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Nauru is a 21-square-kilometer island republic in Micronesia that frequently appears on lists of the world’s least visited countries (figure 1). I first lay eyes on it shortly before nightfall from the small old plane that has conveyed me there over 3,300 kilometers from Brisbane: an almost imperceptible terrestrial ripple on the otherwise glassy surface of the Pacific Ocean. The plane’s once white internal fit-out is yellowed with age and its fuselage lets out a reluctant croak as we bank towards the short landing strip. Plummeting towards the land, passengers shrieking at the rapid rate of descent, I make out the coral reefs fanning the perimeter of the island and the narrow strip of development—shops, houses and industrial facilities—encircling the dark mass of its interior (figure 2). After taxiing to the airport terminal in Yaren District—Nauru’s 1.5-square-kilometer capital—we disembark onto the hot tarmac. The air is heavy and still, carrying the sound of music and the clamor of traffic noise from the nearby Island Ring Road. The sun sets quickly at the equator and before long the low-hanging clouds have been consumed by the muggy night. I climb into an air-conditioned van and am shuttled to one of the three hotels on the island: a sprawling, faded complex that stares out at the oil-slick sea (figures 3 and 4).
Fig. 1. Satellite image of Nauru. The airstrip is visible in the south of the island, as is the coastal development running around its perimeter. The lighter vegetation in the center indicates former phosphate mining sites. The clearings are either active mining sites or the locations of the Regional Processing Centers—the Australian immigration detention facilities run as part of Operation Sovereign Borders. Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility.
Fig. 2. View of houses along the Island Ring Road from the plane shortly before landing.
Fig. 3. The view from reception at Menen Hotel.
Fig. 4. One of the many stray dogs on Nauru next to Menen Hotel’s function center where, on my first night on the island, the President held a private party for his ministers until late at night.
Nauru is a raised coral atoll formed by the erosion of a large volcanic seamount over millions of years. As sea levels dropped, the coral reef became dolomitized by seawater and eroded in the tropical conditions, leaving large limestone pinnacles mounding to around fifty meters to form the central plateau of the island, known today as Topside (figure 5). These pinnacles, many of which still bear impressions of the coral once attached to them (figure 6), were filled in by humus and seabird excrement over millennia to create vast rock phosphate deposits up to several meters deep covered by dense jungle. Human settlement of Nauru is estimated to have occurred at least 3,000 years ago by Micronesians who established a political system on the island based on twelve tribes. A distinct language developed, aquaculture was practiced in the freshwater Buada lagoon, and coconut palms and pandanus trees were cultivated to sustain a fluctuating population of between 1000 and 3000 people (figure 7). The lack of a natural harbor and the extreme isolation of Nauru from other islands—the closest of which, Banaba (Ocean Island), is located some 300 kilometers away in the Gilbert Islands—delayed contact between Nauruans and the European whalers and traders operating in the region until the late nineteenth century. By 1887, the year in which Nauru was incorporated into the German Marshall Islands Protectorate, there were only ten white residents on the island, all of whom were trading in copra.1
Fig. 5. Limestone pinnacles are all that remain once the phosphate deposits have been exhausted. The denuded landscape stretches across the entire area of Topside, Nauru’s central plateau.
Fig. 6. Many pinnacles still bear the impressions of the coral reef that grew from them thousands of years ago.
Fig. 7. Buada Lagoon, a small freshwater catchment on Nauru’s central plateau, was once used for farming Milkfish. A subterranean freshwater pool on the coast served as the island’s water supply until it became saline as a result of phosphate mining. Drinking water is now produced by four desalination plants on the island.
European interest in Nauru escalated dramatically with the discovery of its rock phosphate deposits in 1900 by Albert Ellis of the London-based Pacific Islands Company. As recounted in my second report, the Company presented a paradigmatic example of Greater British enterprise in the Western Pacific, combining capital and expertise drawn from throughout England, Australia, and New Zealand to realize the value of Pacific commodities within the markets of industrial capitalism. With Ellis’s discovery of phosphate on both Nauru and Banaba, the Pacific Island Company was quickly liquidated and reconstituted as the Pacific Phosphate Company (PPC) in 1902, attracting significant investment from William Lever—later the Lord Leverhulme of Unilever fame—and appeasing the German colonial authorities on Nauru by reserving a portion of the new company’s board for German representatives. Within a decade of establishing the PPC, close to 300,000 tons of phosphate were leaving Nauru and Banaba annually, extracted and processed by thousands of indentured laborers and bound for superphosphate manufacturers at ports in Australia and New Zealand (figure 8).2
Fig. 8. Indentured laborers from the Gilbert and Ellice Islands c.1910 working the phosphate deposits on Nauru. The phosphate can be seen between the limestone pinnacles. The former surface level of the island, prior to mining, can be seen in the background. Maslyn Williams Nauru Photographs, State Library of New South Wales, PXB 293, Image 59.
Fig. 9. The Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust building in Arijejen. The Trust continues to pay royalties to the landholders on which phosphate mining takes place.
