extremely useful for labels and museum signage. The app also helps highlight the problems of overly stylized typography: as a pet peeve of many designers, these graphic embellishments do not work with the app’s dynamic recognition system.


    Learning Curves and Sukiya2

    Through both the study and design practice, I was aware of the many spatial and structural differences between traditions in Western and Japanese architecture. However, no amount of reading, documentary screenings, or visits to period rooms or 'eastern-inspired' sites could have truly prepared me for the experience of Japanese architecture.3 After only a few weeks, I find myself entirely enthralled and, as a very eager student, I find myself needing to learn an entirely new architectural language. This is not just in terms of the vast, associated vocabulary but also in relation to the basic components of architectural composition for Japanese architecture prior to the 1870s. After this time, Japan experience the forced expansion of international trade and the end of sakoku [imposed seclusion]; the subsequent influx of Western architectural influence during the first period of ‘modern’ Japan in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) dramatically changed the nation’s built landscape and its perception of architectural tradition (Figure 2).4

    Figure 2. Layers of spaces and signature use of shadows within a portion of a noodle shop from the Hokkaido Historical Village. The decoration shows a mixture of Japanese and Westerns items during the early Meiji era. In both residential and civic architecture, the proportional relationships between floor and ceiling differ from Western. In my attempts to capture the interiors of 'traditional' Japanese architecture, it has been necessary to sit or kneel in many spaces to actually capture a representative photograph whereas verandas, used for circulation, require a standing pose.

    The form, materiality, and structure of walls are different since the concepts of post, beam, and cladding are redefined. The labels of 'door' and 'window' are no longer applicable because of the layered and flexible approach to enclosure, such as tsumado [side doors] and shoji and fusuma screens. I am beginning to understand the incredible variety associated with the screen and I find that it is necessary to return to the fundamental term of 'aperture'. The modularity and materials form distilled spaces that, although simple and even bare at first glance, are infinitely fascinating in their attention to detail, proportion, and their relationship with the greater site, visually and climatically.

    Scottish architect and ornamentalist Christoper Dresser (1835-1904) was one of the first designers to explore Japan and his three months of travel in 1876 and 1877, covering more than 2,000 miles, were recorded and published as Japan: Its Architecture, Art and Art Manufactures (1882).5 The foreword initially apologizes for adding to the already voluminous record of material on Japan from a Western lens, but he explains that his motivation was to look from a design perspective and “observe what an ordinary visitor would naturally pass unnoticed.”6 I have found that the time and detail Dresser devoted to examining and drawing even the smallest details has been a useful reference for my own investigations and a source of inspiration for certain on-site sketching exercises:

    With these nails I am positively delighted, and I feel constrained to stay and note their forms in my sketch-book (sic); yet while thus engaged I know that I am a drag on my companions. But here we have not only nails but hinges—grand hinges—hinges two to three feet in length. And besides hinges we have metal plates and bindings on the doors. In Nara the old metalwork would supply the art student with material for study, and examples to copy, for weeks.7


    Frozen Architecture8

    Hokkaido is the northernmost prefecture in Japan and it is often characterized as a pioneering area of Japan because of the cold winter climate and rough terrain. It, too, was a place that experienced Meiji era ‘modernization’, transitioning from an island of fisherman to one with several pop-up cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that were based on speculative industries, such as mining and even beer brewing (Figures 3 and 4). The Hokkaido Development Commission was established in 1869 to jumpstart this ‘modern’ development on the island, harnessing local resources. To assist with this endeavor, the Commission started the Sapporo Agricultural College, now known as Hokkaido University, and one of the educational institution’s historic buildings serves as one of the most historic landmarks of downtown Sapporo (Figure 5).

    Figures 3 and 4. The first brewing operations of the Kaitakushi Brewery, later known as the Sapporo Brewery, started in Tokyo but operations were moved to Hokkaido in 1870s when the company realized the cold weather of the northern island was perfect for brewing and provided ease access to ice for shipping. The company’s operations were modernized in 1894 and visitors to the Sapporo Beer Museum, opened in 1987, can walk though a repurposed boiler house and storehouse. Although all of the displays are in Japanese, the museum provides laminated sheets in an array of languages for each of the interpretive boards. With a holistic approach to the design and information relayed within the concise museum area of the complex, the display boards were attached to cleanly welded frames and thoughtfully illuminated to appear as if these industrially inspired objects are floating above the refinished warehouse floors.

    Figure 5. Now known as the Tokeidai [the Clock Tower] (1878), Development Commission architect Kikou Adachi originally designed the structure as the multi-functional military drill hall for the Sapporo Agricultural College. It housed lectures, a specimen room, gymnaicis, and the annual graduation ceremony that celebrated a new cohort of Japanese scholar-farmers who were equipped with the skills and practical knowledge to help develop Hokkaido’s resource-rich landscape. This building, as well as the former Hokkaido Governmental Building and many other historic structures in the city, has a red star that was symbol of the Hokkaido Development Commission.

    One of the primary reasons that my time in Japan started with a visit to the north during the coldest time of the year was the motivation to experience the ephemeral architecture of the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri, the annual Snow Festival (Figures 6-11). This year marked the 68th for the festival that occurs during the first few weeks of February. The popularity of the festival resulted in the expansion of the program and it now entirely dominates the central areas of the city, occupying three main sites: massive state-sponsored sculptures in snow and ice line the linear park of Odori, smaller sculptures and competitions occur at Susukino, and the Tsu Dome transforms into a field of slides and winter games, primarily for children. Restaurants and other businesses along the streets of Sapporo also join the festivities by commissioning sculptures and other decorations for their properties. Although occupied with playful sculptures in snow and ice during early February, the Odori site plays an important role in the urban planning history of Sapporo since it once served as the street dividing the various regions of the gridded city: the residential district to the south, the governmental district to the northwest, and the industrial district to the northeast.

    Figures 6 and 7. Views of the snow festival at night.

    Figure 8. A detail from the elaborately sculpted entablature of the Arc de Triomphe.

    Figure 9. Walking around the expansive grounds of the Odori site one morning, I had the chance to speak with a number of the festival's volunteers and master craftsmen and women who were eager to explain the differences between working with snow and ice for the creation of such astounding yet temporary sculptures. Ice, they explained, was much more forgiving: with the proper tools and skills, melting, repairing, and refreezing could correct an error or structural inaccuracy. Such repairs are nearly impossible with snow so mistakes could be entirely detrimental to the integrity of the sculpture.

    Figure 10. A visit to the top of the Sapporo TV Tower provided one of the best views of the Snow Festival along the Odori Park.

    Figure 11. The former Hokkaido Governmental Building (1888), also known as the Red Brick Office, serves as a local history museum, archive, and the grounds serve as winter wonderland for visitors to build their own snow sculptures.

    This year, the largest sculpture in snow was a 1:3 replica of the Chukondoh [Central Golden Hall], located within the Kohfukuji Temple complex of Nara (Figure 12). Originally constructed in the Hein Period, the building experienced several fires and an extended period of decline from 1717 that resulted in a disassembly project in 2000. However, this process led to the unexpected archaeological discovery of the foundations of the original Central Golden Hall and the reconstruction should be completed by the fall of 2018. Although a fraction of the scale, the Chukondoh-in-snow had carefully articulated architectural elements, directly modeled on known details from the original temple such as onigawara [end tile with fearsome looks] and miteuke [structural joints comprised of various, stacked blocks] (Figure 13).

    Figure 12. At night, the project became a stage for events and games.

    Figure 13. A detail of the Golden Hall’s craftsmanship-in-snow.

    Constructed of 3,000 tons of snow that was modeled into 4,500 blocks and sixty different, modular pieces, the temple was fabricated by members of the military's Self-Defense Forces Operation Platoon who received guidance from approximately twenty skilled snow and ice sculptors. To undertake such a large and intricate project the team built a miniature version of the temple in December and this mockup helped the team identify specific molds that needed to be constructed for repetitive pieces in the full-scale iteration. Scaffolding was erected in early January then the team began the construction of a snow foundation before they started the three-week process of laying ice blocks and carving details with picks, chainsaws, and special sculpting tools. Throughout the two weeks of the Snow Festival the team conducted regular inspection and maintenance and on February 13th the temporary monument, along with the rest of the festival's structures, was demolished.

    Sapporo is the most famous city for the celebration of ‘snow-itecture’, but several other sites take advantage of the cold weather to attract visitors. Although castles are picturesque in the snow, icy conditions on the fortification’s grounds can be a deterrent and visitor numbers typically decline in the winter months. For Hirosaki Castle (b.1603), however, early February is one of the busiest times because of the Yuki-Doro [snow lantern festival] (Figures 14-16). Since 1977, the castle’s grounds have been home to the construction of large-scale lanterns, celebrating the region’s cold winter and taking advantage of the shortened period of daylight. My visit to Hirosaki Castle, fortuitously, coincided with National Foundation Day so I was able to explore the grounds for free, observing the area in both daylight and nighttime illumination. Navigating the slippery grounds, it was clear that children had the best means of transportation with their small, plastic sleds. Nonetheless, the more than 200 lanterns and 300 igloos, combined with the dramatic lighting of the castle, gatehouses, and colorful bridges over icy moats made the skids and occasional falls worth the trek.

    Figures 14-16. Vibrantly painted rice paper covers many of the lanterns, casting a colorful glow on the snowy paths and sculptures, while the simple ‘igloos’ create a field of light set within a dramatic backdrop.

    Besides the famous lantern festival, Hirosaki Castle is currently benefitting from a rise in tourist numbers because of the interest in a structural stabilization project. In 2015, the castle was moved to an adjacent site due to shifting foundations from earthquakes in 1983 and 2011; the current Google Maps satellite image of the castle grounds actually shows the structure mid-move during the 2015 Cherry Blossom Festival. A team is meticulously repairing the original, laid stone foundation of the castle and hopes to finish by 2021 (Figure 17). At that time, the castle will be returned to its original site and additional stabilization and restoration projects will continue through 2026.

    Figure 17. The individual stones of the foundation have been numbered for accurate reconstruction and a temporary platform now sits between the original castle site and its temporary home, giving visitors the opportunity to view the ongoing work from an elevated position.

    As evidenced by events in Sapporo and at Hirosaki Castle, certain sites are leveraging the region’s heavy snow to lure visitors from busy ski slopes of northern Honshu and Hokkaido to urban and historic areas. Nature tourism, too, is experiencing an increase in winter visitors (Figures 18-19 and Video 1). Several tour companies and local buses transport visitors from neighboring cities to onsen [hot spring] sites in Yamanouchi, Nagano Prefecture. A key attraction in this region is the Jigokudani Park in the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park that is home to a troop of more than 150 Japanese macaques, commonly known as snow monkeys. The park was established in 1964 but a railway company recently purchased it and, consequently, the physical and tourist infrastructure of the site have been improved in the last two years. At some point, while fingers and toes lose feeling due to the frigid temperatures, one has to wonder who the real ‘wild animals’ are at the site: the monkeys enjoying the natural hot springs in their custom-built pool or the visitors paying entrance fees to trudge miles through the snow.

    Video 1. A trek through the forest to watch snow monkey hijinks.

    Figures 18 and 19. Visitors crowd the hot springs for close views of the snow monkeys but the site has controlled access and watchful staff, safeguarding the monkeys and their habitat.


    Festival Sites, Out of Season

    Visits to the Sapporo Snow Festival and other northern sites such as the Yama-dera are entirely compelling in the snow, yet time in conditioned museums and historic sites in the Hokkaido and northern Honshu were welcome places to escape the cold temperatures and strong winds (Figures 20 and 21).

    Figure 20. Easily accessible from Sendai, Yama-dera is known as the ‘mountain-temple’ but it actually contains a series of temples, garden shrines, and a number of stone Jizō, a Buddhist guardian of travelers and children. The climb to the top of the mountain consists of more than 1,000 steps and in the winter they are packed with snow and ice, making the pilgrimage to the top quite an exertion and the return trip to the bottom a series of treacherous slides.

    Figure 21. Senjafuda [shrine tags] adorn the gates and temples throughout the site.

    The Nebuta Museum Wa Rasse is one of the many examples of facilities that provide a warm space to explore the products of Japan’s numerous festivals, outside of the specific event’s celebration season (Figure 23 and 24). In 2002, the Canadian firm Molo, with lead designers Stephanie Forsythe and Todd MacAllen, won a competition to design a display space for some of the famous, large-scale floats from Aomori’s August festival (Figures 24 and 25). The festival dates to the 8th century and consists of nebuta: large, sculptural lanterns made from vibrantly painted washi paper that is stretched over frames of wire and bamboo (Figures 24 and 25). These constructions, depicting historical and mythical stories, can reach nearly thirty feet tall and up to sixty feet long. Paraded through the streets with a team of coordinated handlers, contemporary floats are illuminated with intricate systems of light bulbs for nighttime display and some of the floats are even designed to float down a stretch of the Oirase River adjacent to Aomori.

    Figure 22 and 23. Views of the Nebuta Museum.

    Figure 24 and 25. Views of the nebuta and its underlying structural system.

    Since 2010, five of each year’s best floats are selected for yearlong display in the Nebuta Museum. In addition to the changing exhibits, the museum displays the history of the parade and the nebuta tradition as well as a series of ‘head’s by designated nebuta masters (Figure 26). For the design of the museum Molo, a firm now known for their soft shelters and expandable paper furniture, enlisted d&dt Arch, Frank la Revière Architects Inc. and structural engineer Kanebako were later added to the project team. Together, they created a building within a skeletal framework of 'red steel ribbons' and this form creates a modern reinterpretation of an engawa [veranda]. Unlike the engawa of traditional homes, the museum is not elevated or made of wood. Instead, a series of roughcast panels sit on a gravel bed, mediating a slopping site and allowing the large floats to slip through the designed gaps in the screen and into the exhibition space after passing through the building’s large, concealed doors. Situated along the river and surrounded by large piles of snow, the screen looks more like a large curtain rippling in the cold wind than an element of building enclosure.

    Figure 26. The larger-than-life heads line the museum’s corridors.

    Although few festival museums have an architectural enclosure as captivating as Aomori’s, other cities allow visitors to explore festival culture out of season. For example, in Takayama, a historic city described in more depth later in the post, visitors can see elaborate Edo-era floats and karakuri [automatons]. In town, visitors can explore the Festival Float Exhibition Hall, adjacent to the Sakurayam Hachiman Shrine. The Takayama float festivals occur each autumn and spring, with eleven or twelve floats parading through the narrow streets and the cross colorful bridge of this Edo-era merchant town. The floats were typically stored in yatai-gura [storehouses] in the town, with thick, plastered walls and tall doors to accommodate the float's height. Some of these storehouses are still visible in the town and several are still in use but a rotating array of floats occupy the Festival Float Exhibition Hall to allow visitors a closer look at the carved elements, gilding, and lacquer of these large and impressive constructions (Figure 27). As illustrated in the exhibit’s interpretive boards, event elements not visible to parade-goers, such as the float’s interior panels, were decorated to create a total work of art. It is hard to imagine that some of the floats dating to the 17th century were even decorated with precious gems and the wonderment associated with these structures multiplies with the addition of marionettes that, through the coordinated operation of thirty-six strings, could dance and perform acrobatics. The floats are displayed behind large glass panels and a ramp around this enormous jewel box allows visitors to view the floats from various heights, with costumed mannequins serving as useful scale figures. Since visitors cannot get too close to these preserved floats or see the marionettes in action, the city of Takayama commissioned another festival site. Reached by local bus, Matsuri no Mori ‘Festa Forest’ outside of town is a large, underground structure that houses contemporary reconstructions of lacquered, Edo-era floats (Figure 28). The practice of float reconstruction helps ensure that the traditional crafts associated with float making are preserved across generations. In addition to the six floats, with timed performances of the float’s robotic marionettes, the site has modern day karakuri including three large taiko drummers. In addition to being examples of master craftsmanship, some of the floats in Takayama are part of the newly minted ‘Yama, Hoko, Yatai, float festival in Japan’ addition to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Designated in late 2016, the floats join a list of 300 other ‘intangible cultural heritages’.

    Figure 27. A view from the elevated platform in the Festival Floats Exhibition Hall.

    Figure 28. Like the Nebuta Museum, the darkened conditions of the Festa Forest highlight the float’s lanterns and reflective surfaces.


    Urban Architectural Collections and Reconstructions

    This post could easily feature an array of museum sites in Hokkaido or northern and central Honshu since these areas are filled with a rich array of historic sites and collections but I will, instead, conclude this month’s post with a contrast between two different heritage conditions I experienced in February in Japan: Takayama, a town as a living museum, and Hokkaido Historical Village, an open-air museum featuring a recreated series of towns. The first allows visitors to experience two eras simultaneously, such as shops and homes from the Edo era while having easy access to public transportation and modern conveniences, and the second entirely transports visitors to another time and place.

    Once an Edo era castle town, Takayama in Gifu prefecture, came under the control of the Tokugawa government in 1692. As a center for the region’s timber production, Takayama developed into a city with refined wooden architecture as well as a center of commerce for the cloth trade, woodworking, and sake brewing. Today, it is a city of museums that celebrates the merchant class, the float-making tradition, and still has seven active sake breweries (Figures 29 and Video 2). It offers visitors the opportunity to explore urban and rural heritage sites, serving as a microcosm of Japanese architectural heritage, traditional craftsmanship, and innovative design.

    Know as ‘little Kyoto in Hida’, the preserved areas of Takayama are composed of three main historic districts: Sanno-machi, Ichino-machi, and Nino-machi. These streets are lined with two-story wooden homes, covered in cedar shingles, and shallow rainwater collection lines running to the canal.

    Figure 29. Water for the city comes from the nearby mountain springs and this is one of the reasons Takayama became known for its sake. During the forty-five day brewing cycle in January and February, visitors can enter one of the city’s breweries, beneath a newly hung sugidama [cedar ball], to take a tour and try the flowery, unpasteurized sake that Edo era occupants once consumed

    Video 2. A walk through some of the preservation districts and shrines of Takayama in the Gifu Prefecture.

    In many senses, the preserved streets of Takayama feel similar to Narai-juku (Figures 30-31 and Video 3). At approximately one kilometer and sited along the Narai River, Narai-juku is the longest, preserved post town along the Ero era Nakasendo Road that once connected Edo [Tokyo] and Koto. Designated as an Important Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings in 1978, the historic area of Narai-juku consists of a streetscape of wooden townhouses, anchored by the Sennen-ji Temple on one end and a reconstructed version of the Sizume Shrine on the other. Once known as the primary town for purchasing lacquered products, especially bowls and combs, historic structures have distinctive signage advertising wares and overhanging eaves that shelter the entryways to shops and offices. Although the site is a popular destination for tourists and hikers alike, and is often used for filming period pieces, Narai-juku was a ghost town during my visit due to a local event in a neighboring town.

    Figures 30 and 31. Views of Narai-juku and the play of light from the textured wooden surfaces and screens.

    Video 3. Travel on Japanese Rail lines between Nagano and the Edo era post town of Narai-juku.

    Unlike the small scale of Narai-juku, Takayama contains the historic town as well as a series of shrines following a mountain path to the castle ruins, a modern town with several high-rise hotels, a midsize train station, and several museums in the city and its environs, ranging from preserved historic sites to a private collection of early 20th-century decorative arts objects that was recently converted into a public museum. The Takayama Jinya (1692-1898), one of the oldest preserved government houses from the Edo era, is a substantial site that was in regular use until it was converted into a museum in 1969 (Figure 32). Since then, several restoration and archeological projects have allowed the site to expand interpretation on the walled complex and its guardhouse, offices, and newly reconstructed storehouses. With more than sixty offices as well as facilities for scribes, the governor, and his support staff, the site is a complex one to explore. The massive ohiroma [conference room] has forty-nine tatami mats and could be divided into three different rooms, proving that flexible office space was not just an invention of the modern era. Although a large complex, the details of the site are no less thoughtful than a teahouse or small dwelling: layers of screens separate spaces, engawa line inner courtyard gardens, and 152 mamuki usagi conceal the timber structure’s nails and were intended to bring happiness to the building’s occupants (Figure 33). Integrating digital technology into the site, the oshrasu [civil law court] and ginmisho [interrogation room] used an app called Tabido for an augmented reality experience, showing visitors what the rooms may have looked like while in use during the Edo period. However, poor connectivity in the structure caused connection issues, proving that some of the most enterprising ideas often have technical difficulties in practice.

    Figure 32. A view of the wall enclosing the complex and one of the offices

    Figure 33. A view into one of the many inner courtyards of the complex, illustrating the seamless connection between inside and outside.

    Several extraordinary house museums also occupy the historic districts of Takayama and two were of particular interest: the Kusakabe Mingei-kan Heritage House (1852, reconstructed in 1879 after a fire) (Figures 34-37) and the Yoshijima House (1907) (Figure 38). The merchant house of Kusakabe Mingei-kan was constructed by lead carpenter Jisuke Kawashiri the expansive network of beams and columns have been darkened by years of charcoal burning in the irori [open hearth]. With the family rooms of the home, the lack of clutter means that the eye is drawn to the details of construction: each joint and layer of paper within the shoji screens was considered and every yumihari chochin [bamboo and paper lantern] has a unique construction to illuminate the home, representing an era prior to electrification. Although constructed several decades later, the Yoshijima House has similar features such as tall ceilings and a complex weave of wooden structural members in the lofted ceiling above the home’s store and reception room for visitors. This impressive construction was intended to symbolize the strength and stability of the family and its associated sake business. In both homes, visitors are required to take off their shoes. Although this added to the chill within a space where your breath was already visible, it provided another means of connecting with the site and its history. Moving from stone to polished wood to tatami mats, one became aware of internal rooms' arrangements and hierarchies through not just sight but also touch.

    Figures 34-37. Views of the exterior and interior of the Kusakabe Mingei-kan Heritage House.

    Figure 38. A series of screens create a Japanese version of enfilade in the Yoshijima Heritage House.

    Although beyond the main purview of this post, the decorative arts gem of the Takayama Museum of Art (1997) is not to be missed. Housing a private collection of more than 1,000 pieces of glass and furniture from the Scottish Arts and Crafts and the Vienna Secession movements, as well as the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods, this purpose-built museum takes full advantage of the site and surrounding mountain views. Designed as a series of intimate rooms, the architecture of each gallery directly responds to the objects within. For example, a cruciform space houses a fountain (1926) by René Lalique that once stood in a shopping arcade of the Champs-Élysées (Figure 39). Each of the four sides of the fountain has a caryatid made of amethyst-colored glass and these Deco figures conceal a metal substructure and the fountain's piping system. Adorning one of the open stairs is a pair of sculptures, once complimented by a painting by Gustav Klimt from the Beethoven Frieze of the Vienna Secession house (1902) by Josef Olblich. On the upper floor of the museum there is a pastiche of period rooms representative of Art Nouveau and the Vienna Succession, with works by Emile Gallé, Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffman, and Kolan Moser. Perhaps one of the most striking rooms of the museum is one that houses a number of authentic and reproduced works by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, inspired by the drawing of a dining room in the 'House for an Art Lover’ competition of 1901 (Figure 40). In advance of the SAH's Annual Conference in Mackintosh’s Glasgow in early June, it seemed particular interesting to see a wood and glass screen from the Hill House as well as a mantel panel from the frieze of the Willow Tea Room. In homage to the Mackintosh collection on-site, the museum's café resembles a reinvented Glasgow tearoom, complete with reproduction silverware, tea sets, and lighting fixtures. Although few guidebooks or even decorative arts journals mention the site, Takayama actively promotes the museum and during the warmer months of the year, a vintage London double-decker bus provides free transportation between the Takayama station and the museum.

    Figure 39. Dramatic and ever-changing colored lighting within the room containing the Lalique fountain helps highlight the water feature’s intricate detailing.

    Figure 40. Filled with a mix of original and recreated pieces, the Macintosh room blends several of the designer’s favored motifs into one, eclectic space.

    As a relatively small city, Takayama is popular with Japanese tourists looking to experience Edo life outside of the bustle of Kyoto but it is a site often overlooked by foreign tourists. Nonetheless, it is an ideal site for its preserved historic districts, museums and for exploring the nearby UNESCO World Heritage sites of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. Takayama even has an open-air museum focusing on vernacular traditions in the era, the Hida Folk Village (Figure 41-43). The site, organized around a reservoir from 1931, holds several structures designated as National Important Cultural Properties, including a mid-18th century home from Kawai-sho in the northern part of Hida that survived the disastrous earthquake of 1858 and a seiro-gura (Figure 44).

    Figure 41. The artificial pond, constructed as a rice patty reservoir, also provided the surrounding homes with a place for recreation and winter ice harvesting. During both visits to the Hida Folk Village, there was freezing rain but the fires within select structures, lit to guard against the chill, helped to add another dimension to the experience.

    Figures 42 and 43. The steeply pitched roofs of the vernacular homes were designed with a substantial wooden structure and thick layers of thatch to resist the enormous winter snow loads that would be upwards of eight feet deep in the winter.

    Figure 44. This wooden structure served as a storehouse, primarily for food, in snow-laden regions of the nation and the joinery method used to connect the rough-hewn timber allowed the wood to expand in high humidity, insulating the warehouse, and contract in low-humidity to allow more air flow through the building. This passive system helped maintain a relatively consistent temperature throughout the seasons.

    The Hida Folk Village is a museum out-of-doors that used the preserved remnants of an early 20th century village as the base for establishing a larger collection of vernacular structures. Homes and storehouses under the threat of demolition were moved to the site and reconstructed, providing visitors the to opportunity explore more than thirty historic structures and, in warmer weather, watch living history demonstrations. Although a rich site on a varied landscape, the scale of the Hida Folk Village pales in comparison to the Historic Village of Hokkaido, outside of Sapporo. Located near the Historical Museum of Hokkaido, a midcentury structure with recently redesigned exhibits that explore the history of the indigenous people of Hokkaido, the Ainu, and the geological composition of the island, the Historical Village of Hokkaido is an expansive open-air museum with more than sixty buildings from the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) periods on a 120-acre site. All of the buildings were moved from sites around Hokkaido to the museum’s property and placed within a series of distinct conditions: an urban setting with a centralized streetcar, a fishing village, a farm village, and a mountain village with a logging pond and canals (Figure 45).

    Figure 45. A view of the ‘main street’ in the recreated town. In the warmer months, a streetcar operates between the allée of trees.

    Unlike downtown Sapporo, densely packed with tourists and locals exploring the various sights and events associated with the 68th Annual Snow Festival, the Historical Village of Hokkaido was practically empty. In the winter, the site lowers its prices since much of the living history aspects of the museum are in hibernation: there are few, if any, costumed interpreters around the complex and many of the interactive exhibits are under protective coverings. In the warmer months, visitors help bring the buildings and the museum's collections to life: one can make postcards in the early 20th-century printing presses of the post office or participate in a noodle making at a traditional ramen shop. In the winter, the Historic Village of Hokkaido reminds one of a Japanese iteration of Williamsburg, where the majority of buildings are not just authentic recreations but are, instead, historic structures and the doors to all of the historic homes, warehouses, and businesses had been left open for quiet exploration. As someone with experience in museum studies and as a former interpreter at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Monticello, the idea of an unsupervised historic site is quite unsettling. In spite of this, I was pleasantly surprised to see that of the few visitors I encountered at the site, from various countries and a range of ages, all respected the posted signs and seemed genuinely interested in the content: the sliding wooden doors that sealed most buildings were carefully handled and shoes were removed in exchange for slippers at the sites that required extra care for the preservation of recreated tatami mats and original wooden floors. As a site outside of the urban core of Sapporo, located near the Napporo Forest Park, it takes some purposeful planning to access the Historical Village of Hokkaido with coordinating public transportation so it should not be surprising that those who make the journey are interested in history, architecture, or traditional construction techniques. The deep snow, icy paths, and biting wind also make the site a bit inhospitable in the winter, but for those who make the trek, it was a truly unparalleled opportunity to explore a wide array of building types.

    During my visit, the site was akin to a ghost town and the strong winds blowing through the site caused a symphony of eerie sounds in the historic buildings, rattling windows and the protective palettes used to guard the glass from falling snow and ice. Inside, the wind and occasional visitor caused the worn, wooden floors and walls to creak. Although unnerving at moments, visiting during such cold and quiet conditions meant that I had the majority of the structures to myself and, thus, had the opportunity to look closely at original joinery and screen details. The vast majority of interpretation at the museum is in Japanese, but this site is a treasure trove for any architectural enthusiast since almost every building has a small board near the entrance with a detailed plan and brief notes on the building’s original location and its relocation to the museum’s site. Unfortunately, an illustrated tome on the site does not exist in English, so the images below are intended to give a small picture of the village’s rich built landscape and encourage others to make the journey to explore for themselves (Figures 46-54).

    Figure 46. Once Sapporo's main Railway Station (1908-1952), this colorful Victorian structure now serves as the gateway to the historic village and houses a small café and shop as well as the main operational offices for the open air museum.

    Figure 47. Many of the buildings have a simple latch systems to protect the doors and windows from the site’s strong winds; notice the repurposed mitten that helps protect the lock from freezing.

    Figure 48. Serving as a bold marker for the town’s main ‘intersection’, the Brick Police Box operated in downtown Sapporo from 1911 to 1971. Notice the school in the background, discussed in the following caption.

    Figure 49. The exhibits within the walls of Hokkaido’s first Junior High School provide a glimpse into education during the early 20
    th century.

    Figure 50. The bold colors and form of the Hirose Photography Studio (1924) are unmatched in the historic landscape: the black and red paint reflect in the snow and the large, glazed roof provided beneficial natural light for the portrait studio.

    Figures 51 and 52. One of the first structures visitors encounter on the site is Kondon's Dueing Shop (c.1898) and this building was originally located in the northern city of Asahikawa. In response to the climatic conditions, the building has a double skin of glass and paper screens, affixed to a thickened wooden structure. The glazed panels also have protective wooden shutters on the exterior and the working rooms of this shop were further insulated through the use of a circulation gallery: the core of the building is encircled by hallway, adding an additional layer of protection from the infiltration of cold air.

    Figures 53 and 54. Warehouses and multi-functional structures fill the fishing village. Much of this portion of the site, as well as the farming and mountain villages, was inaccessible due to the heavy snow.


    Changing Seasons

    One aspect of my planned schedule for this fellowship provided the opportunity to spend several months in each country in order to visit certain sites multiple times and experience the changing light, climate, and tourist numbers associated with different seasons. With this in mind, I hope to return to several of the sites referenced in this first blog posting about travel in Japan, exchanging snow piles for cities and sites filled with cherry blossoms. During March and April, I look forward to the celebrations associated with the rites of spring. During this season of renewal, I will visit a number of traditional gardens to study the sakuteiki, the six basic composition elements of Japanese landscape design, as well as the sequence ‘hide and reveal’ employed in miegakure. The spring will also be filled with extended explorations in Kyoto and southern islands, with plans to return to Tokyo for many of the national holidays in May. 



    Carver, Norman F., Jr. Form & Space in Japanese Architecture. Kalamazoo, MI: Documan, 1993.

    Dresser, Christopher. Japan: Its Architecture, Art, and Art Manufactures. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1882.

    Gorpius, Walter. "Architecture in Japan." In Katsura: Imperial Villa, edited by Virginia Ponciroli. New York, NY: Phaidon Press Ltd., 2011.

    Locher, Mira. Japanese Architecture: An Exploration of Elements and Forms. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle, 2015.

    Nute, Kevin. Place, Time, and Being in Japanese Architecture. London: Routledge, 2004.

    Reynolds, J. M. "Teaching Architectural History in Japan: Building a Context for Contemporary Practice." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. 61, no. 4 (2002): 530-36.

    Screech, Timon. The Western Scientific Gaze and Popular Imagery in Later Edo Japan: The Lens within the Heart. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    Tanizaki, Jun'ichirō. In Praise of Shadows. Translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker. New Haven, CT: Leete's Island Books, 1977.

    Taut, Bruno. Fundamentals of Japanese Architecture. Translated by Glenn F. Baker and H. E. Pringsheim. 2nd ed. Tokyo: Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai, 1937.

    Ueda, Atsushi. The Inner Harmony of the Japanese House. Translated by Stephen Suloway. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1998.

    Yaguchi, Yujin. "American Objects, Japanese Memory; Landscape and Local Identity in Sapporo, Japan." Winterthur Portfolio 37, no. 2/3 (2002): 93-121.


    1 The area and populations, in parenthesis, of the nations as of late 2016 are as follows: Cuba 42,430 mi2 (11.27 million), Iceland 39,770 mi2 (323,002), and Japan 145,900 mi2 (127.3).

    2 "This term refers to the “abode of empty"; spaces are characterized by the regularity of a structural grid, the use of natural materials, and strong connections between inside and outside.

    3 The following readings have been essential to my initial studies: Norman F. Carver, Jr., Form & Space in Japanese Architecture (Kalamazoo, MI: Documan, 1993); Walter Gorpius, "Architecture in Japan," in Katsura: Imperial Villa, ed. Virginia Ponciroli (New York, NY: Phaidon Press Ltd., 2011); Kevin Nute, Place, Time, and Being in Japanese Architecture (London: Routledge, 2004); J. M. Reynolds, "Teaching Architectural History in Japan: Building a Context for Contemporary Practice," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. 61, no. 4 (2002); Timon Screech, The Western Scientific Gaze and Popular Imagery in Later Edo Japan: The Lens within the Heart (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker (New Haven, CT: Leete's Island Books, 1977); Bruno Taut, Fundamentals of Japanese Architecture, trans. Glenn F. Baker and H. E. Pringsheim, 2nd ed. (Tokyo: Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai, 1937); Atsushi Ueda, The Inner Harmony of the Japanese House, trans. Stephen Suloway (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1998); Yujin Yaguchi, "American Objects, Japanese Memory; Landscape and Local Identity in Sapporo, Japan," Winterthur Portfolio 37, no. 2/3 (2002).

    4 From a vocabulary standpoint, the organization, diagrams and descriptions of Locher’s book have been very helpful. See Mira Locher, Japanese Architecture: An Exploration of Elements and Forms (North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle, 2015).

    5 Christopher Dresser, Japan: Its Architecture, Art, and Art Manufactures (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1882). Available online: https://archive.org/details/japanitsarchitec00dres For information on other foreign designers who explored Japan in its early modern years see

    6 Ibid., v.

    7 Ibid., 114.

    8 Since there is little published information on smaller museums and their interpretation, much of the information in the following section is from the actual display boards in the museums. Throughout my travels, I have been heavily reliant on an incredible app called CamScanner to capture images from museums and subsequently generate annotated and organized PFDs. If any readers would like to see captures from specific sites, please contact me by posting a note in the comments section of the blog or by emailing

  • Prados and Plazas: Investigations into the Cultural Resources and Key Urban Elements of the Island

    by User Not Found | Feb 13, 2017

    Danielle S. Willkens is the 2015 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs and videos are by the author, unless otherwise noted.

    Home to some of the first permanent structures in the New World, the architecture of Cuba is characterized by myriad styles and influences, ranging from Spanish colonial and Baroque to neoclassicism and experimental modernism. With nine designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Cuba has one of the highest concentrations of recognized, ‘”globally significant” sites in the Americas.1 There are seven cultural sites that include four urban centers, fortifications, and two sites tied to built interventions that supported the nation’s agricultural endeavors: Old Havana and its Fortification System (1982), Trinidad and the Valley de los Ingenios (1988), Urban Historic Centre of Cienfuegos (2005), Historic Centre of Camagüey (2008), San Pedro de la Roca Castle in Santiago de Cuba (1997), Archaeological Landscape of the First Coffee Plantations (2000), and the Viñales Valley (1999) (Figures 1–5 and Videos 1–2). The eastern side of the island is home to the two designated UNESCO sites for natural significance, Desembarco del Granma National Park (1999) and Alejandro de Humboldt National Park (2001). Furthermore, the island has sites on the Tentative List: the Ciénga de Zapata National Park, the National Schools of the Arts (discussed in last month’s blog post), Cubanacán, and the Reef System in the Cuban Caribbean. With such a wealth of historical and natural resources, Cuba is primly situated to execute profitable endeavors in cultural heritage exploration and eco-tourism. The quickly rising visitor numbers, however, are outpacing critical elements of infrastructure and few of the nation’s current construction or restoration projects focus efforts on the cultivation of resources specifically for locals. Exploring the island through the lens of tourism, this post will explore the surge in visitor numbers in the last two decades as well as the urban kit-of-parts found in many Cuban cities, making key sites relatively easy to identify and navigate. The sites discussed in this post, and many more, are located on this Google map for reference.

    Figure 1. A view down one of Trinidad’s residential streets, looking towards the ruined 18
    th-century church Santa Ana. The majority of homes along this route are casa particulars.

    Figure 2. A view from the bay of Cienfuegos looking forwards Plaza Mayor, the historic core of the city.

    Figure 3. Camagüey’s Avenida de la Libertad is filled with an array of eclectically stylized one and two-story structures, all unified by their use of a protective colonnade.

    Figures 4 and 5. Views of El Morro (c.1639), one of the many fortifications in the nation executed by the Antonelli family of Milan. Portions of the castle are open to visitor exploration while others, such as the lowest sections that negotiate the rocky cliffs, are off limits.

    Video 1. The sunset ceremony at El Morro in Santiago de Cuba.

    Video 2. Scenes of the Cuban countryside in Pinar del Rio and Viñales.


    The Rising Tide of Tourism

    At present, there is only one ground crew dedicated to inbound flights, one for outbound flights, and two baggage carousels in the primary international terminal of Havana's airport. Therefore, as cranes operate above the adjacent structure that is under construction and poised to accommodate the expansion of traveler numbers, the current terminal seems to be under rapidly rising strain. In the recent months, the surge is the direct result of the new influx of travelers from the United States who are arriving to the capital city on one of the many airlines now offering direct commercial flights from states like New York, Florida and even Alaska. On December 1st, I had the fortune of being onboard Delta's first commercial flight in fifty-five years from Miami to Havana. The company celebrated with true pomp and circumstance, including guayaba cookies and café con leche at the gate, a speech by Delta's manager for operations in Latin America, and a gift box for travelers. Ribbon cutting ceremonies occurred at both the Miami and Havana sides of the journey, trucks from Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department christened the plane with water canons upon departure, and a national news team covered the Havana arrival. Despite the excitement for daily commercial flights, provided by companies such as Delta, American Airlines, Spirit, and JetBlu, the facilities at Havana's José Martí airport are not yet equipped to handle the surge in traffic. For example, in December and January, airport travelers experienced intermittent brownouts as well as regular delays for inbound and outbound flights, ranging from one to three hours.

    According to the Cuban Ministry of Tourism (MINTUR), Canadians still comprise the largest percentage of the island’s visitors. However, the majority of these visitors do not spend their time enjoying Cuba’s rich history and natural landscapes but, instead, lounging on Cuban coastal resorts, such as those found on the Varadero peninsula east of Havana. In the last two years, there has been an 80% increase in American visitors and, due to the current regulations, these visitors are spending their time at cultural institutions and engaged in professional exchanges instead of indulging in beach holidays. Following the Revolution in 1959 and the trade embargo imposed a year later, Americans were largely barred from traveling to Cuba. Exceptions were granted for those who carried a special license issued by the U.S. government, traveled with a registered people-to-people educational tour, or [precariously] circumnavigated the system by traveling through a gateway country such as Mexico or Canada. On January 16, 2016, these restrictions were amended to accommodate twelve special categories, found here. My travels for the SAH Brooks Travelling Fellowship fall under professional research and to ensure proper adherence to the regulations that state that itineraries can be audited up to five years after the conclusion of travels, it is important to keep meticulous records of day-to-day activities.

    In order to accommodate the sharp rise in visitor numbers in the 21st century, banners and videos in the airports and around the capital advertise that the nation plans to add approximately 50,000 new rooms by 2020 and 100,000 new rooms by 2030 in coordination with the National Plan for Economic and Social Development. For reference, the number of rooms for foreign tourists in 1990 was estimated at 12,000 and this grew to 35,000 by 1999.2 The initial expansion of tourist accommodations was due to a law in 1995 that allowed select foreign investments on the island and in the last two decades Cuba has welcomed foreign conglomerates such as Spain’s Iberostar and Melià, France’s Accor, Canada’s Royalton, China’s Beijing Enterprises Holdings Ltd. and, in the last two years, even American newcomers like the Starwood Group. In addition to foreign investors, the hotel boom on the island has been facilitated by hospitality projects associated with the state’s hotels, the Gran Caribe brand, and the tourism branch of the Cuban military known as Gaviota. Most of the new projects are located in Havana or coastal resorts but a new set of golf course resorts are under review for Chorreara-Ancón near Trinidad, potentially changing traffic patterns and visitor numbers to the aforementioned USNECO World Heritage city. There is also a new market for boutique hotels in cities beyond the capital, such as Camagüey, Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba, and Viñales. Typically defined as a structure with less than 100 rooms, it is easy to imagine how these hotels will change the urban fabric and scale of low-rise cities. Instead of climbing historic church towers to get the best views of a city, some visitors may choose to solely experience the view from the rooftop terrace of their hotel, widening the already-expansive gap in Cuba between sites for locals and those for tourists (Figures 6 and 7).

    Figures 6 and 7. A view from the tower of Igelsia y Convento de San Francisco, now home to a regional museum of the Revolution, the Museo de la Lucha contra Bandidos.

    Furthermore, the ambitious plans for growth in tourists’ accommodations by 2020 and 2030 exist in stark contrast to the housing crisis around the nation, particularly in the capital. Cuban architect, urbanist and University of Havana Professor Miguel Coyula estimates that although there are approximately 17,000 people in temporary housing, designed within the standardized specification for 25m2 area with a bathroom, more than 140,000 are in need of housing.3  


    Urban Rules and Resources

    It is surprising that there are not any dedicated urban planning programs at Cuban universities, especially considering that the island’s cities have some of the most compelling urban histories that were shaped by rules from the colonial period and adapted into ever-resilient centers for commerce, culture, and recreation. In many ways, Cuban cities have a kit of parts consisting of portales [arcades], plazas, and prados. In many cities, the best way to first survey the surroundings is from the bell tower of a local church. For only a few CUCs, one can climb between worn stonewalls and walk on precarious wooden steps to achieve prized views. Peering across surrounding plazas and over the roofs clad in Spanish tiles, it is possible to get a better understanding of the material fabric of the city as well as the prolific use of inner courtyards to provide light and assist with the circulation of air. Furthermore, these elevated views allow one to see the inventiveness and malleability of Cuban domestic architecture. In various cities, a brief aerial survey shows that roofs were turned into terraces and, over time, one-story homes grew into Escher-esque towers to accommodate growing families (Video 3).

    Video 3. Sunset over the Catedral de la Asunción in Parque Céspedes, Santiago de Cuba. The cathedral’s site has been a place of worship since 1522, and the current structure (b. 1766) underwent a substantial restoration program in 2014.

    Many of Cuba’s oldest cities were the products of regulations set forth in the New Laws of the Indies in 1573.4 These laws defined elements of urban planning including street width and block size, based upon Roman military encampments. As the laws developed they also defined the appropriate stylistic characteristics of buildings and construction specifications to safeguard against fires and significant earthquake damage. Therefore, these regulations can explain why cities like Havana, Cienfuegos, and Camagüey share a proliferation of portales [arcades] to shade merchants and pedestrians and why cities with different settlement patterns, like Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba, still share similarities in their architectural detailing and use of material. The regulations also established the color palette of the island, requiring saturated colors on buildings to help reduce glare (Figure 8).5


    Figure 8. The Casa de la Trova in Trinidad features many of the popular features of early 19th-century colonial architecture: trompe l'oeil marbleizing around window frames and sills as well as the embellishment of volutes on the porch’s structural posts. Although intended to make the simple structural supports look like Ionic columns, the lack of base and classical proportions, such as the use of entasis, make the decorated posts look more whimsical than refined

    Few cities strictly adhered to the full extent of the imposed rules, yet these laws served as guiding ordnances for cities. Arcades, plazas, and courtyards can be found throughout the nation; however, each city seems to have a series of local variations driven by topography, access to materials, local vegetation, and microclimate. For example, Holguín became a city of not just one grand plaza but, instead, a series of smaller squares. Here, the number of bicycles and horse-drawn carts outnumber cars. This means that the city is filled with a unique cadence of bicycle bells and clicking hooves that provide a base rhythm to the hourly song of the city's church bells. Few tourists visit this humble city of one and two-story buildings, bypassing it for the coastal resorts of Guardalavaca, but urban development in Holguín managed to balance a relatively uniform, gridded core with a steep change in topography. The summit of Loma de la Cruz was originally an informal pilgrimage site in the late 18th century but in the early 1900s, a full-scale grading project was undertaken to transform the path up the hill into the Escalienata de la Loma. After a strenuous climb, the intrepid are rewarded with a spectacular view of the city and its surrounding region (Figure 9).

    Figure 9. The steep ascent of the Escalienata de la Loma leads to a hilltop plaza.

    Another unifying feature of Cuban cities is the plaza. Originally designed as forecourts to churches and municipal spaces for commerce, these urban gathering spaces are still active sites for locals and visitors (Figure 10). The plazas serve an array of functions, acting as the intermittent playgrounds for adjacent primary schools as well as venues for musicians and street performers (Figures 11 and 12).

    Figure 10. A view of the plaza adjacent to Havana’s Cathedral.

    Figure 11. A view of Santiago de Cuba’s Parque Céspedes

    Figure 12. A bold street performer in Santiago de Cuba’s Parque Céspedes braved the unrelenting heat in an entirely black costume that juxtaposed the white angel adorning the recently restored Catedral de la Asunción (b. 1522, rebuilt 1674 and again in 1766 after an earthquake).

    As planning projects moved away from centralized courtyards and contained urban squares, several of Cuba’s cities received a new element: the prado. These wide boulevards were developed in the 19th and 20th centuries and function as linear parks as well as shaded places for the circulation of pedestrians and vehicles. In cities like Havana and Cienfuegos, these boulevards were paved with terrazzo and, today, they are prime locations for skateboarders and children racing on rollerblades. In other sites, such as Pinar del Rio, the prados have been revived with new street furniture and art (Figure 13).

    Figure 13. The leisurely qualities of prado in Pinar del Rio have been somewhat interrupted by the boulevard’s connection to the A4, the main highway in western Cuba.