Following World War One, the phosphate deposits on Nauru and Banaba were set aside for the exclusive use of British polities under the auspices of the British Phosphate Commission (BPC), which from 1949 also acted as the managing agent for the phosphate works on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. In 1967, the newly independent Republic of Nauru purchased the BPC’s mining assets, which were resumed in 1970 under the Nauru Phosphate Corporation. The profits of the now sovereign phosphate industry were managed by the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust (figure 9), which gradually amassed an international real estate portfolio spanning Australia, the Philippines, Fiji, Guam, Samoa, the United States, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, as well as investing in a failed 1993 West End musical production about Leonardo da Vinci’s love life. Financial mismanagement and largely exhausted phosphate reserves eventually ensnared the Nauruan government in unmanageable levels of debt, leading it to pursue diverse avenues of investment through quid pro quo deals with foreign governments: a fleet of ambulances in return for supporting Japan’s stance on whaling; millions of dollars of Russian economic support following Nauru’s backing of the breakaway Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; Taiwanese investment in energy projects and medical facilities after Nauru recognized its sovereignty at the UN. In 2001, Australia established offshore immigration detention facilities on Nauru, which remain in use under the demonstrably inhumane Operation Sovereign Borders, including the construction of a collection of now abandoned one-room dwellings for those asylum seekers who opted to resettle on the island (figure 10).3 Shortly before I arrived, the Australian government extended its offshore processing agreement with Nauru, allocating $485 million AUD for 2023 alone, representing an annual cost of $22 million per asylum seeker held in detention at that time.4
Fig. 10. The housing provided by the Australian government at Anabar in 2017 for asylum seekers electing to permanently settle on Nauru. The dwellings were entirely empty for the duration of my stay on the island.
If Australians know anything about Nauru, they generally recite this potted history in reverse: from immigration detention to spurious international relations and bizarre investments to, eventually, phosphate, which is in turn usually misrepresented under the common Australian moniker for Nauru, “Bird Shit Island” (n.b., rock phosphate is not guano). However, Nauru’s controversies and idiosyncrasies belie a far more enduring and substantive relation between the two countries; one based on over a century of European resource imperialism linking the depletion of rock phosphate on Nauru with the expansion of Australia’s sprawling wheat industry; an industry that was itself fundamental to the extension of the settler-colonial project in Australia and the political economy of dispossessed Indigenous land upon which that project was premised (figures 11 and 12). Placing this relation at the center of Nauru’s tumultuous modern history both reveals continuities between the different forms of extraction first engendered by the phosphate industry and elaborated since—phosphate, finance, asylum—as well as the long history of Australian sub-imperialism in the Indo-Pacific, which continues to inform Australia’s expression of its so-called “external sovereignty” in the contemporary geopolitics of the region.
Fig. 11. The hatched areas on the map depict the distribution of Australia’s wheat districts in c.1920. Griffith Taylor and H. O. Beckit, The New Oxford Wall Maps of Australia: Sheep and Wheat (London: Oxford University Press, c.1920).
Fig. 12. South Australian Department of Agriculture, Map showing wheat growing areas of South Australia and mean annual yields per acre over 20-year period, 1935, National Library of Australia, 2828157.
In this reflection on my trips to Nauru and Christmas Island over the past few months, I return to a formulation discussed in my previous report and first proffered by the legal scholar Cait Storr in her recent study of the administrative history of Nauru: where legal status shifts, bureaucratic form accretes. According to Storr, the final shift in the legal status of Nauru from UN Trust Territory to sovereign state in the mid-1960s, “appears not as a break with but as a stage in the bureaucratisation of an imperial administrative form instantiated in the late nineteenth century” under colonial rule.5 The same can be said for the history of the administration of Christmas Island, from its original annexation by the British Crown in 1888 to its incorporation into the British Straits Settlements and the Crown Colony of Singapore, through to its management by the British Phosphate Commission from 1949 until its purchase by Australia in 1958. According to Storr’s formula, the evolution of both islands’ legal status was always subtended by the increasing bureaucratic rationalization of colonial jurisdiction, in the sense that “facilitating the outward flow of natural resources” from each territory remained “the raison d’etre of the state’s administrative form” as it shifted over time.6 And where the process of bureaucratization involves rules, jurisdictional areas, hierarchical structures, written documents and maps, these were ultimately all developed and deployed to enable the physical removal, processing and circulation of phosphate from the Indo-Pacific onto foreign soils. Storr’s formula thus inadvertently emphasizes the inherently material—technological, infrastructural, architectural—conditions of the extractive sovereignty she describes, even if these fail to enter her analysis per se.
My intention in this report is therefore to relate the linked administrative histories of Nauru and Christmas Island (and Banaba, which I was not able to visit in person) to the residual buildings, mining sites, facilities and industrial equipment I encountered during my travels.7 In light of the above discussion, I understand these different forms of spatial production both as relics of a colonial industrial enterprise that radically altered the ecological and societal conditions on the islands themselves, as well as vehicles in the stabilization of Australian sovereignty more broadly. As Storr explains, “‘Australia’ is necessarily understood as a sub-imperial as well as a colonial project. The Australian state is a colonial project built and maintained on the denial of Indigenous ownership of the continent,”8 but also on its “sub-imperialist posturing in the Pacific region” where the Australian colonies attained regional supremacy through the extractive activities of both public and private forms of authority.9 As the administrative histories of Nauru and Christmas Island elucidate, the territorial boundaries of ‘Australia’ have always exceeded the official limits of Australian sovereign territory in what amounted to a sub-imperial technological system linking remote resources with domestic production.10 The relics of this system remain strewn across both islands, readily accessible to the interested visitor.
Fig. 13. Views from my hire car #1: A house built into a limestone pinnacle.
Fig. 14. Views from my hire car #2: An abandoned four-story mansion in Ewa stands as a monument to Nauru’s former wealth during the 1990s.
I quickly lost track of how many times I circumnavigated the Republic of Nauru on the Island Ring Road in my hire car (figures 13 and 14). The trip takes approximately twenty minutes depending on the number of police checkpoints in operation, or whether the President is currently enroute somewhere in his black Lexus limousine. If he is, all cars are required to pull over immediately until he and his entourage have sped past. These were always good opportunities to tune into the island’s radio station, which in addition to broadcasting Australian news bulletins on the hour also played a variety of obscure disco songs on repeat—most notably “Oriental Boy” by The Flirts—along with a mix of more recent hits from across the Pacific. Tongaruan’s “I’ll be Drinking when I’m Hurtin’” was especially popular and remains on high rotation in my household at the time of writing. Other things I did not know about Nauru before traveling there: small quantities of phosphate are still mined and exported from the island, primarily to Australia and South East Asia; an imported Australian lettuce costs $18 AUD in either of the two supermarkets on the island; the country uses Australian currency dispensed by Australian banks; its schools use an adapted version of the official curriculum of the state of Queensland; its legal system is modelled on Australia’s; and, when Nauru brought the case to the International Court of Justice in 1989 that the Australian government had breached its fiduciary duty to promote the economic and social wellbeing of the Nauruan people by failing to remediate the phosphate mines worked almost to exhaustion during the period in which the island was a UN Trust Territory, the case was settled out of court four years later with Australia insisting that it would only pay penalties in the form of increased aid to avoid the public perception that it was criminally liable.11 Australian Aid logos are still littered throughout Nauru, affixed to shipping containers, generators, and buildings. The fact that the lucrative immigration detention facilities on Nauru are physically located in exhausted phosphate mining pits—the hottest, most exposed, windless sites on the island—puts a dark spin on the pervasive ways in which “remediation” and “aid” continue to inform Nauruan and Australian relations thirty years after the lawsuit was settled (see figure 1).
Fig. 15. Paul Hambruch’s map of Nauru during the early period of the Pacific Phosphate Company’s operations on the island, showing the Company’s facilities directly adjacent to those of the Jaluit Gesellschaft. The map was completed in 1914 based on observations made in October 1910. Paul Hambruch, Nauru nach Aufnahmen der Beamten der Pacific Phosphate Co. Ltd. und Ergänzungen von Dr. P. Hambruch, Okt. 1910 (Hamburg: L. Friederichsen & Co., 1914).
Fig. 16. Detail of Hambruch’s map of Nauru depicting timber (Hölzerne Landungsbr.) and steel jetties (Stählerne Landungsbr.) within the PPC’s original mining lease.
Fig. 17. One of two pivoting steel cantilevers currently used by Republic of Nauru Phosphate Corporation to load ships in the deeper water off the coral reef.
Fig. 18. Conveyors transport the crushed and dried phosphate to the cantilevers for loading.
Fig. 19. The steel cantilevers and conveyor system used on Nauru in c.1932, during the period of the British Phosphate Commission. Maslyn Williams Nauru Photographs, State Library of New South Wales, PXB 293, Image 116.
Fig. 20. The BPC’s steel cantilevers sit collapsed onto the coral reef, surprisingly intact given the corrosive environment and heavy seas they face.
Eventually, my daily trips around Nauru started to yield results. An important document in this regard was Paul Hambruch’s 1910 map of the island, first drawn three years after the Pacific Phosphate Company had exported its initial shipments of mined rock (figure 15). The map shows two large jetties in the Aiwo district—one timber, one steel—protruding beyond the fringe reefs (figure 16). Driving to the site depicted on the map, I find the most recent iterations of the former jetties: large rotating steel cantilever structures connected to the phosphate crushing and drying facilities by a mechanical conveyor belt (figures 17 and 18). Further along the coast, two previous cantilevers, built in the early 1930s during the period of the British Phosphate Commission and destroyed by a German raider in World War Two, remain in place, collapsed face-first into the ocean (figures 19 and 20). With each increase in the length and speed of the loading facilities on Nauru and Banaba, annual exports of phosphate increased in turn, reaching a pre-1930s peak of more than 560,000 tons.12 To prevent the Company’s ever-larger steamers from being washed against the reef while under loading, Nauru also received the deepest moorings in the world, laid in 1200 feet of water (figure 21).
Fig. 21. Nauru’s moorings were the deepest in the world, tethered to the seabed by lengths of extremely thick chain, much of which now lies strewn along the coral beaches on the island. Shown here is Nauru Chief under loading in c.1932. Maslyn Williams Nauru Photographs, State Library of New South Wales, PXB 293, Image 114.
Fig. 22. A former tramway cut through coral pinnacles at the site of the PPC’s earliest mining activities on Nauru.
Fig. 23. The locomotives used to shunt phosphate carts from the mining sites to the loading facilities on Nauru were imported from Britain and Germany. Shown here is a steam locomotive in c.1915. The island’s aerial cableway can be seen in the background of the image. Maslyn Williams Nauru Photographs, State Library of New South Wales, PXB 293, Image 69.
Fig. 24. Indentured Chinese laborers and a white overseer scraping phosphate from the limestone pinnacles at Topside in c.1915. Maslyn Williams Nauru Photographs, State Library of New South Wales, PXB 293, Image 60.
Fig. 25. Parts of the twentieth-century industrial equipment used to process phosphate remain dispersed around Nauru today. Seen here are likely the elements of a rotatory drying system, used to prepare the crushed phosphate prior to shipping according to international industry standards regarding moisture content.
Fig. 26. More parts—ducts, hoppers, trays and roof sheeting—in front of a disused phosphate conveyor belt overgrown by the resurgent tropical scrub.