    Perhaps one of the best places for a brief study of Cuban urban planning is Cienfuegos. Founded by a colony of French planters from Louisiana, Cienfuegos has one of the most orderly urban centers in Cuba and this is explained by the comprehensive urban plan that was established in 1819. The historic core of the city has gridded arrangement with a series of block-sized parks and the extensive Plaza de Armas, now Parque Martí. Like many of the main plazas in Cuban cities, Parque Martí, is a microcosm for exploring the city’s history and preserved architecture (Figures 14-19). Located around this central plaza are the city’s main historic and cultural sites: the Catedral de la Purísima Concepción (1833–1869), one of the nation’s only preserved triumphal arches, the eclectic Palacio Ferrer (early 1900s) that now houses Casa Provincial de la Cultura and the Teatro Tomás Terry (1886–1889) by Lino Sánchez Mármol. Just blocks away from this plaza it is also easy to navigate to both the Museo Histórico Naval Nacional, on the bay, and the urban artery that connects old Cienfuegos with the southern peninsula of the city.

    Figures 14 and 15. Anchoring elements of Parque Martí

    Figures 16–18. The Teatro Tomás Terry in Cienfuegos, largely inspired by the Teatro Sauto (1863) in Matanzas.

    Figure 19. Housed in barracks from the 1930s, the Museo Histórico Naval Nacional opened in the early 1980s and features displays on the region’s naval history, maritime landscape, and the September 1957 insurrection.

    As Cienfuegos expanded, the tree-lined allée, the Paseo del Prado, transitioned into a bayside Malecón, stretching to Punta Gorda. Here, much like Havana’s Miramir district, grand homes lined the streets. Anchoring the southern end of the Malecón is the grandiose Palacio de Valle (1912–1917) (Figures 20 and 21). Unparalleled in size or embellishment, this building stylistic hybrid features neo-Moorish, Baroque, and Italianate elements. Sponsored by Spanish businessman Acisclo del Valle, the home’s ostentatious design, paired with the rich material palette of Carrara marble and imported woods and ironwork, is a prime example of real estate speculation during the 'fat cow' era prior to the Depression. The fairytale structure had a tragic turn when Acisclo died just three years after the project’s completion. In 1922, his widow Ampara Suero, left Cuba with the couple's seven children and the abandoned home was unused for over a decade. Batista coveted the site in the 1950s as an ideal location for a casino but the Revolution [thankfully] thwarted these plans. Today, the palacio sits next to the popular Hotel Jagua (1956), another product of Meyer Lansky's Cuban 'entrepreneurialism', the site operates as a restaurant and venue for group events.

    Figures 20 and 21. Obscured by dense vegetation, a comprehensive view of Palacio de Valle is difficult to capture but the building’s ornate details require close inspection both on the interior and exterior.


    Architecture [in] Museums 6

    As evidenced by the layout of Cienfuegos, the plazas, squares, and prados of Cuba’s cities serve as the primary place to find a particular city’s cultural heritage gems: sacred sites, homes converted to memorialize the life of a national figure, and provincial museums. When exploring Cuba’s cultural heritage it becomes clear, quite quickly, that museums are state run. Therefore, it is not surprising that throughout the island there is a predictable formula for entry. With the exception of larger institutions in the capital city, the museums in the island typically charge 1–2 CUCs for entry and an additional 5 CUCs for a photography permit. Although parks, squares, small cafeterias, and stores were rarely empty, it was not uncommon to be the only person exploring a small museum. If a tour group descended on the site, it was rare that they spent more than an hour so in many of the designated historic sites of Cuba’s smaller cities, I felt like I had private viewings (Figure 22).

    Figure 22. The Hacha de Holguín is a stone axe head from the native Taíno Indians and it is housed in the Museo Provincial, Holguín. The building was constructed in 1860 as home of Spanish merchant Francisco Roldán y Rodríguez but it was converted into barracks for Spanish soldiers during the Ten Years' War, earning the nickname 'La Periquera' [the parrot cage] in reference to the soldiers' bright uniforms. During my visit, a memorial exhibit for the city’s most famous son, Fidel Castro, displaced the Hacha de Holguín. After exploring the museum and realizing that I somehow missed the carved icon, I had the fortune of speaking with the curator who was eager to show me the object, and many others in the museum's extensive storage room, located in the converted carriage house of the building.

    The Museo de Arquitectura Colonial in Trinidad’s restored Casa de los Sánchez Iznaga is the only museum in the nation specifically dedicated to architecture (Figures 23–25). In this small but rich museum one can find preserved door hardware, wooden ceiling embellishments, and a series of decorative objects from all over the world, such as tables, chandeliers, and statuettes that illustrate Trinidad's connections to global trading routes in the colonial era. Elements of the building’s restoration were purposefully exposed in certain rooms so that visitors can see the layers of brick and rubble infill that support the structure's walls as well as the 'ghosts' of apertures from earlier time periods in the home's history.

    Figures 23-25. The building and the collections work together to illustrate the history and details of Cuban architecture during the colonial period.

    Figures 26 and 27. The objects within the architecture museum’s interpretive displays hang from metal framework, placing the collections in specific spatial arrangements that allow visitors to understand how buildings were constructed and decorated. In this image one can see the configuration of a door and waterspout, embellished as a metal gargoyle.

    Figure 28. In the courtyard of the museum, small rooms have been converted into display spaces for preserved, 19th century pieces of domestic convenience such as decorated ceramic toilets and this elaborate shower, made in New York.

    Figure 29. The architectural museum in Trinidad featured a few of these personified bronze doorknockers but the one shown in this photograph still adorns a working residence in Pinar del Rio.

    Although not officially designated architectural museums, Sanitago de Cuba’s Casa de Diego Velázquez (1516–1530) is a prime example of the Mudéjar (Moorish) style (Figures 30–33) and Pinar del Rio’s Palacio Guasch (1909) is an eclectic wonder (Figures 34–37). Period furnishings, original wooden ceiling and screens, and preserved interior and exterior tile work bolster the historic character of the Casa de Diego Velázquez whereas Palacio Guasch is one of Cuba’s many examples of an early 20th-century house museum. Built by a well-traveled physician, the Palacio Guasch was a cabinet of curiosities, covered in architectural crustaceans, and was, appropriately, converted into a regional museum of natural history in 1979.

    Figures 30–33. Originally restored in 1965 by architect Francisco Prat Puig, the museum claims to be the oldest extant domestic structure in the nation.


    Figures 34–37. Curious details and collections fill the small museum in Palacio Guasch, Pinar del Rio.

    In Camagüey, the Casa Natal Ignacio Agromonte, too, operates as a de facto architectural museum. Although this museum’s three stories of illustrated exhibits mainly focus on one of Cuba’s leaders, killed in battle, during the early years of the struggle for independence from Spain, the building also serves as an significant object in the site’s preserved collection of 19th century domestic life in Cuba. For example, the courtyard provides one of the few accessible examples of water management from the era: the courtyard contains a network of tinajones, the region’s signature clay jars used for cisterns (Figure 38a and b).

    Figures 38a and b. A panoramic view of the Plaza Trabajadores in Camagüey, taken from the Casa Natal Ignacio Agromonte and view of the tinajones, used as cisterns, in the home’s courtyard.

    In Havana, several grandiose homes were repurposed as public museums after the Revolution. For example, the Museo de la Revolución is the former Presidential Palace (1920), designed by Paul Belau and Carlos Maruri with interior elements by the firm of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Originally cultivated as a house-museum, the Renaissance palazzo-inspired structure near the University of Havana, now known as the the Museo Napoleonico opened to the public in 1961.The structure was designed by Cuban architects Evelio Govantes and Félix Cabarrocas and built between 1926 and 1929 as the residence for doctor and politician Orestes Ferrara Marino (1876–1972). Sugar baron Julio Lobo (1898–1983) eventually purchased the property and lived amid his extensive Napoleonic collection until he negotiated an agreement with the government of the Revolution, bestowing his collections, including a 5,000 volume library, to the nation (Figures 39–41). Like only a handful of other museums around Cuba, the significant architectural heritage of the Museo Napoleonico receives equal, interpretative attention as the museum's collection of decorative arts and historic objects.

    Figures 39–41. The museum contains immaculately maintained period rooms that seamlessly integrate objects from Lobo’s Napoleonic collection, such as military uniforms and weapons, furniture, letters from figures such as Marie Antoinette, and Bonaparte family portraits by Royal Academy artists such as Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807).

    There are several other sites around the nation that operate as museums but do little to explain the significance of the surrounding architecture: the museum’s historic structure is seen as little more than a protective shelter and curious visitors are left to independent investigations. One such example can be found at the Museo Emilio Bacardi in Santiago de Cuba (Figures 42 and 43). Bacardi first established a museum in 1899 and commissioned a neoclassical structure to house the objects he collected from the Cuban War of Independence and his international expeditions, such as a mummy from Luxor, Egypt. Bacardi’s museum was once a light-filled atrium building with colonnaded galleries and a grand staircase but an unexplained renovation destroyed this space and transformed the museum into a building with three, divorced floors of exhibits. Although the displays have some of the best content on the island in terms of graphic design, explanatory text, and the integrated use of historic photographs, one cannot help but wonder what it was like to walk around the museum before the atrium was ‘extracted’.

    Figures 42 and 43. The form of the imposing façade of the Bacardi Museum now does little to connect to the interior spaces for the exhibits and many of the structures’ windows have been covered.

    Partnerships in Preservation and Practice

    Although the influx of tourists poses some challenges to the island it is also spurring much needed reinvestment in the built environment. Many of the new hotels under construction in Havana will severely impact the viewshed along the Malecón and Prado, but across the island entrepreneurs are taking advantage of regulations established in 2011 to expand the number of casa particulars [Cuban homestays]. With the salary for a typical governmental job averaging 25–30 CUCs a month, the opportunity to earn around 30 CUCs a night for a tourist’s casa particular stay is incredibly fruitful. Furthermore, the additional income from a casa particular allows property owners to renovate and restore homes, bringing new life to crumbling historic buildings. In Trinidad, I had the fortune of staying in a newly restored casa, complete with an original cedar alfarjes. This geometrically elaborate ceiling with articulated beams is one of the many places where the Spanish-Moorish architectural influence is visible on the island. Unlike Arabia, where longer pieces of lumber were rare, Cuba had a wealth of hardwoods but local Mudéjar [Spanish-Moorish craftsmen] still employed the decorative joinery found in traditional alfarjes ceiling construction (Figures 44 and 45).7

    Figures 44 and 45. An example of an alfarjes in the Casa de Diego Velázquez in Santiago de Cuba followed by a diagram from the architectural museum in Trinidad, illustrating one method of joinery for the decorative ceiling construction.

    The construction and renovation projects underway at residences across the island are indicative of a new type of speculative development where owners, hoping to acquire a license to operate a casa particular or paladar, can use their property to supplement incomes from state-sponsored jobs. Beyond personal profit, paladars like La Guarida, featured in the groundbreaking film Strawberries and Chocolate (1993), are bringing new life to buildings in Central Havana. This project seems to embody a philosophy of restoration found around the island: the maintenance, or replication, of elements of patina within renewed structures. For example, at La Guarida the new concrete balustrades of the terrace have a faux finish to look aged and the ongoing restoration of rooms in the multi-story structure privilege the palimpsest of wall paint over uniform surfaces while simultaneously working to stabilize, rather than replace, worn portions of marble rails and the decapitated statues on the newel posts (Figure 46).

    Figure 46. A view of the second story of LaGuarida, currently under restoration and the crisscrossing lines, a mixture of decommissioned electrical cords and rope lengths, are used as drying lines for the paladar’s linen napkins.

    After traveling around the island for a few months, it became very clear that these projects and others could benefit from historic site documentation. Few sites have as-built drawings and even fewer have digitized documentation. As new partnerships become available on the island to encourage economic growth and educational exchange, it seems that Cuban heritage sites could significantly benefit from research partnerships between design schools and non-governmental organizations. Field schools could be developed on the island, harnessing educational and professional collaborations such as those managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Historic American Building Survey (HABS), Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), or the Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS), or the practice-intensive historic conservation programs found in Europe. Such projects could bring students across island, and abroad, together to work on essential documentation and preservation. These hands-on exercises could also help bridge the professional gap between projects administered by the Ministry of Construction, the state’s governing body for architectural endeavors, and the purview of the Ministry of Culture.

    The growing popularity of scholastic studies in tourism and conservation sciences at Cuba’s foremost institute of higher learning, the University of Havana, indicates that academic exchanges may be the most immediate and achievable option for bolstering the geographic range and typological scope of conservation and restoration projects on the island. Although bringing designers and students to Cuba will help foster creative collaborations, it is essential that Cuban designers and historians, too, have the opportunity to travel abroad to study alternative conservation techniques and cultural heritage tourism practices that may be beneficially adapted to Caribbean sites and climates. Some inventive, practice-based programs are already working to do this: for example, 2017 will be the inaugural year for the Cuban Architects Grant. Sponsored by the Sir John Soane’s Museum Foundation in cooperation with INTBAU Cuba, the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba and Havana Heritage, the grant will support travel, program costs, and other expenses for a Cuban architect to attend the Prince’s Foundation Summer School for Building Community.

    At present, it seems that much of the preservation and conservation efforts on the island are either reactive or focused on hospitality: teams are in place at compromised structures, such as the dome of the Capitolio, or fastidiously working on projects that will facilitate tourist investment on the island. For example, the Manzana de Gómez building, a shopping mall built by sugar baron José Gómez-Mena Vila in 1910, is being converted into a new luxury hotel and the courtyards of the deconsecrated Convento de San Francisco in Havana are being restored to accommodate additional space for the religious museum (Figure 47).

    Figure 47. Scaffolding and piles of ruble cover grounds of many of Cuba’s museums, such as the trapezoidal courtyards of San Francisco seen here.

    There are, of course, restoration projects outside of the categories of emergency structural assistance and state-sponsored endeavors in tourist capital, such as the recent restoration of Santiago de Cuba’s Catedral de la Asunción. Beyond the scale of the built environment, there are also new conservation projects underway, some even working within special exemptions to embargo restrictions such as the Finca Vigia Foundation’s mission to provide nearly a $1 million to support the conservation and preservation of documents within the archive of Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban home in the outskirts of Havana (Figure 48).

    Figure 48. A view into Hemingway’s library at Finca Vigía, south of Havana.

    Nonetheless, it seems that the nation needs a new wave of domestic and civic architecture restoration projects. These will be essential to the success of the current commercial renovation projects underway: if the conditions of the average Cuban home, educational institutions, and recreational facilities continue to decline, the island’s sustainable communities and workforce infrastructure will collapse (Figures 49–52).

    Figures 49–52. Last January, the Gran Teatro opened to much fanfare following a lengthy restoration but just behind this gem is the shell of the crumbling Teatro Capitolio.


    Cuba in the 21st Century

    I managed to travel a significant portion of the island and value the time spent in each place, but I am regretful that I did not manage to travel to a few sites, especially Matanzas and the panopticon Model Prison on the Isla de la Juventud. Interruptions due to weather, the effects of Hurricane Matthew, and state-imposed mourning for Fidel Castro, as well as the general complications of travel in Cuba, changed a few plans but these lost excursions also provide ample reasons for returning to the island in a few years to see what, I hope, will be positive development for the nation’s economy and its people. The overreliance on speculative development and restoration for tourism, fueling the conversion of homes into paladars and casa particulars threaten to introduce a new form of urban segregation in cities, as already witnessed in certain neighborhoods of Trinidad.

    The island will also need to address the current tensions in its approach to sustainability. Generally, Cuba is a landmark example for the concept of ‘recycle and reuse’, as evidenced by inventive approaches to maintenance for cars, homes, and everyday objects (Figure 53). The island has always relied on conscientious water collection and reuse practices but the state has recently adopted certain resource and energy-saving initiatives, such as the use of compact fluorescent bulbs throughout public buildings and urban projects. Nonetheless, Cuba still needs to address the reliance on fossil fuels for energy needs as well as the use of a fleet of personal and communal vehicles that operate with pre-1970s diesel and gasoline engines, releasing clouds of black smoke into the streets (Figure 54).

    Figure 53. A parking attendant’s chair on the Paseo del Prado in Havana, made from a patchwork of plastic and welded rebar.

    Figure 54. A view of one of the expansive oil refineries in the bay of Santiago de Cuba, as seen from the top of El Morro.

    Of the seven main objectives issued in the Caribbean Action Plan for World Heritage 2015–2019, all refer to aspects of the triple bottom line sustainability: people, planet, and profit.8 The plan underscores the need to mitigate climate change, engage in practices of sustainable tourism, and invoke networks and systems that support both capacity building and community participation. One only needs to witness the frequency of rolling brownouts, sewer cleaning trucks, and fresh water supply trucks in the core of the capital to question how the capital, and nation as a whole, will be able to support the energy and service loads from existing hotels and theatres let alone the new, large-scale projects, such as the ‘six star’ Hotel Packard revival by Rafael Moneo. Nonetheless, with initiatives like Caribbean Action Plan, Cuba is participating in a more open dialogue about tourism, heritage, and shared resources.


    A Traveler’s Notes

    Since a primary focus of my experiential research sponsored by the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship is cultural heritage tourism, it seemed apropos to conclude this post, and my time in Cuba, with a few practical notes and suggestions for any readers who hope to visit the island in the near future:

    • Make time to explore the island outside beyond Havana. The capital is large and has a wealth of historic sites as well as amazing architecture. However, if you have the time, make sure that you explore one of Cuba's other, smaller cities. These provide useful perspective on the scale and modernity of the capital while simultaneously offering the opportunity to see incredible landscapes and preserved, colonial structures.
    • Explore the island’s small museums. There are incredible museums dedicated to the arts in Havana but the smaller sites dedicated to specific historical figures and events, and even chocolate, are not to be missed. In smaller sites, especially outside of Havana, it can be very useful to talk to the on-site guides and, frequently, the curator is readily available to answer questions for curious visitors.
    • Stay in a casa particular. There are numerous hotels around the major cities but these are often booked well in advance with large groups through tour agencies and they can be quite costly. A stay within a casa particular is an ideal way to explore the island’s domestic architecture firsthand and have quite meaningful people-to-people exchanges with some of Cuba’s most hospitable and knowledgeable entrepreneurs. Casas can be booked on-site, and often even on the day of arrival, but it is also possible to make reservations in advance through Airbnb, launched in Cuba in the summer of 2016 and now one of the company’s most rapidly growing markets. Rooms, on average, are $30 a night and once at the casa, take advantage of the additional 5 CUC charge per day for the best breakfast you will have on the island.
    • Avoid a car rental. In Cuba, traffic accidents result in criminal charges if there are injuries or damage to property. Many of the island’s roads are in poor condition and although the bus and taxi drivers seem to navigate easily, this environment can prove a dangerous one for foreigners when combined with the fact that general navigation is difficult: few cars, bikes, or motorcycles have working headlights, streets signs are rare, and unless one splurges on a pricy cellular roaming plan, there is no such thing as real-time driving directions. Additionally, highways typically have an array of roadside vendors, pedestrians, and non-motorized vehicles. Instead of taking a car, try the adventure of traveling in a cooperative taxi (Video 4) or a Cuban bus: this is a wonderful way to meet locals and other travelers while seeing the countryside (Videos 5–8).
    • Download essential apps and data before arriving to the island. Outside of the wireless options of select hotels, the internet can be difficult to locate and the bandwidth is very limited. At the present time, many educational portals, web editors, and online commerce sites are restricted. For example, sites like Canvas would not load and downloads from Apple’s App store were blocked unless one used a VPN. For real-time navigation in cities and marking specific sites on a digital, vector-based platform, the offline GPS app Galileo was invaluable.
    • At the present moment, some of the most basic items can be in short supply in Cuba or sold at an inflated cost as ‘luxury’ items. Articles in travel magazines and newspapers often mention that simple toiletries can be very advantageous gifts for hosts but other non-consumables can be useful too. Tennis balls were light, easy to carry, and very popular with the children I encountered when sketching or wandering through a city’s off-beaten streets. For anyone working with educators, students, or entrepreneurs on the island, USB jump drives are useful.

    Video 4. A drive in one of Cuba’s signature, classic cars, traveling from Holguín to the archeological site of El Chorro de Maíta and to the northeastern shores of Guardalavaca.

    Video 5. Scenes from the Viazul bus, traveling from Santiago de Cuba to Camagüey.

    Video 6. Scenes from a Transtur bus, traveling from Havana to Pinar del Rio.

    Videos 7 and 8. Scenes from a Transtur bus, traveling from Pinar del Rio to Cienfuegos.



    "Caribbean Action Plan for World Heritage 2015–2019." Havana: Caribbean Member and Associated States, UNESCO, and World Heritage Committee (ICOMOS, IUCN and ICCROM), 2014.

    Carley, Rachel. Cuba: 400 Years of Architectural Heritage. New York, NY: Whitney Library of Design, 1997.

    Castilo, Ornaldo Gutiérez and Nélida Gancedo Gasarr. "Tourism Development for the Cuban Economy." Tourism winter (2002).

    Coyula, Miguel ""The History of Havana"." In Design Leadership Network and Sir John Soane Museum Foundation Travels. Casa Catalina Lasa, Havana, 2016.


    1 See the interactive map and associated links at http://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/cu

    2 See Ornaldo Gutiérez and Nélida Gancedo Gasarr Castilo, "Tourism Development for the Cuban Economy," Tourism winter (2002).

    3 Miguel Coyula, ""The History of Havana"," in Design Leadership Network and Sir John Soane Museum Foundation Travels (Casa Catalina Lasa, Havana2016).

    4 Rachel Carley, Cuba: 400 Years of Architectural Heritage (New York, NY: Whitney Library of Design, 1997), 55.

    5 Ibid., 127.

    6 Since there is little published information on smaller museums and their interpretation, much of the information in the following section is from the actual display boards in the museums. Throughout my travels, I have been heavily reliant on an incredible app called CamScanner to capture images from museums and subsequently generate annotated and organized PFDs. If any readers would like to see captures from specific sites, please contact me by posting a note in the comments section of the blog or by emailing.

    7 See Carley, 10-15.

    8 The plan refers to thirty-five islands and the mission of the Caribbean States Parties is to set common objectives and expected outcomes. See the "Caribbean Action Plan for World Heritage 2015–2019," (Havana: Caribbean Member and Associated States, UNESCO, and World Heritage Committee (ICOMOS, IUCN and ICCROM), 2014).

  • Architectural Layers of a Southeast Asian Region: Vietnam and Cambodia Field Seminar

    by User Not Found | Jan 27, 2017


    “Architectural Layers of a Southeast Asian Region”—from the moment the tour began the title of our seminar rang true, as we uncovered the layers of cultural influences, political events and historical shifts that shape the current architectural landscape of Vietnam. The modern histories of French colonialism, the communist revolution, and the subsequent war with America often overshadow the fact that Vietnam was ruled by China for nearly 1,000 years. This sustained relationship with Vietnam’s northern neighbor is evident today in the influence of Taoism in city planning, traditions of ancestor worship carried out at Buddhist temples, and the architectural styles of many of the extant structures built by Vietnamese royalty. The Nguyen Family, who unified the country in the early 19th century, modeled their rule on the Qing Dynasty in China. The Nguyen mausoleums, temples, and the Imperial City in Hue are covered with reliefs and mosaics in Chinese script, illegible to most Vietnamese today. French colonization in the second half of the 19th century brought with it the neoclassicism rampant at international expositions of the time, the Haussamannization of city streets, innovative attempts at developing an integrated European-Indochinese style, and, eventually, modernism. Ho Chi Minh City’s long history as a port city in the Mekong Delta is the basis for its current cosmopolitanism, seen in the ethnic Chinese markets, southern Indian Hindu temples, neoclassical hotels, Art Nouveau shop houses, modernist apartment blocks and contemporary skyscrapers that dot the city. It seemed only natural that many of our conversations turned to the topic of how to effectively teach courses on world architecture, as many of the world’s architectural forms, styles and materials seem to exist in this long, narrow strip of land on the coast of Southeast Asia.

    The theme of layers continued in Cambodia, where we spent three days in the Angkor Archaeological Park. The mountain temples built by the Khmer Empire in the 10th-13th centuries are literally made up of layers—stones cut to fit together and corbelled to reach immense heights. The walls of these sprawling temples, monasteries, and fortifications are layered with registers of bas-reliefs that picture deities, stories from Hindu mythology, the history of the Khmer people, and decorative motifs taken from nature. At times, these ancient structures are layered in with the natural landscape; sponge trees weave in and out of the ruins at Ta Prohm and Hindu rock carvings peak out from under the river water near the mountain Phnom Kulen. My own research focuses on the myriad ways in which ruins have been interpreted, repurposed, and visualized to construct varied narratives of history. From the French colonialists to the Khmer Rouge, the ruins of Angkor also have a layered history of adaptations, co-optations, and reinventions. Today, they continue to be reconceived by the many countries that lead and fund preservation and restoration projects in the region. Angkor confirmed for me that it is precisely the layered and at times incoherent nature of ruins that allows for the multiplicity of meanings and histories that they generate.

    Day 1: Hanoi, Vietnam

    After a late-night arrival in Hanoi, our group met bright and early the morning of December 3rd in the lobby of the Silk Path Hotel for introductions and an overview of the coming ten days. Professor Hazel Hahn briefed us on the many exciting sites that lay ahead, and our local guide, Duk, provided a tutorial on survival tips in Vietnam. Duk’s most invaluable piece of advice: cross the streets slow and steady—“hand-in-hand like sticky rice!”—in order to avoid getting squished by one of the five million motorbikes buzzing throughout the city of Hanoi. This advice rang true for Hue and Ho Chi Minh City as well. It is impressive to watch these things speed around, carrying baskets of flowers, entire appliances, families of five—you name it!

    Fig. 1: Doan Mon Gate, one of the main entrances to the Forbidden City in Hanoi.

    Fig. 2: The original dragon steps from the Forbidden City. The dragon is one of the four sacred animals in Vietnam along with the unicorn, phoenix and tortoise.

    Soon, we were off to the first site—The Central Sector of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, the enclosure that was built to house the Forbidden City when Hanoi was founded as the capital of Dai Viet in 1010 (Fig. 1). The citadel was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site exactly ten centuries later in 2010. Although the site dates from the 11th century, it has been rebuilt and repurposed many times, and most of the extant buildings date from the 19th and 20th centuries. Given my interest in ruins, it was impressive to see how the remnants of former structures had been incorporated into newer ones. For example, the stone base of the Doan Mon Gate dates from the sixteenth century, as do the palatial dragon steps that sit across a small plaza from the military barracks constructed by the French colonial government in 1897 (Fig. 2). This same building became the military headquarters for the north during the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it is known in Vietnam), and the General Command Headquarter Military Operations Bunker was built underneath it and occupied from 1965-1973. The bunker connects to an underground passageway leading to a building known as D67, another military headquarters built on the site in—you guessed it—1967. In this way, the citadel represents centuries of political history in Vietnam—a fascinating and appropriate location to begin our introduction to Hanoi and Vietnamese history.

    After lunch in an old colonial villa we made our way to the Presidential Palace Grounds, another complex with layers of political history that includes the Presidential Palace, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house, and the One-Pillar Pagoda. The Presidential Palace, formerly the Palace of the Governor-General of Indochina, was constructed in 1906 by the French government. The largest building Hanoi at the time of its construction, it is a Beaux-Arts aristocratic residence that was meant to impress the colonized subject. Professor Hahn pointed out stylistic commonalities that it shares with many of the neoclassical buildings constructed for the 1900 International Expo held in Paris, such as the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais.

    Fig. 3: The wooden stilt house where Communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh lived from 1958-1969

    The Communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969), who is still warmly referred to as “Uncle Ho,” refused to live in the luxurious palace after Vietnam gained its independence from the French in 1954. Instead, he had a wooden stilt house built nearby, where he lived from 1958 until his death in 1969 (Fig. 3). The house is based on the vernacular architecture of the hill tribe peoples of Vietnam, raised on stilts to provide safety from wildlife. After his death Uncle Ho’s body was embalmed, and he can still be visited in the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a stark, square Soviet-style building that sits on the vast parade grounds of Independence Road (Fig. 4) The stone walls of the mausoleum and the flora and fauna that surround it come from all over the country, a symbolic gesture to Ho Chi Minh’s status as the “Father of Vietnam.”

    Fig. 4: The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where we were lucky to witness the changing of the guards.

    The final site that we visited on the grounds of the Presidential Palace was the One-Pillar Pagoda, so-called for the small temple-like structure held up by one large white pillar (Fig. 5). The bracketing system that connects the structure to the pillar is particularly impressive. The roof, with its highly pitched ends, is meant to resemble a lotus flower. Originally built in the 11th century, this was the oldest Buddhist structure in Vietnam until it was destroyed by the French. The current replica dates to 1954.

    Fig. 5: The One-Pillar Pagoda

    In Focus: The Work of Ernest Hébrard

    In 1923, the French architect and urban planner Ernest Hébrard was appointed as the head of the Indochina Architecture and Town Planning Service. Although much of it went unrealized, Hébrard mapped about a large-scale urban planning project for Hanoi. During our first two days in Vietnam we were able to visit four of the five extant Hébrard buildings in Hanoi. All four structures attest to Hébrard’s sustained effort to formulate an integrated French-Indochinese style of architecture.

    On our first day we visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (formerly the Direction des Finance), built from 1925-27. Hybrid design elements can be seen in the white lotus-capped gate posts, as well as in Hébrard’s Art Deco take on the interlaced design of the Asian swastika in between the windows on the building’s top floor. According to Professor Hahn, Hébrard’s desire to successfully incorporate both Vietnamese and French elements in a single design was not appreciated by the French authorities, who would have preferred a more purely European display of power. 

    Fig. 6: A detail of the bell tower of Cua Bac Church

    Nearby, Hébrard’s Cua Bac Church dates to 1925 (Fig. 6). It is the largest church in Hanoi and has some wonderful Art Deco design elements. I was impressed by the large rose windows as well as smaller details, such as the sconces in the chancel. Duk was quick to point out the incorporation of local flora and fauna like the bonsai trees outside, which seem to make this a distinctly Vietnamese church. The use of color was also striking. We began to notice that many of the buildings we encountered had been painted in a bright yellow-gold, the color of authority and power. This was true of the Cua Bac Church, but the transition to the interior revealed brilliant white walls with accents of blue and yellow in the stained-glass windows. It made for a peaceful and calming atmosphere in contrast to the motorbikes buzzing outside (Fig. 7).

    Fig. 7: The nave of Cua Bac Church. Notice the geometric designs that line the upper register.

    The second day took us to the Vietnam National Museum of History, constructed from 1926-1931. Originally, this museum was built to display the collection of the ̀Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, or the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, established by the French colonial government to study ancient Asian civilizations, particularly the Khmer. Professor Hahn considers this to be Hébrard’s most successful incorporation of eastern and western architectural styles, and our group was equally impressed. For the design of this museum, Hébrard conducted a thorough study of building types from different Asian countries. However, rather than create a pastiche, he attempted a more cohesive and, therefore, innovative design. The façade emphasizes the horizontal orientation of the building, with graphic motifs in variously raised and sunken sections that create patterns of light and shadow across the surface (Fig. 8).

    Fig. 8: A detail of the façade of the main gallery at the Vietnam National Museum of History

    The final Hébrard building that we visited was the Hanoi University of Pharmacy (1926), originally the University of Indochina. This was the first university built in French Indochina, and it remains one of the most important universities in Vietnam today. Interestingly, there is a great deal of continuity in terms of the function of colonial-era buildings; schools remain schools, hospitals remain hospitals, and many ministries continue to be occupied by the current government.

    In Focus: Temples and Taoist Planning

    Religion in Vietnam is a mixture of various traditions, including Buddhism, Taoism, ancestor worship, and various forms of animism. Geomancy — the auspicious design and placement of buildings and spaces — comes from the Taoist tradition, and we encountered examples of its implementation, along with that of feng shui, in Hanoi, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City. For example, in most cities temples were built in the four cardinal directions to protect the area from harmful forces. In Hanoi, we were able to visit the North and the East Temples (Fig. 9).

    Fig. 9: The main gate to Quan Thanh (North Gate) Temple

    Day 2: Hanoi, Vietnam

    Our second day in Hanoi began with a walking tour of the French Quarter—the area that was planned by the French colonial government in a Second Empire/Third Republic manner with wide boulevards lined with trees. Today, the architecture varies quite a bit, but the occasional colonial villa continues to recalls the origins of the area. Some historic sites in the French Quarter include: the Clinique Building, a 1920s Art Deco hospital; the First Mortgage Bank from 1930; the 1942 Central Post Office, now an annex to the post office; the State Bank of Vietnam, which was designed by Georges André Trové in 1930 and incorporates Asian motifs into an otherwise austere design; and the lovely villa, Casa Italia. On our tour we were reminded again of the general tendency for extant colonial-era buildings to continue to serve their original functions.

    Many buildings in the French Quarter are known for their metalwork done by Vietnamese artisans. The Hotel Sofitel Metropole is a massive hotel from 1901 that sits across from the Ministry of Labor. It was recently renovated and exudes an air of colonial nostalgia. The awning supports outside the grand entrances and café display exquisite metalwork design that reminded me of the wrought iron balconies and window grating seen throughout the French Quarter in my native home of New Orleans. Down the street from the hotel lies the former Residence Superior of Tonkin (1919). Ho Chi Minh worked from here in 1945-6, and today it serves as a government guesthouse. The Art Nouveau influence is clear in the metalwork design on the gates to the residence (Fig. 10). Indeed, Professor Hahn pointed out similarities to the famed metropolitan subway entrances in Paris that were built only a few years prior to the Residence.

    Fig. 10: The entrance gate to the former Residence Superior of Tonkin

    Fig. 11: The roundabout in front of the Opera House, designed by Architects Lagisquet et Harlay

    From here, the walk to the Hanoi Opera House (1908-16) made clear the influence of Haussmannian urban planning in the French Quarter of Hanoi (Fig. 11). Seven broad avenues radiate out from this central monumental structure. The roundabout in front of the main entrance made for a visually impressive approach, but a rather scary street crossing!

    In the afternoon, we made our way to the Old Quarter of Hanoi. This area was developed as the city’s primary commercial center beginning in the 17th century when people began to move from the countryside to the capital, bringing with them their local trades and religions. The Old Quarter is called “The Area of Thirty-Six Streets,” where each street was devoted to a different trade. Today, you can still see street signs, such as “Sugar Street,” that indicate the history of the area. Duk clarified that there are actually more than thirty-six streets, but since nine is a lucky number in Vietnam (and 3 + 6 = 9), it came to be called the “Area of Thirty-Six Streets.” The Old Quarter is considered a part of Hanoi’s ancient city, and the streets continue to reflect its original organic development. This is where the first modern market was built in 1906. Today, the Don Xuan Market still has three of its original five stands at the entrance, marked by broad arches linked with pillars. The French did little to intervene in the planning of the Old Quarter during the colonial period, and it maintains a lively, bustling atmosphere — attracting tourists, but not giving over much infrastructure to the industry (Fig. 12).

    Fig. 12: Haircuts, coffee, and motorbikes — a typical sidewalk scene in the Old Quarter of Hanoi

    My own research deals with the modern history of redevelopment in Japanese cities, where preservation is not a priority and urban buildings have an average lifespan of twenty years. We learned that the economic history of modern Vietnam, while difficult for the Vietnamese people, had favorable results for the preservation of historic sites and structures. The economy suffered after the American War, and there was little money to renovate or build anything new in cities such as Hanoi. The city’s important architectural heritage was recognized with the growth of tourism in the 1990s, leading to grassroots preservation movements in the Old Quarter and the French Quarter.

    A wonderful place to learn about the history of living conditions in the Old Quarter is the Ma Mai Heritage House from the late 19th century (Fig. 13). It is a typical merchant’s house, a long and narrow space that would have had a shop in the front with the living quarters in the back. These so-called “tube houses” could be as narrow as two meters and as long as seventy meters with the building expanding according to the growth of the family’s wealth. As you move back through the house, you come across multiple courtyards that allow for an abundance of natural light. Having lived in New York and Tokyo, the space seemed luxurious by most urban living standards today — that was until I learned that as many as fifty people could have been crammed into a single house at a time. In 1954, those peasants who had contributed to the independence movement were invited to live in houses in Hanoi, leading to an incredible amount of overcrowding in the cities that lasted until the 1990s.

    Fig. 13: Looking through the layers of open-air courtyards and interior spaces in the Ma Mai Heritage House

    In Focus: Housing in Hanoi

    Besides the Ma Mai Heritage House in the Old Quarter, we had two other opportunities to learn about housing in Hanoi. At the end of our second day, we visited the House of Le Phuoc Anh, a young Vietnamese architect trained in France. Anh comes from a lineage of architects. In fact, his grandfather collaborated on the design for the Central Post Office that we saw earlier in the day. He inherited his family’s colonial villa in the French Quarter and built a contemporary house across the ally from it. I think we all wanted to live there! It is modern in its materiality—the way that steel and glass are employed to create visual points of interest while also serving important functions, as in the suspended walkway that leads to his studio above the living room. But, the house also maintains a connection to many of the other buildings that we saw in Hanoi, particularly in its vertical orientation; multiple sets of stairs and layers led to a delightful rooftop garden.

    Today, Anh’s family occupies both homes. However, because of the housing shortage in Hanoi the government requires him to share the first floor of the villa with another family. Anh’s theoretical interests concern issues of identity and urban planning. He believes that identity needs to be considered more broadly without recourse to nostalgia. It is clear that his own family identity is sacred to Anh, as the walls of his colonial villa are covered with photographs and drawings by his grandfather (Fig. 14). In his work, Anh thinks about the relationship between identity and space in connection to the widespread redevelopment occurring throughout Hanoi today.

    Fig. 14: A piece of Anh’s homage to his architectural heritage

    Fig. 15: Apartment blocks and clean streets in the gated community, Ciptura International City

    Before departing Hanoi, we made an early morning visit to one example of such redevelopment: Ciputra International City (Fig. 15). Ciputra is an example of one of many new planned communities being built by foreign corporations throughout Vietnam. It is a gated development with uniform housing types in the form of single-family villas and tall apartment blocks. The architectural styles are European-inspired, but the narrow, vertical orientation of the villas continues the tradition of the “tube” housing that we experienced in the Old Quarter. It is expensive to live here, but the community includes many modern amenities. The complex felt nothing like the rest of Hanoi: it was quiet and clean; there were no motorbikes in sight; and it lacked the spectrum of color that makes the streets of Hanoi so enticing. With the overcrowding of residences in the city after 1954, people in Hanoi brought their daily activities out onto the sidewalk, and this is still where people eat, children play, and shopkeepers or food vendors conduct business. For this reason, we were all delighted to see a woman take to the sidewalk for her early morning meditation and stretching routine in the otherwise reserved atmosphere of Ciputra.

    Days 3 & 4: Hue, Vietnam

    In Focus: Imperial Hue

    After visiting Ciptura International City our group took a quick flight to Hue in central Vietnam, where we spent two days learning about Vietnam’s own imperial history. The Nguyen Family united the country under one rule in 1802 and established an imperial capital in Hue. The French allowed the royal family to remain in place as figureheads during the colonial period, but in 1945 the last king, Bao Dai, was forced to abdicate to the communist authorities. The city was flattened in the war with the French in 1947 and again in 1968. Afterwards, the communist regime considered the city an embarrassment, a reminder of the country’s feudal past, and those historic sites that did remain from the former imperial city fell into further disrepair. Preservation efforts began in the 1980s and picked up significantly after the city’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. This history colored our experience of the sites as we encountered buildings in various stages of rehabilitation.

    On our first day in Hue we visited the historic Imperial City. This compound consists of three concentric areas: the surrounding enclosure and citadel, the Imperial City, and the Forbidden City in the center. The enclosure is made up of a 10-km stone wall and surrounding moat with a massive flagpole in the center of the southern wall. The flag sits on top of three foundations, a Confucian representation of the unity of heaven, earth, and man. Just inside the wall lies a large square for ceremonial gatherings with the great South Gate, or the Phoenix Pavilion, to the north (Fig. 16). This is where the king addressed the people twice a year: first, to announce the results of the civil service examinations; and again to commemorate the first day of the season for rice cultivation. As the public face of the king and his authority, this is a decidedly monumental structure. As with the flagpole, the pavilion sits on a series of three foundations and consists of the central gate with two flanking wings that house ceremonial bells and drums. The general plan has connections to Buddhist structures (think of the Byōdōin in Uji, Japan), and from above it resembles a phoenix with outstretched wings.

    Fig. 16: Our group heading toward the immense South Gate

    After passing through the Pavilion, we encountered the Thai Hoa Palace, also known as the Hall of Supreme Harmony. It was the last building to be completed within the citadel in 1833, and it was the only building in the compound to survive both wars intact. This is where imperial coronations took place, and the amazing red lacquered columns with images of dragons and clouds reflect its ceremonial importance.

    The four corners of the Imperial City served different functions, with the west side designated for religious purposes and the east for entertainment. In the southwest quadrant we encountered temples dedicated to the royal family’s ancestors with massive bronze urns for each of the thirteen Nguyen kings. The urns are decorated with images of different natural and cultural features of Vietnam, creating a kind of encyclopedia of the country’s achievements (Fig. 17). Behind the urns sits a three-story pagoda dedicated to the Nguyen ancestors, the tallest structure in the entire Imperial City. The northwest quadrant of the Imperial City was designated for the Queen Mother, the northeast for entertainment with libraries and a royal theater, and the southeast for administrative purposes. Finally, in the center of the complex lies the Forbidden City. Much of this area is still in ruins, but it is where the daily activities of the king, royal family, and concubines occurred.

    Fig. 17: One of the nine bronze-cast dynastic urns depicting various flora and fauna of Vietnam

    In Focus: The Royal Mausoleums of Hue

    While in Hue, we visited four of the seven mausoleums built by and for the kings of the Nguyen Dynasty. Duk explained that although these complexes function mainly as tombs, we should not think of them as spaces for mourning. Most of the mausoleums were constructed during the king’s lifetime, and many were even used by him as a kind of second palace before his death. After his death and entombment, his concubines moved to the mausoleum to tend to the tomb and accompanying temple, and, indeed, we encountered many signs of the belief in a luxurious afterlife. I must admit that when I first saw the schedule, I thought that four mausoleums seemed like a bit much. However, I quickly realized that while there are some fundamental similarities between the sites, no two of these mausoleums are alike. They each differ in layout and decor, a reflection of the kings’ individual personalities. They also differ in terms of their material condition; while some had seen recent repairs and restoration, others were in a state of complete disrepair. It was fascinating to be able to observe these complexes in various states of ruin and splendor.

    We began our first day in Hue at the Mausoleum of Minh Mang. Minh Mang was the second king of the Nguyen Dynasty and a diehard Confucian. The king and his geomancers spent fourteen years searching for the most auspicious site for his tomb! Construction began in 1840, just in time for his death in 1841. It took three years and 10,000 men to build the fourteen structures at the site, which is spread out over 14 hectares. Together, the landscape and the buildings mimic the shape of the human body to reflect the Confucian principle of the harmony between the social and natural orders. The primary structures are laid out symmetrically on a north-south axis. They consist of:

    1) The south gate and main plaza. The gate has three arched entryways. The central door is reserved for the king, and thus it has only been opened once when his body entered the precincts for his entombment. This pattern is repeated throughout the complex in the other buildings and gates. The plaza that follows the main gate is flanked by stone statues of elephants, horses, civil servants, and military servants, permanently standing guard, ready to serve the king in the afterlife (Fig. 18).

    Fig. 18: A stone statue of a military servant guarding the Mausoleum of Minh Mang

    2) An open-air structure to house the stone stele that records the biography of the king. In the case of Minh Mang, the stone came from the area of Vietnam where we was born. Chinese script was used for official documentation.

    3) The temple for the continuing worship of the king (Fig. 19). A stone dragon staircase (with five steps for the five elements of the universe) and a gate lead to the temple where two small thrones are housed for the king and queen. A table sits in front for the presentation of offerings, and the interior is decorated with scenes of the four seasons and the four sacred animals — the dragon, unicorn, phoenix and tortoise.

    Fig. 19: The façade of the temple dedicated to Minh Mang

    Fig. 20: The last pavilion before the causeway that leads to the hill where Minh Mang is entombed

    Fig. 21: The dragon staircase leading to the closed tomb of Minh Mang

    4) The tomb itself (Fig. 20). After another series of gates and steps, we crossed a man-made lake to a hill in which the king is entombed (Fig. 21).

    Ming Mang’s tomb is where we first encountered the “broken ceramics” that cover official buildings in Vietnam. This technique is comprised mainly of blue and white mismatched ceramics pieced together in a decorative mosaic on the exterior and interior of buildings. I found it mesmerizing. While the imagery is often repeated (for example, the four sacred animals or images of the four seasons), the execution differs at each site depending on the shapes and sizes of the broken pieces available to the artisan. I have never seen anything like it in other parts of Asia.

    On our second day in Hue we visited three other royal mausoleums. First up: The Mausoleum of Tu Duc. Tu Duc ruled from 1847-1883, and he is considered the most learned of the Nguyen kings. It is said that his tomb, which is strikingly different from that of Minh Mang, reflects his poetic nature. In fact, the mausoleum was planned and built while Tu Duc was still alive, so he made use of it as a second palace—hunting and fishing, composing poetry, drinking tea, and meditating on the grounds. Instead of an axial plan, Tu Duc opted for an asymmetrical layout. After entering, we encountered a small man-made lake with a boat dock, tea pavilion, and small island in the center. To the left of this, a grand staircase led to the entrance gate to the temple, a beautifully carved wooden structure where Tu Duc would have stayed when he was visiting. After his death, his belongings were put on display here. Upon exiting the temple, we followed a meandering walkway along a man-made river to the burial area. This included the requisite plaza with the stone statues, the stele house with the biography of the king, two tall columns marking the site, and, finally, the tomb itself (Fig. 22). We could actually see the tomb this time — a simple square stone structure positioned in the middle of a circular enclosure. The curvature of the walkways, foundations, and water features served as a pleasant contrast to the rectilinear shapes of the buildings. Professor Hahn explained that while Tu Duc adopted a less literal interpretation of Confucian principles, he nonetheless managed to harmonize the buildings with the natural world around them. For example, the rounded foundations echo the hills that seem to hug the entire site; hence, the lyricism that people speak of in relation to the Mausoleum of Tu Duc (Fig. 23).

    Fig. 22: A view from the gateway to the tomb area looking back at the stele house

    Fig. 23: A detail of broken ceramics on a small wall built to block evil spirits from entering the tomb area.