A dashed line on Hambruch’s map delineates the boundary of the earliest areas worked by the PPC, extending eastward from the Island Ring Road up the steep incline onto the raised plateau overlooking the loading facilities below (see figure 16). I navigate to the outer edges of the line in my hire car before stepping off the gravel road into the jungle where I find a maze of overgrown paths wending their way around countless limestone pinnacles (figure 22). I soon realize the paths I am following were once the tramways along which phosphate carts were shunted by small steam locomotives, filled by laborers who had pried the rock from the razor-sharp pinnacles by hand (figures 23 and 24). Dispersed all around me is the disarticulated detritus of a century-old mining operation: rusting tracks, cogs, ducts, and implements too disassembled to properly identify (figures 25 and 26). I push further east onto Topside, following a much larger railway embankment on either side of which the landscape has been comprehensively stripped back by mining—the pinnacles starting to disappear under ferns, creepers, and large figs (figure 27). I come across a brick coal store and kiln for fueling the early locomotives and find a small collection of cast-iron bowls, kettles, and ceramic Japanese dishes likely used by laborers on their lunch breaks to save the long trip down to the mess halls in the company settlement on the coast (figure 28). Large steel structures line the embankment (figure 29), possibly remnants of the aerial cableway that once conveyed mined rock from Topside to the processing facilities further downhill (figure 30)—a system designed by the Australian engineering firm J. M. and H. E. Coane, who acted as consultants for the PPC before World War One.
Fig. 27. Limestone pinnacles and the remnants of the aerial cableway connecting Topside to the processing facilities near the port.
Fig. 28. Bowls, dishes, and kettles found near the coal store and kiln at Topside.
Fig. 29. One of the steel structures lining the main embankment at Topside, likely the base for the aerial cableway designed by the engineers J. M. and H. E. Coane of Melbourne.
Fig. 30. The aerial cableway on Nauru in c.1915. Maslyn Williams Nauru Photographs, State Library of New South Wales, PXB 293, Image 65.
Fig. 31. A c.1930s former BPC officer’s residence in the residential quarter on the cliffs of Arijejen, once overlooking the phosphate processing facilities on the coast below.
Fig. 32. The house is being slowly consumed by a large Banyan fig, its roots penetrating the asbestos roof and timber floor.
Fig. 33. A different, c.1950s BPC officer’s residence in the residential quarter disappearing under a prolific vine.
The redefinition of Nauru after World War One from Germany colony to UN Trust Territory under the League of Nations’ mandate system involved a joint payment of £3,500,000 to the PPC from the governments of the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand for the Company’s existing rights, titles, and industrial plants on Nauru and Banaba. Henceforth, the operations on both islands were managed by the British Phosphate Commission. The BPC’s tripartite model of governance, defined in the 1919 Nauru Island Agreement, assigned forty-two percent each of the costs and phosphate accrued by the BPC to the United Kingdom and Australia and sixteen percent to New Zealand. The remit of the Commission was to supply cost-price phosphate for chemical fertilizer manufacturers in all three member states, however in its first two years of operation alone, seventy-two percent of all shipments arrived in Australia; only five percent in the UK and New Zealand respectively; while eighteen percent was sold to other countries at market price to defray the BPC’s running costs. The administrative practices of the Commission maintained continuity with those of the PPC, employing the Company’s former executives—including Albert Ellis—as commissioners under the new arrangements. A large residential complex was developed on the slope between the port facilities and the mining sites on Nauru to house the families of the BPC’s white managers, engineers, geologists and doctors, now in a state of disrepair through gradual reabsorption into the dense jungle (figures 31, 32 and 33).
Fig. 34. The view from the BPC officers’ residential quarter overlooking the rows of housing at Location, primarily for Chinese laborers.
Fig. 35. The 1940s-era workers’ housing at Location was originally single-story but was extended by the BPC around 1960 to double its capacity.
Fig. 36. BPC housing for single white men near Location and the BPC’s main office on the island.
Fig. 37. The British Phosphate Commission’s office building on Nauru, built in the 1930s.
Fig. 38. The Pacific Phosphate Company Island Manager’s dwelling—Stanmore House—in c. 1919, initially used by the BPC and replaced in the 1930s with the office building depicted in figure 37. Maslyn Williams Nauru Photographs, State Library of New South Wales, PXB 293, Image 46.
Fig. 39. The BPC Mess Room, 1924, located in the main company settlement at Aiwo. T. H. Cude Nauru Island Photographs, 1920–1953, PXE 650 (vol. 2), Image 7.
Fig. 40. Location plan of buildings in the BPC’s company settlement at Aiwo, c.1965. T. H. Cude Nauru Island Photographs, 1905–1966, PXE 650 (vol. 1), Image 2.
Continuity in administration between the Pacific Phosphate Company and the BPC also ensured the continuity of the foundational structures upon which phosphate mining on Nauru had been premised since the turn of the twentieth century. The use of indentured labor was significantly upscaled during the BPC period as evident in the rows of two-story walk-up flats located directly next to the boat harbor—a site still known today as Location—where primarily Chinese laborers and their families were housed (figures 34 and 35). Small standalone cottages adjoin the Location precinct (figure 36), built for single white men employed at the nearby mechanical workshop, phosphate loading facilities or in the BPC’s main administrative building, which has been repurposed as a site office for the ongoing redevelopment of Nauru’s port (figures 37 and 38). White-only recreational and utility buildings (figure 39)—a theatre, staff club, mess hall, stores, etc.—were dotted around the main office building, establishing a racially segregated modern enclave for the white governing minority on the island whose elevated form of living and assertive managerialism signaled to the outside world—including its strong critics in the League of Nations—that the BPC was fulfilling its obligations as an enlightened administrator of Nauru (figure 40). The architecture on the island remained an important tool in stabilizing and maintaining the racial hierarchies inherent in the colonial phosphate industry. Investment in the expansion and modernization of the islands’ mining facilities continued to be prioritized over the wellbeing of the non-white workforce, deemed essential but ultimately inexhaustibly replaceable within the system of indenture.
Fig. 41. View overlooking Flying Fish Cove, phosphate loading facilities and the Malay Kampong Group—formerly Edinburgh Settlement—on Christmas Island.
Fig. 42. Jagged limestone cliffs and thick jungle along the south coast of Christmas Island.
Fig. 43. A Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster), co-conspirator in the accumulation of Christmas Island’s phosphate deposits. Red crabs cling to the limestone cliffs in the background.
Fig. 44. Christmas Island Phosphates is only permitted to work existing mining sites on the island and cannot open new ones. Nevertheless, the sites are dotted throughout the Christmas Island National Park, much of which is coated in a pervasive layer of phosphate dust that washes into the water during the wet season causing degradation of the coral reef.
The same organizational logic and spatial relationships established within the phosphate industry on Nauru and Banaba remain evident 7,000 kilometers away on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean (figure 41). Like its Pacific peers, Christmas Island is the geological result of an underwater volcano rising 5000 meters from the seabed and building coral reefs now interred as a limestone cap over the island’s basalt substructure (figure 42). Decomposing organic matter and the excrement of the thousands of birds that roost on the island each year accumulated on top of this limestone cap over millennia (figure 43), forming rich phosphate deposits that continue to be worked today by the Malaysian firm Christmas Island Phosphates (figure 44). Large road trains—trucks pulling more than two trailers—barrel along the wide roads cut through the Christmas Island National Park on the island’s central plateau, dodging the famous red crab on its annual migration from land to sea, before dumping the mined rock at a processing plant connected to the port by a dramatic elevated conveyor system (figures 45–53).
Fig. 45. Road trains barrel through the Christmas Island National Park. The metal guard running along the side of the road is designed to prevent the red crab from crossing. Instead, heavily engineered under- and overpasses have been constructed along the main roadways to assist the crabs in safely conducting their annual migration to the sea.
Fig. 46. The phosphate conveyor at Drumsite, overlooking Flying Fish Cove below.
Fig. 47. The phosphate tip at Drumsite, where the phosphate undergoes further processing before continuing towards the port.
Fig. 48. An enclosed conveyor belt runs along the main road at Drumsite. The feeder, shown here, extracts the phosphate dust produced by the conveyor, which is also bagged and exported.
Fig. 49. The current conveyor system above the old railway incline, halfway up the hill between Settlement and Drumsite.
Fig. 50. The conveyor belt plunges towards the storage facilities at the port.
Fig. 51. Bags of phosphate dust in storage awaiting export.
Fig. 52. The pivoting steel cantilevers that load phosphate from the conveyor system directly into a ship’s hold.
Fig. 53. Phosphate dust is tacky and sticks to everything, eventually forming thick layers as seen here.
What immediately sets Christmas Island apart from other phosphate islands, however, is its relative size: approximately six times larger than Nauru and twenty-three times larger than Banaba. It also stands around six times taller than Nauru, reaching 361 meters above sea level to the west at Murray’s Hill, named after the Scottish naturalist, John Murray, who first agitated for the Crown to annex the uninhabited island in 1888. Following chemical testing of rock samples taken from one of its inshore reefs during the Challenger expedition in the mid-1870s, Murray concluded that Christmas Island was likely to contain large deposits of high-grade phosphate of lime. The Christmas Island Phosphate Company (CIPC) was eventually formed in London in 1897 with Murray as its chairman and mining was commenced two years later by 120 indentured laborers, yielding just ten tons of exported rock by year’s end.13 36,000 tons were exported in the following year and by 1906, 90,000 tons left the island for markets in Europe and Asia. By 1912, the significantly expanded industrial facilities were capable of processing up to 157,000 tons of phosphate annually, having surpassed a million tons in total exports in the previous year.14
Fig. 54. Detail of a 1908 survey depicting the CIPC’s phosphate facilities and company settlement west of Rocky Point in the north. Tramways, tanks and quarries are indicated in the areas around Phosphate Hill where the early mining activity was concentrated. John Murray, John D. Murray and C. W. Andrews, Running Survey of Christmas Island, Indian Ocean (Edinburgh: The Edinburgh Geographical Institute, 1908), National Archives of Australia, 1121/M.
Fig. 55. Steep hills, limestone cliffs and large Banyan figs are found everywhere on Christmas Island.
Fig. 56. Indentured Chinese coolies on Christmas Island c.1910 under the watch of the District Officer’s Sikh protective forces. National Archives of Australia, N29/1, 203206255.
Once again, a map of the island from the early twentieth century proves helpful in locating the original facilities constructed by the CIPC (figure 54). Climbing into my morose-looking hire car, a thoroughly exhausted Toyota Hilux, I ascend from the port at Flying Fish Cove past large cuttings in the limestone cliffs (figure 55), before eventually reaching Phosphate Hill in the north-east of the island, the car’s gearbox whingeing with every increase in the steep gradient of the road. There’s little to see other than a few non-descript phosphate pits, but the map invokes the story of the work that once took place here. As on Banaba and Nauru, the labor-intensive process of clearing the dense tropical jungle, removing the topsoil and ultimately extracting the phosphate rock required a large workforce in the initial stages (figure 56). To this end, close to 2500 Chinese laborers, indentured from the Sze Yap region of western Kwantung province and from Hainan Island, were contracted by the CIPC each year using the Singapore-based labor agent, Ong Sam Leong.15 An account of the working conditions on the island in the first years of the Company’s operation was provided by the Protector of the Chinese in the Straits Settlements, Lewis Clayton, who visited in 1900:
The phosphate is at present only being worked at and near the summit of Phosphate Hill. The coolies pick it up from the ground, where it lies in blocks, and throw it into iron trucks running down a slight incline to the head of a double line of rails which descend for a distance of about 500 yards […] The loaded trucks run right onto a wooden platform and the phosphate is then tipped out of them down ‘the shoot’. Coolies at the bottom again pick the stones up and place them in wooden trucks running to the water’s edge, which are emptied down a metal line ‘shoot’ into boats.16
In 1909, the system Clayton describes was refined with the introduction of “aerial trams” manufactured by Kerr Stuart in Liverpool, which transferred the phosphate along a cableway from the iron trucks used at Phosphate Hill into the drying sheds at the port. From here, the dried rock was pushed in carts along one of two elevated piers before being tipped into chutes by steam cranes and thereby loaded into the ship’s hold. In 1912, following sustained investment in capital works, the phosphate was loaded directly from the storage shed by newly erected conveyor belts (figures 57).