    Next, we visited the Mausoleum of Khai Dinh, smaller in size but BIG in personality. To say that Khai Dinh had expensive taste is an understatement. To build his tomb, he increased taxation by 30%. With ceramics and porcelain imported from other Asian countries and concrete and slate from France, it was the most expensive royal tomb to build, and it took eleven years to complete. It was constructed on top of the slope of a tall hill. The lack of a water feature combined with the influence of French Baroque architecture give this complex a heavy atmosphere. Having spent time in France, Khai Dinh was influenced by European notions of death. Thus, while the other two tombs that we had visited previously placed an emphasis on the life of the king, the exterior of this mausoleum felt more like a solemn memorial. The approach takes you up 127 steps, passing by the stone statues, stele house, and gates at separate intervals (Fig. 24) The interior of the mausoleum is dripping in ceramics and porcelain applied in the broken ceramic technique to the walls, ceiling, altar, and canopy that covers the tomb. A bronze life-size statue of Khai Dinh sits at the center of the complex above his tomb, a sun-like structure radiating behind him and motifs of the four seasons decorating the walls of each corner of the room (Fig. 25). Here, he has positioned himself at the center of time and space. While the heavy-handedness of the decoration gave it the feel of a nineteenth-century palace, the sinuous cloud and dragon motif painted overhead, the broken ceramics and Chinese characters made it hard to forget that we were in Vietnam.

    Fig. 24: The final set of stairs leading up to the Baroque mausoleum of Khai Dinh.

    Fig. 25: The bronze statue of Khai Dinh seated below a 1-ton canopy

    Our final stop, the Mausoleum of Thieu Tri, could not have been more different in terms of style and material state. Thieu Tri was the third emperor in the Nguyen Dynasty, and the layout of his complex was similar to Minh Mang’s mausoleum in its adherence to Confucian principles. The temple and tomb are side-by-side instead of aligned in a single axis, each with their own north-south orientation. Thieu Tri died in 1847, and he requested that his mausoleum be constructed in a convenient location with the minimal number of buildings so as to save the national budget. It was completed in ten months. This site certainly felt more restrained, not only because of the understated approach, but also because of the general state of disrepair in which we found the mausoleum. The ceramics here had been broken twice, as former decorative pieces littered the ground around the structures that we passed through (Fig. 26). Conservation efforts are just beginning, and so it will be interesting to see just how much the complex changes as it is cleaned up.

    Fig. 26: The ruins of former structures at the Mausoleum of Thieu Tri with the stele house in the background

    Days 5, 6 & 7: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

    In Focus: Redevelopment and Preservation in Ho Chi Minh City

    After departing Hue, we spent three days in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, where much of our conversation revolved around issues of redevelopment and preservation in this cosmopolitan, rapidly expanding city.  Ho Chi Minh City is a port city on the Saigon river with a population of roughly 9 million people. In the 17th and 18th centuries, waves of Chinese arrived by sea and established their own thriving economic center south of Saigon in Cholon. Unlike the establishment of the French Quarter in one section of Hanoi, when the French colonized Saigon in the 19th century they rebuilt the whole of the city in their image. Cholon, however, remained under the influence of the ethnic Chinese. On our third day in Ho Chi Minh City, Duk led our group on a walking tour of Cholon, known for its colorful Chinese-style temples and incredibly diverse shop houses — buildings with shops on the ground floor and living quarters above. I took hundreds of photographs of the shop houses, each one so different in design, color, and stylistic embellishments (Fig. 27). They made for a spectacular visual landscape!

    The French also brought many Southern Indians with them to Saigon; they served as officials under the colonial regime, and their influence can still be felt in the many Hindu temples that dot the city. We visited the Sri Tenday Yuttapani Temple with its rooftop Vimana tower that attested to the amalgamation of cultures that exist in southern Vietnam (Fig. 28). Saigon was the base for the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, and the city continues to have a large foreign population. Today, international influence can be seen in the large amount of foreign investment and building going on in the city. Japan’s Shimizu and Maeda Corporations have teamed up to construct the first subway line in Ho Chi Minh City, and a Taiwanese company is responsible for the most successful planned community in all of Vietnam, Phu My Hung.

    Fig. 27: A row of shop houses in Cholon

    Fig. 28: The Vimana dedicated to Ganesh. Note the influence of western imagery in the clothing of the two male figures above the deities.

    Fig. 29: A mishmash of architectural forms in Ho Chi Minh City. This photograph was taken from Gustave Eiffel’s Rainbow Bridge (1882), looking out at the State Bank (1924-8) and Carlos Zapata’s Bitexco Financial Tower (2010), which is meant to resemble a lotus.

    Fig. 30: A detail of the curious decorative motifs on the façade of the Center for Urban Preservation Studies, a former colonial villa which housed the Ècole française d’Extrême-Orient.

    Construction is going on everywhere. As a result, historic structures in Ho Chi Minh City are dwindling. Still, it makes for a fantastic built environment when you can observe a sleek, contemporary glass monolith, a string of modernist shop houses, and a former French colonial villa in one glance. At one point, we were standing on an iron bridge built by Gustave Eiffel’s firm in 1882, looking out at the former Bank of Indochina (1924-8) with Carlos Zapata’s 68-floor Bitexco Financial Tower (2010) rising in the background (Fig. 29) In the other direction, all we saw were cranes.

    One of the primary victims of this rampant redevelopment is the colonial villa. The Center for Urban Preservation Studies, a cooperative project funded by the Vietnamese and French governments, is located in the former headquarters of the Ècole française d’Extrême-Orient (Fig. 30). On our first day, we visited the Center to learn about their investigation of the loss of colonial villas in Ho Chi Minh City and how they advise local authorities on preservation issues. An inventory of public buildings was conducted in 1998. The Center recently revisited this inventory and found that 55% of the buildings documented have since been demolished. The Center would like to provide realistic legal guidelines in order to harmonize development and heritage in a city that identifies as a fast-changing global metropolis. To do so, they have defined the heritage criteria of the colonial villa and developed a methodology for analyzing the buildings. The villas can be classified as exceptional, remarkable, or normal. The exceptional category earns them government protection; the remarkable category requires that features of the building be incorporated into new development; and the normal category receives no form of protection. About twenty buildings have already been classified in the central district of the city.  

    In Focus: French Colonial Style in Saigon

    Despite the rapid rate of development in Ho Chi Minh City, French colonial-era neoclassical buildings still make up the bulk of the monumental structures in the city center. This includes government institutions, leisure facilities, military barracks, schools, hotels, and markets. Throughout our three days in Ho Chi Minh City, we visited the Central Post Office (1891), Notre Dame Cathedral (1880), the façade of the former opium refinery, the Opera House (1900), multiple early twentieth-century hotels that line the historic Dong Khoi Street, the former City Hall (1909), the former Customs House (1863), the Saigon State Bank (1928), Ben Thanh Market, the Museum of Vietnamese History and the Hùng King Temple at the Zoo and Botanical Gardens (1929), the former military barracks (1870-73), the Convent of Saint-Paul de Chartres and St. Joseph’s Seminary, the Khai Minh Primary School (1920s), and the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum (1929-34). Phew!

    Of these, we spent the most time exploring the Central Post Office and the buildings at the Zoo and Botanical Gardens, and for good reason. Completed in 1891, the Central Post Office was designed by Alfred Foulhoux, the Head of Public Works for the French government in Vietnam. It is a typical 19th-century Baroque building with clear connections to the building programs of the turn-of-the-century international expos, particularly in the heavy use of iron. The iron marks the industrial function of the building, and it is put to decorative use in the impressive arched interior (Fig. 31). The giant clock on the façade and the maps that decorate the interior walls reiterate the primary function of the post office—the theme of modern communication. At the time of its construction, it would have taken about thirty days for mail to travel from France to the colony.

    Fig. 31: The articulated arched interior of the Central Post Office, designed by Alfred Foulhoux

    Fig. 32: Exterior view of the Museum of Vietnamese History, designed by Auguste Delaval in a hybrid Vietnamese-French style.

    Fig. 33: The interior courtyard of the Museum of Vietnamese History

    The Zoo and Botanical Garden was one of the first spaces mapped out by the French, as it would become an important part of the international network of scientific exchange used to develop crops and plants that could be economically lucrative for the colonial government. It is still one of the largest green spaces in Ho Chi Minh City, where there is only 0.7 square meters of green space per person! Understandably, the public values the space and continues to maintain it despite its colonial origins. The Museum of Vietnamese History and the Hùng King Temple (formerly the Temple du Souvenir Annamite) were built as part of the massive expansion of the zoo and gardens in 1929. The museum was meant to display the artifacts collected by the Society of Indochina Studies, and the temple was built as a memorial to the Vietnamese soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. Both were built in a hybrid Vietnamese-European style that reminded us of Ernest Hébrard’s museum for the Ècole française d’Extrême-Orient in Hanoi (Fig. 32). I find it curious that architects are consistently drawn to the roofing elements of Asian architecture when attempting to create an integrated style. More than the roof, I thought that the museum was successful in its incorporation of an interior courtyard, which helped with ventilation in the exhibition halls while also paying tribute to the important space of the garden in Asian vernacular architecture (Fig. 33).  

    In Focus: Modernism in Saigon

    On our second day in Saigon, we arrived at the Ho Chi Minh Museum for a short lecture by Mel Schenk on the state of contemporary architecture in Vietnam. The museum itself was an interesting structure that sparked some controversy in the group! It is nicknamed the “Dragon House” for the dragon sculpture that adorns the rooftop, and the general plan was inspired by the vernacular “huts” that the French discovered when they first arrived in southern Vietnam (Fig. 34). It also has the feel of a military structure with the linearity of the plan echoing the uniform patterning of barracks. We were told that it was built in 1863 as the Customs House for the French colony, but our architecture whiz Miles was quick to point out that the building was constructed in reinforced concrete. He suggested that we re-date it to the 1920s, and just like that we had rewritten a part of Ho Chi Minh City’s architectural history! This anecdote is actually quite telling of the current state of historical work being done in Vietnam and of what is required for conducting research there. There is very little in the way of archival records, and thus much of the research necessitates direct contact with the buildings and close visual observation.

    It is for this reason that we were all thrilled to hear from Mel Schenk, who has been roaming and documenting the built landscape of Ho Chi Minh City in order to put forward some theories about the heritage of modernism in Vietnam. Schenk is an American architect living in Vietnam. He taught us about the communist revolutionary leader Huynh Tan Phat, who established the first architecture firm in Saigon in 1940 after graduating from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1938. He designed many modernist villas, as well as the podium from which Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945. After 1945, Phat entered politics, serving as the Prime Minister of the Viet Cong in the Provisional Revolutionary Government until the country was formally unified in 1976. Schenk pointed out that having an architect in such an influential position was highly advantageous for the acceptance and spread of modernism by the government.

    Fig. 34: The Ho Chi Minh Museum and former Customs House in Saigon.

    Fig. 35: The modernist Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City

    Fig. 36: The design of the Rex Hotel was inspired by the layout of a cruise liner.

    Fig. 37: The bold modernist monument, Turtle Lake

    Schenk believes that overt modernist architecture has flourished in Vietnam unlike anywhere else in the world. Walking and busing around Ho Chi Minh City for three days, it was not difficult to understand why. The years 1940 to 1975 are considered the heyday of modernism in Vietnam, and we visited many of the masterpieces that remain from this period. Of them, the Reunification Palace stands out for its large footprint as a visual anchor in the city (Fig. 35). The Palace was bombed in 1962, after which a design competition was held for its rebuilding. Many of the proposals were classical in style, but the 1955 Rome Prize winner Ngo Viet Thu was selected as the architect for his modernist grid-like proposal. The Rex Hotel from 1957 appears like a direct interpretation of Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture—a building inspired by a cruise liner with its receding tiered levels and round porthole windows (Fig. 36) The University of Architecture, designed by a graduate of the school in 1972, and the Ho Chi Minh City Eye Hospital both make references to Bauhaus architecture. Turtle Lake (1975), one of the few monuments to survive from the 1970s, is an abstracted, geometric sculpture built according to the Taoist belief that the dragon of southern Vietnam was located in the area. A feng shui master advised the designer that the tail of the dragon needed to be controlled in order to bring stability to the region, and, thus, the monumental sculpture resembles a sword that has been plunged into the ground to pin down the tail of the dragon (Fig. 37).

    In addition to these masterpieces, the shop houses (yes—those again!) reiterate Schenk’s point about the proliferation of modernism in Ho Chi Minh City. In his words, “The modernist shophouse is the vernacular architecture of Vietnam.” I’ve already elaborated on the amazing diversity of these designs, but it is worth pointing out that such diversity attests to the wide-ranging experimentation that has occurred in Vietnamese modernism. These houses take up 100% of their lots, and so the facades become opportunities for experimentation in composition, color, shapes and textures. Some of the most successful experiments consider the climate of Vietnam and can be seen in innovative sunshades, trellises, and screens (Fig. 38).

    Fig. 38: More innovative shop houses from the Cholon district of Ho Chi Minh City

    Fig. 39: Vo Trong Nghia’s Wind and Water Café, made with locally treated bamboo and minimal steel

    According to Schenk, contemporary architecture in Vietnam is increasingly concerned with issues of sustainability while being firmly based in this history of modernism. Today, increasing attention is paid to materials; to creating open, airy spaces; and to the inclusion of green spaces. In this field, the architect Vo Trong Nghia stands out. He was born in 1976 and attended the University of Architecture in Hanoi after which he received his PhD from the University of Tokyo. His buildings can be categorized into two main types of projects: green spaces and bamboo spaces. The greenery projects include houses such as the Stacking Green in Ho Chi Minh City, which has a façade made entirely of concrete plant holders of varying shapes and sizes. The plants function as a natural filter for the bright sunlight in southern Vietnam and purify the air of the house. It represents Vo Trong Nghia’s attempt to “bring the forest back” to the city of Saigon. We were lucky to be able to drive out to see one of Vo Trong Nghia’s other projects, the Wind and Water Café, which was completed in 2006 near a resort complex in the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City. The open-air café consists of one oblong steel and bamboo butterfly roof wrapped around a central water feature and supported by sprouting bamboo columns (Fig. 39). The bamboo is treated locally—soaked in mud and smoked—in this cost-efficient, durable, and ecologically-minded design. Vo Trong Nghia calls bamboo the “steel of the 21st century,” and predicts that the columns and roof support will need to be replaced every twenty years. We were able to sit under the structure for a while to enjoy the wonderful wind flow that acts as a kind of natural air-conditioning for the café. I think I also enjoyed the best coffee of my life there—it was like drinking liquid chocolate! 

    Day 8: Siem Reap, Cambodia

    Before we knew it, it was time to leave Vietnam for Cambodia. For many of us, visiting the ancient temples in Siem Reap was a big motivation for joining the tour. And yet, these complexes still managed to defy all expectations. No photograph of Angkor Wat can truly capture what it is like to approach the structure on the long causeway leading up to the first gate, to walk along the amazingly well-preserved bas-reliefs that line its walls, or to climb up to the central sanctuary of this “mountain temple.” I felt like I could have spent weeks just at this one site attempting to explore all of its nooks and crannies, taking in all of the spectacular sight lines, and processing the intricate details of the stories told by the carvings. It is the kind of place that makes you want to quit your job and move there to become a tour guide, just to be in its presence all the time and to learn everything that there is to know about its history (Shh! Don’t tell my advisor!).

    A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure in the world (Fig. 40 / Caption: A general view of the five lotus-shaped towers of Angkor Wat). It was built from 1113-1150, faces west, and is dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. It is classified as a mountain temple, an architectural model that comes from India but flourished in the Khmer empire in revolutionary ways. The layout consists of a surrounding moat and a wall enclosing five lotus-shaped towers — one at the center to represent Mount Meru where the Hindu deities reside and four other “mountains” at the corners. Some of the stones were quarried as far as forty-five miles away and transported to the site by bamboo boats and elephants. No nails were used in the construction — just layers and layers of laterite, brick, sandstone and stucco.

    Fig. 41: Corbelled vaulting in one of the passageways at Angkor Wat

    Fig. 42: A detail of the bas-relief depicting the Churning of the Sea of Milk

    Corbelled vaulting was employed to achieve the immense height of the towers, but this system of construction also makes for rather narrow spaces (Fig. 41). Because of this, there is no large covered space within the complex for the gathering of pilgrims or worshipers. Instead, Angkor Wat is characterized by its layers of passageways and enclosures, all decorated with carved reliefs and passages in Sanskrit. Professor Hahn encouraged us to note the relationship between perspective and movement; every time you move outside and within the complex it seems to change dynamically.

    Some of the reliefs, such as the Churning of the Sea of Milk or the depictions of Heaven and Hell, are in remarkably good condition (Fig. 42). The French began restoration and preservation efforts when they established a protectorate in Cambodia in 1863, but many countries and international organizations contribute to the necessary maintenance, restoration, and archaeological work that continues today. It is incredibly prestigious to head the preservation of one of the ancient temples in Angkor. In my own research, I am interested in how countries without comparable sites appropriate these temples as “Asia’s ruins” through preservation work and financial support. When thinking about a country’s involvement with UNESCO, it is important to consider not only applications for UNESCO status within that country’s borders, but also their involvement in neighboring regions.

    Day 9: Siem Reap, Cambodia

    King Jayayarman VII was the last major king of the Khmer Empire. He ruled from 1181-1220 and constructed more religious monuments and public facilities than all of the other kings combined. On our second day in Angkor, we visited many of the sites built by “J7,” the nickname given to Jayayarman VII by our local tour guide so as to accommodate our foreign ears.

    The first stop of the morning was Angkor Thom (1181-1218), a 2x2 square mile enclosure built by J7 to protect the capital and its 70,000 inhabitants after the Champa invaded Angkor in 1177. The relief carvings on the entrance gate and surrounding wall reinterpret the adventures of Indra as the battle between the Champa and the Khmer (Fig. 43). While most of the temples in Angkor are dedicated to Hindu gods, J7 adopted Mahayana Buddhism as the state religion in addition to Hinduism. Thus, the towers with carvings of giant faces on each side that are unique to Angkor Thom could be interpreted as the face of Buddha, the face of Brahma, or the face of the deva raja, King Jayavarman VII himself reincarnated as a god. Inside Angkor Thom, Bayon Temple (1181-1220) boasts fifty-four of these four-faced towers arranged throughout a series of concentric enclosures with a circular sanctuary at the center. Walking through the complex you are constantly surrounded by these giant benevolent faces looking out in all four directions (Fig. 44). They are a truly unusual and remarkable development of the mountain temple style in Angkor. In Angkor Thom, we also visited the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King. While the function of the latter is unknown, the Terrace of the Elephants was used as a stage for royal ceremonies in front of the Freedom Courtyard. At 350 meters long, it gave us a sense of the magnitude and grandeur of J7’s reign.

    J7 built two monasteries, one for his mother and one for his father. Ta Prohm was built in the late-12th/early-13th century for his mother. This is where the Angelina Jolie blockbuster Tomb Raider was filmed. It is incredibly atmospheric due to the 500-year-old sponge trees that have taken over the buildings (Fig. 45). When the French first “rediscovered” Ta Prohm, they decided to leave the trees as they were, integrated throughout the walls of the monastic complex. They did this for a variety of reasons: 1) to maintain the romantic, exotic atmosphere of the site; 2) to legitimize claims that the temples were in ruins and in need of repair by the French; and 3) for the very practical reason that some of the structures would simply fall apart without the roots and vines of the trees holding them together. Thus, Ta Prohm gives you an idea of what many of the sites might have looked like when the French first arrived in the nineteenth century. But don't be fooled: a lot of work goes in to keeping this site in ruins! The trees are checked every six months and stray branches are removed to maintain the stability of the ruinous structures.

    Fig. 43: A bas-relief depicting the battle between the Khmer and the Champa

    Fig. 44: One of the towers of Bayon Temple with the face of Buddha, Brahma, or the deva raja.

    Fig. 45: A sponge tree among the ruins of Ta Prohm, the monastery that King Jayavarman VII built for his mother.

    Fig. 46: Ruins at Preah Khan that resemble Greco-Roman temples.

    Preah Khan, or the “Sacred Sword,” was built by J7 in 1191 for his father. It is another monastery where many of the structures are still in ruins, and parts of it are said to resemble Greco-Roman temples (Fig. 46). The complex is huge — 630,000 square meters with an enclosure wall carved with seventy-two five-meter-tall garudas. Here, again, Hinduism and Buddhism have been incorporated together in the relief carvings. There is also evidence of the widespread iconoclasm that occurred after J7’s reign, in which many of the Buddhist images were erased or re-carved to resemble Hindu iconography.

    There is a popular phrase for sightseeing exhaustion in Angkor; it’s called being “templed out.” Many succumb to this unfortunate condition, but not us! The other sites that we visited that can be attributed to J7 were the Srah Srang, or the king’s bathing pool (more like a small lake), which J7 modified in 1200; and Neak Pean, or the “Coiled Serpent,” an artificial pool with a sculptural interpretation of nirvana at the center where pilgrims would received blessings. On our second day we also visited many temples and structures that were not built by J7, including the five brick towers of Prasat Kravan (921); the so-called “changing body” temple, Pre Rup (961); and a similar mountain temple, East Mebon (952). Of the non-J7 sites, I was the most deeply impressed by the temple Ta Keo (1000-1025). Ta Keo is a mystery among the temples in Angkor because it is unfinished, and its unfinished nature is precisely why it was worth a visit. Because it is lacking decoration, we were able to examine the ways in which the temples were put together before they were carved into the rounded shapes of mountains or the faces of deities (Fig. 47). There is absolutely no mortar between the stones—simply sand that was ground down into a resin to help keep the blocks in place. At Ta Keo, you can more easily identify the different stones that were used in the layering of colors that make up the walls and towers.

    Fig. 47: Looking up to the undecorated towers of Ta Keo

    Day 10: Siem Reap, Cambodia

    On our final of the tour we had an early morning departure for two sites about 25 kilometers northeast of Angkor Wat. The first stop was to Banteay Srei, a temple that was rediscovered during a French geographic survey in 1914 and reconstructed using anastylosis from 1931-36. Miles gave our group a lesson on the ethics of anastylosis, which literally means, “raising the columns” in Greek. As opposed to earlier techniques in which monuments were restored according to how the French thought they might have appeared, with the method of anastylosis, preservationists attempt to restore the monument as authentically as possible without adding anything that wasn't there at the site to begin with. They take what is on the ground and put it back in its correct place like a puzzle; hence, “raising the columns.”

    Banteay Srei (967) was built by two different kings in laterite, brick, and a noticeable pink sandstone. It is well known for the exquisite state of its relief carvings, which are the oldest and arguably the most impressive in the area (Fig. 48). One lintel features a carving of an incarnation of Vishnu with an animal head and human body tearing open the chest of a demon. Bordering this scene is an eye-catching flowing sequence of a dragon swallowing an elephant which morphs into a lion and then melds into carvings of flowers. You could get sucked into this site for hours exploring all of the details of these reliefs. It’s almost difficult to comprehend that much of what you see is the original artwork in situ — that it hasn't been carted off to be preserved in a museum. The opportunity to observe all of the original work in relation to the entire site is a gift that is increasingly rare at historic sites.

    Fig. 48: Bas-reliefs on one of the towers in the central sanctuary of Banteay Srei

    Fig. 49: Shiva carved into the riverbed at the “River of a Thousand Lingas.”

    Fig. 50: A scene from our final hike through the jungle near Phnom Kulen

    Our final stop was another unforgettable opportunity to examine carvings in their original setting. Kabal Spean means “Head of the Bridge,” but this site is also referred to as the “River of a Thousand Lingas.” After about forty-five minutes of hiking through the jungle, we arrived at a river to find Hindu imagery carved directly into the riverbed. The carvings were done in the 11th century by ascetics who spent time at Phnom Kulen, the most sacred mountain in all of Cambodia where the Khmer monarchy was founded. As we walked along the river, we encountered carvings of Shiva, lotus blossoms, and a natural sandstone bridge with 1,000 lingas sculpted on the side (Fig. 49). The entire journey felt otherworldly. You could easily understand why these holy people of the 11th century chose the site as a retreat from the city in Angkor. The hike through the jungle — as strenuous as it was! — made for an ideal ending to this whirlwind of a trip (Fig. 50). I was able to meditate on the incredible range of structures and spaces that we had experienced during our time in Southeast Asia, from the teeming, energetic streets of the Old Quarter in Hanoi to the moss-covered ruins of royal mausoleums in Hue, or the spectacular view of Ho Chi Minh City from the top of Carlos Zapata’s Bitexco Financial Tower and the endless layers of stone, brick and trees in the temples of Angkor. I am endlessly grateful to the Society of Architectural Historians for this humbling opportunity; to First Vice President of SAH Sandy Isenstadt for his steadfast leadership and good humor; to our kind, knowledgeable and tireless guide, Professor Hazel Hahn; to the travel extraordinaire, Sinéad Walshe from ISDI; and to all of my new friends and mentors who taught me a great deal about the virtue of travel for the sake of knowledge. Cảm ơn! Arkoun! Thank you!


    Carrie L. Cushman
    is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University. She specializes in Modern Japanese Art and Architecture, with research interests in modern ruins, the aesthetics of disaster, urban redevelopment, and the role of ruins, both natural and man-made, in narratives of history. Her dissertation focuses on the photographer Miyamoto Ryūji, whose images of ruins engage multiple layers of trauma in the contemporary Japanese experience. Carrie was the recipient of the 2014-15 Meyerson Teaching Award in Art Humanities at Columbia. In 2015-16 she conducted research for her dissertation as a Fulbright Graduate Research Fellow in Japan, where she continues to work and write.

  • New Year Interlude: Two Architectural Pilgrimages

    by User Not Found | Jan 12, 2017

    Danielle S. Willkens is the 2015 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs and videos are by the author, unless otherwise noted.

    In December, I travelled more than 2,000 miles around Cuba, exploring portions of the nation's central and southern provinces. My travels included a total of nearly two days on Viazul buses, ferry rides, day trips in a range of classic cars (with a handful of detours due to overheating engines), and an inter-Cuba flight where the use of any electronics or headphones were prohibited. In January, I will add another 1,000 miles to my odometer with trips to sites in the west and along the southern coast of the island. Therefore, the blog post at the end of this month will contain information about Cuba outside of the capital. Referencing many of the island’s diverse museums, nature preserves, tourist-centric sites, as well as places that typically escape the radar of travelers, the next post will feature the following cities: Camagüey, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Pinar del Río, Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad, and Viñales. In addition to containing UNESCO World Heritage sites, Cuba’s only architectural museum, and a few natural wonders, my travels around Cuba, thus far, have provided a different perspective on both Havana and the
    la lucha, the ‘battle’ for supplies and services that Cubans navigate on a daily basis. Despite these struggles as well as the overall tonal shift felt on the island following Fidel’s death and the state-imposed nine-day mourning period, the capital and other cities seem to have a renewed sense of patriotism: temporary, large scale images of Fidel cover buildings in the Plaza de la Revolution and an overwhelming number of Cuban flags appear across buildings of all shapes, sizes, and conditions (Figures 1–3).



    Figures 1–3. Although many of the posters and flags that once adorned buildings in early December are now gone, there are several new murals underway in the capital and other cities. As per Fidel’s request, these murals don’t exclusively feature the Revolutionary leader but, instead, the tenants of the movement and other national leaders.


    A Changing of the Guard

    Unlike the Colón cemetery in Havana, filled with an array of large mausoleums of diverse styles, including experimental examples of modernism, the Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia (b. 1868) in Santiago de Cuba is largely composed of raised tombs in the neoclassical and eclectic styles (Figure 4). Modern monuments to the lost heroes of the nation exist outside of the cemetery walls, such as the massive sculpture to General Antonio Maceo (1991) in the Plaza de la Revolución and the marble, rationalist construction known as the Bosque de los Héroes (1973).

    Figure 4. The entry allée of the cemetery is lined in terrazzo and framed by palms, banyans, and the surrounding mountains.

    After a ceremonial trip through the nation, retracing the route of the Revolution, Fidel’s ashes were interred in a simple monument on December 4, 2016. With only a simple bronze plaque with the name ‘FIDEL’, the tomb sits in stark contrast to the adjacent mausoleum for national hero José Martí (1853–1895) (Figures 5 and 6). This bold, Art Deco mausoleum (b.1951) dominates the skyline of the gridded cemetery complex. The hexagonal structure features allegorical caryatids, referencing the original six provinces of the nation: Pinar del Rio, Havana, Matanzas, Las Villas, Camaguey, and Oriente (Figure 7).

    Figure 5. The crenulated mausoleum for José Martí is the most dominate form in the complex.

    Figure 6. Fidel’s austere tomb sits in front of a semi-circular columbarium for the revolutionary figures that fell during the failed siege of the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953.

    Figure 7. With a lyre and a parchment, this caryatid represents the creative province of Matanzas and in the figure’s shield is the Castile of San Severino.

    Inside, a Carrara marble statue of Marti sits below an intricate series of geometric skylights and somberly overlooks an urn draped in Cuban flag (Figures 8 and 9).1 Commissioned as the winners of an open architectural competition held in 1946, known as the Concurso Inter-Americano, the building’s design and sculptural detailing were executed by Jaime Benavent and Mario Santí. In portions of the competition brief, posted online by a Cuban newspaper, the organizers stated that the mausoleum was intended to be a ‘tomb worthy of the Apostle Marti’ and with the common sighting of busts of Martí in gardens and on terraces throughout Cuba, a trip to his tomb in Santiago de Cuba can be seen as a patriot pilgrimage for many Cubans.

    Figure 8. The stained glass of the clerestory and fossil-infused limestone give the tomb a warm color in contrast to the cool marbles and green landscape of the surrounding area.

    Figure 9. Although designated as the writer’s final resting place and mausoleum after six re-interments, Martí’s ashes were lost in the early twentieth century and the story of his ever-moving mausoleums can be found in a portion of Rodríguez-Luis’s Re-Reading José Martí, 65–78.

    In addition to its visual dominance in the cemetery’s landscape, the tomb was the central focal point for the changing of the guard ceremony that halts the cemetery’s visitors every half hour, drawing their attention to the mausoleum and the national anthem playing loudly over the cemetery’s speakers. Originally, three soldiers marched to Martí’s mausoleum as part of the ceremony, pausing for tolling bells to commemorate those lost during the nation’s struggle for independence in the 19th and 20th centuries before relieving the three soldiers keeping watch in the mausoleum. However, since December 4, this ceremony has been altered to include an additional soldier: one to keep watch over Fidel’s tomb (Video 1).

    Video 1. This video captures the changing of the guard, a ceremony that occurs every half hour at the cemetery. The unsteady shots were due, in part, to constant jostling from the large number of people crowded behind the viewing gate.


    Beyond the Vines at the Instituto Superior de Arte

    In addition to witnessing changes around the island related to Fidel’s passing, in the beginning of December, I had the pleasure of traveling in Havana with the Soane's Foundation on their twelfth people-to-people trip to Cuba, liaising with the Design Leadership Network’s annual international trip. With a wealth of contacts in the city's architectural and artistic communities, four days with the Soane Foundation and their local guides provided access to a number of incredible sites such as a Neutra treasure that serves as the residence of the Swiss Ambassador (Figures 10–13), several of the structures related to the Bacardi family (Figure 14), a pre-Revolutionary mansion converted into the Museo Artes Decorativas (Figure 15), and the very newly restored headquarters of the Alliance Française (Figure 16).

    Figures 10–13. The Alfred de Schulthess Residence was designed by Richard Neutra in 1956 in an exclusive, gated community west of Central Havana. The Swiss banker, his wife, and their three daughters occupied the home for only four years before it was transferred to Switzerland to serve as the residence of the Swiss Ambassador, who was also responsible for American diplomatic relations in Cuba between the time of the Revolution and the historic restoration of diplomatic ties in December 2014. Despite its distinction as the only home executed by the architect in the tropics, the project has many of Neutra’s signature design features such as the ‘spider-leg’ entry colonnade, deep eaves, beams that slip through impossibly large glass panels, and a highly reflective material palette including a pool that mirrors a longitudinal elevation that faces a landscape designed by Roberto Burle Marx. The home received a gold Medal from the Cuban National Association of Architects in 1958 and through careful preservation and restoration; the home retains many of the original design features including built-in and period furniture.

    Figure 14. The Bacardi Building (1930) was restored in 2001. With ornate Art Deco details, including glazed terracotta, mosaics, and an iconic bat atop the finial of the tower, the building is highly recognizable in the Havana skyline and was one of the city’s first skyscrapers.

    Figure 15. The Decorative Arts Museum in Vedado represents the scale and opulence of some of the residence in pre-Revolutionary Havana. Designed by Pariasian architects in 1925, the neoclassical residence was home to the Countess of Revilla de Camargo, María Luisa Gómes-Mena. Although the home is well preserved and restored, much of the gardens, are in disorder. In their prime, these phenomenal outdoor rooms were designed for large events, music performances, and to bring the entertainments of interior spaces out-of-doors.

    Figure 16. Now the headquarters of the Alliance Française, the Casa de Jose Miguel Gomez on the Prado was built in 1915 and served as the home of Cuba’s second president, José Miguel Gómez.

    As part of my trip with the Soane Foundation, we visited the Instituto Superior de Art (ISA), once known as the Cuban Schools of the Arts. This project was one of the first [and only], experimental architectural projects sponsored by the early revolutionary government.

    As mentioned in last month’s post, no book can better illustrate the roots, scope, and history of the Schools of the Arts better than Loomis’s Revolution of Forms.2 Additionally, the documentary Unfinished Spaces brings the story of the schools to life through incredible interviews with the architects, former students, and even critics who contributed to the initial construction of the schools in July 1965.3 One evening after studio during my first semester of teaching at Auburn, I watched the documentary in rapt wonder: it was an extremely well-selected feature within the AIAS-sponsored film series and as I sat entranced by the story, and tragedy, of the schools, I had no idea that two years later I would have the amazing privilege to walk through these architecturally sacred spaces.

    Today, a number of tour groups with artistic and architectural interests make visits to ISA but, like Loomis reminisced in reference to his first visit in the acknowledgements of Revolution of Forms, these groups only see one-fifth of the complex: the School of Plastic Arts (Plan 1).

    Plan 1. This plan shows the original boundary of the Schools of the Arts, the location of the original clubhouse for the country club (solid black) that now serves as the administrative center for ISA and the location of the five subject-specific complexes, once connected across the hilly landscape by a series of bridges over the now very polluted stream. The author edited this image over a base plan of the complex from Loomis, John A. "Cuban Art Schools."
    ICON (2002–2003): 28.

    In addition to being the most complete and well maintained of schools, The School of Plastic Arts is within easy access to the entry gate and the main administration building, once home to the clubhouse of the country club (Figure 17). The clubhouse also serves as an evocative place to introduce visitors to the story of the art schools. In addition to providing access to housing and raising literacy rates, the early tenants of the Revolution championed the arts. Therefore, it was highly symbolic of the new, socialist agenda that a privileged site, such as a golf course, was transformed into a resource that could benefit a larger portion of the population. However, before construction broke ground for the new Schools of the Arts, Che and Fidel played a round of golf at the seized country club.

    Figure 17. As a headquarters of ISA, the clubhouse is full of activity, including musical performance exercises, impromptu dancing, and the occasional tour group.

    Cuban architect Ricardo Porro (1925–2014) was specifically selected for the commission and with the daunting task of designing five schools in a sloping, forested landscape, he enlisted the help of two architectural peers he met in Venezuela, Italian architects Roberto Gottardi (b. 1927) and Vittorio Garatti (b. 1927). Together, they worked with students to design and build some of the most striking examples of architectural resourcefulness: with the American embargo, steel was scarce for beams or rebar so the team turned to the use of locally available materials. A palette of brick and terracotta unified the projects and each architect employed variations of a Catalan vault system, with the direction of master mason Gumersindo, who learned the trade from his father’s work with Antonio Gaudí in Barcelona.

    Rather than attempting to provide a comprehensive history of the schools, or dense narrative, the last section of this blog post will serve as a photographic essay on the current state of the schools. The second edition of Loomis’s book was published in 2011 and this also marked the year Unfinished Spaces wrapped post-production. Although both sources referenced the attempt to revive the construction and restoration of the schools that gained momentum in 2008, the subsequent world economic crisis and two hurricanes ceased much of these efforts. Today, Porro’s School of the Plastic Arts conducts classes, has active studios, and, on certain days, serves as a gallery for visitors (Figures 18–26). After meeting with a few representatives from ISA, I was able to visit other portions of the complex, exploring the current state of the structures. Porro’s other project, the School of Modern Dance, was the subject of the most recent renovation efforts but it receives only occasional use so mildew is beginning to take hold, once again, and palm debris litters portions of the site (Figures 27–31).

    Thus far, I was unable to tour Garatti’s only project, the School of Dramatic Arts, but I know from discussions with ISA representatives that the School is in similar condition to Gottardi’s School of Ballet (Figures 32–56) and the School of Music (Figure 57–62). These sites resemble something from the History Channel’s series Life After People: nature is quickly taking over, with algae stains covering the northern walls of the brick complexes, bamboo invading corridors, and ivy crawling over the crumbling vaults that are delaminating due to the constant cycles of tropical downpours and intense sun native to the Cuban climate. In addition to the climatic stresses, these structures have also been subject to periods of surreptitious domestication: interior walls and domes bear the charred scars of cobbled kitchen fires when families occupied schools during Cuba’s ‘Special Period’ [a completely sarcastic term for the dire conditions in the nation in the early 1990s]. Today, graffiti and litter can be found throughout the School of Ballet and School of Music, but the surrounding landscape of the School of Ballet has been fairly well maintained, trimming the wild growth and tall grass featured in many of the photographs by Loomis and wide angle shots of Unfinished Spaces. At the School of Ballet and the School of Music, earthen floors cover the majority of the complexes, weathered bricks support the layered walls, and light streams through unglazed apertures. Especially in the corridors and beneath the vaults of the School of Ballet, it feels like one is walking through an ancient ruin, discovering forgotten paths and incredible, abandoned rooms. Of the thousands of photographs captured, the following few hopefully capture the spirit of the undeniable architectural innovation found within the sacred grounds of the Schools of the Arts.

    Figures 18–26. The School of Plastic Arts contains classrooms, workshops, and studios related to drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, and ceramics. With narrow corridors that lead to a central plaza, the arrangement has been compared to a village and throughout the complex there are allusions to an Afro-Cuban goddess of fertility, Porro’s reference to the ‘birth’ of artistic inspiration.

    Figures 27–31. Although dominated by more concrete in its material palette, the School of Modern Dance has clear visual and spatial connections to Porro’s work at the School of Plastic Arts. The plan’s formation evoked a shattered plane, referencing the simultaneous feelings of excitement and foreboding during the early years of the Revolution.

    Figures 32–34. These panoramic views of the School of Ballet show the expansiveness of the project and its placement within a ravine of the former country club.

    Figures 35 and 36. Much like the stream that runs through the former country club, separating the five schools, a sinuous path for collected rainwater runs through the School of Ballet.

    Figure 37. The School of Ballet was approximately 90% completed when it was abandoned in 1965. For a period of time, the main performance hall was used for a circus school and various movies and television shows used the complex as a post-apocalyptic set. Over the years, these uses and looting have compromised aspects of the site.

    Figures 38–39. The massive span achieved by the top lit dome of the main performance hall creates an impressive space with astounding acoustic resonance.

    Figures 40–44. Throughout the School of Ballet, carefully placed apertures frame views of the complex. In select practice and dressing rooms, an oculus with a concrete screen provides the main source of natural light.  

    Figures 45–47. The ribbed elements of the dome, met by a concrete compression ring, and the vaults marking the primary axis of circulation are richly patterned with delicately twisting layers of brick and terracotta tiles.

    Figures 48–50. These images show the corridor of the School of Ballet that acts as a spine, connecting the classroom spaces. Here, built-in seats provided students fixed places to watch instructors as well as framed views of the large practice and performance spaces.

    Figures 51 and 52. Stairs leading from the classroom ‘spine’ to the upper level of the School of Ballet allowed students to walk atop their classrooms and peer through the pipe-like concrete protrusions that illuminated the classrooms and corridors below. Walking further along this grassy roofscape, one can actually step onto the top of the Catalan vaults of the complex.

    Figures 53–55. These detailed views illustrate the declining state of the domes’ structural and material integrity at the School of Ballet. Without the protection of the terra cotta tiles, water is now invading the bonding grout and this may significantly damage the laminations as well as the connection points for tension rods that are supporting the vaults throughout the complex.

    Figure 56. A view of one of the many ruined bridges; this one once connected a path between the School of Ballet and the School of Music.

    Figures 57–62. Between the steep, eroding slopes, the rising water of the stream, and landscape debris, much of the School of Music was impassible. Nonetheless, certain practice rooms offered picturesque, framed views of the surrounding landscape as well as glimpses of the domes of the School of Ballet.



    Loomis, John A. "Cuban Art Schools." ICON (2002-2003): 26-33.

    ———. Revolution of Forms: Cuba's Forgotten Art Schools. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011.

    Nahmias, Alysa, and Benjamin Murray. Unfinished Spaces. 86 minutes. New York, NY: Ajna Films, 2011.

    Rodríguez-Luis, Julio, ed. Re-Reading José Martí (1853-1895): One Hundred Years Later. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999.


    1 For more on the life and work of Martī, as well as the route of his ashes, see Julio Rodríguez-Luis, ed. Re-Reading José Martí (1853–1895): One Hundred Years Later (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999).

    2 John A. Loomis, Revolution of Forms: Cuba's Forgotten Art Schools (New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011). A brief introduction, also by Loomis, is available online here, "Cuban Art Schools," ICON (2002–2003).

    3 Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray, Unfinished Spaces, (New York, NY: Ajna Films, 2011).

  • Scaffolding and a City in Section: An Introduction to La Habana

    by User Not Found | Dec 05, 2016

    Danielle S. Willkens is the 2015 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs and videos are by the author, unless otherwise noted.

    It is an understatement to say that it is an interesting time to be in Cuba. As an architectural designer and historian studying the impact of tourism, Havana has been a complex, and at times confounding, classroom. In just the last thirty days, the length of a traditional tourist visa, record numbers of Americans have toured the capital, the first commercial flights from the United States landed in Havana since the two nations restored diplomatic relations after fifty-five years of silence, and the Cuban news stations extensively covered both an election that may impact renewed dialogues and the death of Fidel Castro (Figures 1 and 2).1 The paint on street murals commemorating Castro’s 90th birthday is barely three months old but, as I write, the nation is enduring a nine-day period of morning as the ashes of the Revolution’s leader travel through the nation en route to their final resting place in Santa Ifignia cemetery, to be interred alongside other prominent figures from the nation’s history.



    Figures 1 and 2. Located in the Plaza de la Revolución, originally named Plaza de la República under Batista, the Ministerio del Interior (1953) by Aquiles Capablanca is arguably one of the most photographed buildings in Havana, not for its Corbusian form but, instead, for the large, steel sculpture of Che Guevara. Based on the famous photograph by Alberto Korda from 1960, the portrait is accompanied with the phrase “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” [Always Toward Victory]. A similar, continuous contour steel sculpture was added to the nearby telecommunications building. Often mistakenly identified by tourists as an image of Fidel Castro because of the phrase “Vas Bien Fidel” [You're going well, Fidel] beneath the portrait, the sculpture features another revolutionary figure, Camilo Cienguegos.

    Besides the current uncertainty and imposed disruptions to businesses, transportation, and even baseball schedules in the nation, moving from the cold, volcanic landscapes of the Scandinavian nations of Iceland and the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic to a Caribbean nation ruled by the Communist Party of Cuba proved to be a challenge in many ways. Heavy coats and hats were traded for linen shirts. The sunglasses that I barely used in Iceland became invaluable in Havana. While in transition between islands, I prepared for site navigation and maintaining correspondence without the assistance of easily accessible wireless data and I changed several of my working methods for documentation during my travels. Although Cuba is geographically the closest to my home in Auburn, Alabama, it is logistically and technologically the most different from any of the sites I will be visiting during my research sponsored by the H. Allen Brooks Traveling Fellowship. Having no desire to repeat the errors of a Canadian man who illegally flew a drone in Havana, and consequentially spent eleven days in a Cuban detention center, I left my carefully packed UAV in the United States. In addition to the fact that the entire island of Cuba is a ‘no fly zone,’ the nation also has more strict regulations for handheld cameras, especially in select museums and around governmental buildings. During my first days in Havana I discovered that DSLR cameras were not welcome in certain public spaces or state-run businesses either. In contrast, in most museums and residential areas, the guides and residents were happy to welcome photographs, especially for visitors who displayed a keen interest in architecture.

    As the first post in a series on Cuba, this month’s blog serves as an introduction to the capital city of Havana where there is a rapidly developing tourist infrastructure working in partnership with restoration programs that celebrate the unique language associated with Cuban architecture and urban life (Figures 3–6).


    Figures 3 and 4. Street scenes along in Avenue Simón Bolívar in Central Havana, featuring the capital’s signature combination of eclectic architectural patina and classic cars.

    Figure 5. On cultural and entertainment sites around the capital, it was common to see signs declaring ‘cerrado por reparación’ [closed for repairs], such as the marquee on the Radiocentro Building [Yara Cinema], designed by Junce, Gastón and Dominguez between (1945–1947) along La Rampa in Vedado.

    Figure 6. A view of the scaffolding covering the dome of the Capitolio. A major restoration effort for the Capitolio (1926–1929) began in 2010 and is expected to continue through 2017.


    A Capital of Tourism

    In many senses, Havana has always been a center for tourists and transient visitors. Founded in 1519 and named after the patron saint of travelers, San Cristóbal de La Habana served as a critical site for the Spanish Empire in the New World. Other European nations, and pirates, quickly recognized the strategic location of the harbor in the Caribbean so Havana was strongly fortified in the 16th and 17th centuries through the construction of El Castillo de la Real Fuerza, El Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, El Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, and a series of city walls that, although now largely dismantled and in ruins, demarcate La Habana Vieja and define the capital’s designated World Heritage Site (Figures 7–12).


    Figure 7 and 8. Views of sea frontage and vaults in a munitions room of the recently restored El Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta.

    Figure 9. A view through one of the turret apertures of El Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, looking towards the Malecón and the towers of ‘new Havana’.



    Figures 10-12. Upturned canons and cannonballs branded with the logo of the Office of the Historian in the City of Havana now mark pedestrianized streets and define boundaries within several plazas of La Haban Vieja. According to the numerous signs posted around the old city’s construction projects, revenue in many of Old Havana’s businesses supports restoration efforts in the neighborhood.