Fig. 57. The Tonan Maru under loading by the mechanized cantilevers in 1928. Christmas Island, National Archives of Australia, R32, CIPC 6/25A, 6446584.
Fig. 58. View over Flying Fish Cove showing Edinburgh Settlement, upgraded loading facilities, phosphate tip and the “coolie lines,” c.1908. Historical Photographs Relating to Christmas Island, 1905–1925, National Archives of Australia, N29/1, 203206254.
Fig. 59. Housing for European employees of the CIPC c.1910, Phosphate Hill. Christmas Island, National Archives of Australia, R32, CIPC 6/25A.
Fig. 60. The former Christmas Island Club overlooking Flying Fish Cove.
As was the case with the PPC’s contemporary operations on Nauru and Banaba, the racial stratification of labor within the CIPC was carried into the housing it provided for its employees. The company’s white officers resided in tropical bungalows initially built around Flying Fish Cove that overlooked the phosphate loading facilities and were strictly segregated from the workers’ areas (figure 58). The early houses in Edinburgh Settlement, as the residential area was known, boasted large verandahs, extensive eaves, shading devices, and stack ventilation in the steeply gabled roofs (figure 59). Each house, constructed from timber felled on the island, was raised on piers for increased ventilation and rose up to three floors depending on the occupant’s status within the company. After hours were spent at the Christmas Island Club where white company employees and their families mingled with members of the District Office—which upheld British rule on the island—over evening drinks. The building now stands boarded-up and deteriorating halfway up the cliff face above Flying Fish Cove, soon to recede entirely into the ravenous scrub (figure 60).
Fig. 61. Detail of a c.1908 map depicting the “coolie lines” running along what is now Gaze Road. The kongsi is show towards the beginning of the lines. “Aerial haulage” is shown in red, connecting the phosphate tip further up the hill to the storage shed and loading facilities on the coast. Plan of Flying Fish Cove Christmas Island, Map 1, Miscellaneous Collection Christmas Island Maps, National Archives of Australia, R175, Box 1, 33057600.
Fig. 62. The Mandors quarters, 1930. Christmas Island Housing, National Archives of Australia, R32/C25, 1749820.
Fig. 63. The Mandors quarters today.
On the other side of the CIPC’s loading facilities to the Edinburgh Settlement, running from Isabel Beach to Rocky Point, were the so-called “coolie lines”—initially, 25 by 35 feet raised timber dormitories that housed between fifteen and fifty workers each (figure 61). By 1908, close to forty new dwellings had been constructed, the walls from weatherboard and the roofs from double attap. The exteriors of the lines were tarred annually and the interiors were whitewashed every six months.17 These, too, were soon replaced by updated designs due to the rapid deterioration of timber in the tropical conditions. Outbreaks of beri beri, poor sanitation, crowded living conditions and industrial accidents led to a death rate of up to twenty-five percent among the indentured workforce in the early years of the Company’s activities on Christmas Island.18 To prevent revolt, the Singapore-based labor agent Ong—who received a percentage of the profit from the phosphate sold by the CIPC—employed so-called “Mandors” or foremen, promoted from among the indentured workforce and tasked with ensuring the profitability of their former peers (figures 62 and 63). In 1902, two Mandors were killed by laborers in protest against their punitive methods.19 To diversify his income from the island, Ong also opened a kongsi—a Hokkien term for an incorporated business—that sold food to workers at inflated prices to supplement the meagre rations provided by the CIPC, as well as arranging opium supply, prostitution services and gambling rings on the island.
Fig. 64. The railway to South Point under construction through thick jungle and over rough limestone in 1915. Christmas Island, National Archives of Australia, R32, CIPC 5/27A.
Fig. 65. What remains of the South Point railway today: an overgrown embankment running through dense stands of pandanus and along steep limestone cliffs.
Fig. 66. Ferns indicate disturbed ground on Christmas Island. Here, the embankment cuts through a former mining area, enabling the workers to load the phosphate carts from both sides of the railway.
Fig. 67. Remains of the crushing and loading facilities at the South Point settlement.
By 1914, the quarry initially worked by the CIPC on Phosphate Hill had been largely exhausted. Following the discovery of a large high-grade deposit in the area known as South Point, the Company undertook to construct an eighteen-kilometer railway, cleaved through thick vegetation along the rugged southern coast, which would connect the area to Flying Fish Cove (figure 64). Driving along the hand-built embankment today, all that remains are decommissioned steel electricity poles and a concrete waterpipe, stitched along the narrow track (figure 65). Former mining sites appear intermittently, their thick layer of ferns indicating disturbed ground (figure 66). The South Point railway was operational within six years, delivering a substantial increase in the rate of phosphate exported from Christmas Island into the early 1920s. A separate settlement gradually developed, complete with its own mining offices, sports facilities, hospital, barber, power station, gambling hall, police station, brothels and a temple—all arranged around the railroad and crushing plant. Bits and pieces of the town still remain after its demolition in the early 1970s (figures 67).