    During the 1920s Havana was a popular site for Americans who were escaping prohibition and in search of entertainment and gambling venues in a lush, historic landscape that was, simultaneously, embracing emerging trends in design and technology. By the 1950s, commercial flights made Havana an economical getaway for Americans but visitor numbers declined drastically with rising, revolutionary violence in 1957. Diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba were restored in December 2014. Although this détente is proving to be economically beneficial, the rapid rise in visitors may strain the already fragile infrastructure and built fabric of the city. In 2015, more than 3.1 million people visited Cuba and visitor numbers for 2016 are on track to beat 2015’s groundbreaking figures by more than 15%.2 In addition to the lessened restrictions for American travelers, the rise in international visitors can be attributed to several policies instigated by Raúl Castro in 2011 that are helping to reshape the capital by opening paths for entrepreneurial ventures, such as a the paladares [restaurants in private houses] that are opening across the city. With a rise in speculative development, the number of new and adaptive reuse projects is soaring in the city, thereby offering Cuban architects the first opportunities since 1959 for design commissions outside of the realm of state-sponsored architecture. This is inaugurating a new era of Cuban architectural regionalism. For example, Habana Re-Generación has initiated commercial, residential, and even industrial regeneration projects, such as the installations placed within the abandoned Tallapiedra (1915–1940) electric plant in conjunction with the 12th Havana Biennial, and through grassroots efforts, artists are transforming houses and former factories into working spaces, galleries, and some of the most compelling music venues in the city.

    With the rise of visitors to the island, the capital city faces some challenges in relation to the bifurcation of services for locals and tourists. For example, in several residential portions of the city, power is restricted from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. but those staying in hotels and select casa particulars [private homestays] never perceive this interruption. The comforts of air conditioning, hot water, and mechanically flushing toilets can be found in the vast majority of hotels; new constructions, such as those sponsored by the Spanish chain Iberostar, even feature perfumed HVAC systems akin to those found in sites like the casino-resorts of Las Vegas (Figures 13 and 14).

    Figure 13. A panoramic view looking south, towards the Capitolio and Parque Central, and north along the Paseo de Marti.

    Figure 14. A panoramic view from Hotel Parque Central, overlooking a portion of Central Havana to the west of the Paseo de Marti and pedestrian park known as the Paseo del Prado, known simply as the Prado. Captured just a few blocks north of the photograph from Figure 13, this panorama shows the dilapidated character of residences in Central Habana in contrast to the recent flood of restoration projects around the Capitolio and La Habana Vieja.

    During my first weeks in Havana, I had repeated experiences that underscored that the capital city of Cuba is divided into a distinct series of sections. These ‘sections’ seem to invade most aspects of the city, ranging from the overall organization of the capital to aspects of tourism, social structure, infrastructure, and architecture. As the largest of Cuba’s provinces, Havana is further subdivided into fifteen municipalities: La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), Centro Habana, Plaza de la Revolución (including Vedado), Playa (including Miramar), Cerro, Diez de Octubre, La Lisa, Marianano, Boyeros, Arroyó Naranjo, San Miguel del Padrón, Cotorro, Regla (including Casablanca), Guanabacoa, and La Habana del Este (Video 1).

    Video 1. Scenes from the Havana tour bus, traveling through La Habana Vieja, Vedado, Playa, and Miramar.

    The physical and social strata of servant and served that once defined Cuba’s pre-independence and pre-revolutionary eras has transitioned into the separation of the locals from the tourists. In almost every situation, the services and spaces reserved for tourists are different than those for Havana residents. This is most noticeable in the use of two different currencies: the national Cuban peso (CUP) and the convertible peso (CUC), equal to approximately 24 CUP. Cubans use both currencies, but the CUP is mainly related to state-sponsored services (e.g. electricity bills) and familiar trade exchanges, such as the fruit and vegetable markets. While Cubans patiently wait in line to use the Havana’s banks, tourists are offered the convenience of cambia within the lobbies of most hotels and few ever complete transactions with CUP (Figures 15–17).

    Figure 15. The twenty-one-story hotel now named Habana Libre (1958), originally constructed as the Habana Hilton Hotel by Welton Becket and Associates, is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the city. Occupying an entire block, the building navigates the site’s steep slope with the integration of shops, a restaurant, and a cafeteria into the ground story.

    Figure 16. A view from the Fosca building over the parabolic arch roof of the Radiocentro Building and towards the intersection of Calle 23 and L. Captured in 1954, this photograph shows the future site of the Habana Hilton being cleared for construction. From the University of Havana archives, collection #28039.

    Figure 17. A view of the Habana Hilton under construction, captured on February 15, 1957. From the University of Havana archives, collection #37493.

    For tourists, hotels also provide sheltered and more convenient access to Wi-Fi, albeit slow and unreliable. However locals must wait, once again, at the offices of the governmental agency of ETECSA (Empresa de Telecomunicacions de Cuba S.A.) where an hour queue can result in the discovery that the office is entirely out of the Wi-Fi access cards, sold in increments of either one or five hours. When cards are available from the office or entrepreneurial resellers, locals and intrepid visitors can use the WI-FI hotspots scattered in the parks and urban plazas around the capital.

    For visitors who stay in Havana’s hotels, these complexes become inclusive nodes for services and transportation. Havana’s famous combination of pre-1960s American cars, mixed with various Soviet designs and, recently, the introduction of kit cars, serve the hotels and it is often easy to spot a tourist area in the city by the number of brightly colored convertibles parked on adjacent streets. Observing lobbies and urban life around hotels, it is clear that many tour groups board hired transport, typically well maintained and air conditioned buses, at their hotel’s port cochère and return to the same place, rarely getting a glimpse of the city by foot (Figures 18–20). This drive-by mentality means that they miss Havana’s vibrant street life as well as the opportunity to experience the other modes of transportation such as the local buses, Cocotaxis, or the ‘cooperative taxis’ that run in grids across the city and were only recently made available to the island’s visitors (Video 2).

    Figure 18. Seen from the Malecón, Hotel Nacional de Cuba (1930) was designed by McKim, Mead and White as a grand, eclectic resort that affords visitors a tranquil, walled landscape with views to the sea and manicured grounds, complete with an ostentation of peacocks.

    Figure 19. Situated along the Malecón and originally funded by Meyer Lansky, the designs for the Habana Riviera Hotel (1957) were originally by Philip Johnson but Miami hotel architect Igor B. Polevitzky eventually replaced Johnson on the project. Today the hotel is an anchor for American taxis on the western end of the Malecón.

    Figure 20. Vibrant lime paint coats the new buildings of the Hotel Comodoro Habana resort complex in Ciudad de la Habana. Like many of the new construction projects along Cuba’s coast, the buildings are affixed with solar hot water heaters for guest rooms.

    Video 2. A bumpy, but entertaining, ride on a Cocotaxi through a portion of Vedado.

    Although the divisions in services for tourists and residents are striking, there are select visitors to the capital that operate between these two worlds: select people-to-people groups who liaise with locals on a daily basis, independent travelers and researchers who live in casa particulares, and various foreign students. At the University of Havana, study abroad students take classes [in Spanish] alongside Cubans and for the past thirty years, students of all ages and diverse nationalities have studied with the Faculty of Spanish for Non-native Speakers (FENHI) (Figures 21–24). Between breaks from daily classes, they visit local cafeterias and traverse the areas around the university that are foreign to most visitors: steep, tree-lined streets, bordered by winding retaining walls and imposing neoclassical structures that comprise entire blocks. It is easy to imagine a time when these neo-Renaissance mansions were once in pristine condition, filled with lush gardens and the highly divided spatial strata related to service and the served. Today, many of the homes are in disrepair, either entirely crumbling or existing in some form of patchwork since the grand salons were carved into apartments, with the porches and arcades that now house café kiosks and hanging laundry. Other homes, however, have been maintained or restored under the care of the university or a private institution, such as the Museo Napoleanico that will be explored in a future post on museum culture on the island.

    Figure 21. The grand entry to the main campus of the University of Havana is located at the intersection of San Lázaro and L Streets. Although this campus is the historic core of the university, there are more than fifty-two academic and support buildings scattered around the capital’s municipalities.


    Figures 22 and 23. Like the rest of Havana, the main campus features several architectural styles, ranging from neoclassical to eclectic. With the exception of the oldest structure on the campus, reserved for large lectures and ceremonies, the campus and buildings of the university are open to locals and visitors.

    Figure 24.There are a number of statues, monuments, and art pieces scattered around the main campus, commemorating the university's roll in the fight for independence and the Revolution, including an armed owl, referencing the green-eyed icon in the historic tympanum of the main building (essentially a propylaea for the campus) and tank used during the Revolution.

    Architectural Language[s] of Havana

    As previously mentioned, Havana is an architectural classroom, filled with the Spanish colonial legacy of the mid-16th through late 19th centuries: colorful examples of neoclassicism, eclecticism, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco. These structures sit in stark contrast to modern hotels and urban developments of the twentieth century. In most parts of the city, arcades provide a welcome place to escape the sun and serve as unifying features for the diverse architectural landscape of each urban block. Other features, many unique to Cuban architecture, can be found across styles. Materials and details are manipulated to make form-appropriate applications for residences and smaller-scale commercial structures: entresuelo [mixed use balconies], guadevecinos [balcony dividers], guardapolvo [small eaves over doors and windows], persianas [brise-soleil], rejas [grilles], and vitrales [stained glass transoms] (Figures 25–30).





    Figures 25-30. Although representative of distinctive styles and constructed in different eras, balconies, elevated walkways, grilles, and louvered panels for shade can be found throughout the city.

    In many ways, Havana’s Necrópolis de Colón in Vedado (b. 1860s) serves as a microcosm for exploring much of the city’s diverse architectural landscape (Figure 31). Here, eclectic constructions fill the urban meter of major allées, tree-covered paths, and narrow, gate-lined entryways within Havana’s city for the dead (Figures 32–40).

    Figure 31. Neo-romantic sculptures by José Villalta de Saavedra were added to the cemetery’s intricately carved gateway in 1904.  


    Figures 32 and 33. A chapel built in the late 1800s, resembling the Florence Duomo, sits at the center of the Avienda Colón and provides a point of orientation for navigating the large grid of the symmetrical complex.





    Figures 34-38. Monuments in the cemetery range from private tombs to family mausoleums to national monuments. Each construction has distinctive detailing, made from a palette of rich materials.


    Figures 39 and 40. Although there are a substantial number of restoration projects underway, and a series of monuments that clearly have recently cleaned and stabilized, one can find crumbling tombs and statues throughout the necropolis.

    Figure 41. As an impossibly thin and tent-like enclosure, the Núñez-Gálvez tomb (1957) was designed by Max Borges Recio and Enrique Borges is a glazed terracotta structure that anchors one of the cemetery’s circular nodes, connecting several allées, and the seemingly simple form actually conceals the weathered entrance to a subterranean tomb.

    Figure 42. As one of the most distinctive structures in the cemetery, designed by Arnaldo Mesa, the Havana Reporters’ Association Mausoleum (1957) is in severe disrepair. The glazed parabolic structure, braced with an asymmetrical cross, now has warped steel pieces and shards of broken glass precariously hanging from weather-beaten frames. The chairs, mattresses, and clothing found in several of the worn, above ground mausoleums indicate that some of these structures now serve as temporary residences. This mausoleum, and several others, prevents inhabitation through the use of elaborate iron grates over stairs and subterranean entryways.


    A Rapidly Aging City

    In areas such as Vedado and Miramar, it is possible to fully perceive the two prominent building surges in Havana.3 The first era, spanning from 1914 to 1930, featured a stylistic sampling of Art Nouveau, Eclecticism, and Art Deco while the second period, from 1945 to 1960, focused on larger, urban projects with civic, educational, and mix use programs. The Revolution, largely, halted real estate speculation in the capital then the partnership with the Soviet Union stilted several governmentally funded projects that were distinctive as well as structurally and formally ambitious, characteristics counter to the architectural shift towards mass production and pre-fabrication. Perhaps the best known of these are the Cuban Schools of Art, also known as the Instituto Superior de Art, a site that will be explored in a future blog post.4 Located next to a military airfield in one of Havana’s western municipalities, the project receives select groups of architecturally inclined tourists but it is a site far afield for most visitors to the island.

    The buildings completed in the twentieth century comprise 80% of Havana’s built fabric and although this massive surge in construction transformed the city, it also means that the vast majority of capital’s architecture is aging at the same rate, creating a city of residences and skyscrapers rapidly approaching ruin. Architectural deterioration is accelerated because of the humid climate, the island’s susceptibility to damage from coastal storms and hurricanes and, especially along the Malecón, the caustic effects of salinity (Figures 43 and 44; Video 3).

    Figure 43. Several ruined buildings along the Malecón’s urban frontage have been removed to create parks and places for pop-up street festivals

    Figure 44. The restoration and reconstruction of a large portion of the Malecón in Central Habana just finished, however the seawall is perpetually battered by saltwater and subject to heavy pedestrian traffic.

    Video 3. Sunset and street life along a newly restored section of the Malecón.

    In portions of the capital, particularly around Central Habana, it is possible to experience architectural projects as full-scale representations of perspectival plans and sections: countless buildings, and even entire blocks, are crumbling (Figures 45–53). Although there are countless restoration efforts underway in Habana Vieja and privately initiated endeavors in Central Habana, there are a number of examples in the city of restoration projects that have been abandoned or adjusted. There are a number of sites where the rear portion of a building is missing but someone is carefully repairing the details and paint of the façade, like a colorful version of architectural makeup. At other sites, complex sets of wooden scaffolding have been abandoned and are now covered in vines, bringing new anterooms to the street and adding an urban paradise for birds as well as welcome resting places for the myriad stray dogs who seem to inhabit every shady swathe of space in the city (Figure 54).









    Figures 45-53. Scenes in Central Habana of eroded blocks, buildings, and roads. Despite these conditions, and the lack of an approved plan for restoration in this municipality, there is a vibrant community of residences and businesses.

    Figure 54. Several sites around the city resemble the condition of this building’s shell, located hear the Capitolio, where nature has taken over.

    With the embargo, few materials are available for citizens to maintain or restore residences but changes are underway that are due, in part, to new regulations for the nation’s real estate market. For the first time since the Revolution, citizens can buy and sell residences so ‘Se Vende’ [for sale] signs are now common sights on houses and apartment balconies in the capital (Figure 54).

    Figure 55. The small ‘Se Vende’ sign is visible on the balcony. Housing can now be considered a personal asset in Cuba, allowing for a revived real estate market, but the state necessitates cash transactions.


    Tuning In

    While living in Havana, I discovered that one could be fully immersed in the layered complexities of the city. For tourists, it is a place where headphones must be entirely abandoned in order to enjoy the wonderful cacophony found throughout the city: dogs barking, jackhammers at work, street musicians playing bongos and singing, waves crashing on the Malecón, men ardently arguing about baseball in the parks, and the nonstop sounds from classic cars revving, honking, and sputtering through the streets. Havana’s history, architecturally and culturally, makes the city an exciting, bafflingly beautiful, and unpredictable place but it is also a city that can regularly test one’s patience and instill a profound appreciation for the maintenance of infrastructure as well as the availability of building materials and twenty-first technological connectivity (Videos 4 and 5).

    Video 4. A deep rut along Dragones, south of the Capitolio, slows the classic cars and tests their already weary suspension systems. On many urban roads and even on the highways, lane markers tend to function merely as suggestions since drivers prefer to traverse the best preserved, or recently repaired, portions of the road. With large potholes and exposed base courses, many of the roads feel like obstacle courses but the Cuban drivers navigate with practiced ease.

    Video 5. Sunset capture over Parque Central and the illumination of streetlights along the Paseo del Prado.

    Recently, I had the privilege of traveling with the Soane Foundation, seeing some of Havana’s most treasured sites for art and architecture and meeting some of the city’s leading designers, historians, and preservationists. These encounters fully enforced that Havana is a city filled with architects, artists, educators, and policy makers who are eager to make connections and see the city restored. Simultaneously, they are cautiously optimistic about the changes and foreign investments linked to tourism.  

    In the next months, I will head farther afield and future blog posts will continue investigations initiated in Havana. As I navigate several other cities, some of the nation’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, aspects of eco-tourism along the south and in several nature preserves, and the preservation efforts underway for the nation’s agro-industrial heritage, I look forward to exploring life in Cuba beyond the capital.



    Carley, Rachel. Cuba: 400 Years of Architectural Heritage. New York, NY: Whitney Library of Design, 1997.

    "Cuba's 2016 Mid-Year Tourism Figures Show Continued Strength." Cuba Journal, June 17 2016.

    Griffith, Cathryn. Havana Revisited: An Architectural Heritage. Translated by Dick Cluster. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2010.

    Loomis, John A. Revolution of Forms: Cuba's Forgotten Art Schools. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011.

    Nahmias, Alysa, and Benjamin Murray. "Unfinished Spaces." 86 minutes. New York, NY: Ajna Films, 2011.

    Niell, Paul. Urban Space as Heritage in Late Colonial Cuba. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2015.

    Reiter, Christiane, and Angelika Tasche, eds. Havana Style: Exteriors, Interiors, Details. Koln: Taschen, 2004.

    Rodríguez, Eduardo Luis. The Havana Guide: Modern Architecture 1925–1965. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000.

    ———. "Integrating Vanguardisms: Dialogues between Art and Architecture Inmodern Cuba." In Beyond the Supersquare: Art & Architecture in Latin America after Modernism, edited by Antonio Sergio Bessa, 79–92: Forham University Press, 2014.

    ———. "Theory and Practice of Modern Regionalism in Cuba." Docomomo, no. 33 (2005).

    Sapieha, Nicolas. Old Havana, Cuba. London: Tauris Parke Books, 1990.

    1 For good overviews of Havana’s architectural history, from colonialism to modernism, see Rachel Carley, Cuba: 400 Years of Architectural Heritage (New York, NY: Whitney Library of Design, 1997); Cathryn Griffith, Havana Revisited: An Architectural Heritage, trans. Dick Cluster (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2010); Paul Niell, Urban Space as Heritage in Late Colonial Cuba (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2015); Christiane Reiter and Angelika Tasche, eds., Havana Style: Exteriors, Interiors, Details (Koln: Taschen, 2004); Nicolas Sapieha, Old Havana, Cuba (London: Tauris Parke Books, 1990). The following texts provide a specific lens on the 20th century works: Eduardo Luis Rodríguez, "Integrating Vanguardisms: Dialogues between Art and Architecture Inmodern Cuba," in Beyond the Supersquare: Art & Architecture in Latin America after Modernism, ed. Antonio Sergio Bessa (Forham University Press, 2014); "Theory and Practice of Modern Regionalism in Cuba," Docomomo, no. 33 (2005); The Havana Guide: Modern Architecture 1925-1965 (New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000).
    2 "Cuba's 2016 Mid-Year Tourism Figures Show Continued Strength," Cuba Journal, June 17 2016.
    3 For more on these eras and the politics behind the building surge, see the Introduction of The Havana Guide: Modern Architecture 1925–1965.
    4 For a comprehensive history of the schools’ design and construction processes, and well as their stasis, see John A. Loomis, Revolution of Forms: Cuba's Forgotten Art Schools (New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011); Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray, "Unfinished Spaces," (New York, NY: Ajna Films, 2011).

  • Study Day: Louis Kahn in San Diego and La Jolla

    by User Not Found | Nov 15, 2016

    With the generous support of a Scott Opler Endowment for New Scholars Fellowship, I was able to attend SAH’s “Louis Kahn Study Day” on Friday, November 4. My aim was to think through some of the questions that I am currently exploring in my own work about how, as a living monument, Kahn’s National Assembly Building in Dhaka participates in contemporary political debates about representative democracy in Bangladesh. In early 2014, the Government of Bangladesh announced plans to erect a fence/barricade around the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, one of Kahn’s most iconic monuments. In response, a group of Bangladeshi performance artists staged protest performances, using the iconic face of the building as backdrop. But can architecture ever serve as a mere backdrop? Indeed, how might architecture’s entwining of place, extension in space, and time speak to similar concerns within performance art? With these questions in mind, I set out to explore how Kahn’s oeuvre was being brought to life at the San Diego Museum of Art’s exhibition and through conservation efforts at the Salk Institute.

    Installation of Louis Kahn's travel postcards at SDMA exhibition ​Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture​.

    The exhibition Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture at SDMA comprises six sections in addition to an introduction: “Science,” “City,” “Landscape,” “House,” “Community,” “Eternal Present.” These sections not only highlight Kahn’s fluid movement across domains of public and private architecture, as well as urban planning, but they also illuminate how Kahn’s exploration of space (especially as scale and as extension in time) unfolded both in his creative practice as well as his lived reality. For example, the exhibition’s curators, William Whitaker and Jochen Eisenbrand, invited us to think about how the automobile informed Kahn’s thinking about the hierarchy of streets (fast lanes vs. slow lanes; pedestrian zones) in his urban planning projects. This observation stayed with me as I moved along an exhibition that invited me to retrace the journeys that Kahn undertook, by ship and by jet plane, across the world, from his pursuit to study ancient architecture to his travels in South Asia. It then made me think about the views that unfold as one walks along the ambulatory chambers of the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, and that both underscore the impressive scale of the building and yet localize that scale to an ecstatic burst of instants that nonetheless always spill over into an adjacent space.   

    One of my favourite objects from the exhibition was Luis Barragan’s sketch for the plaza of the Salk Institute. As the curators informed us, and as the exhibition narrates through four letters exchanged between the two architects, Kahn admired Barragan’s work as a landscape architect and invited him to help him come up with a design for the area between the North and South towers. Barragan reported to Kahn after his visit that a plaza was the best choice for it. Kahn’s gesture to reach out to another fellow architect, in this case Barragan, was not rare in his practice. Seeing then four letters between “Louis” and “Luis” and reflecting on how Louis Kahn, thanks to a typographical error, is acclaimed as “Luis Kahn” in my Bangladeshi passport, I wondered how we could move away from authorship and situate Khan’s work in the productive echoing and accenting of Louis/Luis. Is this one of the many points from which we can write a global history of architecture?

    Luis Barragan, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Study for Design of Interior Courtyard, 1966.

    Letters exchanged between Luis Barragan and Louis Kahn.

    Plaza (designed in consultation with landscape architect Luis Barragan) shown with scaffolding. Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Louis Kahn, 1959, La Jolla, CA.

    The installation of the designs, models, and construction photographs of the National Assembly Building are juxtaposed in the exhibition with a short film by Nathanial Kahn, created from footage that he took during the making of My Architect. Indeed, three short films by Nathanial Kahn help to highlight the multi-sensory environment in which Kahn’s buildings exist and which they engender. Thus, as one examines the large model of the National Assembly Building in the center of the room, one’s attention is enhanced/distracted by the sounds of rickshaw bells and then, upon looking up, by a view of a crowded Dhaka street. Next, the model is framed by a shot of a woman slowly sweeping the steps of the building. While the installation thus offered a juxtaposition of living monument (through the mediation of film) and model, it also made me wonder about the claim upon “contemporaneity” that was being made through it. In 2016, when few people in Bangladesh can gain close access to the Parliament building (its maidan is no longer open to the public), perhaps this nostalgic juxtaposition of model (as promise) and film (as relic) serve as reminders of the monument’s founding promise. Furthermore, by playing the sounds of the azaan, the film and the exhibition seemed to foreground the ambitions of the modern, post-colonial, Muslim nation (Pakistan) that commissioned Kahn’s project. In what way does Kahn’s monument engage with the vexed claims of secularity that inform political discourse in Bangladesh today?

    National Assembly Building Dhaka. Short film made by Nathanial Kahn for the SDMA exhibition Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture from footage taken during the making of My Architect.

    This promise of the return to the monument’s origins (in this case, Kahn’s vision for it) is echoed in the teak conservation project currently underway at the Salk Institute. There we learned about the precarious materiality of teak in the Southern California environment and how conservators have drawn upon Kahn’s archives in formulating a conservation plan. And we also learned about the urgency of teak conservation given regulations today about its importation. Standing in front of one of the newly-conserved teak windows, and reflecting on the use of teak in Kahn’s Dhaka project, I began to think about the global networks of Kahn’s projects that we encountered at SDMA. Thus, in addition to its conservation, how do we also situate teak in the post-colonial and global networks that delivered it from Southeast Asia to Southern California?

    Teak windows at one of the North Study Towers. Salk Institute of Biological Studies, Louis Kahn. 1959, La Jolla, CA.

    View showing horizontal and vertical details of the concrete. Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Louis Kahn, 1959, La Jolla, CA.

    Zirwat Chowdhury
    is an NEH Postdoctoral Fellow at the Getty Research Institute. Her research concerns the interconnected histories of art and architecture in Britain and South Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries, but she has been interested in Kahn's National Assembly Building since she was a child.
  • New Charnley-Persky House “Charrette Tours” for Architecture Students

    by User Not Found | Nov 09, 2016

    IMG_1532This past year, the Chicago House Museums Collective, also known as At Home in Chicago (Charnley-Persky House is a member), discussed the recent book by Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah E. Ryan, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums (2016). The manifesto calls for America’s house museums to take new approaches and expand their purpose beyond the traditional museum, creating more inclusive, interactive, and engaging experiences for visitors. In other words, get rid of the velvet ropes and let visitors actually experience what it was like to live in the house. In addition, the authors encourage museums to reveal the untold stories of those who lived in the house, including slaves or servants, and those often left out of the social history that makes house museums so interesting. While I missed Mr. Vagnone’s visit to the Glessner House Museum in Chicago, I did read the book, and started thinking about how we could make the Society of Architectural Historians' headquarters, the Charnley-Persky House, more interactive for those who visit. It’s all about transforming a “don’t touch” historic structure into a welcoming invitation to explore a participant’s own experience. 

    Part of SAH’s mission involves encouraging the study and understanding of the built environment and this is accomplished in part by offering public tours of Charnley-Persky House every Wednesday and Saturday throughout the year. This was an opportunity waiting to happen!

    Lacking velvet ropes and historic furniture and artifacts, the Charnley-Persky House tour focuses on the actual bones of the house and the relationship between architect Louis Sullivan and his young draftsman, Frank Lloyd Wright. The docent-led tours we offer are chock-full of information and observations, and no two tours are exactly alike. Our docents are intellectually and architecturally savvy individuals who have developed a personal relationship to the house. While not part of the typical house museum visitor’s expectation, we thought architecture students would be a perfect audience for trying out a new and interactive experience, where the docent functions as a resource for the participants, rather than as a lecturer.

    IMG_1528We have dubbed this new experience the “Charrette Tour.” Charrettes have been a long-standing practice within the architectural community to tackle a design issue, encouraging participation from all involved. We “reverse engineered” portions of the tour to direct participants to observe details in the house and come up with their own conclusions. We start by describing the property, the architect, the client, and the budget. The students receive a number of questions on a clipboard and are let loose around the house, free to explore every room. They open doors, and move freely about, checking out various features and making observations about how various elements were handled in the house like HVAC, historical references, how servants accomplished their work, and even the balance between natural and artificial lighting. The students are encouraged to create a brief sketch of a feature of the house. After about 45 minutes of walking around the house, we meet back in the dining room and ask for observations and impressions.

    It has been amazing to hear the initial students’ observations and how they reveal their interests and training. Where one group sees an open floor plan, another group notices symmetry. Where one group sees a Roman house with an interior cloister, another group sees a waste of useable space, or toddlers and pets in grave danger of falling to their deaths in the atrium. The students are asked, “What would you change?” Most would update the large service kitchen on the lower level into today’s open family room/kitchen. One wanted to remove all the walls in the front hallway to open the space further, and create a new kitchen in the current dining room.  However, they all come away with respect and even amazement for Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright’s design solutions for the Charnley family which at the time included a husband and wife, a teenaged son, two maids, possibly a male chauffeur, and frequent family visitors. 

    If you are interested in arranging a “Charrette Tour” for your group (limit 15 individuals), please contact Anne Bird at membership@sah.org to arrange. We encourage all manner of groups, from pre-collegiate through graduate students and architectural professionals to participate. 
  • Connectivity and ‘Green’ Craft: Exploring the Infrastructure and Architecture of the Faroe Islands

    by User Not Found | Oct 25, 2016

    Danielle S. Willkens is the 2015 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs and videos are by the author, unless otherwise noted.

    On one particularly foggy morning, my explorations through the Faroe Islands started with an unexpected scene. I was staying in Hoyvík, a suburb of the capital of Tórshavn on Streymoy, and as I traveled down the winding road from my rented room, I watched a series of red-faced pre-teens run up the hill. Their teachers, bundled together in a car and assisted by warm cups of coffee, were sitting at the base of the hill, marking the students’ arms with a Sharpie as they passed to record the completion of another lap around the neighborhood school. I later came to understand that these students were participating in a weekly physical education outing, one that occurred in all forms of weather, and in the capital it was not uncommon to spot a student wandering the streets still proudly marked with their temporary tattoo. After a few weeks in the Faroes, it became clear that the nation’s inhabitants were well adapted to the Jeykell and Hyde weather of the islands, changing from bright blue skies to hail over the course of minutes (Figures 1 and 2). Despite the unpredictable weather, the outdoor occupations of fishing and farming are still the dominant professions but tourism is on the rise, growing by approximately 10% each year. It looks as though 2016 will mark a banner year: the number of annual tourists is expected to exceed the regular Faroese population of nearly 50,000.

    Figure 1. Blue skies and a turquoise sea near the town of Fámjin on Suðuroy. This image was captured just a half an hour before Figure 2.

    Figure 2. Thirty kilometers south of Fámjin, dense fog nearly conceals the Akraberg lighthouse on the southernmost point of the Faroe Islands, located in Sumba on Suðuroy. Such weather automatically triggers the foghorn at the now-unmanned lighthouse, sounding at 60-second intervals to warn fisherman as well as freight and commercial liners of the dangers of the obscured, rocky shore.

    The Ministry of Trade and Industry have been actively campaigning for increased tourist numbers and petitioned for an independent, self-supporting agency to encourage the exploration of the Faroe Islands and Faroese culture, launching the Visit Faroe Islands Tourist Board in 2001. As evidenced by the growing number of tourists, the campaign is working and it has been bolstered by the increasing numbers of cruise ships docking at the capital city Tórshavn, the increased frequency of flights to the only commercial airport on the island of Vágar, and the cultivation of an efficient inter-island transportation network, consisting of highly maintained roads and public access to governmentally-subsidized buses and ferries (Figure 3). Nonetheless, when I shared my plans to visit the Faroe Islands, many people seemed to find it an odd choice. Although captivating for its natural sites, it appeared to be an isolated location with, perhaps, little of architectural interest (Figure 4). This, thankfully, was not the case: the islands offered an interesting glimpse into sustainable infrastructure, a built heritage that adeptly responds to the limitations of local materials and harsh realities of the North Atlantic climate, and creative approaches to industry and entrepreneurialism amid dramatic landscapes.

    Figure 3. An aerial view of twilight in the capital city of Tórshvan, Stremoy.

    Figure 4. An abandoned farm building in Suðuroy that represents an atypical construction for the agricultural buildings of the Faroe since it mixes the building materials of dry-laid stone, concrete with rubble for aggregate, and wood.

    Navigating the Faroe Islands

    Located near the centroid of a geographical triangle connecting Iceland, Norway, and the Scottish Islands, the Faroe Islands consist of eighteen islands, seventeen of which are inhabited. The islands are the eroded remnants of the Thulean plateau, characterized by deep, glacial fjords, steep mountains, and some of the largest promontories in the world, such as Enniberg in Viðareiði, Viðoy (Figures 5–7).1

    Figure 5. A panoramic image of small agricultural operations near Gjógv, Esturoy, captured while traveling on the Smyril Line ferry the
    Norrøna from Tórshavn to Seyðisfjörður, Iceland. Launched in 1983, the ferry also serves Hirtshals in the north of Denmark. More like a small cruise ship than a ferry, the vessel can carry 1400 passengers and 450 cars.

    Figure 6. An aerial view of one of the deep valleys of the Faroes, located in Elduvík, Esyturoy.

    Figure 7. One of the jagged, eroded islands rising from the sea near Bøur, Vágar.

    Overall, the islands are organized into a series of groups (Maps 1 and 2):

    • the northern islands of Borðoy, Fugloy, Kalsoy, Kunoy, Svinoy, Viðoy;
    • the ‘easterly’ island of Esturoy;
    • the largest and most populous island of Streymoy and its small neighbors of Nólsoy, Hester, Koltur;
    • the western islands of Vágar, home to the airport, and the sparsely populated puffin island of Mykines;
    • the southern islands of Sandoy, Skuyvoy, Stóra Dímun, and Lítla Dímun;
    • and the geologically distinctive, southernmost island of Suðuroy.

    Map 1. The identified island groupings in the Faroes show a relatively even distribution of land.

    Map 2. Beyond the clustered classifications of the islands, each of the islands are subdivided into regional districts, largely determined by geographical features such as peaks, swales, and lakes.

    Although a similar climate to Iceland, the Faroe Islands are more susceptible to the impacts of North Atlantic storms and I can certainly attest to the rough seas that cancelled two attempts to visit the westernmost isle of Mykines and made for rocky ferry rides in the southern islands. Nonetheless, the islands are actively positioning themselves as a tourist destination with a new series of ‘Visit Faroe Islands’ campaigns that advertise the islands as the ‘best kept secret in Europe.’ Leveraging legends, music, turf-covered architecture, and woolen crafts in partnership with a unique geology, the Faroes are promoting themselves as a destination that marries distinctive cultural traditions with an astounding landscape (Figure 8). In 2007, National Geographic Traveler named the Faroes the best islands in the world following a survey of 111 island destinations by 522 sustainable tourism experts. The Faroes made National Geographic Traveler headlines again when they were named the winners of the readers’ choice for the best destinations in 2015, reinforcing the characteristics extolled by the Visit Faroe Islands campaign: ‘unspoiled, unexplored, unbelievable.’ During my stay in late August and early September, these seemed to be apt descriptors: the landscapes of the islands are entirely memorizing and it was not uncommon to spend the better part of a day, especially in the north, exploring with only seabirds, sheep, and the occasional whale as companions. Each town was welcoming and this post will explore how each of the villages along the peninsulas and narrow fjords consist of a predictable kit of parts. Only the largest urban centers of Tórshavn and Klaksvík, and the medieval town of Kirkjubøur, truly veered from this Faroese formula for communities.

    Figure 8. An aerial view of the turf-covered homes of Elduvík, Esyturoy.

    Throughout my travels I was continually intrigued by the juxtapositions of tradition and modernity. For example, despite the impressive national infrastructure that connects 85% of the Faroe Islands by roadway, about 15% of the nation relies on ferry service and there are still a few sites that are quite remote, including the three smallest islands that are accessible only by boat or helicopter, and only in the best weather conditions. (Figure 9).2

    Figure 9. Fish drying on the stern of a trawler in the harbor of Skopun on Sandoy that connects the island with its neighbors, Hestur and Streymoy.

    The islands are, pleasantly, not tainted with foreign chains or restaurants, but this also means that one has to carefully plan journeys and meals since it is entirely possible to find yourself on an island without a single shop or convenience store; even Tórshavn and Klaksvík become ghost towns on Sundays when the vast majority of businesses close and governmentally-sponsored public transportation systems cease regular operations. Portions of the islands, particularly the north, are sparsely populated but steady, 4G-network service is available throughout the Faroes to the extent that even areas of the North Atlantic provide a steady signal for fisherman and ferry-goers (Video 1). Additionally, projects such as ‘Sheepview360’, a grassroots initiative in partnership with Google to digitally document the islands using the quadrupeds that outnumber Faroese inhabitants two-to-one, successfully pairs traditional husbandry with technology.

    Video 1. Despite the remote location and lack of a natural harbor, the town of Trøllanes on Kalsoy has a strong network signal that keeps the agricultural community connected.

    As briefly mentioned in the August blog post and illustrated in this map produced by the Visit Faroe Islands Tourist Board, the nearly 2,000 square kilometers of the eighteen Faroe Islands are connected through an impressive, nationalized system of ferries, bridges, and tunnels through layer-cake mountains of basalt with coal cores. In the 1980s, the government sponsored a series of new roads and tunnels, bolstering the interconnectivity of the islands and this dedication to transportation infrastructure has not waned. During my visit, I saw three tunnels under construction: one replacing a small midcentury construction and two entirely new routes, one on Viðoy to replace a cliffside road prove to landslides and a large, subterranean tunnel that will connect the islands of Streymoy and Sandoy. Additional subterranean tunnels are in the planning phases: two to connect the southern islands and one to relieve traffic congestion between the two most populous islands of Streymoy and Esturoy, proving that twenty-first century infrastructure projects are key proprieties for the Faroese government. This, however, may also be an indication of the islands’ desire to increase tourism while providing an essential financial structure to support the maintenance of national transportation infrastructure: the two extant subterranean tunnels Vágatunnilin (2002), connecting the airport at Vágar with the capital island of Streymoy, and Norðoyatunnilin (2006), connecting the second most populous isle of Eystuory with the both have associated tolls. In addition to the governmentally-sponsored videos that instruct visitors about the perils of driving in the Faroes, such as the proliferation car-challenging sheep and one lane tunnels, the tourist board has imposed a travel-friendly system for navigating the national infrastructure considering that the rental cars on the islands are equipped with digital chips that register trips through the tunnels and automatically charge renters the 100 DKK fee for a round trip journey (Videos 2 and 3). This system is particularly effective due to the highly ordered structure for points of arrival and departure for visitors to the Faroe Islands.

    Video 2. Scenes from the Faroe Islands, exploring the island of Eysturoy. 

    Video 3. Scenes from the Faroe Islands, taking the ferry from Klaksvík to Syðradalur to explore the island of Kalsoy. The drive passed through the following towns: Húsar, Mikladalur, and Trøllanes.

    Unlike the array of airlines that operate through Iceland, only three companies manage transport by land and sea to the Faroes Islands, meaning that the nation does not function as a popular layover destination. Although the Royal Trade Monopoly was disbanded in 1856 and the Act on Faroese Home Rule passed on March 23, 1948, recognizing the Faroe Islands as a ‘self-governing community within the Kingdom of Denmark’, much of the Faroes still operates with a monopoly mentality. For example, until the introduction of Iceland Air flights in 2014, the sole airport for the Faroe Islands served only Atlantic Airways, a national, commercial airline founded in 1988. Similarly, only the Smyril Line ferry (the Norrøna) provides service to Iceland and Denmark. As the leading tour coordinator, hotel liaison, and rental car company, the relatively new and rapidly growing 62°N operates a tourism monopoly in the Faroes. Finally, in terms of consumer consumption, Føroya Bjór has bottled the islands’ regulated supply of beer and soft drinks since 1888.

    The Community Kit-of-Parts in the Faroe Islands

    The Saga of the Faroe Islanders, recorded in the c.1380 manuscript Flateyjarbók, describes the Viking era from 980 to 1040 and relays the struggles of early settlers in their quest for arable land on the acidic and mineral-poor islands. Wildlife, however, was plentiful: when traveling in the 9th century, the Irish monk Dicuil nicknamed the area the ‘sheep islands’ and ‘paradise of birds.’3 These designations are still true: sheep are celebrated in the governmental seal, on postage stamps, and in the branding of a number of nationalized companies while much of the tourist economy, currently rated at 50,000 visitors a year, revolves around the unparalleled bird watching available throughout the archipelago: the puffin sanctuary on Mykines with only ten regular inhabitants, the famous bird cliffs of Vestmanna on Stremoy, the ‘bird islands’ of Fugloy in the north, and the opportunity to spot some of the more four million birds from over 150 species that are found throughout the islands.

    The Faroes operated, largely, as a substance farming economy from the Viking age to the mid-1800s when attentions shifted to fishing.4 With little attention to commercial endeavors and access to a limited material palette, most of the buildings in the Faroe Islands are utilitarian. This does not imply, however, that the buildings are constructed without embellishments or thoughtful detailing (Figures 10 and 11).

    Figure 10. The bright white doors and trim of this residence in Sandur on Sandoy strongly contrast with the tar-covered cladding. As evidenced by the location of the chimney, the
    roykstova is the heart of the home.

    Figure 11. As an atypical structure, constructed entirely of stone, this residence sits in Sandur, adjacent to one of the many small lakes on Sandoy.

    Unlike Iceland where corrugated iron, aluminum, and roughcast are the dominant materials, the vast majority of structures in the Faroe Islands are made of either wood, imported from Denmark or Norway, or board formed concrete. Fieldstones, largely basalt, were used for foundations and on of the most intriguing aspects of traditional Faroese architecture is the use of birch bark that acts as proto-flashing, protecting the stone structure or the end grain of the wooden cladding from water spilling from the deep profile, turf-covered roof (Figure 12).

    Figure 12. A view of the birch ‘flashing’ in a traditional house in Tórshavn, Streymoy.

    Tar was used as weatherproofing so the Faroese towns in the 19th century would have presented a largely uniform series of dwellings. Occasionally, brightly colored paint was used to distinguish the doors, framing elements, and sills of individual homes (Figure 13). The introduction of corrugated iron for weatherboard, however, altered the Faroese built landscape and offered homeowners the opportunity to select almost any color for their residence. This evolution in residential architecture makes it relatively easy to distinguish older towns from those of the 20th century: as a communal mandate, many of the historic towns retain black or red cladding in contrast to the rainbow palettes of newer villages (Figure 14).

    Figure 13. A typical home in the Tinganes region of Tórshavn, Streymoy.

    Figure 14. The brightly colored homes of Gjógv on Eysturoy provide an interesting contrast to the frequent grey skies of the Faroe Islands.

    Many of the popular images of the Faroe Islands present a very provincial nation, filled with crumbling sheep sheds, picturesque boathouses, and long grasses growing wildly on simple, gabled homes and churches (Figure 15). Although this is a relatively accurate picture of the vernacular landscape, it is critical to note that there are carefully constructed regulations for land use and the organization of villages. From the medieval period, the precious arable land of the Faroes has been designated as bøur, the ‘infield’ heart of village that is divided into plats for crops, hay, and winter grazing. Everyone in the village has access to a portion of the bøur as well as a portion of hagi, the designed ‘outfield’ of uncultivated land used for summer grazing. Land laws also provided that each villager had access to a cliffside for bird hunting and, where accessible, communal boats slips in the harbor (Video 4).

    Figure 15. The remnants of dry laid stone fishing huts line the largest lake in the Faroe Islands, located near Sørvágur on Vágar.

    Video 4. Drone footage of the Sandvík on Suðuroy, Faroe Islands, featuring a microcosm of Faroese built and natural forms: plot lines subdiving arable land, small wave breaks and boathouses, a mining enterprise, and striking birdcliffs.

    The Faroese government continues its support of communal infrastructure. Even in the smallest of towns, consisting of less than ten inhabitants, there are streetlights, access to public transportation, and partially mechanized harbors for fishing (Figure 16). Although few towns have gas stations, convenience stores, or some form of a café, almost every town has a small public restroom with a generous, heated space complete with long benches for hikers, campers, and travelers to escape the unpredictable weather and comfortably wait for the local bus or ferry. Traditionally, villages had a parish church and cemetery; and the modern kit-of-parts for a typical Faroese village now also includes a football pitch and local landmark, as evidenced by the layout of towns such as Nólsoy (Figures 17-19) and Skálavík on Sandoy (Video 5).

    Figure 16. A view of the bus stop and postal box, and in the distance the harbor, of the small town of Gjógv on Eysturoy.

    Figure 17. Translated as ‘the narrow island, Nólsoy is a short ferry ride from Tórshavn and features a mixture of traditional turf-covered houses and colorful metal-clad residence. An archway made from the jawbone of a sperm whale marks the harbor’s entry. 

    Figure 18. Unlike more modern churches, the cemetery of Nólsoy is adjacent to the church (1863).

    Figure 19. Presenting an aerial view of Faroese contrasts, the well-groomed football pitch of Nólsoy sits below the a series of deteriorating stone structures that once comprised the heart of the town.

    Video 5. Drone footage of the Skálavík, Sandoy on the Faroe Islands, featuring the harbor and a stone church from 1891.

    As illustrated in the preceding photographs of Nólsoy and the aerial footage of Skálavík, parish churches can be found in almost every Faroese village. The 18th and early 19th century structures are typically made of stone, sometimes with wooden cladding for increased insulation, and have turf roofs (Figure 19–23). In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the craftsmen of each community used the local church as an opportunity to showcase their well-practiced skills in woodworking, developed through boat building and residential construction, and the delicacy of their metalworking. Each church has a distinctive color palette, an embellished screen or series of unique apertures, and an iron weathervane proclaiming the year of consecration. Select churches have preserved hardware, such as the door handles of Húsar’s church (1919) on Kalsoy that feature pilot whales (Figures 24a and 24b).

    Figure 20. The church in Sandur on Sandoy was constructed in 1839 but it is the sixth church on the site. Located near one of the more fertile areas of the Faroes, Sandur has been a site of worship since 1000 and archaeological excavations have uncovered the remains of eleven early Christian burials.

    Figure 21. The church of Hvalvíksvegur on Streymoy dates to 1837 and closely resembles the Sandur church.

    Figure 22. The church in Húsavík on Sandoy dates to the 1840s.

    Figure 23. Built in 1891, the church in Skálavík on Sandoy has the atypical addition of a transept.


    Figures 24a and 24b. The church at Húsar on Kalsoy celebrates the grinds of the Faroe Islands, a communal pilot whale hunt described in more detail in the later portion of this blog post.

    Many churches also serve as local memorials, featuring scaled models of wooden fishing boats and ships that were lost at sea, such as the model of the Danish East India Company’s Norke Løve, donated to Havnar kirkja (1788; rebuilt 1865), also known as the Tórshavn Cathedral, by surviving members of the crew (Figure 25). Besides holding some of the Faroe’s most detailed ship models, Tórshavn Cathedral established the formula that would be replicated in parish churches throughout the country: entry through a gabled porch and vestibule before passing through the doors to a narrow nave, with a gallery on the western end, and choir on the east (Figure 26-28).

    Figure 25. A view of one of the detailed ship models in the Tórshavn Cathedral.



    Figures 26-28. Views of the interior and exterior of the multi-colored Tórshavn Cathedral.

    Select parish churches function as defacto museums, housing important artifacts to local and national history. To provide curious visitors access, the keys to such churches are typically held by local elders, with directions to their home or a phone number taped to the church’s door. Arguably one of the most prized Faroese treasures held outside of the National Museum is the original flag (Figure 29) of the Faroe Islands, nicknamed the Merkið, which resides in the church of Fámjin on the southernmost island of Suðuroy (Figure 30 and Video 6).5 


    Figure 29 and 30. Jens Olivver Lisberg and his friends designed the flag and first raised it over the church in 1919 but it was not officially flown until April 25, 1940. Prompted by the Germany occupation of Denmark, the British government sent a convoy to the Faroes to prevent Axis occupation. Banned from sailing under the Danish flag, a Faroese ship bound for Aberdeen raised the very same Merkið that is preserved behind glass in the church.

    Video 6. Drone footage of the Fámjin on Suðuroy, Faroe Islands, home to the church that houses the nation’s first flag.

    Despite the typical arrangement and relatively predictable features of Faroese churches, there are a handful of religious architecture anomalies in the islands that help make each town, sometimes separated by only ten kilometers, distinctive and memorable (Figures 31–34).

    Figure 31. The stone church in Eiði on Eysturoy was constructed around 1881 and features some of the more elaborate, albeit garishly painted, doors in the Faroe Islands.

    Figure 32. The church at Sandvík on Suðuroy has an octagonal tower and roughcast over stone, sourced from the adjacent quarry.

    Figure 33. Perched above the basalt columns of Tvøroyri on Suðuroy, the wooden components of the local church was prefabricated in Norway then shipped to the town for construction in 1908.

    Figure 34. Oddly proportioned and built in the neo-gothic style, the church at Vágur on Suðuroy was constructed in 1939.

    The Tale of Two Cities: Klaksvík and Tórshavn

    Since I flew to the Faroes, driving to Klaksvík, Borðoy, shortly thereafter and departed the islands via ferry in Tórshavn, the two largest cities on the islands essentially formed bookends for my visit. This, in hindsight, was serendipitous since Klaksvík and Tórshavn are atypical sites in the Faroes due to their scale, urban density, and the amount of new construction underway. Unlike many of the traditional Faroese towns scattered across the islands’ winding coastlines, Klaksvík and Tórshavn are disconnected from the formula of bøur and hagi. Instead, these cities are pushing forward with trade ambitions, expanding their deep natural harbors to receive cargo and cruise ships (Figure 35).

    Figure 35. A panoramic view of Tórshavn illustrating the varied topography and architecture of the capital’s harbor region.

    New concrete, glass, and basalt-clad towers are rising along the harbors and unlike other parts of the islands where homes and agricultural structures that have outlived their purpose are left to weather and deteriorate in the elements (Figure 36), scaffolding fills the streets and alleys of Klaksvík and Tórshavn in support of restoration and preservation projects (Figure 37).

    Figure 36. An architectural ghost near the harbor of Nólsoy, with a re-cladding project in the background that shows the stained pine board before it receives a new coat of paint.

    Figure 37. A view of the conversion of a fish processing plant in Tórshavn, with traditional Faroes homes and midcentury housing blocks in the background.

    Although home to a population of just 5,000, a quarter of the size of the capital of Tórshavn, the city of Klaksvík felt absolutely metropolitan in comparison to other towns I passed en route: there were several stores and gas stations, a brewery, and an active harbor in the center of the city.

    Figure 38. An aerial view of Klaksvik, showing the city nestled between the mountains and two fjords.

    Vikings settled in the area for its rich potential as a natural fishing harbor between two, deep fjords (Figure 38). With a varied terrain featuring the majority of the Faroe's tallest peaks, the northern islands were largely detached from the more populous islands of Eysturoy and Streymoy until the Norðoya tunnel opened in 2006, connecting Klaksvík to Leirvík on Eysturoy. Therefore, until the last decade, Klaksvík provided all of the essential services for the northern islands: it was named an independent municipality in 1908 and it has been home to a hospital since the 1890s, a hydroelectric station opened in the 1930s, and a technical college was founded in 1936. Klaksvík grew substantially in the early 20th century with the rise of the fishing industry due to the introduction of steam trawlers in 1911 and the foundation of a national steamship company in 1919. The Faroe Seafood Export Company followed a decade later and the latter half of the twentieth century saw the rise of fish processing plants until the ‘Black October’ crash of the nation’s fishing industry. Revived by rising fish stock, the discovery of oil, and the newfound tourist industry, now the second-largest economic generator in the nation, the cranes of working in the primary cities of the Faroe Islands indicate ambitions to grow the population, industrial enterprise, and support a new influx of travelers.

    Beyond its distinction as an urban center, Klaksvík also has a few key constructions that help reveal aspects of the nation’s history and the northern city’s aspirations for future growth, ranging from recreational facilities to the largest religious structure on the islands. Unlike Iceland, where even the smallest of municipalities have a thermally heated community pool, the Faroe Islands do not have hot springs. Heartily, many Faroese swim in the North Atlantic, since only Klaksvík and Tórshvan offer indoor swimming pools. The remnants of Klaksvík's early swimming pools, the first in the Faroe Islands and built in 1902, are still visible along the southeast coast of the city (Figure 39). These waterfall-fed pools were replaced with a downtown, indoor Aqua Center in 1974 and the facility recent underwent a renovation.

    Figure 39. An aerial view of Klaksvík’s abandoned swimming pools.

    Not far from the center of the city is Christianskirkjan (1963), an Evangelical Lutheran church designed by Danish architect Peter Koch in the style of a Viking Hall and built to accommodate 1,000 (Figures 40 and 41).


    Figures 40 and 41. Built in the Norse style, the wooden bell tower of Christianskirkjan is detached from the seven bay sanctuary.

    The stone and slate exterior with a gable roof punctured by tall, transverse windows shelters a triple height nave with exposed wooden framework. The warm tones of the stained wood, with intricate joinery details as well as tongue and groove panels, contrast with the cool, chamfered columns and beams that support the roof and two-tiered gallery. Raised high above the parishioners, nearly blending into the shadows of the wooden ceiling, is an 8-oar grindboat (Figure 42). Unlike the scaled modeled of wooden fishing boats and ships that hang from the ceilings of smaller parish churches, Christianskirkjan’s vessel is a historic artifact and an ever-present reminder of the perils, and marvels, of the sea: the wooden boat was the only one to survive a storm in 1913 that claimed the lives of all but two fishermen from Skarð on Kunoy. Following the accident, the remaining inhabitants moved to Haralssund, Kunoy, and Klaksvík.

    Figure 42. A grind is a school of pilot whales and hunts in the Faroe Islands date to 1584. Still part of Faroese culture and advertised as ‘sustainable, regulated and communal’ by the whaling division
     of the Faroese government, much to the chagrin of animal activist groups and Greenpece, grinds still occur and I witnessed the end of one in while passing through Haralssund. Once a fisherman spots grind, he alerts fellow fishermen to help drive the whales into a fjord where they are beached and their spinal cords are cut with intricately carved, traditional whaling knives.

    A notable fresco, a rare medium within the islands’ extant collections, adorns the eastern wall of Christianskirkjan. The work was originally created for a cathedral in Viborg, Denmark, in 1901; however, the damp walls of the church forced the removal of work and it was installed in the National Gallery in Copenhagen before it found a home in Christianskirkjan. Continuing its patronage of religious artwork, Christianskirkjan commissioned local artist-carpenters Edward Fuglø and Sjúrður Sólstein to create a series, entitled Jesus from Nazareth, featuring ten intricately carved wooden roundels. Although the pieces depict stories from the life of Jesus, the artists integrated references to Faroese landscapes and found objects from local fisherman (Figure 43).

    Figure 43. Measuring approximately four feet in diameter and nearly a foot deep, the wooden roundels showcase a new method of creative, Faroese carpentry. 

    Although the harbor at Klaksvík manages some commercial shipping, a new container port was constructed north of the city a few years ago, making Klaksvík a well supplied, yet compact center for commerce on the islands. For the last decade the city hosted the Summerfestivalurin music festival Looking towards future development, the city held an open, international urban design competition for a new city center in 2012. The Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects, winners of the competition, proposed a star-shaped mixed use structure that will provide a new, covered city center that will allow for civic events out-of-doors despite the variable weather. The project also proposed a series of urban canals to better connect business and recreationalists to the harbor. The municipality is still finalizing the full details of the district plan, including the establishment of a new Maritime Museum, but construction for several elements, including a new residential block with ground story commercial space, broke ground in the summer of 2015 (Figure 44). It is anticipated that by 2017 the dramatic transformations of Klaksvík’s urban center will be in full effect.

    Figure 44. The four story mixed-use block will offer new residents uninterrupted views of the surrounding mountains and access to the new, urban canal system and semi-conditioned town square.

    Tórshavn, literally translated as ‘Thor’s harbor’, is the smallest capital in the world in terms of land area and contains the only traffic lights in the Faroe Islands (Video 7). Located on the southeastern coast of Streymoy, it proved to be a convenient base for exploring the rest of Streymoy and Eysturoy as well as the southern portion of the nation. As the largest city, Tórshavn is home to approximately 40% of the nation’s inhabitants as well as a free city bus network that serves the suburb of Hoyvík.

    Video 7. Drone footage of the capital city, Tórshavn on Stremoy, Faroe Islands.

    As a settlement with Viking roots and a quickly expanding commercial harbor, the city presents a series of compelling, yet disorienting, contrasts in terms of technology and aesthetics. For example, the narrow winding streets of the Tinganes, the site of the area’s parliament since 825 and the old warehouses of the Royal Trade Monopoly, are situated in the heart of the harbor where traditional wooden boats dock next to modern trawlers with sonar and wind turbines (Figures 45–49). Twice a week, the oak schooner Norðlýsið sails to explore the caves of neighboring Hestur, passing the billows of smoke from the massive Smyril Line ferry Norrøna and container ships in Vestarvá harbor along the way. Perched above this scene is the Skansin fort, originally constructed in 1580 to protect the harbor from pirates and rebuilt in the early 19th century following a series of attacks by Turkish and British forces. Today, like Tinganes, the fort is preserved as a tourist destination, frozen in time (Figure 50) while the sprawl of Tórshavn continues into the hills, populated with newer structures: modern housing blocks, the community resource and celebration of Scandinavian design and culture known as the Nordic House (1983), and the nation’s only array of big box stores.

    Figure 45. An aerial view of the streets and turf-covered buildings of Tinganes.



    Figures 46-48. The architecture of the Tinganes has familiar features from Faroese vernacular structures, such as turf roofs and painted wooden cladding, but some of the buildings have costly half-log clapboard and many of the buildings’ foundations have a unique composition of rubble walls, bonded together with shell and lime mortar.

    Figure 49. One of the capital’s few hotels is visible in the background, towering above some of the area’s more famous turf-covered restaurants that receive their fresh catch directly from the adjacent harbor.

    Figure 50. Some of the best views of the capital can be seen from the star-shaped fort and the lighthouse is one of the most recognizable landmarks of the area.

    Although an interesting city with museums and a layered approach to urban fabric that provides insight to the ways the Faroese architecture has evolved, some of the most interesting aspects of capital region are outside of the city. For example, twenty minutes south of Tórshavn is Kirkjubøur, the site of a medieval settlement that was once the heart of the Faroe Islands (Video 8). Now a small town that receives chartered tour buses from the capital, Kirkjubøur has Viking roots but is best known as the site of a cathedral and early seminary.6

    Video 8. Drone footage of the medieval town of Kirkjubøur on Stremoy, Faroe Islands.

    Prior to the Reformation, the church owned more than half of the land in the Faroe Islands and Kirkjubøur served as the religious and legal seat.7 As a large stone ruin with thick moss-capped walls, Magnus Cathedral (b. 1300) is one of the most striking structures in all of the Faroes (Figures 51-58). Originally commissioned under the patronage of Bishop Erlendur (1269–1308), the project started with great ambitions but locals rebelled over the cost of the structure and slow construction meant that is was unfinished at the time of the Reformation. The use of stone cavity walls, a sacristy with a crumbling spiral stair, pointed arches, and weathered carvings, found on several extant corbels and stone plaques, are unlike anything else in the Faroes. Today, the building is partly sheltered by an ‘umbrella’ of aluminum panels and steel scaffolding in hopes of keeping water from the friable stone and protecting the structure from further erosion (Figure 59).








    Figures 51-58. Views of the massive walls and gothic elements of the Magnus Cathedral.

    Figure 59. To protect the building from further deterioration, the cathedral’s cap was installed in 2010.

    Since Magnus Cathedral was never consecrated, the adjacent stone structure painted white, known as Ólavskirkjan [St. Olaf’s church], serves as the area’s place of worship (Figures 60 and 61). Elements date to the 12th century but due to its location next to the unrelenting sea, the church has been rebuilt and restored several times. In the medieval period, the site was a popular pilgrimage site and was known as the ‘Monk’s church,’ with recent archaeological excavations revealing artifacts such as a Canterbury coin from 1218–1235.8


    Figures 60 and 61. Views of the Ólavskirkjan in Kirkjubøur.

    From the 1400s to the mid-1800s, the area’s parishioners sat in sixteen pews with richly carved ends (Figures 62­–64). These rare artifacts of medieval Faroese craft are now the centerpieces of the national history museum in Hóyvik, known as Føroya Fornminnissavn, and were once the subject of an intense dispute of cultural heritage between the Faroese and Danish governments. Removed to the Museum of National Antiquities in Copenhagen in the mid-1800s, the pew-ends were only returned to the Faroe Islands in 2002 as part of a 400-piece heritage settlement signed in the summer of 1999.9



    Figures 62-64. Details of the Kirkjubøur pew-ends.

    Finally, the last site in the rich triad of Kirkjubøur architecture is a preserved farmhouse from the 11th century, known as the Roykstovan (Figures 65–70). As one of the oldest, continually inhabited wooden houses in Europe, the Roykstovan now functions as a hybrid structure, with a living history museum in a part of the building and a family residence in the other.10 This creates an interesting, experiential contrast for visitors with the opportunity to explore the details and wares of a traditional home while listening to the sounds of a vacuum cleaner running in an adjacent room and children playing beneath the farmhouse’s various overhangs. This juxtaposition of medieval and modern life is particularly compelling considering that the Patursson family currently residing in the Roykstovan are the seventeenth generation to call the structure home.






    Figures 65-70. Views of the Roykstovan, with stone foundations quarried from the neighboring hillside, logs imported from Norway, and an interior depicting farm life in the 19
    th century.

    Prospecting Tourism in the Faroe Islands

    Although weather interruptions to ferry schedules spoiled several planned excursions, I was able to traverse the large extent of eleven of the eighteen Faroe Islands. Successful drives and ferry trips around the northern and southern regions provided glimpses of the coastlines of all but Mykines and Fugloy (Map 3).

    Map 3. The dark fill on the map identifies the sections of the Faroe Islands archipelago that were explored during the island travels.

    Never more than five kilometers from the sea, the Faroe Islands are filled with carefully built vernacular structures that mediate a harsh climate while blending into the landscape through their low profile and turf-covered roofs. These architectural traditions continue in new architectural projects around the island and since the contemporary trend of green roofs has much deeper roots in the Faroes, several structures experiment with new forms and prefabricated solutions for sustainable architecture in the rapidly growing country (Figure 71).

    Figure 71. These geodesic vacation homes (2000) near Sørvágur, Vágar illustrate a new era in Faroese architecture that blends vernacular precedent with new materials and forms. Designed and marketed by a Tórshavn-based architecture firm, Easy Domes Ltd.
    , the homes come in a prefabricated kit of twenty-one panels that can be constructed on almost any site with specially designed fasteners.

    With one of the highest birth rates in Europe and the desire to expand the tourism industry, the Faroes are poised to reshape the nation in the twenty-first century but it will, hopefully, not come at the cost of abandoning the self-sufficient community structure found in the small villages, tucked within the picturesque fjords of the islands.



    An Historical and Descriptive Account of Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1844.

    Hróarsson, Björn, ed. Faroe Islands Today. Kópavogur: Printskill, 2008.

    Proctor, James. Faroe Islands. Chalfont St. Peter: Bradt Travel Guides, 2013.

    Schei, Liv Kjörsvik, and Gunnie Moberg. The Faroe Islands. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2003.

    Swaney, Deanna. Iceland, Greenland & the Faroe Islands. London: Hawthrone for Lonely Planet, 1997.

    Wylie, Jonathan. The Faroe Islands: Interpretations of History. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1987.

    1 Björn Hróarsson, ed. Faroe Islands Today (Kópavogur: Printskill, 2008), 127.

    2 Statistics provided by the Visit Faroe Islands Tourist Board.

    3 An Historical and Descriptive Account of Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands, (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1844), 317-24.

    4 Deanna Swaney, Iceland, Greenland & the Faroe Islands (London: Hawthrone for Lonely Planet, 1997), 533.

    5 Liv Kjörsvik Schei and Gunnie Moberg, The Faroe Islands (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2003), 40.

    6 Ibid., 74.

    7 Jonathan Wylie, The Faroe Islands: Interpretations of History (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1987), 13.

    8 Schei and Moberg, 130.

    9 Ibid., 244.

    10 James Proctor, Faroe Islands (Chalfont St. Peter: Bradt Travel Guides, 2013), 64.

  • Fjords and Repurposed Sites: Explorations around Iceland’s Ring Road

    by User Not Found | Oct 04, 2016

    All photographs and videos are by the author, unless otherwise noted.

    Last month, I noted that the September blog post would cover the Faroe Islands, but after an assessment of the material I gathered from my trip around the Ring Road of Iceland, it seemed more logical to draw my travels in Iceland to a close with this month’s post. October’s post will focus entirely on the Faroe Islands: the architecture, the infrastructure, and a number of tourist-centric sites on this largely untouched archipelago.

    Although the rapidly shortening days in Iceland were a constant reminder of summer’s end and the approach of the dark winter hours, the colored display of the changing in seasons in the landscape was unexpected. With few trees, Iceland is certainly not a place for 'leaf peepers', but I was quite surprised to witness the changes in the lunar landscape: the bright purple, but invasive flowers (lupine) that liberally sprouted among the lava rocks in the summer disappeared and both the moss and brush started to change colors, the latter transitioning from vibrant green to rich shades of ochre and red (Figure 1 and 2).

    Figure 1. A small parish church in the Westfjords.

    Figure 2. An aerial view of a portion of Lake Myvatn illustrating the changing fall foliage. 

    The birches of the northern part of the nation were changing color too, giving the landscapes of Akureyri a distinctly autumn palette to compliment the bright colors of the metal-clad stores and warehouses. Along with the changing colors, it was clear that the summer season was over for many places on the island: sheep herders roamed the northern part of the country driving the animals back to local farms (Figure 3), many hotels outside of larger cities had closed for the year, the rural churches that were typically open for casual tourism were now locked, and the vast majority of museums had adopted shortened hours or closed entirely in preparation for winter.  Nonetheless, certain destinations such as the Golden Circle, Lake Myvatn, and prime towns along the Ring Road, like Vík along the south coast, were still welcoming a steady stream of visitors in tour buses and camper vans.

    Figure 3. A large-scale sheep drive along the northern coast.

    Although Vík is not a particularly large town, with a population of less than 300, the location makes it a convenient base for those wishing to explore black sand beaches, the glacial lake, and natural rock formations. To highlight the rapidly changing and expanding tourist season, the Icelandair hotel in Vík serves as an ideal case study. Opened just three years ago, the thirty-six-room hotel was a seasonal endeavor, catering to the summer tourists. In its first year, there were only a handful of rooms occupied from September to May but last year, the ‘high season’ expanded so that only November through February were the quieter months. This year, the hotel manager explained with equal measures of enthusiasm and trepidation, it is projected that the hotel will be fully booked through all seasons. Around the capital region and the southern coast, it is clear that developers are scrambling to meet the demand for lodging. By Vík, there are several new hotels under construction: one a large and looming black mass with jarring angles that does little to fit into the surrounding landscape and the other a prefab experiment of guest room pods.

    My extended trip around the island followed the Ring Road in a clockwise manner, with many excursions along minor, one-way roads. I stopped at major sites and national parks but was also interested in visiting some of the historic sites that, oddly, attract little attention, as well as several of the nation’s smaller towns that are leveraging local resources in hopes of attracting visitors. A number of sites are identified on this Google Map and this will, hopefully, be a useful resource for anyone wishing to visit the island and explore sites beyond prescriptive tourism routes. This post will not be a road trip journal, exploring sites geographically or chronologically. Instead, it will examine three building types that I continually encountered on my travels: religious sites, adaptive reuse projects transforming abandoned structures into new museums, and new visitor centers.


    Based on my explorations around Iceland, there are three predominant forms for churches. Firstly, there are turf-covered wooden churches that are representative of the earliest Christian sites of worship. Next, there are simple and utilitarian churches with narrow naves, coffered ceilings, and flanking side aisles. These small, parish churches are colorful and symmetrical, both inside and out. The outstanding churches on the island are mid-to-late 20th century examples of geometrically experimental brutalism.

    With over 350 churches on the island, vernacular and modernist examples can be found throughout the countryside, next to lava fields, and along steep coastal cliffs. Even the smallest of towns seems to have a compelling example of religious architecture that, generally, is well preserved and surrounded by a carefully manicured landscape. Based on Icelandic census reports, the plethora of parish churches on the island should be no surprise: according to recent records, about 80% of the nation’s population are members of the Lutheran State Church and another 10% are members of other Christian denominations. However, these numbers are deceiving since the National Registry records parish membership for new babies; on paper, Iceland has one of the highest percentages of registered religious devotees but few are active practitioners. Although many buildings still welcome local congregations, it seems that the majority of these churches now serve, primarily, as scenic sites: the six preserved turf churches have been adopted by the National Museum of Iceland and the corrugated metal cladding of the rustic parish churches glimmer in the sun and rain, adding another picturesque element to the already striking scenery of Iceland’s natural landscape (Figures 4 and 5).


    Figures 4 and 5. The church at Glaumbær (1926) mixes late 19
    th century timber building traditions with the practical architectural approaches of the early 20th century that championed the use of corrugated metal as weatherproofing, even on sacred buildings.

    The oldest turf church in the nation, Grafarkirkja, is a small chapel northwest of Akureyri in Gröf, Skagafjörðu that appears on few maps or tourist itineraries (Figures 6 and 7). Built by Gísli Þorláksson, the bishop of Hólar in the late 17th century, the church underwent a major reconstruction in 1950 under the stewardship of the National Museum of Iceland. Encircled by a burial ground and an expansive, open landscape, the low, turf-covered church blends into its surroundings. Upon closer inspection, however, the church has intricately carved details on the exterior, such as a delicate wooden weathervane, and complex joinery within the stave interior.


    Figures 6 and 7. Grafarkirkja was reconstructed in the 1950s and underwent a conservation project in 2011; however, these interventions carefully protected the integrity and surrounding landscape of the site by using traditional hand tools to craft the pieces needed to replace weathered boards. The tar coating helps weatherproof the building and on the treated wooden surface one can see that swarms of midges (Icelandic black flies) were attracted to and eventually encased within the building’s protective coating.

    Located just south of Grafarkirkja near the intersection of the Ring Road and route 752 is Víðimýrarkirkja (1834), another, larger turf church with apertures puncturing the sod roof (Figures 8-10). Saurbæjarkirkja (1858) in Eyjafjordur has similar details to Víðimýrarkirkja however the elements supporting the bell of Saurbæjarkirkja, used to announce services, are still in place (Figures 11 and 12).



    Figures 8-10. Víðimýrarkirkja in Skagafjörður is one of the protected buildings under the care of the National Museum of Iceland and has several intricate details, despite its small size. The building is surrounded by a laid stonewall capped with turf and the earthen retaining walls of the church have a chevron pattern within the layers of turf.


    Figures 11 and 12. Like Víðimýrarkirkja, Saurbæjarkirkja has a screen separating the choir from the nave.

    As evidenced by the preserved stave farm (Figure 13) and recreated log house of Auðunarstofa (Figure 14) at Hólar, religious structures were not the only turf-covered buildings in Iceland. From the 12th century to the Reformation, Hólar was a religious and educational center in Iceland. With several historical structures and the Hólar University College (founded 1882), the small town still functions as an educational center for tourists and locals. For example, a replica of the Bishop of Hólar’s residence from the 14th century, the Auðunarstofa, demonstrates traditional building techniques and intricate detailing, ranging from the wooden door surrounds to the arabesque, metal hardware. Beyond the turf-covered buildings, visitors to Hólar can see the oldest stone church on the island: a tall and gabled red sandstone cathedral that looks entirely foreign within Iceland’s pre-1900s landscape of religious structures due to its scale and lack of an integrated spire (Video 1).

    Figure 13. Nýibær (c.1860s) is a turf farm at Hólar with walls ranging from two to four feet thick.

    Figure 14. The original Auðunarstofa, dating to the early 1300s, was torn down in 1810. The present reconstruction was completed in 2002 using traditional building techniques.

    Video 1. Drone footage of the medieval town of Hólar in north Iceland.

    Other examples of turf structures on the island are the larger turf farms of the 18th century that integrated agrarian production with sacred sites. One of the best-preserved examples of this typology can be found at the Glaumbaer (1750-1879) folk museum of Skagafjordur (Figure 15). Founded as a local museum in 1948, the farmhouse now falls under the stewardship of the National Museum of Iceland. The site contains a series of interconnected, turf-covered structures with decorative gable ends that face working yards (Figure 16). With a showcase of archaeological discoveries dating to the 11th century, the farmhouse is one of the best-preserved vicarages in the nation (Figures 17-19).1 The farmhouse contains pantries, furniture made from driftwood and deconstructed packing cases, and the remnants of the bi-yearly trips to the nearest fishing village. The baðstofa occupies one of the long sections of the interconnected turf farmhouse and was once the core, heated living space where inhabitants bathed, slept, and spent recreational hours (Figures 20-21). Here, visitors can envision life in the 18th century by inspecting the tightly packed, compartmental beds that are individually distinguished by carved bed panels featuring the name of the inhabitant, the year of construction, and, occasionally, an inscribed prayer. Several Icelandic writers and museum exhibits reveal that although the turf-covered buildings of Iceland are, now, highly romanticized, these structures were often damp, dark, and crowded.2 Ducking beneath the low ceilings and walking along the compressed corridors, it is hard to fathom how several families lived communally in the baðstofa and in close proximity to the spaces dedicated to livestock.

    Figure 15. At one time an unstaffed site, visitor numbers to the folk museum have increased dramatically and elevated concerns about the site’s sustained conservation.

    Figure 16. Like some of the other preserved turf churches of Iceland, the earthen layers of Glaumbær’s walls form decorative patterns that created a modular construction system and would be more resistant to water infiltration while adding to the aesthetic appeal of the structure.



    Figures 17-19. Skylights and apertures in the gable ends illuminate the interior of the turf farm.


    Figures 20 and 21. Children and extended family members used the unadorned portion of the
    baðstofa while the painted room along the gabled end was reserved for the vicar and his wife.

    In addition to the turf farmhouse, Glaumbaer is home to two other brightly colored, wooden farmhouses that are representative of typical agrarian buildings from the 19th century as well as a corrugated iron and timber church from 1926. The site has a number of costumed interpreters, a café, two gift shops, and a large parking lot to accommodate visitors. Signs prohibiting dogs, smoking, and climbing on or between the structures reveal that despite the unique composition of the site, select visitors have not acted in the best interests of preservation.  

    With only a handful of turf-covered churches, the plethora of religious structures from late 19th and early 20th centuries are simple gabled constructions with a spire above the entry (Figure 22). These buildings typically accommodate less than fifty people and are made of either wood, clad in corrugated metal, or roughcast concrete. Most of these churches have white or cream walls that are accented with brightly colored aperture trim and matching metal roofs.

    Figure 22. With several large apertures and a two-tiered tower with a hexagonal spire, the church at Akranes is one of the more decorative parish churches of the island.

    The Bláakirkja [Blue Church] of Seyðisfjörður, however, stands out: unlike other sites around Iceland where a pale blue building would blend into the horizon, the harbor town’s placement within a deep valley of the Eastfjords means that the structure stands out against the mountainous background, shaped by the Fjarðará river and Gufufoss (Figure 23a and b). Seyðisfjörður was founded in 1848 as a trading post to the east and at the turn of the 20th century, it was the second largest city in Iceland. Illustrating its connections to Scandinavian neighbors, the town’s earliest structures, including portions of the church, were prefabricated in Norway. Today, the town has less than 700 inhabitants but it welcomes a stream of visitors every week as the port for the Smyril Line ferry MS Norröna that sails between Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Denmark (Figure 24).

    Figure 23a. A collage of photographs from 1922 and 2016, showing how the entry to the Bláakirkja is now framed by a series of small, metal-clad cafes and guesthouses.

    Figure 23b. The blue of the church of Seyðisfjörður against the mountains.

    Figure 24. The approach to Seyðisfjörður as seen from the ferry from the Faroe Islands.

    With few trees in the nation and a harsh climate for deciduous hardwoods, Iceland’s wooden building materials are typically imported. Driftwood, usually from Siberia, occasionally washes ashore but the waterlogged pieces are far too fragile to be used structurally (Figure 25).3

    Figure 25. A view of one of the many fields of driftwood along the coast of the Westfjords.

    Therefore, several of Iceland’s wooden churches are actually early examples of prefabrication: the church’s elements were designed and crafted in other Scandinavian countries then shipped to Iceland for assembly. For example, components of the Húsavíkurkirkja were made in Norway then shipped to the whaling town for construction in 1907: the scale, use of color, elaborate interior joists, and exterior decoration are like no other church on the island (Video 2 and Figures 26 and 27). As a wooden church with a riveted metal onion dome, the Grundkirkja (1905) in Eyjafjörður is another anomaly in Icelandic religious architecture (Figures 28-31).

    Video 2. Drone footage of the harbor and unique church of Húsavík.  


    Figures 26 and 27. The tall structure, use of color, and articulated joinery immediately identify the Húsavíkirkja as an atypical building within Iceland’s sacred architecture.




    Figures 28-31. Despite its unusual form and atypical patronage (a single farmer), the Grundarkirkja is rarely cited on Icelandic tourist maps or in tour books.

    Due to their expense, churches were typically humble structures and in a nation with such a varied and tough landscape, the placement of churches seems to indicate that parishioners would rather sponsor a small place of worship within their immediate vicinity rather than collaborating with a neighboring town to fund a larger structure (Figures 32 and 33).


    Figures 32 and 33. Perched near the coast, the small church of Búðir (1847-1851) is one of the oldest timber buildings in the nation.

    By the early 1900s, it was common for churches to be clad in corrugated metal: it ensured better weatherproofing but the repeated meter of the material also mimicked the look of wooden board and batten siding that could be found on 19th century buildings (Figure 34).

    Figure 34. This small parish church in a remote area of Arneshreppur sits along the Strandir coast of the Westfjords.

    Around the 1930s, the wooden substructure used in churches was replaced with concrete (Figure 35). This made buildings cheaper and easier to construct given the limitations on lumber; however the material change was mandated in larger cities like Reykjavík and Akureyri. Here, the construction of new, wooden public buildings was largely banned in hopes of quelling urban fires.4 These regulations, alongside the economy of concrete construction and the desire to cultivate a new national aesthetic following’s Iceland’s independence, may explain why there are a number of sites of worship, scattered around the island, that are unexpected concrete masterpieces. 

    Figure 35. The once-red roof of the Ólafsfjarðarkirkja (c.1915) was replaced with grey during a recent conservation project and yellow accents were added to emphasize the concrete sills.

    Although the capital’s skyline is dominated by one of the tallest and most recognizable architectural icons of the nation, Hallgrímskirkja (Figure 36), Reykjavík’s suburbs are also filled with fascinating modern churches (Figures 37-46).

    Figure 36. Easily the most recognizable churches in Iceland, Hallgrímskirkja is just one of the island’s modernist icons.

    Figure 37. As one of the first experimental constructions in concrete, the independent church of Kirkja Óháða Safnaðarins (1959), designed by Gunnar Hansson, features an array of clerestory windows and a vibrant, blue façade.



    Figure 38-40. Located in the Hamraborg, Kópavogur suburb just south or the capital, the Kópavogskirkja (1957-1962) was designed by Hörður Bjarnason and the centralized plan capped with parabolic arches is cardinally orientated.

    Figure 41. The Vídalínskirkju (1966) has undergone several additions but the intersecting gables of the original structure are still the dominant forms of the building.

    Figure 42. Located above the Laugardalur Valley with a concrete spire that seems to rise from the rock, the Áskirkja (1983) was designed by Hjálmarsson and Haraldsson Architects.


    Figures 43 and 44. Designed by Ferdinand Alfreðsson and Guðmundar Kr. Kristinsson, and Hörður Björnsson, the twelve-pointed star plan of the Breiðholtskirkja (1977-1988) transitions into a dramatic, open pinnacle.


    Figure 45 and 46. Located west of the capital, near the Grótta Lighthouse of Seltjarnarnes, Seltjarnarneskirkja (1979-1989) was designed by Harðar Björnssonar.

    Iceland’s prolific state architect Guðjón Samúelsson, can, in part, be credited for the initial wave of modernism in the capital as well as the northern industrial city of Akureyri (Video 3). His urban plan for the city in 1927 helped craft a new commercial and residential core that was more conductive to an industrialized and electrified city while the construction of the stacked towers of the Akureyrarkirkja (1940) responded to the forms of the nearby mountains of Eyjafjöður (Figures 47 and 48). Here, elements of the international style seamlessly blended with Icelandic regionalism. The examples provided demonstrate that modern churches were popular in metropolitan areas but other, iconic structures (at a range of scales) can be found throughout the nation (Figures 49-63).

    Video 3. Drone footage of Akureyri, featuring the old urban center along the harbor and Samúelsson church at the top of the commercial summit.


    Figures 47 and 48. Samúelsson emphasized the summit site of the Akureyrarkirkja (1938-1940) by placing a series 100 steps on axis with the nave.

    Figure 49. En route from the capital to Þingvellir National Park, the small church of Mosfellskirkja (1965-1979) by Ragnar Emilsson is hard to miss. The sharp angles of the spire and folded gables of the parish church mimic the forms of the surrounding ridges.


    Figure 50 and 51. Near the airport in Keflavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula is Ytri-Njarðvíkurkirkja (1979) by Ormar Þór Guðmundsson and Örnólfur Hall




    Figure 52-55. North of the capital region, on the Snaefellsnas Peninsula, the soaring and skeletal church of Stykkishólmskirkja (1972-1990) designed by Finnish architect Jón Haraldsson dominates the skyline of Stykkishólmur.


    Figures 56 and 57. The Egilsstaðakirkja (1974) of Egilsstaðir, Eastfjords serves as a visible landmark for the small town from the Ring Road.

    Figure 58. Set within a town known for its geothermal greenhouses and natural hot pots, Hveragerði is home to a concrete church (1967-1972) with a steep gable and detached bell tower.

    Figure 59. This small concrete and metal chapel in the remote area of Arneshreppur along the Strandir coast of the Westfjords sits near the early 20
    th century single nave church seen in figure 34.




    Figures 60-63. Designed by Maggi Jónsson (b.1937), an Icelandic architect in practice since 1972 with several commissions for the University of Iceland, the board-formed concrete Brutalist church of Blönduós (1982-1993) takes inspiration from the form of a volcano and features skylight domes to illuminate subterranean meeting rooms.

    Repurposed, Reclaimed, and Reconstructed5

    Located along the smaller roads of Iceland’s fjords, several towns have actively cultivated grassroots tourism campaigns, hinged on their local resources and history. Many of these small towns are time capsules that capture Icelandic life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since they have less than 3,000 inhabitants, tourism is an attractive economic generator. 

    Hoping to curate important historical sites related to fishing and whaling, several entrepreneurial individuals and small towns have spent the last few decades converting abandoned and underused sites into museums and living history destinations. The most groundbreaking of these sites is the Herring Era Museum located in Siglufjörður. As one of the most prominent, and wealthy, harbors during the 'Herring Years' of 1903-1986, Siglufjörður was once known as the "Atlantic Klondike"(Figure 64).  During peak operations, the town processed 20% of the nation's herring, an export that accounted for 40% of the nation's overall export revenue. The first factory of Siglufjörður was constructed in 1911 and over the next half a century, production grew: between 1950 and 1965, there were 120 companies producing salted herring and nine other companies dedicated to byproducts, such as meal for pet food and oil for various uses, including soap. The piers of Siglufjörður stretched 7.3km into the fjord but when the herring population collapsed in 1969 due to overfishing, Siglufjörður fell into a deep recession like many other towns of the north and east: Akureyri, Bolungarvík, Dagverðareyri, Dalvík, Djúpavík, Eskifjörður, Hjalteyri, Húsavík, Ingólfsfjörður, Krossanes, Þórshöfn, Neskaupstaður, Raufarhöfn, Reyðarfjörður, Seyðisfjörður, Skagaströnd, and Vopnafjörður

    Figure 64. A fishing vessel, overflowing with herring, was a common sight in the 1950s. Photograph from the Reykjavík Museum of Photography, item GRÓ-004-061-2-2.

    When the Old Norwegian Sailors’ Home of Siglufjörður, the Róaldsbrakki (1907), was threatened with demolition in 1984, a group of volunteers rallied to restore the building with the support of the Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland (Figure 65). In the summer of 1994, the structure opened to the public as a site for collecting and interpreting the history of the region. Bolstered by a grant from the Ministry of Education in 1997, the volunteer group expanded their efforts and began to develop a master plan for the restoration of a portion of the harbor. 

    Figure 65. The restored Róaldsbrakki now houses a shop and storage on the ground floor and exhibitions on the upper floor. The area in front of the building also serves as a stage for a summer concert series.

    In 1998, the group began the reconstruction of the Grána fishmeal and oils factory (c.1930s) by collecting preserved industrial artifacts from the abandoned factories of Ingólfsfjörður (1942-1952) and Hjalteyri (1937-1966) (Figure 66). Completed in 2003, the project received Iceland's first Innovation Tourist Board Award. The reconstruction of a typical herring port from 1938-1954 commenced the following year as did the construction of the boathouse, a large shed building to house a recreated fisherman’s store and eleven restored wooden boats from 1938 to 1954 (Figures 67 and 68). Along the harbor, the group restored a partially preserved slipway in hopes of providing a platform for interpreting shipbuilding practices from the 1930s to 1960s.

    Figure 66. The old fishmeal factory has been restored with salvaged equipment from the abandoned factories of two herring ghost towns.


    Figures 67 and 68. The new boathouse offers visitors a large and comfortable space to escape poor weather and explore traditional wooden boat construction, in detail.

    After years of grassroots preservation and restoration, the non-profit renamed the site The Herring Era Museum in 2006 and transitioned the volunteer-managed property into a successful, full-time and professional museum endeavor. In its first years the museum had fewer than 2,000 visitors but today it welcomes over 25,000 a year, largely thanks to tour groups and improved access to the site because of the construction of the Héðinsfjörður tunnel in 2011. Since 2013, a professional boat builder has been employed to restore the adjacent slipways and piers, and in the summer months he works in the restored shipyard as part of living history initiatives at the site. Due to the popularity of the museum, there are plans to convert a late 19th century salt house into additional storage facilities for the museum’s ever-growing collection of industrial objects and other businesses in the town have profited from the museum’s success: once a struggling harbor, Siglufjörður now has several new hotels, restaurants, and shops (Figure 69).

    Figure 69. The Herring Era Museum now dominates the harbor and it is easy to imagine how the museum may expand its efforts along the old fishing piers in future years.

    Also related to the collapse of the herring industry and located in Árneshreppur of the Westfjords, is the abandoned industrial village of Djúpavík (Video 4). In addition to acting as a dramatic backdrop for the town, the adjacent waterfall provided hydroelectric power to fuel the once vibrant herring factory. Although still very much an industrial ruin and ghost town, Djúpavík is slowly resurrecting itself as a destination site for adventurous tourists and Iceland’s creative startups.

    Video 4. Drone footage of the abandoned herring plant in Djúpavík of Iceland’s Westfjords.

    Elías Stefánsson established the first herring salting station in Djúpavík in 1917, but the endeavor bankrupted in 1919. With a renewed drive to bring cutting-edge industry to an area that was, at the time, accessible only by ship, an innovative fishmeal and oil factory was constructed in 1935. With three stories spanning 90 meters, the factory was the largest concrete building in Iceland and the operation pioneered the use of heated storage tanks for oil, contained within three massive concrete cylinders (Figures 70-73). With a rapidly depleting herring stock, the factory closed in 1954. Exploring the site today, it is as if the workers simply walked away: the site is still scattered with tools, abandoned replacement cleats and bits for fishing boats, and rusting ship hulls (Figure 74).


    Figures 70 and 71. These photographs from 1934 and 1935 reveal a bustling site with large-scale concrete construction projects and a substantial labor force. Photographs from the Reykjavik Museum of Photography, item numbers ARN-26 and 50.

    Figure 72. The oil tanks are now empty but the heating coils are still visible on the floor of these massive industrial ruins.

    Figure 73. This photograph shows the intact steel ship that is now a rusted skeleton, docked at the abandoned factory. Photograph from the Reykjavik Museum of Photography, item AGH-SJÓ-060.

    Drawn to the area after a visit, a family purchased the factory in 1985 and they have been responsible for transitioning the abandoned town into a rustic site for summering Icelanders and entrepreneurial craftsmen and artists. They also purchased the factory’s kvennabraggann, a building used to house unmarried female factory workers, and converted the structure into Hotel Djúpavík.

    Over the years, portions of the factory's old boathouses have repurposed as bays for craftsmen who welcome curious visitors into their workshops. Here, one can see everything from the restoration of classic cars to the production of fine furniture. Some unaltered parts of the factory are open to touring, providing visitors with the rare opportunity to explore interwar factory technology, while other portions, with their rough board-formed concrete walls and cracked windows, are now used as spaces for temporary art installations (Figures 75 and 76). 


    Figures 75 and 76. Although an eerie setting, the long corridors of the abandoned factory provide the ideal armature for displaying artwork and experimental installations.

    Whereas The Herring Era Museum and Djúpavík are adaptive reuse projects that reveal a facet of the rise and fall of Iceland’s fishing industry, the Whaling Museum of Húsavík, located in Skjalfandaflói Bay, is a more recent tourism endeavor that attempts to explore the history whaling around the island. Founded in 1997, the collections soon outgrew rented space in town so the volunteers moved into an abandoned sheep slaughterhouse along the harbor (Figure 77). The shell of this utilitarian building is largely preserved, with only a few alterations such as the insertion of a suspended wooden walkway that allows visitors to get close views of the nearly one dozen whale skeletons on display (Figure 78).

    Figure 77. The bright colors and cheerful decorations of the Whaling Museum mask the building’s unpleasant history.

    Figure 78. The dimly lit upper story of the open plan museum houses a collection of whale skeletons.

    The museum provides insight to the whaling history of the nation and the still-evolving shift from hunting whales to actively conserving their habitat, partially driven by the popularity of whale watching expeditions around the island. This was a theme I explored, briefly, in my inaugural blog post. In the museum, exhibits underscore that although whales and beastly sea creatures appeared in early maps (1585, 1640), as well as the Landnámabók [The Book of Settlement] and seventeen sagas, Vikings were not vigorous whalers. A beached whale, however, was known as a hvalreki , and the word’s contemporary translation is  ‘a lucky find’: the discovery of a beached whale could sustain a community in the harsh climate and, consequently, the finder of hvalreki was compelled to report the discovery to his or her neighbors. There are records from the 16th century of Icelanders participating in pod drives into fjords, trapping whales and dolphins in a manner very similar to the communal hunts that still occur in the Faroe Islands but the first commercial whaling enterprises did not occur until the 17th and 18th centuries, fueled by the domestic need for whale oil. Between 1883 and 1989, there were fourteen whaling stations in Iceland, predominantly located in the Westfjords, with five stations in the Eastfjords and one north of the capital region. Whaling in the Eastfjords, however, lasted only a decade due to diminished species numbers. Under legislation from the International Whaling Commission, commercial whaling was suspended from 1986 through 2006, although Iceland was still permitted to hunt sixty large whales each year for scientific purposes. August 2007 marked the official termination of commercial whaling in the nation but whales are still hunted for domestic consumption, fueling the powerful phrase on the t-shirts of a volunteer agency, "whales are killed to feed tourists."

    Once a harbor occupied with whale slaughters, Húsavík is now empowered by the conservation movement: it is known as the ‘whale-watching capital of Iceland’ and is also home to the University of Iceland’s Research Centre for studying the economic effect of tourism on the region. As the port of call for an array of whale watching ships and new ecotourism companies, Húsavík has reinvented itself as a carbon-neutral, tourist-centric enterprise (Figures 79 and 80). 


    Figures 79 and 80. The various touring vessels and street signs of Húsavík advertise the region’s profitable preoccupation with whales.

    Breaking Ground: new buildings, new ideas

    In the first few blog posts chronicling my studies in Iceland, I noted the extensive construction project underway in the capital region. These new builds are, predominantly, related to high-rise housing and mixed used commercial developments; however, there are a number of innovative projects underway across the nation that are directly tied to the massive influx of tourists in the last few years. As mentioned in the previous section, small towns are attracting visitors through the conversion of abandoned and underused sites into attractions, tourist centers, and museums; a number of new design projects around the country further illustrate regional investment in tourist culture. For example, despite the translated English name that invokes images of a cringe-worthy theme park, Viking World [Vikingaheimar] is a compelling site that aligns living history reconstructions with rich narratives and artifact interpretation (Figure 81). Located in Reykjanesbær by the Keflavík airport, the project was designed by prolific Icelandic architect Guðmundur Jónsson in 2009 as an architectural vessel to hold the Íslendingur, a reconstructed Gokstad Viking ship that sailed from Reykjavík to New York in 2000 to mark the millennial anniversary of Leif Erikson’s voyage (Figure 82). Outside, the site consists of a living history turf farmhouse and classroom; inside, exhibits about Viking settlements, burial rites, and archaeological excavations line the walls and the Viking ship reconstruction floats above visitors’ heads. From the upper gallery, visitors can board the ship and try to imagine how the early sailors made it, safely, across the Atlantic. Suspended between the glazed walls, providing unimpeded views of both the marsh and adjacent ocean, the building feels a bit like a full-scale iteration of a ship-in-a-bottle model and seems like a likely precedent for elements of the much grander Grimshaw’s Cutty Sark conservation project (2012).

    Figure 81. The building’s unusual form is visible from both the Ring Road and harbor: the small structure’s curving wooden rain screen shields two, perpendicular glazed walls that are brightly illuminated in the evening hours.

    Figure 82. From 2002 to 2006, the ship was housed along the Reykjanes Peninsula. In following years, an Icelandic consortium raised funds to conserve the vessel within an appropriate, conditioned dry-dock. 