Fig. 68. Cuming Smith & Mount Lyell Farmers Fertilisers Ltd., “The Story of Superphosphate,” advertisement, National Library of Australia, c.1920, UApam 933.
Fig. 69. Flats built by the BPC in the 1950s along Gaze Road, Christmas Island.
Fig. 70. Housing built for BPC employees and their families in the 1960s along Gaze Road, Christmas Island.
Fig. 71. The former BPC bungalow in which I stayed while on Christmas Island.
Following the acquisition of CIPC by the Australian and New Zealand governments in the aftermath of World War Two, Christmas Island phosphate was almost exclusively shipped to Western Australia, whereas Nauruan and Banaban exports serviced the fertilizer industries on Australia’s east coast and New Zealand (figure 68). The BPC, from its headquarters in Melbourne, thus managed a sprawling extractive territory spanning four islands across two oceans, staffed by Australian, New Zealander and British engineers, technicians, managers, architects and executives who together controlled a substantial stake of the world’s supply of phosphate. Major expansion and modernization projects continued into mid-century, tightening the grasp of the Commission over every aspect of life on the islands: from schooling and healthcare to housing and recreation (figures 69 – 71). Building designs and mining technologies were recycled and adapted from island to island. Annual reports, inter-island conferences and routine audits by the commissioners ensured the entire operation was running as efficiently and effectively as possible. By the 1960s, the islands controlled by the BPC were heavily engineered terrains: comprehensively surveyed, efficiently organized into mining grids, scrupulously scraped back to their limestone foundations. By the 1970s, close to ninety percent of the surface of Banaba had been removed, displacing Banabans to Rabi Island in Fiji. Nauru was also deemed uninhabitable by the late 1960s and a failed attempt was made to relocate the Nauruan population to Curtis Island off the coast of Queensland. Australia purchased Christmas Island from Singapore in 1958, running the industry through the BPC into the late 1970s. Industrial action by workers seeking improved conditions and wage equality with Australia led to a Royal Commission in 1980, which concluded that:
The institutional framework within which Christmas Island operates is outmoded, discredited, and in many ways repugnant. […] The British Phosphate Commissioners (BPC) is an organization which has not adapted quickly enough to or willingly enough to the passing of the colonial era. […] The structure of the Government Administration on the Island, and much of the law that is in force, is more appropriate to a colonial possession than it is to a remote multi-racial mining community on Australian territory.20
A new company structure was introduced in response to the adverse findings of the Royal Commission until ongoing unrest and environmental activism led the new venture to declare the commercially unviability of the industry before entering into voluntary liquidation in 1987.
Fig. 72. Deteriorating former phosphate storage shed, Nauru.
Fig. 73. Former phosphate processing equipment, Nauru.
Where political solutions focused on neatly resolving the effects of close to a century of phosphate extraction on Nauru, Banaba, and Christmas Island, the pockmarked landscapes and deteriorating infrastructure left behind by the BPC and its commercial forebears immediately disclose the scale of human exploitation and ecological violence that the colonial bureaucracy attempted to conceal (figures 72 and 73). But this concealment was also a function of the infrastructure itself, which both physically connected the disparate places involved in the overall process of superphosphate production, while also severing—in the minds of consumers—the sites of phosphate extraction in the Indo-Pacific from those of its application on Australian soils. “As the farmer drives his drill across the paddocks at seeding time,” begins a 1936 article in the Adelaide paper The News, “or carts weighty bags of superphosphate from the nearest railway station, he gives little thought to the origin of that artificial manure which has done so much to increase the yield of his crops and pastures. At Port Adelaide, Wallaroo and Port Lincoln are busy chemical works that manufacture the fertilizer, but it is from mid-Pacific coral islands that the phosphate rock comes which is its chief component.”21 As Brian Larkin has argued, infrastructures work in precisely this way, preparing the ground for other things to act on the world while they themselves disappear from view: “their peculiar ontology lies in the facts that they are things and also the relation between things. As things they are present to the senses, yet they are also displaced in the focus on the matter they move around.”22 This mode of analysis has proved challenging for scholars of architecture, whose predilection generally remains to focus on buildings as isolated objects. Its benefit for this fellowship project, however, is to situate individual instances of spatial production—i.e., the buildings, jetties, railways, chutes, cranes, ships, and so on considered in this report—in relation to one another as elements of an extractive system that reorganized islands in the Indo-Pacific to fuel Australia’s particular brand of racial capitalism (figure 74).
Fig. 74. Propaganda for promoting white immigration to Australia as part of the Million Farms Campaign, which used pamphlets and political lobbying in the early 1920s to aggressively tout what it described as “the biggest biological experiment the world has ever known – White Australia.” Joseph Carruthers, The Great Objective: How the Million Farms Campaign is Faring (Sydney: Million Farms Campaign Committee, 1921), 15.
Fig. 75. One of the many Taoist temples on Christmas Island.
Fig. 76. A wheatfield in the Wimmera Mallee, c.1935. State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, Wimmera Region, State Library Victoria, RWP/1855.