    The Thorbergur Centre of Culture in Hali, Höfn, dedicated to writer Þórbergur Þórðarson (1888–1974), has a similar scale to Viking World but, unlike the transparent architecture of Viking World that entices visitors inside, the opaque exterior of the Thorbergur Centre acts as contemporary architecture parlante, featuring an oversized bookshelf of the author’s works (Figure 83).

    Figure 83. The bold exterior masks a quiet and sophisticated exhibit at the cultural center.

    Contained within a dimly lit metal shed, architects Sveinn Ívarsson and Jón Þórisson crafted a museum with a series of intertwined vignettes that literally put visitors into the world of Þórðarson (Figures 84 and 85). As a native of Hali who grew up in the Breiðabólsstaiður settlement of the Suðursveit, an isolated part of the island that saw few visitors besides French schooners in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Þórðarson frequently wrote of Iceland’s earliest settlers and farm life. Within the museum, opened in 2006, visitors can walked through a recreated section of his family’s turf-covered homestead while reading passages by the writer on illuminated boards. With these boards providing the majority of lighting within the exhibition space, visitors are, experientially, transported. The farmhouse demonstrates life before electricity and by walking over gravel ‘paths’ in the museum and climbing wooden steps, Þórðarson’s words come to life in the deconstructed farm house: “The cows were kept under the baðstofa loft. You could see their hind ends as you walked down the passage. They were part of the family, but were just built a bit differently from humans”.6


    Figures 84 and 85. Although a small museum, the Thorbergur Centre weaves traditional 18
    th century agrarian architecture with elements of Iceland’s emerging urbanity in the early 20th century.

    In 1909, Þórðarson moved to the capital and visitors walk through this transition from the farm to urban living within the exhibit, ultimately ending their trip through the comprehensive, albeit spatially compressed, architectural biography of the writer’s life in a reconstruction of the electrified living room of his funkis home at Hringbraut 45 that he called his ‘folk tales room’ and, later, ‘the room of changlings’. Through the exhibition, the museum evocatively puts the spaciousness, furnishings, and sounds of ambient radio from Þórðarson Reykjavík home in contrast with his birthplace in a baðstofa, shared with seven other family members and the livestock. 

    As small structures, Viking World and the Thorbergur Centre’s demonstrate strong partnerships between architects, landscape architects, and exhibit designers. Taking these symbiotic partnerships another level through their environmentally conscientious designs are projects like the Snæfellsstofa Visitor Center for Vatnajökull National Park, adjacent to Snæfell Mountain in Egilsstaðir.

    As the winner of an open competition, the project was designed by Icelandic architecture firm ARKÍS architects and opened in June of 2010 as the first BREEAM certified building in Iceland (Figures 86-88). The project is also VAKINN certified Gull [gold], an environmental rating system for tourist sites in the nation. Active in several other open architectural competitions and infrastructure projects supporting the nation's natural wonders, ARKÍS is one of the nation’s leading firms supporting sustainable tourism and their projects include the Ófærufoss, a viewing platform in Vatnajökull National Park, and a small pavilion featuring restrooms and a café near the Hvítserkur at Hunafloi Bay.



    Figures 86-88. With a low, sloping profile in section, visitors ascend from the parking lot into the visitor center and the educational axis terminates in a cantilevered volume overlooking the glacial landscape.

    The building is entirely powered by hydro-electric energy and features a range of local materials and architectural inspirations: board-formed concrete with lava rock aggregate, a turf roof, and gabion retaining walls with local igneous rock (Figure 89).7

    Figure 89. The concrete casting system employed at the visitor center creates a series of repetitive bands throughout the building that reference both the wooden rainscreen on the exterior and the tephra layers of the surrounding landscape. 

    The building's X-shaped configuration allows the staff areas and education axis to operate independently, intersecting at the café that has open views across a reindeer-filled meadow. The region was identified as a reindeer sanctuary in 1975, protecting the descendants of the first Norwegian reindeer brought to the island in 1787.

    Figure 90. The freestanding storage rooms, identified in green and yellow on the plan, provide a windbreak for the visitor center.

    Although an environmentally monitored area for nearly four decades, the National Park was established in 2008. At nearly 14,000km², it is the largest protected natural site in Europe and with such a sprawling area, the park has a series of visitor centers, located in Ásbyrgi, Skirðuklaustur, Höfn, Skaftafell, and Kirkjubæjarklaustur, as well as ranger stations in Snæfell, Hvannalindir, and Kverkfjöll. The region is also home to a number of other historical sites, including the ruins of a 15th century Augustinian cloister and a rare stone home, Skriðuklaustur (Figure 91).

    Figure 91. Once home to writer Gunnar Gunnarsson (1889-1975), Skriduklaustur is now a center of culture and history for the region. 

    Within the Snæfellsstofa Visitor Center, there are static and interactive exhibits about the flora and fauna of the park, the glacial elements related to the Earth's water cycle, and the region's geological history (Figure 92). The center provides a useful background for understanding how and why the lush landscape of eastern Iceland, with its heaths and bogs, is so different from the rest of the island and, consequently, supports a very diverse ecosystem. Like many of the other built attractions in the nation, the visitor's center is seasonal: it is open from mid-April through the end of September, but is available by appointment in the wintertime.

    Figure 92. In addition to the educational mission, the visitor center provides a welcome place to escape the unpredictable rain and wind that can plague the area even in the summer months.


    The Future of Tourism in Iceland, at a glance

    The documentary The Future of Hope (2010) underscored Iceland’s need to think local and act global.8 Although the nation has plentiful, renewable energy, with nearly 90% of their geothermal power released into the atmosphere, the nation is mobilizing to empower small businesses and agricultural production. The latter will be essential to a sustainable future since an eruption of Kalta looms: as Reykjaviík dimmed its street lights to allow visitors and locals an unimpeded, urban perspective of the Northern Lights, the Icelandic Meteorological Office raised alert status to ‘yellow’ on Friday September 30 based on elevated ‘seismic unrest’ in the area. The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 impacted air travel for more than twenty countries and put Iceland’s food crisis in the spotlight. A major eruption and the resulting impacts on air quality could cripple a nation that feeds its inhabitants, and visitors, primarily with imported goods. The slow food movement is taking hold in the northeast part of the nation and around the southern portion of Iceland: fields of greenhouses powered by geothermal energy now dot portions of the landscape (Figure 93).  As tourism rises and Iceland’s natural wonders threaten dramatic shows, it is clear that rampant hotel construction and visitors meandering from marked paths are just a few of the challenges that face the island (Figure 94).

    Figure 93. A view in one of the geothermal greenhouses of Hveragerði.

    Figure 94. A hand-painted sign in the Hverir geothermal area near Lake Mývatn warns, “it only takes one set of footprints for thousands to follow. Stay safe- respect nature.”

    Since a primary focus of my experiential research sponsored by the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship is cultural heritage tourism, it seemed apropos to conclude this post, and my time in Iceland, with a few practical notes and suggestions for any readers who hope to visit the island:

    • If you have the time and resources, spend at least two weeks in Iceland. A brief, jet-lagged layover will not provide you with the time or energy to fully explore and although the capital region is a rich and fascinating place, explorations farther afield are not to be missed. Some tour agencies and books advertise 7-day trips around the Ring Road but this means you will stay on the main route, trailing behind tour buses, and miss many of the unparalleled scenes along secondary roads.
    • Entrepreneurs are capitalizing on tourism: research any bookings before you make them and it is worth supporting the tour agencies that are dedicated to carbon neutral operations and community improvement initiatives.
    • Look for the ‘Whale-friendly’ stickers on restaurants to ensure that the business operates in accordance the ethical fishing standards of the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Icelandic Association of Whale Watchers.
    • With the exception of Þingvellir National Park, skip the Golden Circle: the varied waterfalls of the northeast (e.g. Dettifoss and Selfoss) or south (e.g. Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss) provide better hiking trails and closer views while the thermal fields of Myvatn or the Reykjanes Peninsula are more expansive, and less crowded.
    • If you rent a car and intend to traverse any portion of the Ring Road, the ash and sand insurance is well worth the fee to ensure that you are protected against damage from the prevalent storms around the volcanic island. It is also well worth renting an AWD vehicle: this is not explicitly for driving the Highland’s F-roads, although 4WD are the only vehicles legally allowed to traverse these roads. Some portions of the Ring Road are gravel and very few areas have shoulders so an AWD vehicle will ensure a bit more stability and the elevated seats substantially increase visibility on the winding roads.
    • Enjoy a trip to the Blue Lagoon but make sure you go to a community-based geothermal pool to meet locals and get a more authentic experience of thermal bathing culture. Entry to the pools is extremely reasonable and your entry cost often helps support swimming lessons for locals of all ages; Icelanders are sharing communally-funded resources with tourists and so local pool patronage can be a small way to give back to their generosity.
    • Finally, be mindful of the posted signs and warnings. It is a living landscape that can be quite dangerous for humans when it comes to fissures, hot pots, and thermal phenomena. From a conservation standpoint, although Iceland’s landscape looks rugged and resilient, there is a delicate ecosystem at play. Leaving marked paths can result in footprints in the ash that compress the soil and cause irreparable damage. The moss growing on the volcanic rocks (Cetraria islandica) is a global rarity and damage to a small portion can cause a larger section of the interconnected biomass to rapidly degrade.


    30 Sustainable Nodric Buildings: Best Practice Examples Based on the Charter Principles. Oslo: Nordic Innovation, 2015. http://nordicbuiltcities.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Katalog_www.pdf.

    Bateman, Henry. "Future of Hope." 75 minutes. Iceland: Future of Hope Ltd., 2010.

    Jóhannesson, Dennis. A Guide to Icelandic Architecture. Translated by Bernard Scudder. Edited by Jóhannesson Dennis Reykjavík: Association of Icelandic Architects, 2000.

    Þórbergur, Þórðarson. Í Suðursveit.  Reykjavík: Mál og menning, 1984.

    1 Dennis Jóhannesson, A Guide to Icelandic Architecture, ed. Jóhannesson Dennis, trans. Bernard Scudder (Reykjavík: Association of Icelandic Architects, 2000), 162.

    2 Ibid., 10.

    3 Ibid.

    4 Ibid., 12.

    5 Much of the information for this section comes from the highly informative display boards and visitor brochures found in the cited museums.

    6 Þórðarson Þórbergur, Í Suðursveit (Reykjavík: Mál og menning, 1984), 47.

    7 30 Sustainable Nodric Buildings: Best Practice Examples Based on the Charter Principles, (Oslo: Nordic Innovation, 2015), http://nordicbuiltcities.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Katalog_www.pdf. 89.

    8 Henry Bateman, "Future of Hope," (Iceland: Future of Hope Ltd., 2010).

  • Overcrowded Sites and Unexpected Voids: The Extremes of Tourism in Iceland and the Faroe Islands

    by User Not Found | Sep 02, 2016

    All photographs and videos are by the author, unless otherwise noted.

    With travels this month in the Vesturland, the southern portion of the Ring Road known as the Sudhurland, and a trip to Vestmannaeyjar, I logged nearly 2,000 miles in Iceland in August. Although my itinerary included only the bottom half of the nation, the distance I traversed was twice the length of the Ring Road [Route 1]. Advertised as a tourist route that takes a little over a week, my travels thus far have highlighted the fact that the best parts of exploring Iceland are the detours (Figures 1 and 2).


    Figures 1 and 2. The Gluggafoss waterfall and timber church found in the neighboring village are located just north of the Ring Road, near the Þórsmörk nature preserve.

    It is difficult not to stop every few miles to take in the landscape or see what hidden gems may be found down a side road. The possibilities of this type of exploration around the island, however, are recent: the portion of the Ring Road connecting the capital and Höfn, a town east of the nation’s largest glacier, was only completed in 1974. Visitors to Hofskirkja (b.1884; reconstructed 1954), one of the last turf churches constructed on the island and surrounded by some of the only preserved turf graves in the nation, once had to travel around three-quarters of the nation’s perimeter to reach the site (Figure 3).

    Figure 3. The Hofskirkja still serves as a parish church and it is one of the structures maintained by the National Museum of Iceland.

    Through much of the 1980s, the road between Reykjavík and the international airport (KEF) was the only thoroughfare paved with asphalt. Consequently, Vik, the southernmost town on the island, was largely inaccessible. The dramatic cliffs filled with puffin nests, black sand beaches, and basalt formations in the shape of arches and columns that inspired stories of fanciful elfin churches (Figures 4-7) were desolate except for local villagers and intrepid travelers with vehicles equipped to traverse the varied landscape (Figure 8).


    Figures 4 and 5. Visitors are permitted along the cliff’s marked paths and portions of the beaches but other areas are restricted to protect the nesting puffin population.


    Figure 6 and 7. From the beaches of the Vik region, visitors can see the Mýrdalsjökull glacier as well as several architectonic natural wonders: the Dyrhólaey arch, the Arnardrangur pier, the Reynisdrangar columns, and basalt caves of Reynishverfi beach.

    Figure 8. A small sampling of the ever-growing photographic collection of monster cars and trucks around Iceland. 

    Today, however, is a different story. The sites surrounding Vik comprise some of the most popular destinations on the island, outside of the capital region. During recent visits, Vik’s small gas and service station was overwhelmed with vehicles and the paths along the beaches and cliffs were packed with bird watchers and selfie-stick armed explorers. Alarmingly, there were also multiple tourists walking along the narrow, gravel shoulders of the Ring Road, casually seeking secret routes to beaches and mountain walks. Many seemed like they were trying to recreate the scenes of Justin Beiber’s I’ll Show You that was filmed in south Iceland. Rather than celebrating the region's wonders, the video seems to promote an irresponsible attitude towards foreign sites and disrespect for precious landscapes. In the three and a half minutes of the video, he runs through the slippery waterfalls paths of Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, perches precariously close to cliff edges, swims in the restricted glacial lagoon, and skateboards across the ruins of a U.S. Navy Douglas Super DC-3 plane crash along Sólheimasandur beach.  Aside from the recent music video, widely shared amateur photographs of the hollow fuselage made the plane crash site a frequent stop for curious travelers. However, some visitors have all but destroyed the site: in March 2016 the owners of the 3km path leading to the site restricted car access because of noticeable beach erosion and in June access to the site was entirely barred when someone vandalized the plane. On August 29, matters intensified when a tourist was charged ISK 100,000 ($850) after entering the area with a rental car and in the coming months more legal action may result from the event.

    To further explore some of the issues noted above, this month’s blog entry is comprised of a few short ‘chapters’ that highlight some of the successes and struggles related to tourist navigation as well as the discrepancy, especially in Iceland, between certain sites that are receiving too many visitors and sites that are strategically positioning themselves as new travel destinations.

    The Bureaucracy of Travel

    Throughout my travels, workers in regional tourist offices and the Icelandic Tourist Board have been very generous with their time. In early August, I met with the Vice-President of the European Travel Commission in Iceland, Ólöf Ýrr Atladóttir. As we talked in her office that overlooked the old harbor of Reykjavík, the former ranger in the Highlands explained her unique insight regarding Iceland’s shifting attitude towards tourism and she offered some quite thought-provoking comments on Iceland’s relationship with transient travelers. In the 1990s and in the first decade of the 2000s, national park rangers were responsible for the general maintenance of sites and restricting access to certain areas of the island, especially the Highlands. Today, however, there is a developing culture of education: instead of entirely baring entry to select sites, the rangers hope that through open access visitors will be empowered to contribute to conservation and preservation efforts. Many of Iceland’s new educational programs and way finding strategies were modeled on the National Park Service of United States, celebrating its centenary this year, and like the NPS, rangers in Iceland now find themselves in more specialized roles within both parks and school initiatives. Although much of Iceland is now open to visitor exploration through entrepreneurial tour companies such as ‘Extreme Iceland’ and rental companies that offer a range of 4x4 vehicles to traverse the region’s F-Roads, this also means that less experienced travelers are taking more adventuresome treks.1 Fortunately for the rangers and emergency responders, the majority of visitors come to the island in the summer when most of the nation’s roads are open and weather conditions are at their best. Nonetheless, there are steady increases in traveler numbers in the darker months due to advertisements for Northern Lights excursions and Icelandic layover packages for the winter holidays. Around the winter solstice, there are only four hours of daylight but according to rising visitor numbers this condition seems to entice, rather than deter, visitors who want a chance to see atmospheric phenomena or experience events such as the illumination of Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace installation. This rise in year-round tourism necessitates increased safety measures on the island and recently the 112 emergency response service developed a geo-locating, mobile app that explorers can use to track their position on the island and, in worst case scenarios, assist emergency responders in rescue missions (Figure 9).

    Figure 9. Signs such as this one occupy Iceland’s most popular tourist sites.  

    Beyond health and safety, the Tourist Board is facing critical questions about infrastructure to support the influx of visitors. According to Atladóttir, it is generally accepted that everyone who lives on the island is a host. Nonetheless, this symbiotic relationship is overtaxed, particularly in Reykjavík, since locals are quickly realizing the extent to which their public spaces and services must be shared with visitors. Consequently, officials from the Icelandic Tourist Board are promoting campaigns for exploration beyond the capital region and encourage ‘slow tourism’, a concept counter to the current touristic ‘sprint’ of Icelandic layover packages. By encouraging people to stay longer and explore farther afield, the Tourist Board hopes that the strain on certain sites in the capital region and south Iceland will be reduced and that visitors will be dispersed more evenly around the island. For example, less than a quarter of visitors to the island make their way to the West Fjords but improvements in crossroads for cars, buses, and bikes, as well as investments in small town initiatives may change this. It is estimated that over 90% of visitors to the island visit the Blue Lagoon so the Tourist Board also plans to extend the promotion of water-based tourism by leveraging existing resources such as hot pots, community geothermal pools, and boating opportunities (Figure 10).

    Figure 10. The Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is home to a number of boat slips for exploring the icy waters.

    Although travel magazines are still promoting the possibilities of the nature pass, the Tourist Board sees little potential for the success of the pass due to the complications of forging partnerships between public and private land interests. Nonetheless, tourism will be a popular topic for the upcoming Icelandic parliamentary election. As explored in previous posts, the visitor numbers to Iceland are escalating much faster than necessary conservation or infrastructure projects. There is additional pressure on the nation’s road network due to those traversing the Golden Circle and Ring Road as well as the increased number of trucks bringing food and supplies from Reykjavík’s shipping terminals to other parts of the nation. More frequent bus journeys and increased numbers of rental cars on the road also mean that the Tourist Board is monitoring issues that are infrequently discussed in glossy travel magazines: waste and the lack of public restrooms. Iceland’s Academy of the Arts and the Tourist Board are keen to address these topics and it is clear that local architects are also responding to the challenges of building a sustainable network for tourism. For example, the Visitor Center of Snæfellsstofa in Vatnajökull National Park, designed by the Icelandic firm ARKÍS, is the first new building in nation to received BREEM certification. As I plan my travels around the Ring Road in September, I am looking forward to exploring a number of other, new visitor centers currently under construction as well as the adaptive reuse projects that are converting sites in the north and eastern parts of the island into tourist offices and regional museums.



    While the south of Iceland was inundated with tourists in August, the archipelago of Vestmannaeyjar, also known as the Westman Islands, was eerily quiet during my visit. As the result of thousands of years of volcanic activity, Vestmannaeyjar consists of eleven main islands, four smaller islands known as the Smáeyjar, and more than two dozen other volcanic formations that rise from the rough seas. The newest island, Surtsey, was the result of a subsea volcanic eruption that lasted from 1963 to 1967. As a site where scientists are actively studying ‘a pristine natural laboratory’, the island was inscribed as a natural UNESCO World Site in 2008. Only certified researchers are permitted access to the island and all other visits by land or sea are prohibited, minimizing detrimental impacts from human intervention. As a popular vacation destination for Icelanders, the majority of the islands of Vestmannaeyjar are actually untouched and only one of the islands, Heimaey, is permanently inhabited (Figure 11). Besides providing a remarkable background for hikes around Heimaey’s two volcanoes, a number of the other islands have impossibly tall and rusted chain ladders connected to rough harbors that give locals access to perched summer homes, sheep grazing sites, and annual egg collecting trips.

    Figure 11. The narrow harbor entrance to Heimaey and constructed stave church, discussed later in the post.

    A ferry terminal in Landeyjahöfn, a manmade harbor just south of the Ring Road and Seljalandsfoss waterfall, was opened in the summer of 2010 and now offers visitors a quick 35-minute ride to the main harbor on Heimaey (Figure 12). Prior to the construction of the new ferry terminal, residents and visitors could only reach Vestmannaeyjar by plane, helicopter, or a nearly four-hour ferry trip from Þorlákshöfn, a port near Reykjavík that is still used during the winter months and in poor weather.

    Figure 12. A portion of the Heimay harbor and cliffs of Vestmannaeyjar in the background.

    The lack of visitors to Vestmannaeyjar during my visit may have been due to the fact that the main tourists to Vestmannaeyjar are Icelanders and in early August the nation is preparing to return to school and work following the end of the summer holidays. Additionally, the biggest event in the area, the Westman Islands Festival, occurred the week before so the quietude may have been a welcome break for residents. Held in the Herjólfsdalur crater of Heimaey and celebrated annually in early August since 1874, the festival has grown into a four-day event and with nearly 20,000 in attendance it is now Iceland’s largest outdoor festival.

    Although the main hotel in town, campsites, and guesthouses were largely booked during my stay, the town was practically empty. Few stores, cafes, or restaurants were open despite the fact that almost every corner of the harbor’s downtown had vibrant window advertisements, fresh paint, and quirky interior decorations that illustrated careful attention to cultivating the individual character of each place. This reminded me a bit of Marfa, Texas, where various restaurant and cafés were open on a rotating schedule, ensuring that each of the town’s culinary entrepreneurs could contribute to the local economy and keep mealtime a bit interesting for the town’s curious, artistic visitors.

    Despite the quiet streets and shops, Vestmannaeyjar is actively positioning itself as a tourist destination and unlike typically reactive tourist campaigns that scramble to meet the needs of rising visitor numbers, Vestmannaeyjar is taking steps towards sustainable operations that are hinged on complete energy independence by 2020. By harnessing wave energy conversion and wind power as well as heat from fish processing and waste incineration plants, it could be possible for Heimaey to be free of fossil fuels [with the exception of the island’s ships] by the next decade. To encourage visitors, the Vestmannaeyjar app launched last fall and it orientates visitors to Heimaey through a series of interactive maps that showcase points of interest, restaurants, and sites for swimming and hiking. Designed by the Reykjavík-based company Locatify, the app portrays Heimaey as a hotspot for recreation and exploration. But in mid-August, it was no exaggeration to claim that nesting puffins far outnumbered people in Vestmannaeyjar.

    Figure 13. A sign near the harbor advertising a local gallery with wool crafts and handmade sweaters.

    The islands are home to the largest colony of Atlantic Puffins in the world and although residents of Vestmannaeyjar once hunted the endearingly awkward birds (Figure 14), the dwindling numbers of puffins inspired residents to actively protect the species. Unlike Reykjavík, visitors to Heimaey’s restaurants will not find puffin on the menu and caricatures of the birds adorn nearly every souvenir, business advertisement, and even the street signs of the town (Figures 15-19).

    Figure 14. An installation on the side of the fish processing plant on Heimaey illustrating the nets once used to capture puffins in Vestmannaeyjar.



    Figures 15-17. Puffin street art and advertisements in Heimaey.


    Figures 18 and 19. The street signs of Heimaey.

    Visitors can get a closer view of the islands’ puffins at play by boarding rigid inflatable boats (rib) at the harbor that speed around the crags and caves of the neighboring islands (Figure 20). After seeing the habitat of such a large colony up close, it is possible to see parallels between the deep puffin burrows in the cliffs and some of the earliest structures made by Iceland’s Viking settlers: shelter was created by digging into the soft turf amid lava rocks and these conditions provided protection from the harsh climate as well as a bit of camouflage from invaders (Figure 21).

    Figure 20. A partially filled rib speeding past the harbor.

    Figure 21. Built in 2006, Herjólfur’s Farmhouse is hypothetical reconstruction based on 9th century the archaeological remnants of a longhouse discovered on the island in the 1970s.  

    Beyond opportunities for puffin sightings, the rib proved to be the best way to see the islands’ incredible rock formations and examples of ‘elfin’ architecture while local guides showcased their storytelling skills with epic tales of shipwreck survivals. Later excursions around Heimaey demonstrated that many of the stories are memorialized with small installations, such as the Guðlaugssund that marks epic swim, climb, and lava rock walk made in March 1984 by Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, the sole survivor of the S.S. Verðandi (Figure 22).

    Figure 22. After swimming in nearly freezing water for six hours, scaling a cliff, and treading across jagged lava rocks barefoot, Friðþórsson cracked the icy film on this abandoned tub in search of fresh drinking water. Nicknamed the human seal, Friðþórsson’s story was retold in
    The Deep  (2012)

    Vestmannaeyjar is entirely excluded from A Guide to Icelandic Architecture (2000) but the island contains a range of interesting historical and architectural sites in addition to the well-known wonders of its natural landscape. Although some of the domestic architecture is not to be missed, composed of colorful corrugated iron like much of the Iceland’s capital, and there is a quirky, geodesic convenience store from the 1970s (Figure 23), the key heritage sites on Heimaey can be explored with the Vestmannaeyjar cultural pass: the Sæheimar Aquarium & Natural History Museum, the Sagnheimar, and the Eldheimar. The first site is little more than a two-room conversion of the upper floor a commercial building near the harbor but it serves as a rescue and rehabilitation center for puffins and there are plans to expand the museum in partnership with the Research Center of Vestmannaeyjar. The Sagnheimar Folk Museum occupies the upper floor of the Heimaey library and features exhibits about harbor life and the impact of Mormon missionaries on the island between 1854 and 1914. The museum is also home to a small exhibit about the eruption of Eldfell but this has been superseded by the new and captivating Eldheimar, a museum dedicated to telling the story of the 1973 volcanic eruption that dramatically changed the landscape of Heimaey (Figures 24-26c).

    Figure 23. The prefabricated system of the building provided a logical construction system for work on the island and the result is certainly more intriguing than the bog box structure of the new grocery store.

    Figure 24. A painting along the harbor marking the eruption of Eldfell.

    Figure 25. One of the most dramatic images of the eruption shows lava overtaking the Landskirkja church in downtown Heimaey.



    Figures 26a-c. A series of images in the Folk Museum show before and after scenes of the volcanic cleanup on Heimaey.

    Eldfell initially erupted in the early morning hours of January 23, 1973, and forced the evacuation of more than 5,000 of Heimaey’s inhabitants. Over the next five months, lava from the volcano continued to flow. More than 400 homes and businesses were destroyed and Heimaey’s lifeline was nearly obliterated when lava poured over the cliffs and threatened to close the already narrow entry to the harbor (Figures 27-30).2

    Figure 27. The partially excavated ruins of a home are visible near the entry of the Eldheimar. A BBC documentary, available
    here, showcases footage of the eruption, evacuation, and cleanup efforts.

    Figure 28. In late March 1973 lava flowed towards harbor, destroying water tanks and threatening the fish processing plants and harbor that sustained the majority of Heimaey’s economy.


    Figures 29 and 30. Today, igneous rocks form the northern portion of the harbor and the expansion of the island to the northeast due to the lava is clearly visible from hiking paths around Eldfell. A useful map of the island’s volcanic expansion can be found

    In 2005, Vestmannaeyjar approved the excavations of a number of homes that were still buried by ash. The project was nicknamed of the ‘Pompeii of the North’ and the Eldheimar is literally constructed around the ruins of one residence (Figures 31 and 32). Once a home to a family of four, 10 Gerðisbraut was buried beneath the ash until 2013. Landscape architect Lilja Kristín Ólafsdóttir, architect Margrét Kristín Gunnarsdóttir, designer Axel Hallkell Jóhannesson, and the interaction design group Gagarín decided to use the home as centerpiece of the museum, dramatically lighting the ruins and allowing visitors to circulate around the site (Figures 33 and 34). Through the use of suspended catwalks and live, telephoto cameras, visitors can get closer views of the home and items left behind in the rush to escape the lava. Handheld guides that were designed by the same developers of the Vestmannaeyjar app are used to geo-locate visitors’ positions within the museum and autonomously cue supplementary audio and video content.


    Figures 31 and 32. A corten steel screen covers portions of the museum’s glazed curtain wall to reduce glare on the internal, interactive screens. 


    Figures 33 and 34. Working in concert, the physical and virtual elements of the museum allow visitors to see, touch, hear, and even smell the how the volcano impacted the Vestmannaeyjar.

    Although many villagers returned after the eruption, Heimaey’s population has yet to surpass numbers from pre-1973. The eruption of Eldfell was massively destructive but it provided a few opportunities for the island. As a captivating amalgamation of archaeology, geology, and museum interpretation, the Eldheimar won 2015 Honor Award from the Society of Experiential Graphic Design and was the recipient of the 2015 Icelandic Design Award. Additionally, the new rock formations by the harbor provided the foundations for one of the most visible architectural projects on the island: the reconstruction of a stave church (Figure 11). Built between 1998 and 2000 and sponsored by the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NINU-NIKU) in celebration of the millennial anniversary of Iceland’s conversion to Christianity, the church’s features and construction techniques were modeled on elements of the Haltdalen stave church (c.1170 AD) that is now part of the Sverresborg Trøndelag Folkemuseumin in Trondheim (Figures 35-37). To resist weathering and the harsh harbor wind, the nave is protected by a double wooden skin, creating an insulating ambulatory of sorts, and the exterior of the structure was covered in tar (Figures 38 and 39). Therefore, the warm, untreated timber of the interior provides a striking visual contrast to the dark cladding (Figures 40 and 41).



    Figures 35-37. Unlike many of the small parish churches around Iceland, the stave church is regularly open to visitors.


    Figures 38 and 39. The path between the exterior skin of the church and protected nave is illuminated with small, arched apertures.    


    Figures 40 and 41. The substantial doors of the church are affixed with reproductions of medieval hardware.


    An introduction to the Faroe Islands

    Currently, I am in the Faroe Islands and despite some tricky summer storms, I am exploring several of the eighteen islands in the archipelago. In order to make the most of my journeys between Iceland and the Faroe Islands, and to attend the wedding of close friends in England, I flew to Vágar on the Faroe Islands from London, with a brief layover in Copenhagen. Following Jeffersonian advice for my quick visit to the city, I bought a map and guidebook [now available online through the Copenhagen city card app], I walked a portion of the city’s perimeter, and then climbed a steeple to, “view the town and its environs.” (Figure 42)3 Within twenty-one hours, I made frenzied visits to several churches, the National Gallery of Denmark and its ‘street of sculpture’, Daniel Libeskind’s Danish Jewish Museum, and the Tivoli Gardens (Figures 43-49).  

    Figure 42. The tight stairs spiraling around the spire of the Church of Our Savior in Copenhagen (1690s-1752). 



    Figures 43-45. The National Gallery of Denmark 


    Figures 46 and 47. The Danish Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind in 2003, occupies the former Royal Boat House.


    Figures 48 and 49. The mid-nineteenth century amusement park occupies a central location in Copenhagen and is filled with a range of rides, architectural follies, and picturesque landscapes.

    The two-hour flight from Copenhagen to Vágar Aiport (FAE) was quite luxurious compared to the protocol of European or American hopper flights: Atlantic Airways provided generous baggage allowances and the in-flight meal consisted of sushi and Faroese beer. To add to the serendipitous convenience, the Air B&B host for my stay in the small town of Sandavágar on Vágar worked in the airport's Tourist Information office so I had quite the knowledgeable guide at hand.  

    Figure 50. The brightly colored metal and wood of the Sandavágur Church (1917) stand in contrast to the landscape.

    While based in Sandavágur, I had my first introductions to the Faroe Islands (Figure 50). The eighteen islands are connected through an impressive system of ferries, bridges, and tunnels, through both mountains and beneath the sea. Many of these tunnels, however, are one lane. The tunnels privilege one direction and force those opposing to pull into small, carved niches placed every 100 meters to allow oncoming traffic to pass. The experience of traversing these tight, darkened tunnels with water streaming down the rough walls makes one even more appreciative of the spacious views from the roads that snake along cliffs and valleys (Figure 51 and Video 1-2). Driving through the unpredictable landscape, it is also understandable that Google used cameras mounted to sheep to record data for the islands’ Street View. 

    Figure 51. The entry to a single lane tunnel on Kunoy.

    Faroe Islands drive: Gásadalur-Klasvík from Danielle Willkens on Vimeo.
    Video 1. Scenes from the Faroe Islands, exploring the islands of Vágar, Streymoy, Eysturoy, and Borðoy. The drive passed through the following towns: Gásadalur, Bøur, Sørvágur, FAE, Sandavágur, Vestmanna, Stykkið, Kollafjørður, Hósvík, Hvalvík, Oyrarbakki, Skipanes, Syðrugøta, Norðragøta, Leirvík, and Klaksvík.

    Faroe Islands: Kunoy, Borðoy, and Viðoy from Danielle Willkens on Vimeo.
    Video 2. Scenes from the Faroe Islands, exploring the islands of Kunoy, Borðoy, and Viðoy.

    The bus and ferry systems around the islands are subsidized by the government, making them affordable ways to travel and, for select islands, the ferries are still the main means of transport for workers, mail, supplies, and even commuting schoolchildren. In Vágar and the northern islands, it is hard not to take note of the incredible infrastructure of the islands, ranging from the transportation systems to power to the conveyance of water (Figure 52). Even the smallest of towns, consisting of less than ten inhabitants, have strong cell phone signals, streetlights, and partially mechanized harbors for fishing and personal transport. Steep, grass-covered volcanic mountains are filled with countless cascades but, somehow, perfectly aligned fences mark the boundaries between farms.

    Figure 52. The hydroelectric infrastructure of Vestmanna on Streymoy.

    Figure 53. On the central mountain formation in the image it is possible to spot the thin white line of a fence dividing two sheep grazing sites.

    Tourist advertisements boast that the Faroe Islands are, “a place undiscovered” and with few other travelers in sight, this phrase seems true (Figures 54-56). I may find different conditions in the capital region, but thus far, it feels like a privilege to explore the quiet vernacular of the Faroe Islands (Video 3).


    Figure 54a and b. The covers of the 2015 and 2016 travel guides produced by the Faroe Islands Tourist Office.


    Figures 55 and 56. Scenes from the island of Viðoy in the north.

    Faroe Islands: Vágar fishing ruins from Danielle Willkens on Vimeo.
    Video 3. Drone footage of an abandoned fishing outpost in Vágar along the largest lake in the Faroe Islands, Leitisvatn. 

    As I write from Klasvík, barely able to see streetlights across the inlet and listening to the 40 mph wind gusts rattle my windows during a ‘common’ summer storm in the North Atlantic, I look forward to my trip to the capital of Tórshavn on the island of Stremoy and investigating the southern islands. Next month’s post will feature maps, photographs, and narratives of my full travels through the Faroes, but I will conclude this month’s posting a few previews of the footage captured so far (Videos 4-6).  

    Faroe Islands: Hvannasund on Viðoy and Norðdepil on Borðoy from Danielle Willkens on Vimeo.
    Video 4. Drone footage of the sister harbor towns of Norðdepil on Borðoy and Hvannasund on Viðoy, showing the dam across the North Atlantic that connects the two towns.

    Faroe Islands: Viðareiði on Viðoy from Danielle Willkens on Vimeo.
    Video 5. Drone footage of Viðareiði on Viðoy, the northernmost settlement of the Faroe Islands. The shape of the sea cliff traps driftwood and this property is the namesake of both the town and the island: viður is Faroese for ‘timber'.

    Faroe Islands: Haralssund on Kunoy from Danielle Willkens on Vimeo.
    Video 6. Drone footage of the colorful coastline of Haralssundon Kunoy.

    PS: I hope that the Icelandic Meteorological Office’s prediction for the eruption of Kalta does not occur in the near future…


    Boyd, Julian P., Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and et al., eds.
    The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 40 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950-.

    Williams, Richard S. Jr., and James G. Moore. "Man against Volcano: The Eruption on Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland." Denver, CO: USGS Information Services, 1976. Reprint, 1986.


    1 It is illegal to drive anything but a 4WD vehicle on the nation’s F-Roads.

    2 Richard S. Jr. Williams and James G. Moore, "Man against Volcano: The Eruption on Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland," (Denver, CO: USGS Information Services, 1976; reprint, 1986), 6-8.

    3 Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 40 vols. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950-), 13:264-76.

  • Museums In and Out of Doors: Curating Art, History, and Nature on the Island

    by User Not Found | Aug 02, 2016
    All photographs and videos are by the author, unless otherwise noted.

    As I approach my sixth week of travels, I am enjoying a very welcome feeling of familiarity with Reykjavík and its environs. I have a favorite coffee shop, a preferred place to watch the late night sunsets that never disappoint, and the capital city’s parks are now animated with locals and visitors due to the recent ‘heat wave’. The crest of summer also welcomes a host of pop-up events around the city, ranging from a massive slip-n-slide on the steep shopping street of Laugavegur to a beer garden in the Old Town complete with transported turf to line the cobblestone streets. The days, however, are rapidly growing shorter: instead of the midnight sunset and 2 a.m. sunrise of the summer solstice, daylight lasts from about 4:30 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. and that light grows shorter by about ten minutes each day. Although the sunny hours are slipping away, studies from the Icelandic Board of Tourism prove that visitor numbers are nearing their peak for the year, at a little over half a million.1  

    Figure 1. Artificial light illuminating the buildings of Reykjavík Old Town in summertime.   

    Since 2013, tourism has been the main stream of revenue for the island. The majority of tourists state that ‘nature exploration’ is the main goal of their journey and in anticipation of the demands imposed by high visitor numbers to the islands, the Tourist Site Protection Fund was established in 2011.2 The Fund is currently working with 450 sites around the island, but their impacts have been limited due to the requirement that localities provide 50% of the funding for projects. As Iceland continues to promote ecotourism, local authorities are rushing to construct barriers for protecting tourists and natural resources alike: waterfalls, cliffs, and thermal fields pose dangers to curious visitors who wander from prescribed routes, site erosion runs rampant, and ecologists are carefully monitoring water and soil quality. 

    Figure 2. A sign at the Seltún thermal fields. 

    Through the Fund, officials hope to construct pathways, viewing platforms, and accessible routes that can be easily placed, and even removed, without large impacts on the natural sites.3 These interventions must sustain themselves with minimal maintenance, despite harsh climatic conditions, since the staff members of various parks and natural sites are already overtaxed. To fund so many built interventions, the government is currently evaluating the concept of a ‘nature pass’: a fee structure for all natural sites that would help support both necessary building initiatives and provide adequate staff. 

    Aerial view of the harbor skyline.  

    Curiously, as the island tries to inaugurate a massive do-no-harm building program for ecotourism, bringing essential way finding and landscape architecture interventions to frequently traversed sites, the island is doing fairly little to promote its architectural heritage or museums. These sites seem to fall to a second tier, at least from an advertising perspective, when compared to the Golden Circle, glacier walks, or even visits to the Blue Lagoon. Although one can find myriad walking tours around the capital, and many for free, the built environment is strangely absent from the offerings. There are tours that celebrate Reykjavík as a UNESCO City of Literature, ‘walking the crash’ from the banking fallout of 2008, pub crawls, culinary tours, and even an exploration of street art from the grassroots group I Heart Reykjavík, but there is not a tour primarily dedicated to the architecture and urban development of the city. In hopes of highlighting a few sites that can escape the typical visitor, this post will focus on some of the architectural gems of Iceland’s southwest and museums in the capital that provide an interesting glimpse into the island’s history through unique means of historical interpretation. Moving forward in partnership with Iceland’s new tourist initiatives, it will be critical that these architectural sites also receive the funding and attention needed to ensure their preservation. 

    3_1936-2016_H+¬ra+¦ssk+¦linn Laugarvatn
    Figure 3. A photomontage by the author of the Héraðsskólinn girls’ school, now a hostel, in Laugarvatn that combines photographs from 1936 and 2016. State architect Guðjón Samúelsson designed the school in 1928 and the roofline was intended to reference the region’s traditional domestic architecture: gabled turf farmhouses from the 18th and 19th centuries.4 

    Missing pieces

    Before I journeyed to Iceland, I knew that I would not find any preserved structures from the Viking Age. However, as I continue explore Suðurland [the southwestern areas of the island] I am surprised that it is nearly impossible to find a piece of architecture from the 15th through the 18th centuries. The Suðurland is home to the oldest settlements and richest preserved architectural fabric, yet the oldest buildings in the capital region are from the later portion of the 1800s. There are a few examples where visitors can find earlier traces of Iceland’s built environment but these sites are not widely advertised. For example, there are a handful of sites with archaeological evidence of monasteries from the 1200s, such as the island of Viðey and Skálholt (figure 4). The latter, once home to the largest Catholic congregation and the bishop of Iceland, embodies the two main types of architectural heritage sites found in Iceland: vernacular structures, often reconstructions (figure 5), and striking examples of 20th-century modernism. Today, Skálholt is an auxiliary site for a handful of travelers on the Golden Circle who want the opportunity to imagine one of the many grand wooden cathedrals that occupied the site between the 11th century and the Reformation. Today, a small, honor-based fee system offers entry for those who want to duck through an earthen passage to the crypt, containing some of Iceland’s oldest Christian relics, and ascend into the colorful modern sanctuary (figures 6–7). However, the school and small restaurant dictate the majority of traffic to the site and only private tour companies offer excursions from the capital. 

    4_160630_Sk+ílholt church-01-HDR

    5_160630_Sk+ílholt church-19
    Figures 4–5. The Skálholt historical site, featuring a cathedral from the 1950s atop the ruins of a 12th-century monastery and a reconstructed turf-covered chapel. 

    6_160630_Sk+ílholt church-05Figure 6. A restored portion of the tunnel that once connected the medieval monastery to the adjacent school.  

    7_160630_Sk+ílholt church-09-HDR
    Figure 7. A view of the nave of Skálholt church (1956-1963), with stained glass windows by Gerður Helgadóttir.

    As explained by architectural historian Pétur H. Ármannsson in an essay entitled “The Mountains are Their Castles,” there are several reasons for the large gap of preserved structures within Iceland’s built record.5 The volcanic soil and porous lava rocks require alternative approaches to traditional stone building techniques and the production of brick is nearly impossible. Prior to settlement, approximately 25% of Iceland was forested but it is estimated that by the 12th century less than 2% of the island was wooded, putting a severe restriction on the use of wood for domestic or civic architecture. Complicating factors were the harsh climate as well as the tradition of rotating tenant farming in the 18th and 19th centuries: workers needed dwellings that could be constructed quickly with local materials and easily maintained in the harsh weather. Therefore, Icelanders turned to dense, turf-covered structures and used stretched Skate fish as translucent coverings for apertures in the roof. As buildings that literally combine the built and natural environments, Ármannsson recognizes these vernacular constructions as Iceland’s most important contribution to architectural history.6 However, with the exception of two living history museums, these structures are not part of the main cultural narrative presented to visitors to the island and it is difficult to trace Iceland’s architectural history within the nation’s established museums. Nonetheless, visitors who are willing to do some independent investigation can assemble the puzzle of Iceland’s architectural heritage by visiting several of the nation’s museums located both in and out of doors. 

    Of the five sites that comprise the Reykjavík City Museum [the Árbær Open Air Museum, The Settlement Exhibition, the Reykjavík Maritime Museum, the Reykjavík Museum of Photography, and Viðey Island], the majority feature interesting architecture but the interpretation of the sites focuses on other aspects of history. 

    8_160625_Reykjavik maritime museum-1910harbor
    Figure 8. A photograph from the Vikín Maritime Museum, illustrating Reykjavík’s harbor in 1910. 

    9_160625_Reykjavik maritime museum-03
    Figure 9. One of the permanent exhibitions in the museum focuses on the Cod Wars that occurred from the late 1950s to early 1970s as Iceland expanded its claim on the fishing territory around the island. 

    For example, the Vikín Maritime Museum (established 2005) is a recent adaptive reuse project that transformed a midcentury fish freezing plant into a site for interpreting the history of the harbor (figures 8–9). In hopes of creating a new path for understanding the architectural history of Iceland, this post will examine two sites within the Reykjavík City Museum, the Settlement Exhibition and Viðey Island, alongside several other natural site and cultural institutions. 

    Uncovering the layers of the city

    As a small museum on the edge of the Old Town, the Settlement Exhibition tells the story of the Reykjavík’s foundation but the building's exterior does little to express the compelling architectural artifacts held within: the ruins of a 10th-century Viking longhouse that was discovered during a construction project along the Aðalstræti in 2001 (figures 10a and 10b). The nickname, Reykjavík +/- 2, prompts curious expressions from some visitors but for those acquainted with the history of the island it is a familiar equation referring to a significant geological event: the eruption of Torfajökull in 871, a date estimated within a two year margin of error. This event spread a layer of tephra around the island that is clearly marked within the horizon profile, helping archaeologists date a small portion of the longhouse preserved within the Settlement Exhibition to an era before 871. This makes the longhouse the oldest known structure in the city. 


    Figure 10. The unassuming entryway of the Settlement Exhibition does little to advertise the rich collections. 



    Figures 11–13. The ruins of a Viking longhouse, preserved within the subterranean Settlement Exhibition, exist a story beneath one of the Old Town’s main corners. 

    In addition to the unparalleled example of early architecture and vitrines around the perimeter of the room that hold relics and fragments discovered at the site, including bones of the now-extinct auk, the Settlement Exhibition is also home to some of the subtlest and most effective interactive installations I have ever seen within an interpretive exhibit design. The elliptical, subterranean exhibit surrounds the on-going archaeological excavations and the dim lighting provides ideal conditions for the backlit display boards. Here, ghostly silhouettes that hunt, fish, farm, and build enliven vibrantly colored representations of Reykjavík in the Viking era. The exhibits truly bring to life the 'smoky bay' and showcase how the city derived its name from steam plumes of nearby thermal springs. A touchscreen table allows visitors to explore the ongoing excavations at the longhouse while another screening room provides information on the materials and construction processes used by Viking builders. The museum is also home to manuscripts of the Sage Age, an era of the 12th when Icelandic writers recorded the oral histories of settlement, battles, and dramas of the initial settlement period from 870 to 930. 

    Animation of an early Icelandic inhabitant hunting a great auk now extinct, within the exhibition. 



    Figures 14–16. The illuminated and interactive displays of the Settlement Exhibition are put in stark contrast with the dimly lit ruins and utilitarian concrete posts and beams that support the subterranean space. 

    Figure 17. The stairway leading visitors back to the present-day level of Reykjavík.

    Although entirely fascinating and perhaps one of the best exhibits for learning about how and why Reykjavík was settled, the subterranean museum receives fewer visitors than other sites. Like the Roman amphitheater discovered beneath the Guildhall in London or the Crypte archéologique du Parvis Notre-Dame, the Settlement Exhibition literally falls below the radar of many visitors but numbers have been bolstered by its inclusion on the Reykjavík Welcome Card, a tourist pass for access to various transit options and cultural sites.  
    The key site one would expect to find information on the built environment is the Þjóðminjasafn Íslands, the National Museum of Iceland. Although there are a handful of exhibits on traditional building techniques and a reconstruction of a baðstofa (figures 18–19), a typical one-room residence for much of Iceland’s rural population in the 19th century, the museum operates without an architectural curator. This is more incredible considering the museum serves as the steward for forty historic structures around the island

    Figure 18. The interior of the baðstofa illustrates the simple furnishings and build-in beds that were common in these dwellings. The single volume form helped concentrate heat during the colder temperatures of Iceland’s medieval period. Photograph captured in the National Museum of Iceland. 

    Figure 19. Various domestic accouterments from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, ranging from iron house keys decorative weather vanes bearing the family name of the occupants and date of construction. Photograph captured in the National Museum of Iceland. 

    Established in 1863, the National Museum of Iceland was originally housed in a series of public buildings in the Old Town. In 1945, State Architect Guðmundsson was charged with the design of a purpose-built museum, just outside of the city center along the Hringbraut ring road. Resembling a Werkbund factory more than a museum, the building features a series of chronological exhibitions rooms across three floors. With only a small section of one floor dedicated to the architecture of the island, visitors have to search a bit harder to understand the issues that facilitated transitions in construction and aesthetic principles. Leaving the museum, it is not clear how Iceland’s built environment evolved from turf-covered vernacular structures to neoclassical civic building to a capital city dominated by concrete. Local masterworks are unexplored and one of Reykjavík’s most prized architectural gems, just south of the National Museum amid the monumental early 20th-century institution structures of the University of Iceland, is not mentioned in the National Museum. This means that without some careful, prior research, architectural enthusiasts could miss the Nordic House that was designed by Alvar Aalto between 1963 and 1968 (figures20–29). It is home to a 30,000 volume library, small performance hall, and café for cultivating exchange between Iceland and other Scandinavian countries. Like the majority of his other projects, Aalto designed the hardware, furnishings, and lamps for the building. The unstained wood and the use of white paint throughout the building provide a neutral backdrop that makes natural light the main decorative feature of the building. The building’s exterior features the only bit of bold color: ceramic blue tiles line a portion of the roof and the sinuous line mimics the mountain range in the distance. 


    Figure 20–21. Views of and from the Nordic House emphasize the capital city’s dramatic landscape. 


    Figure 20–21. Original architectural drawings of the project hang within the building’s corridor.  







    Figure 24–29. Views of the interior of the Nordic House reveal several pieces of furniture and light fixtures designed by the architect.  

    It is in Aalto’s library that visitors can find some of the best resources for exploring Iceland’s architecture. Thankfully, the recent production of small guides and resource books help fill in the gaps about the nation’s architectural history. An architectural series by Björn Björnsson explores a few building types and some newly placed and state-sponsored signage helps tell the story of sites such as the Government House or Parliament.7 But to understand the transition from buildings made of turf to those constructed of stone, visitors have to venture to Viðey iIsland in Kollfjödur. The round-trip ferry ride to Viðey is part of the Reykjavík City Card and this tiny island, just a short ride from Reykjavik's old harbor, boasts a rich history (figure 30).

    Figure 30. The view of Viðey Island from the Reykjavík harbor places the nation’s first stone structures within an impressive nature backdrop. 

    Figure 31. Elevations and a lateral section for the Viðey House. From the National Archives of Iceland.

    Figure 32. Architectural drawings for the Viðey Church, dated 13 May 1766. From the National Archives of Iceland.

    Viðey House was constructed for the Royal Treasurer Skúli Magnússon, commonly known as the Father of Reykjavík. Built between 1752 and 1755, it is one of the oldest surviving stone structures in Iceland. Driven by a didactic approach to architecture during the Enlightenment, the building was intended to serve as a model for new construction in Iceland, urging the locals to move away from turf building traditions and towards more permanent, masonry designs.8 Danish court architect Nicolai Eigtved (1701-1754) provided the plans for the building and, later, an unknown architect designed a church for the island that was constructed around 1774 (figures 31-32). The buildings have been restored several times, yet they do not seem to be the main draw for visitors to Viðey. Instead, visitors board the ferry for bird watching, biking, and inspection of two contemporary art installations: the Imagine Peace Tower by Yoko Ono and Áfangar [Milestones](1990) by Richard Serra, both visible in the aerial video below.

    Videy aerial from Danielle Willkens on Vimeo.
    Caption: Aerial footage of the architecture and art installations on Viðey Island. 

    After the stone structures of Viðey, masonry projects began to populate parts of Reykjavík. Between 1765 and 1771, convicts were put to the grim task of constructing their own prison under the supervision of architect G.D. Anthon.9 In 1819 it was converted into a residence for the governor and it operated under this function until home rule was established in 1904. Although the late 18th century brought masonry construction to Iceland and 1786 marked the beginning of a trend towards urban culture, there seems to be a century of building stagnation from the 1780s to the 1880s.10 This may be attributed to a lack of funds due to the trade monopoly imposed by Denmark, leaving Iceland to operate as an isolated, agricultural island. Troubles were complicated by the eruption of Laki in 1783–1784 and the resulting Haze Famine that killed nearly a quarter of the population. 


    Figures 33–34. Photomontages by the author featuring the Parliament House and park along Kirkjustræti, combining photographs from 1900 and 2016.

    The end of the 19th century, however, brought prosperity and new architectural developments. For Iceland, this was the era of Industrial Revolution where mechanization streamlined production and steam trawlers allowed for increased trade.  The Parliament, built around 1881 became the first dressed stone building in Iceland and several other neoclassical masonry structures followed, although the trend did not last long (figures 33–34). Appointed by the newly empowered Home Rule government, architect Johannes Magdahl-Nielsen designed the National Library between 1906 and 1909 (figure 35).11 This would be the last major stone building in Reykjavik: with the introduction of concrete in 1900, the capital turned its attentions to this more industrious and malleable construction method for public buildings, as evidenced by the National Theatre of 1928 (figure 36). Nonetheless, the National Library, now known as the Culture House and home to a series of rotating and temporary exhibits, is a uniquely Icelandic building. It is comprised of a cavity wall with a Basalt exterior and concrete interior. Unfortunately, the exterior was covered with a slurry layer and painted white while the interior received stucco, entirely masking the masonry. 

    Figure 35. The distinctive façade of the Culture House stands out in Reykjavík due to its bright white coating and uncommon use of neoclassical forms. 

    Figure 36. Concrete rapidly replaced masonry structures in the 1920s and civic buildings, such as the National Theatre, were funded by public entertainment taxes.  

    Alongside the newfound prosperity and building boom initiated by Home Rule, a new class of wealthy citizens began building residences around the Tjörnin, in the areas known as Tjarnagata and Þingholtsstræti (figures 37–38). Many of these were influenced by the Swiss Chalet style and in 1906 the Craftsmen’s House was constructed for the Reykjavík Technical School. 
    Figure 37. A panoramic photograph looking north across the Tjörn. The Craftsmen’s house is the yellow structure in the center of the image. 

    Figure 38. Grettisgata 11 was home to one of Reykjavík’s master craftsmen, Jens Eyjólfsson.  

    Figure 39. ‘The Turnip’ was constructed as the retirement residence of Icelandic governor Magnús Stephensen in 1902. 

    With a new legion of trained builders with skills in concrete, corrugated metal, and wooden gingerbread work, structures like Fríkirkjuvegur 11 were now possible (figures 40–43). This home, designed by Einar Erlendsson between 1907 and 1908, contained the most modern advancements, such as plumbing and electricity, despite the fact that the city had yet to install public utilities. Entrepreneur-owner Thor Jensen capitalized on improved shipping routes and imported granite from Denmark to construct an impressive entry stairway and wood for a parquet floor. Although the project was under threat of demolition from the 1950s through the 1990s, a major renovation project is now underway and the building should reopen as offices for the City Council in late 2016. Although few homes were as grand as the one along Fríkirkjuvegur or ‘The Tulip’ (figure 39), metal-clad homes with wooden details dominated the residential architecture of the city in the early 20th century. With concrete substructures and metal weatherboard, the homes were economical and durable. Paint and wooden details also meant that even simple structures could be distinctive. The homes of the city’s artists, however, established different trends.

    Figure 40. Photomontage by the author featuring the Fríkirkjuvegur.House and park near Tjörn, combining photographs from 1915 and 2016.



    Figures 41–43. Details of the Fríkirkjuvegur 11, showing the use of wood, corrugated metal and faux finishes.

    Art and culture in the capital city

    Of the many art museums in Reykjavík, the house museums and studios of two of Iceland’s most famous sculptors are of note. Based on my research and travels thus far, the Einar Jónsson Art Museum and the Ásmundarsafn are representative of a tradition in Iceland for poets and sculptors of the 20th century to construct their own creative and domestic retreats then bequeath these residences to the nation in hopes of preserving their work and adding to the record of cultural heritage.12  

    Figure 44. Photomontage by the author featuring the main façade of the Einar Jónsson Museum, combining photographs from c.1920 and 2016.

    Figure 45. Jónsson  and his wife in the snow-filled garden of their home, date unknown. From the online collection of the Einar Jónsson Museum.

    Sculptor Einar Jónsson (1874–1954) was one of the first to establish this trend (figures 44–45). Trained at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and well traveled throughout Europe in the early 1900s, Jónsson donated all of his works to the nation in 1909 with the condition that the government provided an appropriate structure to house the collection. After parliament approved the request in 1914, State Architect Guðjón Samúelsson was commissioned for the project but Jónsson objected to the plans. Consequently, Jónsson intervened his own design ideas and enlisted the support of his friend and governmental architect Einar Erlendsson. The pair selected a site on the previously unbuilt Skolavorduhæd, described in the museum's interpretation as the 'Acropolis of an independent Iceland'. Opened in summer 1923 as Iceland’s first art museum, the Deco-inspired building with large, sculptural concrete forms also served as the sculptor’s studio, gallery, and home from 1920 until his death (figure 46). Eventually outgrowing the cramped quarters of the upper floor of the museum, Jónsson and his wife built a small home in the garden that provided easy access to the twenty-six bronze casts that would eventually dot the landscape, showcasing his signature interests in monumentality, personification, and the revival of classical sculpture (figure 47). The museum now holds more than 300 of the sculptor’s works, ranging from rough plaster maquettes to paintings and massive finished works. 

    Figure 46. Jónsson at work in his studio in Copehnagen, adding detail to a model of Þorfinnur Karlsefni, commissioned by the Fairmount Park Association and installed in Philadelphia in 1920. Photograph from the online collection of the Einar Jónsson Museum.

    Figure 47. Photomontage by the author featuring the rear façade and sculpture garden of the Einar Jónsson Museum, combining photographs from 1920 and 2016.

    Although initially spurned by Jónsson, Samúelsson’s architecture was certainly influenced by the sculptor. Eventually, Samúelsson would also build atop the Skolavorduhæd and it was here that he designed his masterpiece, the Hallgrimskirkja. Today, visitors can look down on Jónsson’s museum from the clock tower and this may have provided some form of amusement for Samúelsson, had he lived to see the completion of the church. Nonetheless, Jónsson’s use of geological forms within his sculptures can be seen as a precedent for the work of Samúelsson at the Hallgrimskirkja and the best possible evidence for this claim is Rest, a sculptural theme that Jónsson pursued at several scales and with different materials between 1915 and 1935 (figure 48). One of the plaster models now preserved in the museum presents a dynamic image of the head of a man emerging from basalt protrusions. The physical and allegorical layers of sculpture draw parallels to the Slaves series of Michelangelo, with figures that seem to emerge directly from the stone, rather than from the hand of the artist. The tower of the Hallgrimskirkja has prismatic basalt forms as buttresses, presenting the viewer with a façade that seems to grow from the natural summit of the Skolavorduhæd and reach, imposingly, towards the sky (figure 50). The highly textured exterior of Jónsson’s museum may have also influenced Samúelsson considering the architect began incorporating local aggregate into his roughcast from the mid-1920s.  Examples can be seen throughout the city and the varied aggregate (obsidian, quartz, and spar) provides texture that breaks the visual monotony cast by even the grayest days while simultaneously acting as a reflective and luminescent surface under the sun’s rays.  

    Figure 48. A plaster iteration of Rest, housed on the museum’s ground floor. Photograph from the online collection of the Einar Jónsson Museum.


    Figures 49–50. Views of the Hallgrimskirkja, featuring basalt-inspired crenellations and neo-gothic pointed arches. Many visitors mistakenly attribute the sculpture of Leif Eriksson (1930) to Jónsson but it was by American schulptor Alexander Stirling Calder. 

    The Ásmundarsafn is the common Icelandic name for the Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum. Sveinsson (1893–1982) was a sculptor who, like Jónsson, was interested in the representation of Icelandic folklore and historical figures. Sveinsson’s subjects were often reduced to simplified forms that emphasized a particular action, akin to the work of Rodin or even elements of Botero, and several of his other pieces moved towards cubic abstraction. 


    Figures 51–52. Views of the Ásmundarsafn and its sculpture garden. 

    Like Jónsson’s home, the Ásmundarsafn works as a representative piece of sculpture for the works held within. Sveinsson designed the home in several stages, first constructing a two-story, domed building in 1942. Here, the family lived on the ground floor and Sveinsson used the top-lit upper floor as his studio (figure 55).13 He later worked with his friend and city architect Einar Sveinsson to design an Egyptian pylon-inspired entry, with flanking gallery spaces, and semi-circular studio on the site (figure 56).


    Figures 53–54. Aerial views of the Ásmundarsafn.

    Figure 55.  The studio in its present form. 

    Figure 56. A maquette of the building, showing the layout before the connective joint was added in the late 1980s.  


    Figures 57–58. Photographs of the entrance galleries. One is now reserved for temporary exhibitions while the other represents Sveinsson’s studio.  

    Figures 59. A lamp designed and crafted by Sveinsson’s in the entrance corridor.  



    Figures 60–62. The rough exterior of the board-formed concrete used for the semi-circular addition conceals a bright, top-lit volume that was used as a studio and gallery. 

    In 1977, Sveinsson donated the home, studio, and works within to the city of Reykjavík and in preparation for opening the museum to the public, architect Manfreð Vilhjálmsson (b. 1928) designed an extension to connect the domed home to the studio in 1987 (figures 63–64). 


    Figures 63–64. The connective joint between the dome and the semi-circular addition creates a seamless transition between Sveinsson’s designs. 

    At the house museums of Jónsson and Sveinsson, I found myself alone in the galleries. This was spectacular for quiet exploration and uninterrupted photographs, especially in the Ásmundarsafn where certain spaces feel like you have stepped into an architectural rendering instead of a tangible space, but the absence of visitors was also a bit alarming considering the incredible content and spatial qualities of these museums. As recorded in visitor numbers from the tourist board, the summer is the busiest time of year for museums yet the halls were empty. The gardens, however, have been filled with locals each time I have visited the sites since the sculpture-filled green spaces are popular for picnics and games of hide and seek. Both sites had recent restorations and, perhaps, they are best left as local secrets? 

    Exploring historic landscapes


    Caption: Figures 65–66. Views of Þingvellir.

    As previously noted, nature tourism dominates the agendas of visitors to Iceland and this has been the case since the first recorded foreign ‘tourists’ descended upon the island in the 18th century. Þingvellir [Thingvellir] National Park is one of two UNESCO World Heritage sites in Iceland and worth brief investigation in this assessment of key architectural sites in the region (figures 65–66.)14 Inscribed in 2004 in recognition of the rich historical landscape and unparalleled view of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the park is part of the manmade tourist circuit known as the Golden Circle.15 The other keys sites within the 300km circuit both deal with water. Gullfoss features an impressive cascade and the name instantly helps visitors learn a bit of Icelandic since gull means golden and foss means waterfall. The other site within the established triad of the Golden Circle is Geysir, the namesake for all other erupting hot springs. It has been active only once during the last century so, to the delight of visitors, the adjacent geyser known as Stokkur presents an impressive plume every few minutes.  

    Figure 67. Photomontage featuring the Þingvallær housing and Þingvallakirkja of Þingvellir National Park, combining photographs from the 1930 millenary celebration of the Alþing and 2016.

    It is estimated the more than half of the visitors to Iceland partake in the Golden Circle, whether through guided tours or in hired cars.16 Cultural highlights of the park include The Alþingi, the island’s first general assembly, was established in 930 and served as the location of parliamentary procedures until 1798. Located along one of the main hiking trails, there are two noteworthy architectural sites: the Þingvallkirkja (figures 68–69), a church from 1859 that marks a site of worship that has been active since the 11th century, and a series of farmhouses built by Samúelsson in 1930 to house park staff and offices (figure 67). 


    Figures 68–69. Exterior and interior views of the traditional, wooden-framed Þingvallkirkja on the ground of the National Park.

    As a side note, if anyone says that Iceland is a bug-free nation, they clearly have not visited the Þingvellir. The giant gnats are omnipresent. Nature photographers and explorers, too, are found in abundance due to the geological composition of the area, consisting of waterfalls, the largest lake in Iceland, and a continental rift. Since the park is popular for hikers and historians alike, visitors to Þingvellir have increased by 80% in the last decade.17    


    Caption: Figures 70–71. Underwater views of the Silfra fissure’s ‘cathedral’ and lagoon. 

    One of the most monumental elements of Þingvellir is the continental rift, representing movement between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This rift is also causing Iceland to expand at a rate of two to three centimeters a year. Visitors can experience the rift on land at sites such as the continental bridge, or underwater at the Silfra Fissure where glacial ice melts from the Lángjökull provide crystal clear water and a smooth, steady current. Here, snorkelers and divers have the unparalleled opportunity explore a freshwater tectonic fissure, if they can brave the temperature: a refreshing 2°C/35°F throughout the year. Taking advantage of the opportunity for explore such a celebrated geological anomaly, I participated in a snorkeling excursion that I can describe as both surreal and, at times, quite claustrophobic. Aware of the influx of tourists and popularity of such eco-adventurers, the guides were keen to urge visitors to avoid touching or otherwise disturbing rocks of the fissure and similar natural sites since the careless actions of a few can eventually have disastrous impacts on whole ecosystems. As I watched countless people leave marked paths and stick lava rocks in their pockets during my two visits to the national park, I wondered if we have already reached that tipping point.  

    Lingering questions

    At the present moment, the capital city and surrounding areas of the Suðurland make little of the preserved architectural heritage and offer few opportunities for visitors to learn about significant structures and movements. However, it is clear that changes are in the works. Despite the fact that some historic homes are collapsing beneath the cranes constructing the city’s new skyline, there are many others covered in wooden scaffolding, undergoing careful restoration (figures 72–74). Museums are well organized and have extended operating hours in the summer while public art initiatives are expanding around the nation. 



    Figure 72–74. Although some of the buildings in the historic district met a dark fate, many others are being preserved. 

    Iceland capitalized on mobile technologies through the development of several apps catered to tourists, whether they are seeking hot pots [natural thermal baths], gas stations, or even happy hour venues around the capital. Therefore, it seems that the creation of an app could showcase the treasures of Iceland’s architectural history that are overlooked. For example, visitors frequently bypass preserved examples of Guðjón Samúelsson’s transformer stations from 1921 that were constructed as part of the supporting infrastructure for the groundbreaking hydroelectric facility along the Elliðaár River: by the second decade of the 20th century, Iceland was already going green (figure 75).18 

    Figure 75. One of the Baroque transformer stations in the Old Town. 

    Additionally, interactive architectural guides could give preservation success stories, as well as sites in desperate need of care, the consideration they deserve. By pairing the rich photographic record housed in the Reykjavík Museum of Photography with augmented reality technologies, visitors could turn their attention from Pokemon hunting to an app that reveals layered views of the capital city’s history and development, perhaps even showcasing projected renderings from the Reykjavík Municipal Plan 2010-2030 (figure 76).19  Such initiatives would be inline with the Municipal Plan that proposes densification and would help concentrate new tourist and preservation endeavors on urban areas, helping to alleviate some of the current stress on natural sites while they scramble to construct much-needed elements of infrastructure to ensure safety and sustainability.20 But for now, we just have to use our imaginations. 

    Figure 76. Photomontage by the author featuring the Hljómskálinn on Tjörn, combining photographs from 1925 and 2016.


    Ármannsson, Pétur H. ""The Mountains Are Their Castles": Contemporary Architecture and Local Traditions in Iceland." In Iceland and Architecture?, edited by Peter Cachola Schmal, 11-45. Frankfurt: Deutsches Architekturmuseum, 2011.

    Björnsson, Björn G. 18th Century Stone Buildings. Translated by Anna Yates.  Reykjavík: Salka, 2013.

    ———. Large Turf Houses. Translated by Anna Yates.  Reykjavík: Salka, 2013.

    ———. Turf Churches. Translated by Anna Yates.  Reykjavík: Salka, 2013.

    ———. Writers' Homes. Translated by Anna Yates.  Reykjavik: Salka, 2013.

    ICOMOS. "Þingvellir National Park." Excerpt from the Report of the 28th Session of the World Heritage Committee, March 2004.

    IUCN. "Surtsey." World Heritage Nomination, April 2008.

    Jóhannesson, Dennis. A Guide to Icelandic Architecture. Translated by Bernard Scudder. Edited by Jóhannesson Dennis Reykjavík: Association of Icelandic Architects, 2000.

    Maack, Sigríður. "Can Reykjavík Stop the Sprawl? A Look at Reykjavík's New Municipal Plan for 2010-2030." HA: Hönnun & arkitektúr á Ísland [Design & architecture in Iceland] 1 (2015): 42-49.

    ———. "One of the Largest Design Projects in Icelandic History." HA: Hönnun & arkitektúr á Ísland [Design & architecture in Iceland] 2 (2015): 40-47.
    Þorleifsdóttir, Svava. "Growing Pains: Designing Travel Destinations in Iceland." HA: Hönnun & arkitektúr á Ísland [Design & architecture in Iceland] 2 (2015): 86-97.

    See http://www.ferdamalastofa.is/static/files/ferdamalastofa/Frettamyndir/2016/juni/tourism_-in_iceland_in_figures_may2016.pdf 
    Svava Þorleifsdóttir, "Growing Pains: Designing Travel Destinations in Iceland," HA: Hönnun & arkitektúr á Ísland [Design & architecture in Iceland] 2 (2015): 97.
    Ibid., 90.
    For more on the school see Dennis Jóhannesson, A Guide to Icelandic Architecture, ed. Jóhannesson Dennis, trans. Bernard Scudder (Reykjavík: Association of Icelandic Architects, 2000), 184.
    5 Pétur H. Ármannsson, ""The Mountains Are Their Castles": Contemporary Architecture and Local Traditions in Iceland," in Iceland and Architecture?, ed. Peter Cachola Schmal (Frankfurt: Deutsches Architekturmuseum, 2011).
    6 Ibid., 13.
    7 Björn G. Björnsson, 18th Century Stone Buildings, trans. Anna Yates (Reykjavík: Salka, 2013); Writers' Homes, trans. Anna Yates (Reykjavik: Salka, 2013); Turf Churches, trans. Anna Yates (Reykjavík: Salka, 2013); Large Turf Houses, trans. Anna Yates (Reykjavík: Salka, 2013).
    8 Ármannsson, ""The Mountains Are Their Castles": Contemporary Architecture and Local Traditions in Iceland," 15.
    9 Björnsson, 18th Century Stone Buildings, 42.
    10 Ármannsson, ""The Mountains Are Their Castles": Contemporary Architecture and Local Traditions in Iceland," 18.
    11 Jóhannesson, A Guide to Icelandic Architecture, 69.
    12 For more on this trend within the writing community see Björnsson, Writers' Homes.
    13 Jóhannesson, A Guide to Icelandic Architecture, 109.
    14 The other site is the volcanic island of Surtsey. For additional information, see IUCN, "Surtsey," (World Heritage Nomination, April 2008).
    15 For additional information on the site, see the ICOMOS, "Þingvellir National Park," (Excerpt from the Report of the 28th Session of the World Heritage Committee, March 2004).
    16 Þorleifsdóttir, "Growing Pains: Designing Travel Destinations in Iceland."
    17 Ibid., 91.
    18 Jóhannesson, A Guide to Icelandic Architecture, 38.
    19 Iceland’s first design and cultural journal, HA, frequently uses renderings to explore the impacts of new proposals. See Sigríður Maack, "One of the Largest Design Projects in Icelandic History," HA: Hönnun & arkitektúr á Ísland [Design & architecture in Iceland] 2 (2015).
    20 For more information on the densification plans, see "Can Reykjavík Stop the Sprawl? A Look at Reykjavík's New Municipal Plan for 2010-2030," HA: Hönnun & arkitektúr á Ísland [Design & architecture in Iceland] 1 (2015).
  • Concrete, Churches, and Cirrostratus in Reykjavík: An Introduction to Iceland

    by User Not Found | Jul 06, 2016
    After several months of anticipation and planning, it is hard to believe that my journey sponsored by the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship is now underway. My year of travels will focus on an in-depth study of the impact of tourism and environmental changes on key historical sites and landscapes at a select number of island sites: Iceland and the Faroe Islands in the Norwegian Sea, Cuba, and Japan. These sites were selected because of their rich histories, preserved examples of vernacular regionalism, and their diverse geographies, allowing for a focused study of architectural approaches to climatic mediation in the Caribbean, Pacific, and Arctic. In order to be truly immersed in architectural and experiential studies, I will spend four months in each region, reading the built environment at a slow, thoughtful pace. Today, many of our travels as researchers and explorers are spent in transit and we rarely have the gift of studying specific sites and cities over extended periods of time, observing places in different lighting and weather conditions; and experiencing these sites when they are filled with visitors and when they are quiet. 

    Figure 1. An abandoned boat in Hvalsnes.1

    After an incredibly short redeye flight from JFK, I arrived in Reykjavík just prior to the summer solstice. In Iceland, summer is the primary tourist season due to the extended daylight, upwards of twenty-one hours around the summer solstice, and the ‘milder’ weather; the wind chill was 40ºF on July 1 so I can only imagine the harsh temperature that the winter brings. 

    Figure 2. Preparation for a time lapse of the sunset from the Göngustígur walking path of Reykjavík’s old harbor.

    Figure 3. The sun hovering at the horizon at 12:03am June 22 in Reykjavík’s old harbor.

    Time lapse of the sunset from the Göngustígur walking path of Reykjavík’s old harbor. 

    4_66 North
    Figure 4. An advertisement on a bus stop adjacent to the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre. 

    During the summer, the majority of the island’s roads are open, allowing tourists to experience a wide range of activities along the coast and around the two main ecotourism routes: the Golden Circle, a manmade circuit connecting several natural wonders in the southwestern interior of the island, and the Ring Road, traversing the outer edge of the island, as the name implies. 

    Figure 5. The Krisuvik geothermal region, part of the Reykjanes Peninsula and UNESCO Geopark, is often bypassed by tourists on the Golden Circle but contains several glowing thermal pools and an array of fascinating, abandoned agricultural buildings. 

    As evidenced by the number of tourist offices, excursion companies, and plethora of visitors to the city, the nation’s recent tourism campaigns are working. For example, WowAir, started by an Icelander, offers low-cost layover packages that encourage visitors to spend time in Reykjavik and surrounding towns. With a population of a nearly 333,000 where more than 60% live in the capital region, annual visitors to the island have outnumbered Icelanders since 2003.1  However, the number of international visitors has risen dramatically since 2010; 2015 marked the first year the island welcomed over a million tourists, arriving by airplane and cruise ship.2  

    6_Reykjavik-harbor pano
    Figure 6. An aerial image of Reykjavík captured with a DJI Phantom 4. The old harbor and docks are visible to the left and the domestic airport can be seen in the center of the image. 

    The bus ride from the airport provided a fascinating, although bleary-eyed, preview to the landscape and culture of the built environment on the island: brightly colored, turf-covered homes next to metal factories and storehouses, all dotting a surreal and foreign landscape of volcanic rock, ash, and moss. In the distance in one direction the sinuous coastline offers glimpses of small towns; in the other direction, clouds hover, heavily, near the peaks of mountains and dormant volcanoes in a way that makes it hard to distinguish what is sky and what is a glacier. 

    Video captured on the bus ride from Keflavík International airport to Reykjavík. 

    As I organize my photographs and write this blog, I am learning new combinations on my keyboard to type Icelandic words, I am learning a deep appreciation for the [nearly] blackout blinds in my flat, and it seems that Iceland’s rich natural and built environment will keep me well occupied for several months. 

    7_Rathus washroom
    Figure 7. A sign for the ‘washroom’ in the Ráðhús [Reykjavík City Hall] by Studio Granda, discussed later in this post. 

    Unique landscapes and thoughtful architectural details, hand carved wood and rough-welded metal alike, are employed in even the most utilitarian of buildings. I am looking forward to witnessing the ebb and flow of tourists in the nation, peaking now at the height of summer with numbers dwindling as September approaches and roadways close in anticipation of icy winter conditions. Apart from the shifts in visitor numbers, it is clear that the city itself is rapidly changing. There is construction everywhere, even blocking the end of the street that I will call home for my first six weeks in Reykjavík (Figure 8). Within abandoned pockets of the old harbor’s shipyards designers have created a whimsical, popup place for play using pallets, forgotten bits of boats, and storage containers (Figures 9–11). Watching children and adults wander through, it is as if a photograph of a midcentury adventure playground has come to life. 

    8_Reykjav+¡k-construction-my street
    Figure 8. Construction blocking my street and a view towards the old harbor. 



    Figures 9-11. A popup playground in the northwest portion of the old harbor. 

    A growing capital

    With no professional schools of architecture until 2002, Iceland’s built environment has been strongly influenced by trends in continental Europe, particularly Denmark considering Iceland achieved its independence from this colonial ruler in 1944 (Figures 18–19). Four decades earlier, Home Rule transferred executive power to Iceland and in 1904 Reykjavík, the fishing center and trading hub of the island since 1715, became the capital. Since the end of World War II, the capital has been expanding but the biggest changes occurred in recent years: the population nearly doubled from 110,000 in 2000 to just over 200,000 in 2016. 


    Figures 12-13. Listaháskóli Íslands [The Iceland Academy of the Arts], home to the only program in Iceland leading towards professional qualification as an architect. 

    Looking at the excavations and cranes around the city, it is clear that Reykjavík is responding to the needs of such intense growth, recovering from the 2008 economic crash that crippled the northernmost capital in the world.4  It is easy to imagine that a trip to the capital in 2017 will yield a nearly unrecognizable skyline, with multiple new mixed use projects rising along the coastline, dramatically shifting the scale of the city from one with rolling hills and valleys lined with two or three-story buildings to a horizon filled with glazed fifteen to twenty-story structures and monolithic commercial blocks occupying the main thoroughfares and roundabouts (Figures 14–18). Although building up will help counteract the problem of urban sprawl that has plagued Reykjavík since the 1960s, the high-rises stand in stark contrast to the character, and expressive use of color, in the city (Figure 19).  





    Figures 14-18. An array of the cranes and excavated cavities around the city center. 

    Figure 19. A portion of the skyline in Reykjavík.

    An architectural triad in Reykjavík

    One of the popular [and ominously titled] coffee table books on architecture, Irving’s 1001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die, lists only three sites in Iceland: the Hallgrímskirkja (Figure 20), the Ráðhús (Figure 21), and the Blue Lagoon (Figure 22).5 For reference, the listings for my two subsequent island destinations during this sponsored fellowship were much more numerous, despite the nations’ substantially smaller geographic size with respect to Iceland: Cuba boasts eight sites and Japan has thirty-five. Although a startlingly small and modern-centric sampling of Icelandic architecture, I made sure to visit each of the sites listed in Irving’s survey during my first week since they seem representative of the building types and programs that I will encounter throughout my journeys on the volcanic island. 



    Figures 20-22. The three sites in Iceland listed in Irving’s 1001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die (2007).

    The Hallgrímskirkja [Church of Hallgrímur] sits atop Skólavörðuholt hill, one of the capital’s volcanic summits that is 128 feet above sea level, and the church’s tower soars to 240 feet. Visible from almost anywhere in the city, the church also serves as a highly recognizable landmark in the horizon when traveling along the coastal waters. Named for an Icelandic poetic and minister Hallgrímur Pétursson, the form and location of the church illustrates a few critical changes in design taste within Iceland in the middle of the twentieth century. 

    As a project for the Church of Iceland, composed of an Evangelical Lutheran congregation, the official State Architect Guðjón Samúelsson (1887–1950) was commissioned to design Hallgrímskirkja. Samúelsson was the city’s most prolific designer and the only appointed State Architect so his work will be explored in more depth in future posts. For the sake of underscoring his love of concrete, architectural influence, and prolific number of commissions, he could be called the Le Corbusier of Iceland. Although Samúelsson started work in 1937, a lengthy design process and interruptions from World War II extended the construction process. Completed well after Samúelsson’s death in 1950, largely under the direction of architects working for the state Hörður Bjarnason and Garðar Halldórsson, the church was consecrated in 1986.6 

    Figure 23. Iceland’s principle model maker Axel Helgason (1909–2001) with the Hallgrímskirkja scale model. Date unknown. Photograph from the Reykjavík Museum of Photography.

    Figure 24. An aerial photograph of the nave under construction in 1977. From the Reykjavík Museum of Photography.

    25_1983_Hallgr+¡mskirkja-+PJV 015 097 1-2 RMPhoto
    Figure 25. A photograph of the tower under construction in 1983. From the Reykjavík Museum of Photography., no 015 097 1-2.

    26_1985_ Hallgr+¡mskirkja RMPhoto
    Figure 26. An aerial view of the church in 1985. From the Reykjavík Museum of Photography.

    The initiative for the construction of the monumental Hallgrímskirkja commenced when the capital’s population outgrew Dómkirkjan [Reykjavík Cathedral] (Figure 27). Constructed in 1796 and situated directly adjacent to the Parliament building, the form and scale of this neoclassical church of wood and masonry established a significant precedent for many of Iceland’s rural places of worship. The structure has a small vestibule, a symmetrical steeple above the threshold, a central nave flanked by side aisles, and a semicircular apse. Although made of concrete and executed at a much grander scale, the Hallgrímskirkja, too, contains all of these identifying features and I look forward to compiling a few comparative drawings illustrating these points. 

    Figure 27. Dómkirkjan, also known as the Reykjavík Cathedral. 

    With pointed arch thresholds and groin vaults in both the nave and side aisles (Figs. 31–35), the Hallgrímskirkja is unmistakably Neo-Gothic but, here and in other projects around the capital, Samúelsson invented a kind of neo-geologic architecture that referenced the cliffs and lava fields of Iceland. Basalt forms in nature became béton brut columns and for inspiration for the geometric embellishments of his structures, Samúelsson looked to the natural, coastal constructions of rock and silt that he playfully called ‘elfin citadel’.7  

    Figure 28. A view of the Hallgrímskirkja with the state of Leif Eriksson in the foreground. 


    Figures 29-30. The church’s tower and view from top, looking towards the historic core of the capital. 





    Figures 34 and 35. Photographs of the Hallgrímskirkja. 

    The second Icelandic project listed in Irving’s survey is the Ráðhús, or Reykjavík City Hall, by Studio Granda.8 This award-winning project was commissioned as the result of an open competition held in 1986. Completed between 1987 and 1992, the Ráðhús was one of the first major commissions for the office and set the foundations for the firm’s record of both experimental and locally responsive design, as well as their self-described interpretation of Nordic modernism.9 Several of their other projects will be explored in future posts, such as the Supreme Court of Iceland (1993–1996), the Reykjavík Art Museum (1997–2000), Laugalækjarskóli secondary school (2001–2009), and the Iceland Academy of Arts Department of Performing Arts (2014–2016). 


    Figures 36 and 37. The curving entry to the Reykjavík City Hall

    Composed of a material palette of basalt, aluminum, concrete, granite, and glass, the project was not entirely well received by locals who felt that it too severely contrasted with the character of the historic core. Adjacent to Tjörnin (Figures 38-40), a manmade lake that the Icelanders used to harvest ice for the city before it was converted into a recreational pond for the local ducks and, in the winter, ice-skaters, I would argue that the project is actually very sensitive to its context (Figure 41). 

    Figure 38. Ice harvesting on Tjörnin in 1915.  From the Reykjavík Maritime Museum. 

    39_1936-1938_Tj+¦rnin_VIG Reykjav+¡k-1
    Figure 39. Ice skating on Tjörnin, circa 1936–1938. From the Reykjavík Museum of Photography.

    40_1945-50_Tj+¦rnin-2002 13 001 006 3-1_2
    Figure 40. A portion of the Ráðhús site, circa 1945–1950. From the Reykjavík Museum of Photography.

    Figure 41. A panorama of the Ráðhús overlooking the lake. 

    The Ráðhús consists of twin, barrel-vaulted volumes: one, containing the administrative offices, arching towards the lake and supported with semi-submerged, double height concrete columns, and the other volume tilted towards the center of the city, containing facilities related to the city council. This arrangement naturally directs the flow of pedestrian traffic towards the building, but the building constantly responds elements of the city: the entryway frames a view to the university, Alvar Aalto’s Nordic House (to be explored in a later post), and the mountains beyond while the glazed walls and railings reflect the colorful facades of opposing buildings in the historic core (Figure 42). 

    Figure 42. A view on the pedestrian bridge connecting the Ráðhús to the other side of Tjörnin. 

    Unlike the warm colors employed in the facades of downtown Reykjavík, the cool grey of the Ráðhús concrete feels respectfully muted and the only real color in the exterior of the project comes from wooden railings and the constructed microclimate that replicates elements of Iceland’s flora. The green wall, rising from the pool surrounding the building and acting as an implied continuation of the lake, has a mossy character like much of the natural landscape covering the area’s peninsula (Figures 43 and 44). The wall uses a local volcanic rock as the substraight and the steady stream of water falling down the vertical face of the wall facilitates low-maintenance lushness for the greenwalls (Figure 45). 



    Figures 43-45. The pool and volcanic green wall of the Ráðhús. 

    Inside, the walls transition from rough concrete (Figure 46) to softer and warmer surfaces that bounce light along corridors and through unexpected transitions in section (Figures 47 and 48). In the largest room of the administrative wing, with public service areas facing the lake, visitors can explore one of the largest topographic models in the world. This meticulously hand cut and painted model, measuring over 850 square feet, illustrates the varied geography and coastline of Iceland and was a product of Helgason’s studio (Figures 49 and 50).  




    Figures 47 and 48. Soft light washes the corridors and fills stairways of the building. 


    Figures 49 and 50. A topographic model of Iceland. 

    Despite initial protests to the structure, the Ráðhús seems to be well integrated into the city: the site’s pathways help connect different cultural institutions, the larger landscape strategies clearly facilitate water management, and the integrated pieces of street furniture promote moments of pause and reflection, offering carefully framed views of the historic district (Figure 51). 

    Figure 51. A bench integrated within the Ráðhús promenade, overlooking the Tjörnin. 

    The third and final Icelandic project in Irving’s 1001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die is the Bláa Lónið, the Blue Lagoon in Illahrun, a lava-formed moonscape of Grindavík that is about thirty miles from Reykjavík.10 Since the mid-1970s, a geothermal power plant called the region adjacent to Svartsengí home and locals used the warm, silica-filled pools, a natural byproduct of the power plant, for restorative bathing. However, a formal architectural initiative that harnessed the naturally dynamic environmental conditions to promote health, relaxation, and commercial enterprise in the region was not launched until the 1990s. This initiative relocated and manicured elements of the pools and in 1999 Vinnustofa Architects designed a comprehensive, spa-inspired complex featuring showers, a café, and steam rooms. In the last decade, Sigríður Sigþórsdóttir, founder of BASALT Architects, and Design Group Italia joined the project and, subsequently, the site welcomed in-pool bars, for both facials and beverages, as well as an upscale restaurant. Currently, another major addition is underway; the new hotel, restaurant, and spa facilitates should open sometime in 2017. 

    Figure 52. An aerial panoramic of the Blue Lagoon and adjacent construction.

    The Blue Lagoon from Danielle Willkens on Vimeo.

    DJI Phantom 4 footage of the Blue Lagoon, pool expansion, and adjacent construction of a luxury hotel. 

    Although I have not yet visited any of the sundlaugs [public geothermal pools] that are as common in Iceland as parish churches, it is clear that the experience at the Blue Lagoon is one catered to foreigners. Unlike local pools, accessible in Reykjavík as part of the capital’s bus passes and associated with menial entrance fees, often based on the honor system, in smaller towns, the Blue Lagoon is a pricey, well-polished, and highly choreographed construction. This is not said as a critique of the pools or their design: the entrance is a dramatic slice through volcanic stone (Figure 53) and each surface and bit of material joinery within the complex was clearly well considered. The luminescent blue water reflects the surrounding landscape that is a well-integrated blend of the natural and manmade: the finished concrete even used crushed lava for aggregate. The released steam of the power plant’s cooling towers blend into the mist rising from the pools, making visible the geothermal power that is harnessed throughout the region: Reykjavík pioneered geothermal residential heating districts in the 1930s and power is so plentiful that the capital’s sidewalks are embedded with radiant heating coils to melt the winter’s snow (Figure 54). 

    Figure 53. The entryway slicing through volcanic rock.

    Figure 54. Radiant heating coils beneath a typical Reykjavík sidewalk



    The Blue Lagoon is not, however, where visitors and locals mix. This is apparent from the massive parking lot filled with busses and rented cars. Companies in the capital and airport even offer baggage check: the typical visitor to Iceland spends a few days to a week on the island so a trip to the Blue Lagoon may occur just after arrival or even as a side trip on the way to a departing flight. Within the complex, visitors are assigned a wristband for access to lockers and payment of services in the pools, and although this is a smooth system to ensure that you are enjoying the spa experience and not worrying about your wallet, it all feels like something out of Minority Report. Overall, the Blue Lagoon represents one extreme of the ever-present tension in Iceland between tourist capital and the landscape: in some instances, the relationship between the designed and natural environment is highly structured and carefully managed but in other instances, it is clear that certain sites are easily overwhelmed by the number of visitors and the infrastructure of roads and support services, e.g. restrooms, are unable to manage the groups that arrive, literally, by the busload. It seems like a campaign akin to the Nasjonale turistveger [National Tourist Routes] in Norway is much needed: bike paths are just now underway in the Island’s interior and service facilities are inundated. Iceland also must to find ways to funnel visitor revenue into the preservation of some of the smaller historic sites that are typically bypassed by the typical tourist. After only a short period of investigation, there is clearly much more to explore on this topic and Iceland is at a critical tipping point for handling the curious wanderers that continue to flood the island. 

    Despite the fact that Irving covers three noteworthy projects in Iceland, his survey, nor few other books in English, pay much attention Iceland’s rich vernacular architecture, ranging from turf-covered longhouses and churches to maritime structures to the completely captivating and colorful homes and businesses of Reykjavík and other towns. The two or three story homes are made of rough-cut stone or, in later iterations, concrete, then clad in wooden board and batten or what can only be called corrugated iron gingerbread. These homes will receive a full blog posting in the future. 













    Figures 57-70. Examples of traditional commercial and residential architecture in Reykjavík’s historic core, with corrugated metal weatherproofing. 

    Within the capital, compelling modern and contemporary architecture is also plentiful. Future posts will be dedicated to the churches of the island as well as some of the striking new buildings by local designers, such as the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre by Henning Larsen Architects and Batteriid Architects, that reinterpret Samúelsson’s geological architecture into glowing, crystalline constructions. The architecture, both past and present, represents a form of critical regionalism but with such rapid growth in the capital it is hard to imagine that the majority of new projects will be so responsive to time, place, and culture in this small nation. 

    Figure 71. The Harpa, a multi-functional building on the harbor that is home to the city’s main concert venue, a series of design-centric shops, various food and drink vendors. With opening hours from 8am to midnight and free Wi-Fi, the luminous building functions as a living room for locals and visitors. 

    Although July 3rd marked a sad loss for Iceland in the UEFA EURO, it seems appropriate to end this first post with a celebration of their previous football victory. Thousands gathered at the Arnarholl, the grassy field near downtown, to cheer on the team: Strákarnir okkar!!

    Celebrations in central Reykjavík for Iceland's football victory over England in the UEFA EURO, June 27, 2016; notice the enthusiastic fan waving a flag from atop the bronze statue of Ingólfur Arnarson, Reykjavík’s first settler, made by sculptor Einar Jónsson in 1924.


    Irving, Mark, ed. 1001 Buildings You Must See before You Die. London: Cassell Illustrated, 2007.

    Jóhannesson, Dennis. A Guide to Icelandic Architecture. Translated by Bernard Scudder. Edited by Jóhannesson Dennis Reykjavík: Association of Icelandic Architects, 2000.

    Mathiesen, Arna, Giambattista Zaccariotto, and Thomas Forget, eds. Scarcity in Excess: The Built Environment and the Economic Crisis in Iceland. New York, NY: Actar, 2014.

    1All photographs and videos are by the author, unless otherwise noted.
    2 This figure is according to the National Statistical Institute of Iceland.
    3 From FERÐAMÁLASTOFA [Tourism in Iceland], report available onlinehttp://www.ferdamalastofa.is/static/files/ferdamalastofa/Frettamyndir/2016/juni/tourism_-in_iceland_in_figures_may2016.pdf
    4Arna Mathiesen, Giambattista Zaccariotto, and Thomas Forget, eds., Scarcity in Excess: The Built Environment and the Economic Crisis in Iceland (New York, NY: Actar, 2014), 6.
    5 Mark Irving, ed. 1001 Buildings You Must See before You Die (London: Cassell Illustrated, 2007).
    6 Dennis Jóhannesson, A Guide to Icelandic Architecture, ed. Jóhannesson Dennis, trans. Bernard Scudder (Reykjavík: Association of Icelandic Architects, 2000), 105.
    7 Ibid., 13.
    8 Irving, 1001 Buildings You Must See before You Die, 687.
    9 Nordic Sheet Metal Award for Architecture (1991), Icelandic Environmental Services Association Award (1993), and the DV Cultural Award for Architecture (1993).
    10 Irving, 1001 Buildings You Must See before You Die, 763.
  • Back to the Balkans (and then the States): Final Report

    by User Not Found | Jun 28, 2016
    I write this in Prizren, Kosovo, during the one of the last legs of my travels. Now that my tenure as H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow comes to an end, it is time to reflect on a year that has been, in many ways, extraordinary. The chance offered by the fellowship to explore, travel without haste, and without the limitations of specific sites indicated in a research proposal is profoundly enriching and transformative. Over the course of the year, I travelled to (in alphabetical order): Armenia, Bosnia, Croatia, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Israel, Kosovo, Lebanon, Macedonia, Morocco, Spain, Turkey, and the UK. While this itinerary includes some conference travel that I would have undertaken in any case, much of it was thanks to the freedom afforded by the Brooks Fellowship, and the opportunity to spend several weeks or months in some of these places certainly was exceedingly valuable. Moreover, writing the monthly blog posts was a welcome break from my usual, academic writing that continued over the course of the fellowship year. The liberty of the format, as well as the possibility to write about sites that are not at the center of my research agenda, was refreshing in that it allowed me to develop an non-academic author’s voice, connected to but in large parts separate from my scholarly work. I am not sure how to continue with this type of writing, but would certainly like to do so as I continue my career as a scholar and teacher.

    From the latter point of view, the Brooks Fellowship came at a crucial time in my career. It allowed me to develop new ideas for my research projects, to gather materials for teaching, but also to see monuments and cities that I had not been previously able to visit. As I wrote in my blog post in June, Jerusalem is one such example—a city that has played a central role in my studies since my first art history class as an undergraduate, but that was never before on my travel schedule. Similarly, Split, Sarajevo, Dubrovnik (blame Game of Thrones for that last one) are cities that I would have loved to see, without having a chance to do so because they are not part of my research portfolio, and hence not destinations that I could find funding for, or justify the expense of personal funds. In terms of advancing my research, I was able to add sites to my project on fifteenth-century Ottoman architecture while in Turkey, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia. Museum research for my ongoing book project on the materiality of architecture in medieval Spain was also part of this year, especially as being based in Europe allowed me to visit collections without the major logistics involved in cross-Atlantic travel. In addition to these more targeted visits, materials gathered in my scrap-books and notebooks will be previous resources as I return to the United States and will continue to process much of what I experienced (Figures 1–4). 

    Figures 1–4: random pages from one of my scrap-books. 

    As I prepare the course that I will teach as visiting assistant professor of medieval Mediterranean art history at Pomona College next academic year, the pedagogical uses of my travels become clear. I will be able to include photographs from nearly all the sites I visited in course that cover medieval art and architecture in southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Again Jerusalem will be important, but also Istanbul, Bursa, Marrakesh, Fes, Ravenna, Rome, Malaga, Granada and Cordoba—along with Cairo, Damascus, Samarqand and other major cities in the Mediterranean and the Islamic world. Spending more time in Istanbul—the longest period of time I have been able to remain in the city since my dissertation research—allowed me to revisit many sites and to discover new ones. On the one hand, I was able to photograph buildings such as the Mahmud Pasha Hamam (Figures 5 and 6), built soon after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul by one of Mehmed the Conqueror’s grand-viziers, or the seventeenth-century Valide Han (Figure 7). Both buildings are part of the maze of streets, full of historical entrepots and other monuments that developed around the Grand Bazar. 

    Figures 5 and 6: Mahmud Pasha Hamam, Istanbul (P. Blessing)

    Figure 7: Courtyard of Büyük Valide Han, Istanbul (P. Blessing) 

    Similarly, museums that I was able to visit will play a central role in my research and teaching. Some collections, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the David Collection in Copenhagen, and the Instituto Valencia de Don Juan in Madrid (Figures 8 and 9) have objects that are crucial for my second book, Monuments of Malleability: Illusion, Allusion, and Artifice in Islamic Architecture. At the same time, I was also able to see the collections of Islamic art in several museums, some of which are described in my December post, including several new installations that were opened in the last few years. This was a useful exercise in reflecting about Islamic art as a field of study, its public presentation in a museum setting, but also ways of introducing students to this subject in the classroom. The final result will only become apparent as I redesign my undergraduate survey lecture course on Islamic art in spring 2017, but I can anticipate how the narratives introduced in several museums will have an impact on my teaching. Out of other exhibitions that I saw, Fabric of India at the Victoria and Albert Museum was my favorite with its exhibits ranging from artifacts and videos related to textile production, to historical textiles and the work of contemporary Indian designers. I also enjoyed visiting collections that are not directly related to my research, such as the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen (Figure 10).

    Figures 8 and 9: Instituto Valencia de Don Juan in Madrid (P. Blessing) 
    Figure 10: Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark (P. Blessing)

    Traveling in this day and age depends of course—sadly to some extent—largely on airplanes, I tried to use overland travel as much as possible. This worked well for my Italy and Balkans trip that involved trains (thanks to the excellent website The Man In Seat Sixty-One), ferries and buses. I was also able to use trains in Morocco, France, Germany, Spain, the UK, and Israel. This was not always the fastest way, but allowed me to see landscapes that I would have missed from the plane, apart from removing the stress of airport security. Still, many of the movements between countries happen in the air, showing both the ugliness of urban development on the coastal section of Beirut, and the beauty of the Alps on a flight between Zurich and Munich on the way to Washington, D.C., for the College Art Association Conference. Landscapes that fascinated me on the way ranged widely. Up front was certainly the Caucasian terrain vague on a mountain pass on the way to Lake Sevan in Armenia, where the fourteenth-century Selim Caravanserai gives reason to pause as to how one would possibly get up here with a medieval trade caravan (Figures 11 and 12). The drive from Sarajevo to Mostar was another memorable landscape (Figure 13) as the Ottoman conquest of the area loomed large in my mind, even from the comfortable seat of an air-conditioned overland bus (Figure 13). 

    Figures 11 and 12: Selim Caravanserai, Armenia (P. Blessing)

    Figure 13: Neretva river valley approaching Mostar, Bosnia (P. Blessing) 

    The study of Islamic art, however, also comes with the limits of Middle East politics, and this was a reality both as I wrote my application for the fellowship and when I finally mapped out my itinerary before starting my journal. While writing my application, the on-going war in Syria had long removed this country as a destination, and I regretted not being able to re-visit sites that I had seen in 2005 and 2006, before beginning my PhD studies at Princeton. Sites in southeastern Turkey, on the other hand, were part of my plan. At the time of application, in summer and early fall 2014, the peace process between the Turkish government and Kurdish movements was in full progress, and visiting Mardin, Doğubayezit, and booming Diyarbakır was high up on my agenda. Less than two years later, large parts of the historical Sur district of Diyarbakır lie in ruins after a months-long curfew and military violence. Nothing remains of the hopeful tone of a New Yorker article on restored Armenian churches in Diyarbakir, published in January 2015. Repeated suicide bombings in Ankara, Bursa, and Istanbul have put Turkey on the map of global terror, and travel warnings have mounted for a country with a large, and now struggling, tourism industry. Similar observations are true for Egypt and Tunisia; the latter country was on my initial itinerary, but I decided against going following attacks specifically targeting tourists in fall 2015. The time freed up by this change was put to good use with trips to Armenia and Israel, yet it is still sad that geo-politics are at the base of such decisions. And strangely, all of a sudden Jerusalem felt safer than Istanbul; not that it is, statistically, but something about the energy of the place was profoundly touching. And so I end with one of my favorite photographs of the Dome of the Rock (Figure 14) and deeply grateful for the time I was able to spend exploring the world during my fellowship year. 
    Figure 14: Dome of the Rock (P. Blessing)
  • (Un)Holy Land: Israel and Palestine

    by User Not Found | Jun 13, 2016
    Jerusalem is of course the stuff of any survey of late antique and medieval art history, whether the focus be cross-cultural or on any more specific aspect of Jewish, Islamic, or Christian culture. Next year, I will include several monuments in Jerusalem in lectures course on the medieval Mediterranean and Islamic art. Hence, and here is of course where the H. Allen Brooks Fellowship comes in, I took the opportunity to visit and at the same time see more of Israel and the Palestinian Territories. This is where travel that is not tied to a specific research project is so precious, especially when it comes outside of the rushed three-day trips that one takes for conferences. The time to look around, wander with without a specific aim in mind, and to visit museums that are not closely—or not at all—connected to one’s research are often the aspects of travel that open up the mind. In some ways, I had forgotten this over years of travel related to dissertation and book research, and the fellowship year has allowed me to remember. Since this is the last blog post—hard to believe, really—this text will tie into my final report, where I will elaborate on the ideas above later in June. 

    Figure 1: Interior of Dome, Anastasis Rotunda, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem (P. Blessing) 

    Figures 2 and 3: Holy Sepulcher, Anastasis Rotunda, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem (P. Blessing) 

    Figure 4: Coptic chapel, Anastasis Rotunda, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem (P. Blessing) 

    Let me begin with the Holy Sepulcher, an of course iconic if entirely confusing building at the structural level. Having attempted to teach this monument several times—and I really have to say attempted, because I am not entirely sure that I had understood it well based on plans and descriptions—I can attest to the difficulty of figuring out what is what. The monument changed form multiple times since its initial construction in the fourth century, and little of the original structure remains besides the general shape of the Anastasis Rotunda (Figure 1) and the fact that both the sepulcher of Christ (Figures 2 to 4) and the rock of Calvary are integrated into the structure. The building was transformed multiple times over the centuries, particularly after its destruction under the Fatimids in 1009, and during the subsequent rebuilding under Byzantine patronage, completed by the mid-eleventh century. 

    Figure 5: South façade, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem (P. Blessing) 

    Figures 6 to 9: details of south façade, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem (P. Blessing) 

    The current complex is largely a Crusader creation with both earlier and later elements. The South façade (Figure 5) and main entrance and its architectural sculpture are of the twelfth century (Figures 6 to 9). The sculpted twelfth-century lintels are now in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. Despite their originality, many of these elements are rooted in late antiquity, including the “windswept acanthus” capitals (Figure 10), compared for instance to the sixth-century ones at the site of Qal‘at Sim‘ān (St. Simeon the Stylite) in northern Syria (Figure 11). (The latter site was bombed in mid-May 2016 during the war in Syria.)

    Figure 10: “windswept acanthus” capitals on south facade, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem (P. Blessing) 

    Figure 11: “windswept acanthus” capital, Qal‘at Sim‘ān, Syria, in a photography taken in July 2006 (P. Blessing)

    Figure 12: Crusader choir, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem (P. Blessing) 

    Figures 13 and 14: ambulatory with radiant chapels, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem (P. Blessing) 

    Also added in this period were the choir with a Gothic vault (Figure 12) and an ambulatory with radiant chapels (Figures 13 and 14). Both are completely encased in adjacent structures, not visible from the outside, and hardly any light enters the ambulatory. Older elements appear in the Armenian chapel (Figure 15) halfway down the stairs to the rock of Calvary – especially the late antique capitals –while more recent architecture and liturgical vessels dominate the two levels of the southern section (Figures 16 and 17). 

    Figure 15: Armenian chapel, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem (P. Blessing) 

    Figures 16 and 17: Entrance section and chapel of St. Anne, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem (P. Blessing) 

    Striking as well were matters of scale and size—while the entire church takes up a large surface, its fragmented interior and dim lighting make it feel intimate despite the large number of pilgrims and tourists present. Similarly, the walk along the Via Dolorosa evokes a limited urban space, yet opens up layers upon layers of present-day Jerusalem as it leads from West Jerusalem to the Muslim quarter of East Jerusalem; effectively the first station is only meters away from the enclosure of the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount), which sits on the site of the Jewish Temple—this makes it the most disputed site in an already tense city. 

    Figure 18: Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem (P. Blessing)

    Figure 19: North façade, Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem (P. Blessing)

    On the Temple Mount, the main monuments are of course the Dome of the Rock (Figure 18) and the al-Aqsa Mosque (Figure 19). As two of the earliest extent Islamic monuments, they are particularly charged sites, and currently not accessible to non-Muslims. Nevertheless, seeing the exterior is worth a lot, after years of textbook images and accounts in survey courses. The tile decoration (Figures 20 and 21) of the Dome of the Rock was installed in the mid-sixteenth century under the patronage of Ottoman sultan Süleyman the Magnificent who also renewed Jerusalem’s walls. While the original mosaics have been preserved in the interior, only small fragments (Figures 22 and 23) are still in place on the exterior that was also covered in mosaics (albeit likely deteriorated) before the Ottoman intervention. 

    Figures 20 and 21: Ottoman tile decoration, Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem (P. Blessing)

    Figures 22 and 23: Fragments of seventh-century mosaic on east porch, Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem (P. Blessing)

    Nearby, Mamluk monuments present the later uses of the complex, with the prominent fountain (Figure 24) and Ashrafiya Madrasa (Figures 25 and 26) founded by Sultan Qaytbay in the late fifteenth century in a style associated with Mamluk Cairo—certainly a deliberate move on the part of patron, advisers, and architect. Close to the madrasa, the fourteenth-century Bab al-Qattanin (Figure 27) leads out of the Haram into a covered market (Figure 28) dating to the same period. 

    Figure 24: Fountain (sabil) of Sultan Qaytbay, Jerusalem (P. Blessing)

    Figures 25 and 26: View and portal, Ashrafiya Madrasa, Jerusalem (P. Blessing) 

    Figure 27: Bab al-Qattanin, Jerusalem (P. Blessing)

    Figure 28: Suq al-Qattanin, Jerusalem (P. Blessing)

    Looking at these sites, impressive both for their architecture and for the religious significance they carry for a large proportion of the local population, but also internationally, it is sometimes too easy to forget the tensions surrounding many of these sites. Yet the limits to access are clear, and the Western Wall of the Temple is part of the outer limits of the Haram, and one of the holiest sites in Judaism. Similarly, only a few kilometers from Jerusalem, Bethlehem is now part of the West Bank and located inside the wall (Figure 29) built by the Israeli government around large parts of the area administered by the Palestinian Authority. While tensions appear in the press, and the work of graffiti artist Banksy on the wall has gained fame, the daily reality of life on both sides of the fence often disappears from view. I was glad to be able to get at least small glimpses of both sides, something that is possible neither for Israeli citizens, who are banned from traveling to the West Bank and the Gaza strip (settlements are another part of the story), nor Palestinians living in those areas, who need special permits to enter Israel. Again, the difficulties surrounding Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s visit to the Gaza Strip  in May 2016 appeared prominently in the news, while daily life is often forgotten, outside of major events like the war in summer 2015. 

    Figure 29: “Separation Wall,” Bethlehem (P. Blessing) 

    Suggested readings: 

    F. Barry Flood, “An ambiguous aesthetic: Crusader spolia in Ayyubid Jerusalem.” In Ayyubid Jerusalem: The Holy City in Context, 1187-1250, edited by Robert Hillenbrand and Sylvia Auld (London: Altajir Trust, 2009), pp. 202-215

    Oleg Grabar, Jerusalem, Constructing the Study of Islamic Art, vol. 4. Y. (Aldershot, England and Burlington, VT, 2005).

    Oleg Grabar and Said Nuseibeh, The Dome of the Rock (New York, 1996).

    Marcus Milwright, The Dome of the Rock and Its Umayyad Mosaic Inscriptions (Edinburgh, 2015).

    Lawrence Nees, Perspectives on Early Islamic Art in Jerusalem (Leiden, 2016). 

    Robert Ousterhout, “Architecture as Relic and the Construction of Sanctity: The Stones of the Holy Sepulchre,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 62, No. 1 (Mar., 2003): pp. 4-23 

  • Asymmetric Labors: The Economy of Architecture in Theory and Practice

    by User Not Found | Jun 01, 2016
    Four SAH student members—Aaron Cayer, Eric Peterson, Manuel Shvartzberg, and Sben Korsh (as well as Peggy Deamer)—have edited a collection on the labor of architectural history and theory for The Architecture Lobby. The book, Asymmetric Labors: The Economy of Architecture in Theory and Practice, features contributions from over fifty architectural historians, theorists, students, writers, and practitioners from across the globe—many of whom are SAH members. The texts provide a slice through the uneven terrain of values and unequal labor practices of historical and theoretical architectural work. The booklet is intended to spark a conversation about what the value of such labor is, both within the discipline and profession of architecture, and how it impacts and is impacted by the discursive and material production of the built environment.
    From the Introduction:


    This booklet is meant to begin a conversation that is not yet focused, not yet resolved, and not yet clear about its terms, but that is necessary to build momentum against uneven values and unjust labor practices in the academy and the profession. Why must adjunct faculty members need welfare, students need debt, PhDs be unemployable, writers scratch for pennies, and public universities privatize? How do these problems relate to the hubris of real estate, environmental destruction, and social inequity in our cities and built environments? We conjecture that there is another way for academic labor and its ramifications to exist robustly—not merely be surviving. 

    Read More

  • Frontiers in Armenia: Hellenistic, Late Antique, Medieval, and Islamic Art (History) in the Caucasus

    by User Not Found | May 17, 2016
    In this blog about medieval architecture in Armenia, I will return to two connected questions that I have discussed before. First, I will address the question how classical heritage is integrated in later buildings and, second, I consider once more at the ways in which we define medieval art. Both questions have multiple dimensions that involve ancient and recent history, as well as the historiography of various sub-fields of art history. I certainly do not claim to solve any of these complex questions, but my encounter with late antique and medieval architecture in Armenia has pushed me to reflect again on some of the answers that I have previously given. 

    Rather than offering an overview of all the monuments that I visited, I will concentrate on three sites: Zvartnots, Geghard, and Noravank. While the first is a ruined seventh-century basilica, the latter two are monasteries with standing buildings dating to the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries. As I discuss these case studies, it will become clear how the issues above, as well as questions of site, scale, geography and history are crucial elements for the understanding of these buildings. 

    Figure 1: Zvarnots with Mt. Ararat in the background (P. Blessing) 

    Geography and history immediately come to mind at the first sight of the cathedral Zvartnots (Figure 1). Granted, it is hard to take a photograph to good effect when the sky is not entirely clear, but Mount Ararat (Masis in Armenian, Ağrı Dağı in Turkish) emerges in the background. The symbolic mountain seems near, and is yet far: the linear distance between Zvartnots and Ararat is about 60 km, but the mountain is also located 40 km inside Turkey, beyond the closed border between that country and Armenia. Hence, directions from Google Maps end up looking rather dramatic, with options of crossing through Iran or Georgia (Figure 2). Beyond this flippant observation based on playing with maps lies of course the serious reality of the ongoing tension between Armenia and Turkey on the subject of the Armenian genocide in 1915. The Turkish government still refuses to recognize the genocide as such, and this has not changed with the 100-year anniversary in 2015. 

    Figure 2: Screenshot for Google Maps directions from Zvartnots to Mt. Ararat (maps.google.com)

    Figure 3: Zvartnots cathedral, partial view with portal (P. Blessing)

    Thus, the site of Zvartnots is within reach of geopolitical issues; nevertheless, the architecture even in its ruined state is such that it quickly raises other questions (Figure 3). The cathedral, built in 643–652 under katholikos Nerses was destroyed in the tenth century. Hence, the parts that remain standing today are only a small section of the monument, in fact the inner row of columns that would have formed an ambulatory (Figure 4). The elevation of the church has been the subject of several suggested reconstructions, as Christina Maranci discusses in detail in her recent book about three major seventh-century Armenian churches. Fragments of the upper sections, with striking carving of pomegranates and wine leaves, are found on the site and are in part arranged to form a possible reconstruction (Figure 5). 

    Figure 4: Zvartnots, columns of ambulatory (P. Blessing)

    Figure 5: Zvartnots, fragments of elevation (P. Blessing)

    Particularly intriguing are the large eagle capitals (Figure 6 and Figure 7): The wings appear wrapped around the capital, and the bird ready to take flight. The scale of these capitals, and of many of the fragments remaining on site or shown in the History Museum of Armenia in Yerevan, is a point that brought me to think, and that emerges also in other monuments. 


    Figures 6 and 7: Zvartnots, eagle capital (P. Blessing)

    Figure 8: Geghard, view (P. Blessing)

    Geography is joined by topography in the elements that are striking while reflecting on medieval Armenia. The site of Geghard (Figure 8) is at the end of a valley 40 km east of Yerevan, yet this seemingly short distance takes a good hour even by car. So what of the period when the monastery was built? Of course, this originally being a hermitage, remoteness was the point as monks wanted to live in a community far from worldly concerns. Those, however, reached the monastery when princely burials were established at the site in the twelfth and thirteenth century. The addition of princely burials led to the construction of the gavit, a large fore-hall much more elaborate than a narthex, to the Katoghike church, in 1215-25 (Figures 9 and 10).

    Figure 9: gavit, Katoghike church, Geghard, exterior 




    Figures 10, 11, 12, and 13: gavit, Katoghike church, Geghard, interior and details of muqarnas dome (P. Blessing) 

    Entering the gavit, the visitor is struck at first by the large scale of the structure (Figure 10), of unexpected height after the low entrance. Similarly unexpected may be the muqarnas dome (Figures 11 and 12) as well as capitals (Figure 13). While these forms are associated—in the mind of the art historical survey literature—with Islamic architecture, they are common in thirteenth- and fourteenth century Armenian architecture. The number of labels used in just one sentence makes me nearly cringe, yet I am struggling to find a better way to describe the discrepancy between historiography and architecture right here. 


    Figures 14 and 15: interior of Katoghike church, Geghard (P. Blessing) 

    The gavit connects to several structures, first and foremost the Katoghike church, built in 1215 (Figures 14 and 15), where a tall dome is the substructure of the lantern seen in Figure 9. Branching off from the gavit to the North is a second gavit, belonging to the Proshian chapel; built in 1215 and enlarged in 1283, this structure and the rest of the monastery was carved into the rock (Figure 16). Here, striking stone reliefs of lions (Figure 17) and crosses adorn the walls under a small dome (Figure 18).



    Figures 16, 17, and 18: Proshian chapel, Geghard, interior (P. Blessing)

    Next to this structure is the mid-thirteenth-century Avazan cave church, another chapel with a muqarnas dome, but here cut into the rock; light only comes through the small opening at the top, and from candles lit within the chapel (Figures 19 and 20). Overall, candles are a central source of light in these structures, be it in the gavit of the Kathogike (Figure 21) or in the upper gavit (completed in 1288) on the level above the Avazan cave church (Figure 22). 


    Figures 19 and 20: Avazan cave church, Geghard (P. Blessing) 

    Figure 21: votive candles in gavit Katoghike church, Geghard (P. Blessing) 

    Figure 22: Upper gavit, Geghard (P. Blessing) 

    While the question of the connections to Islamicate vocabularies abounds in the interior, it is also present on the exterior of the gavit of the Katholike (Figures 23 and 24). The scroll and leaves seen here are familiar from contemporary monuments in central Anatolia, but also particularly from manuscripts produced in Cilician Armenia. Many examples, some on view, are preserved at the Matenadaran in Yerevan, Armenia’s major manuscript library and research institute that holds manuscripts in Armenian, Georgian, Arabic, and Persian among others. 


    Figures 23 and 24: gavit, Katoghike church, Geghard, details of stonework over entrance (P. Blessing)

    Figure 25: Landscape around Noravank (P. Blessing)

    Figure 26: Church of the Mother of God, Noravank (P. Blessing)

    Similar elements are present in Noravank, the second monastic site I will discuss. Even more remote than Geghard, Noravank also lies in a mountain valley, surrounded by forbidding rock formations (Figure 25). The main structures remaining standing are the Church of the Mother of God, built around 1330 (Figure 26) and the Church of St. John the Baptist with its gavit, built in 1261 (Figure 27).

    Figure 27: Church of St. John the Baptist, Noravank, portal of gavit (P. Blessing) 


    Figures 28 and 29: Church of St. John the Baptist, Noravank, interior of gavit (P. Blessing) 

    Upon entering the gavit, once more a muqarnas dome emerges above sculpted walls, although on a smaller scale than at Geghard (Figures 28 and 29). On the floor, stone slabs mark burials, pointing to the funerary function of this structure (Figure 30). The carvings on the walls and in niches, many of them crosses (khatchkars) further enhance the memorial aspect of the monument. In addition to the muqarnas dome, the portal of the Church of the Mother of God in particular shows elements that play into the convergence between manuscript illumination, Islamic and Christian architecture evoked above (Figure 31). This renews the question of attribution, stylistic divisions, and the separate narratives created by art historical fields that are only slowly being broken up in recent studies on this and related material. 

    Figure 30: Church of St. John the Baptist, Noravank, floor of gavit (P. Blessing) 

    Figure 31: Church of the Mother of God, Noravank, detail of stonework on portal (P. Blessing) 

    Similar observations are of course true not only for medieval monuments, but also other periods. In this vein, I would like to leave the reader with two images of the Temple of Garni (Figures 32 and 33), built in the 1st century CE by Armenian king Tiridates, who had been rather inspired by a visit to Rome, it appears. Now, is this structure Roman? Should it be studied with the Roman ‘canon’? As part of the frontiers of the Roman Empire? Or as part of Armenian architecture? The Caucasian landscape behind the site does not help to solve the question.


    Figures 32 and 33: Temple of Garni (P. Blessing)  

    Recommended Readings

    Armenia Sacra - Mémoire chrétienne des Arméniens (IVe–XVIIIe siècles), exhibition catalog (Paris: Musée du Louvre, 2007).

    Maranci, Christina. Vigilant Powers: Three Churches of Early Medieval Armenia (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2015).

    Maranci, Christina. “Building Churches in Armenia: Art at the Borders of Empire and the Edge of the Canon,” The Art Bulletin 88, no. 4 (Dec., 2006), pp. 656-675 .

  • Work Begins on Charnley-Persky House Conservation Management Plan

    by User Not Found | May 13, 2016

    On April 21, 2016, the SAH staff had its first official meeting to launch a Conservation Management Plan for Charnley-Persky House, SAH’s headquarters. The kick-off meeting, which also included architects from Harboe Associates and all of the contractors who will be gathering data and contributing recommendations to the plan, was the first of many discussions we will have over the next year about the 125-year-old National Historic Landmark. The Conservation Management Plan, which was fully funded by a generous grant from the Alphawood Foundation, will document the current state of the house’s structure and materials, will provide advice on addressing potential problems, and will outline conservation priorities and scheduled maintenance tasks so we at SAH can be proactive stewards of the house.


    For the nearly twenty years that SAH has been headquartered in Charnley-Persky House, we have raised grant funds to undertake many major projects. The largest funding to date was a $381,000 grant from the State’s Illinois First Program which funded a variety of infrastructure and repair projects in and around the house: demolishing the badly deteriorated vaulted sidewalk in front of the house and replacing it with a thick, code-compliant sidewalk; trenching around the entire foundation to install below-grade waterproofing to prevent moisture from seeping through the basement walls; tuck pointing the exterior brick and replacing about one third of the common bricks in the courtyard; repairing the water-damaged balcony and painting exterior wood; and adding new fences around parkway planting areas and new brick pavers in the parking area behind the house. Ironically, most of the work funded by this grant was invisible because it was either below grade or it returned materials and surfaces to a restored state. When neighbors commented that they couldn’t notice any difference, we took it as high praise.

    Trenching around the foundation in the early 2000s revealed a real surprise—a 19th-century midden directly behind the house. In an effort to learn more about the rich deposit of glass bottles, china chards, stoneware jugs, aluminum pots, and more, SAH collaborated with urban archaeologist and anthropologist Dr. Rebecca S. Graff to organize two archaeological field schools with students from DePaul University (2013) and Lake Forest College (2015). Some of the artifacts and their history are documented in a gallery of photographs. The Chicago media covered the digs extensively including this Chicago Tonight segment from WTTW, our local PBS station. As Dr. Graff and her students at Lake Forest College continue to analyze and catalog the artifacts, we are reminded that Charnley-Persky House is a living laboratory facilitating new discoveries about lifeways in well-heeled neighborhoods of 19th-century Chicago and other American cities.

    Despite all of the waterproofing work that SAH commissioned in the early 2000s, in 2014 Charnley-Persky House experienced a series of damaging floods starting on August 19 and continuing the following week. Unknown to us, an underground 19th-century U-shaped valve that connected the house’s interior downspouts with the municipal sewer became completely clogged with 100 years of sediment. The blockage caused rainwater from the roof to back up and discharge as two geysers of storm water in a second floor bathroom. The water cascaded down to the first floor library and basement below. Damage was extensive but through the generosity of Cynthia and Ben Weese, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, the Alphawood Foundation, Peterson Aluminum and nearly 100 individual donors, we were able to replace the connection to the sewer and repair the damaged ceiling, walls and woodwork.


    As alarming as the 2014 floods were, they were a catalyst that made us realize the importance of commissioning a full study of the house’s weak points and developing a multiyear Conservation Management Plan. We will document the year-long process of writing the plan through photographs, blog posts and regular updates. As part of the study, we also are collecting archival drawings, photographs and written documents to piece together as complete a history as possible of all the changes and restorations that have been made to the house in its 125 year history. This documentation will include the construction of an addition on the south end of the building in the 1920s, recreation of the balcony by architect John Vinci in the 1970s, demolition of the addition when Skidmore, Owings and Merrill undertook a major restoration in 1987, and continued restoration projects by managed by architect John Eifler in the early 2000s and 2014.  When Seymour H. Persky donated funds to SAH to purchase the house from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in 1995, the SAH Board gratefully accepted his offer and started a new chapter in SAH history. SAH advances its educational mission by using the house as one tool, among many, to inform our thinking about the importance of balancing the preservation of historic structures and the smart growth of cities.

    Pauline Saliga
    Executive Director
  • Spanish Itineraries Part 2: Madrid, Toledo, Zaragoza

    by User Not Found | Apr 21, 2016
    With this month’s blog post, I am back in Spain, this time in Madrid and the surrounding areas. While in Toledo and Zaragoza, Islamic monuments are part of the discussion, I will generally also focus on the museums that I visited in all three cities although of course, given especially the large number of such institutions in Madrid, this will not be a complete account. 

    In Madrid, the central railway station at Puerta de Atocha quickly became a focal point, as high-speed trains are an easy way to travel around the country. The old station building with its courtyard full of plants (Figures 1 and 2) is particularly attractive, even though the platforms are actually in a new annex building. The way from Madrid to Zaragoza leads eastwards, through landscapes dominated by agriculture and small towns. 


    Figures 1 and 2: Puerta de Atocha railway station, Madrid (P. Blessing) 

    Once arrived in Zaragoza, nothing around the modern train station betrays the view to come: only minutes away, surrounded by apartment buildings likely built in the 1960s and 1970s, is the Aljafería (Figure 3). The palace was built during the Taifa period (after the downfall of the Umayyad caliphate in Spain) by the local Islamic ruler, Ahmad I ibn Sulayman Sayf al-Dawla Imad al-Dawla al-Muqtadir (r. 1049–82). The building now serves as the regional parliament of Aragon. The exterior, with its fortified aspect, does not point to the interior with its garden courtyard, arches, and stucco decoration (Figures 4 and 5). 

    Figure 3: Aljafería, Zaragoza, view (P. Blessing) 

    Figure 4: Aljafería, Zaragoza, courtyard (P. Blessing) 

    Figure 5: Aljafería, Zaragoza, view through arcades at south side of the courtyard (P. Blessing) 

    In the interior, the structure strongly evokes the architecture of Umayyad Cordoba, and especially of the palace city of Madinat al-Zahra: gardens, intersecting arches, stucco with vegetal and geometric motives abound (Figures 6 and 7). The mosque of the Aljafería, a small room to the side of a large hall used for receptions and gatherings, contains references to the Great Mosque of Cordoba in details of the decoration, and in the deep niche of the miḥrāb that forms a small room on its own (Figures 8 and 9). Theses references, at the core of a fortified complex reflect the context of a period in which aspirations to the Umayyad caliphate ran high, and conflicts between local rulers forced the construction of strong walls. 


    Figures 6 and 7: Details of stucco decoration, Aljafería, Zaragoza (P. Blessing) 


    Figures 8 and 9: Mosque and miḥrāb, Aljafería, Zaragoza (P. Blessing) 

    In Toledo, reference to Cordoba are present in an earlier monument, the Bab Mardum Mosque, built in 999, and rededicated as the church of El Cristo de la Luz after the Reconquista of the city in 1085 (Figures 10 and 11). The entrance section of the building consists of the original mosque, a small building with each bays, each covered with a different cross-ribbed vault (Figure 12). An extension was added to the eastern end of the mosque to create the church; wall paintings adorn the apse (Figure 13 and 14), and were added the late twelfth thirteenth century, notably showing inscriptions expression blessings in Arabic. 


    Figures 10 and 11: Exterior views, Bab Mardum Mosque/ El Cristo de la Luz, Toledo (P. Blessing) 

    Figure 12: Vaults of mosque section, Bab Mardum Mosque/ El Cristo de la Luz, Toledo (P. Blessing) 


    Figures 13 and 14: details of wall paintings apse, Bab Mardum Mosque/ El Cristo de la Luz, Toledo, during restoration in March 2014 (P. Blessing) 

    In style, the paintings are similar to those in the church of San Román in Toledo, built in the early thirteenth century (Figures 15 and 16). The church contains a large collection of Visigothic art, comparable to that in the National Museum of Archaeology in Madrid (on which more later). The church and museum reopened in 2015, and the objects on view present a detailed overview of the early medieval archaeological heritage of the region (Figure 17). 


    Figures 15 and 16: Interior views, San Román, Toledo (P. Blessing)

    Figure 17: Detail of display, San Román, Toledo (P. Blessing)

    Moving further through the historical center of Toledo, the cathedral (Figure 18) dominates a large section. Built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, with some later additions, it is one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in Spain, next to the one in Seville. The cathedral is the church of the archbishop of Toledo, the primate of Spain. Burials of the archbishops, some dating to the nineteenth century are located in the cathedral and several of the later ones are marked by cardinals’ hats suspended above them (Figure 19). This is a striking detail that I have not encountered elsewhere, and I have not found background about it so far. Also striking are the foliate arches in the triphorium of the apse (Figure 20), a clear connection to locally engrained forms seen in the Bab Mardum Mosque and Toledo’s Romanesque churches. 

    Figure 18: Cathedral, Toledo, view (P. Blessing)

    Figure 19: Cardinal’s hat suspended above burial of Cardinal Juan de la Cruz Ignacio Moreno y Maisanove (d. 1884), archbishop of Toledo (1875–1884) in Toledo cathedral (P. Blessing)

    Figure 20: Detail of triphorium in apse, cathedral, Toledo (P. Blessing) 

    Not far from the cathedral are two buildings that originally served as synagogues, later as churches, and are now accessible as museums testifying to the Sephardic Jewish heritage of Spain. Santa Maria la Blanca (Figures 21 and 22) was built in the late twelfth century and reconstructed after a fire in 1250; the building became a church in the late fourteenth century. 


    Figures 21 and 22: Interior views, Santa Maria la Blanca, Toledo (P. Blessing)

    The synagogue of Samuel Ha-Levi, a councilor and treasurer at the court of Pedro I (the Cruel) of Aragon, was completed in 1357 and connected to the patron’s palace (no longer extant). The synagogue was turned into the church after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492; first known as San Benito, the church’s dedication was to El Transito by the seventeenth century. The decoration of the monument (Figures 23 and 24) evokes that of the Alhambra, and is part of the Mudéjar style that was used in large parts of Spain in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, including the Alcazar of Seville and chapels added to the Great Mosque of Cordoba after its conversion to a church. 


    Figures 23 and 24: Details of interior stucco decoration, Synagogue of Samuel Ha-Levi, Toledo (P. Blessing) 

    Leaving Toledo, the train station itself is a striking sight (Figures 25 and 26). Built in 1917–1920, it is an example of Islamic revival architecture. (Readers may remember the city hall of Sarajevo from my August 2015 blog). Architect Narciso Clavería y Palacios was joined in the interior design and details of decoration by local master craftsmen Angel Pedraza, responsible for the tiles, and Julio Pascual Martínez who created metal work (Figures 27 and 28). 


    Figures 25 and 26: Views of main train station, Toledo (P. Blessing)


    Figures 27 and 28: Interior, main train station, Toledo (P. Blessing)

    The high-speed train takes travellers to Madrid in just 30 minutes, back to Puerta de Atocha station. This would be a place to close, yet I promised a glimpse at Madrid and so here it is with an account of the Museo Arqueológico Nacional (MAN, National Archaeological Museum), reopened in spring 2014 after a major overhaul of its exhibition spaces. Extending over three floors in two connected section, the exhibition begins with pre-historic artifacts and ends with eighteenth-century objects. Even though the focus is largely on Spain, the museum also as a sequence of rooms dedicated to Pharaonic Egypt and the ancient Near East. In the parts dedicated to the history and archaeology, the Roman period and the Middle Ages are particularly strong. A carefully choreographed transition leads from Roman to late antique, Visigothic, and Umayyad all on one floor. Highlights of this section are mosaics (Figure 29), the Visigothic votive crowns found in Guarrazar near Toledo (Figure 30), and a model of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, suspended above the section presenting Umayyad architectural sculpture (Figure 31 and 32).

    Figure 29: View of room with fourth- to fifth-century mosaics, MAN Madrid (P. Blessing).

    Figure 30: Detail of votive crown of king Recceswinth I (r. 649–672) from the treasure of Guarrazar, MAN Madrid; part of the treasure is in Madrid (MAN and Royal Palace), and other pieces are in the Musée national du Moyen Age, Termes de Cluny in Paris. (P. Blessing) 


    Figures 31 and 32: Model of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, MAN Madrid (P.Blessing)

    Even though the cut off after the Umayyad period to move on to Romanesque and Gothic Iberia on the floor above—and thus squarely into the realm of the Reconquista—gives room to pause, the presentation works remarkably well. It emphasizes the transitions from Roman to late antique Iberia, a world to which the Visigoths and, to some extent, the Umayyads belonged. The question remains whether Umayyad Spain was indeed a part of this late antique Mediterranean world throughout or whether, at least by the tenth century, it had rather absorbed to a large extent the cultural sphere of the Abbasid empire. 

    Recommended books:

    Anderson, Glaire D. The Islamic Villa in Early Medieval Iberia: Architecture and Court Culture in Umayyad Córdoba (Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013).

    Nickson, Tom. Toledo Cathedral: Building Histories in Medieval Castile (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015).

    Robinson, Cynthia. In Praise of Song: the Making of Courtly Culture in al-Andalus and Provence, 1065-1135 A.D. (Leiden: Brill, 2002).
  • Byzantium in Istanbul, or: Istanbul is Constantinople (among other things)

    by User Not Found | Mar 28, 2016
    Just hours before I sat down to write this text on March 19, 2016, another suicide bomb claimed victims in Turkey, this time on İstiklal Caddesi, a lively shopping street at the center of Istanbul’s European side. Last week, an attack in one of Ankara’s main public transportation hubs pointed to further troubles, and it is now clearer how soon they are to some. So far, I have only very occasionally touched upon the political reality of the Middle East, and increasingly Europe. Yet now, as I continued research in Turkey and observe how the situation develops locally, I am both at a loss for words. I feel that it is callous to write about architectural history without the larger context of a country that increasingly slides into violence and uncertainty. I ambitiously wanted to write about Bursa, the first Ottoman capital, as well, but given recent events do not have the stomach to venture into a description of monuments that are, on the one hand, ethereally beautiful and, on the other hand, include mausolea and graveyards. I may return to this later, with distance if possible, but for now the first paragraph of my original text below stands without actual continuation. 

    Last month, I wrote about the transformation of Constantinople to Istanbul (although the shifts in naming were not as simple as this sentence suggests). I did not, however, say much about Byzantine architecture in Istanbul, nor did I venture into other cities. This post will do just that: first, it will present Byzantine monuments extant in Istanbul and second, it will show how in Bursa, the first Ottoman capital from 1326 to c. 1368, Byzantine architecture became part and parcel of the new dynasty’s patronage. 

    Figure 1: View of restored section of city walls near the Topkapı (not to be confused with the palace) tramway station, extra muros (P. Blessing)

    Figure 2: City walls and highway at Ayvansarayı (P. Blessing) 

    In Istanbul, a main feature of the Byzantine city that is still preserved are parts of the walls, although heavily restored in some (Figure 1) and badly preserved in other sections (Figure 2). Restoration and urban renewal projects close to the walls have caused controversy in recent years: the entire neighborhood of Sulukule, heavily populated by Roma communities, was demolished and inhabitants relocated. In recent months, the vegetable gardens (bostanlar) that existed along the walls for centuries, providing subsistence to local families and produce to some of Istanbul’s markets, were bulldozed. Often, historical photographs of the walls are now the only reliable sources to study certain sections; the photographs taken by Nicholas V. Artamonoff in the 1930s and 1940s are examples (Figure 3). 

    Figure 3: General view of the Wall of Manuel Komnenos looking from the city. Market garden, orchards, and shed in foreground, Photographer: Nicholas V. Artamonoff, Date: January 1938, Negative Number: RA415, Reaccession Number: 
    ICFA.NA.0240, Nicholas V. Artamonoff Collection, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

    Similarly, former Byzantine churches have often undergone a series of restorations and transformations, from church to mosque, from mosque to museum, and sometimes back to mosque. Many of these monuments are located in an area between the land walls and the Süleymaniye Mosque. They date from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries, although the ruins of the sixth-century Hagious Polyeuktos (Figure 4) can bee seen close to the sixteenth-century Şehzade Mosque and the aqueduct of Valens (Figure 5). The site was excavated in the 1930s, and sculpture is on view at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, while spolia have been part of the Church of St. Marc in Venice since the thirteenth century (Figure 6). This is one of the instances where several stations of my travels this year form a whole, displaying connections that are not easily understood without first-hand experience. 

    Figure 4: remains of large-scale sculpture from Hagios Polyeuktos, photograph taken in August 2008 (P. Blessing)

    Figure 5: aqueduct of Valens, Şehzade Mosque, near photograph taken in August 2008 (P. Blessing)

    Figure 6: spolia from Hagios Polyeuktos, now on St. Mark’s Cathedral, Venice (P. Blessing)

    Moving away from Hagios Polyeuktos towards the city wall, the next site of interest is the church of the Pantokrator Monastery, known as Zeyrek Mosque since the late fifteenth century (Figure 7). Close by is the Fatih Mosque, one of the monuments that I wrote about in February

    Figure 7: Pantokrator Church/ Zeyrek Mosque (front) and Fatih Mosque (P. Blessing)

    The Pantokrator Church, or rather churches since it was planned as an assembly of structures from the start, was built under the patronage of John II and Eirene Komnenos 1118–36. A main function was that of imperial mausolea, as more of a dozen imperial burials were located there. The structure was restored in a long-term project under the director of Prof. Zeynep Ahunbay, Prof. Metin Ahunbay, and Prof. Robert Ousterhout, beginning in 1997–98, and continued in several seasons until 2005–06. At that point, the Directorate of Pious Foundations (Vakıflar Genel Müdürlüğü) took over the project, which has been continuing in stages (Figures 8, 9, and 10), and it is currently not accessible. 

    Figure 8: Pantokrator Church/ Zeyrek Mosque in 2008 (P. Blessing)

    Figure 9: Pantokrator Church/ Zeyrek Mosque in 2014 (P. Blessing)

    Figure 10: Pantokrator Church/ Zeyrek Mosque in 2016 (P. Blessing)

    Close to the walls, the Chora Church/Kariye Camii (Figure 11) built in the eleventh century and enlarged in 1316–21, has been a museum since the early 1930s. The mosaic decoration of the narthex and naos, and the frescoes in the fourteenth-century funerary chapel are the main attractions of the site. The patron of the fourteenth-century restoration of the church, Theodore Metochites, is shown at the feet of Christ (Figure 12), presenting the restored church—notably with the addition of the mosaics. The extensive program of the narthex, depicting scenes from the life of Christ and the life of the Virgin Mary, culminate in the figure of Christ Pantokrator in the southern dome (Figure 13) and of the Virgin and Child in the northern dome (Figure 14). In the funerary chapel, frescoes dating to c. 1320 show an elaborate program moving towards the Anastasis, and a terrifyingly creative rendering of the 

    Figure 11: Chora Church, exterior in 2008 (P. Blessing) 

    Figure 12: Chora Church, mosaic showing Theodore Metochites as donor (P. Blessing)

    Figure 13: Chora Church, southern dome of narthex with Christ Pantokrator (P. Blessing)

    Figure 14: Chora Church, southern dome of narthex with Christ Pantokrator (P. Blessing)

    [This is where I meant to move on to Bursa, but I will leave this for now. My April blog, planned as a text about Madrid and northern Spain, may return to Bursa instead]. 

    Let me close with a paragraph on some issues indirectly connected to the Byzantine past of Istanbul. The first is the site of Eyüp up the Golden Horn outside the old walls, a landscape of Ottoman mosques, mausolea, and graveyards that are still in use today (Figure 15). At the center of this holy site is the tomb of a figure known as Abu Ayyub al-Ansari (Eyüp Sultan on Turkish); the narrative surrounding the tomb is closely connected to the time of Mehmed the Conqueror. According to legend, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari was companion of the Prophet Muhammad who died during the first Arab siege of Constantinople—and thus served as a (less successful) precedent of Mehmed the Conqueror’s conquest, now conveniently connected to early Islamic times. While the city was under siege just before the Ottoman conquest, Akşemsettin, a Sufi shaykh close to the sultan, found the Abu Ayyub al-Ansari’s previously unknown tomb. A mausoleum and mosque were established and the site firmly became part of Ottoman foundational lore.1 The current mosque is that built after a devastating earthquake in the eighteenth century (Figures 16 and 17), although much of the time decoration on the mausoleum consists of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century pieces (Figures 18 and 19). 

    Figure 15: View over Golden Horn and Eyüp from Pierre Loti Cafe (P. Blessing)

    Figure 16: View of Eyüp Sultan Mosque, with graveyard in the foreground (P. Blessing)

    Figure 17: Courtyard, Eyüp Sultan Mosque (P. Blessing)


    Figures 18 and 19: tiles on façade of mausoleum, Eyüp Sultan Mosque (P. Blessing)

    Turning away from Eyüp and the Golden Horn, moving along the shore towards Eminönü, the neighborhoods of Fener and Balat are the most recent sites of the gentrification that has already taken over areas such as Beyoğlu and Cihangir in the last twenty years. Yet here, towering above neighborhoods full of historical buildings—some restored, others in ruins—is the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, a poignant reminder of the city’s history but also its present that is not just Turkish and Islamic (Figure 20). 

    Figure 20: Balat, view up the hill with Patriarchate at the top (P. Blessing) 

    1. For the details of various sources on these accounts and the early architectural history of the site, see: Kafescioglu, Constantinopolis/ Istanbul, pp. 45-52.

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