The notion that Australia was itself an imperial power—and not simply a settler-colonial product of British empire—remains marginal at best in the popular consciousness. On Nauru and Christmas Island, however, the physical evidence of Australian imperialism remains irrefutably on display. Australia’s empire was not the result of the direct colonization, annexation or invasion of territory; rather, it was amassed gradually through the increasing bureaucratization of political authority on islands of value to its economic development. Phosphate is one vector in this broader history of extractive sovereignty, revealing the modes and techniques through which Australian imperialism became instantiated and eventually entrenched in once foreign places. Walking along Gaze Road on Christmas Island—named after Harold Gaze, General Manager of the BPC—past the Chinese Literary Association, the Chinese Cultural and Heritage Museum and Tai Pak Kong, the Taoist temple, I contemplate the complex cultural histories engendered by the colonial phosphate industry (figure 75). In particular, I consider what I at first regard as a glaring hypocrisy: that during the period of the White Australia policy, which officially commenced in 1901 and lasted into the 1970s, white farmers in Australia were entirely dependent on the phosphate mined by Chinese, Japanese, Pacific Islander, and South Asian workers in the Indo-Pacific to sustain their highly politicized form of living, itself premised on Indigenous dispossession (figure 76). By the time I arrive back at my accommodation, my thoughts have corrected themselves: far from being hypocritical, white Australia’s expropriation of Indigenous land, foreign resources, and non-white labor was deliberate, engineered, and essential to its viability. White supremacy in Australia was in fact contingent on Australian imperialism and vice versa; Australian empire in the Indo-Pacific was enacted on the basis of the former colonies’ sovereign independence as a white ethnostate. These co-dependencies were as much infrastructural as they were political and economic: where legal status shifts, bureaucratic and spatial form accrete. In securing the raw material upon which the extension of Australian settler-colonialism depended, the phosphate industry developed on Christmas Island, Banaba, and Nauru therefore played a decisive role in stabilizing the extra-territorial limits of Australia as both a biological and a political community.
1 Cait Storr, International Status in the Shadow of Empire: Nauru and the Histories of International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 90.
2 On the labor trade for the phosphate industry on Nauru and Banaba, see Ralph Shlomowitz and Doug Munro, “The Ocean Island (Banaba) and Nauru Labour Trade,” Journal de la Société des océanistes 94 (1992): 103–117.
3 Ben Doherty, “Australia’s offshore detention is unlawful, says international criminal court prosecutor,” The Guardian, 15 February 2020 (accessed 5 December 2023), https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/feb/15/australias-offshore-detention-is-unlawful-says-international-criminal-court-prosecutor.
4 Paul Karp and Tory Shepherd, “Nauru offshore processing to cost Australian taxpayers $485m despite only 22 asylum seekers remaining,” The Guardian, 23 May 2023 (accessed 5 December 2023), https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2023/may/23/nauru-offshore-detention-immigration-processing-to-cost-australia-485m-22-asylum-seekers.
5 Storr, International Status in the Shadow of Empire, 25. Emphasis added.
6 Ibid., 36.
7 On the history of Banaba, see Katerina Teaiwa, Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014).
8 Storr, International Status in the Shadow of Empire, 34.
9 Ibid., 33. See also Cait Storr, “‘Imperium in Imperio’: Sub-imperialism and the Formation of Australia as a Subject of International Law,” Melbourne Journal of International Law 19, no. 1 (2018), 336.
10 Storr, International Status in the Shadow of Empire, 35.
11 See Raymon E. Reyes Jr., “Nauru v. Australia: The International Fiduciary Duty and the Settlement of Nauru’s Claims for Rehabilitation of its Phosphate Lands,” New York Law School Journal of International and Comparative Law 16, no. 1+2 (1996): 1–54.
12 A. N. Gray, “Table No. 166—Oceania—Shipments from Ocean/Nauru Islands 1921–1929. Bill of Landing Weights (Metric Tons),” in Phosphates and Superphosphates (London: International Superphosphate Manufacturers’ Association, 1930), 263.
13 Harold L. Burstyn, “Science Pays Off: Sir John Murray and the Christmas Island Phosphate Industry, 1886–1914,” Social Studies of Science 5, no. 1 (1975), 25–26.
14 Burtsyn, “Science Pays Off,” 26.
15 David Jehan, Shays, Crabs and Phosphate: A History of the Railways of Christmas Island, Indian Ocean (Melbourne: Light Railway Research Society of Australia Inc., 2008), 14–15.
16 Quoted in Jan Adams and Marg Neale, Christmas Island – The Early Years, 1888–1958 (Canberra: Bruce Neale, 1993), 36.
17 Fran Yeoh, “The early coolie houses on Christmas Island,” Christmas Island Archives, accessed 15 December 2023, https://christmasislandarchives.com/coolie-houses/.
18 Jehan, Shays, Crabs and Phosphate, 15.
19 Jehan, Shays, Crabs and Phosphate, 15.
20 W. W. Sweetland, Report of Commission of Inquiry into the viability of the Christmas Island Phosphate Industry, Parliamentary Paper No.36/1980 (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1980), 3. See also Les Waters, The Union of Christmas Island Workers (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1983).
21 “From Coral Isles to Farm: Tale of ‘Super’,” The News, Adelaide, 16 September 1936.
22 Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (2013), 329.
Krista Reimer practices landscape architecture full-time and is a part-time sessional lecturer in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in Philadelphia and has been a member of SAH since early 2023.
Can you tell us about your career path?
I began my post-secondary education in pure mathematics at the University of Manitoba and initially intended to become an academic mathematician. Along that trajectory, while completing a mathematics master’s degree at McGill University, I started to crave a materiality to my work as well as an endeavor that was more readily shared with others; mathematical work, while rewarding and enjoyable, quickly became esoteric.
When looking for gardening positions to take on while I figured out my next direction, I stumbled across the field of landscape architecture. I was excited to realize that through garden architecture, which is how I prefer to conceptualize the field, I could continue two significant aspects of mathematical work I was reluctant to give up. The first was my interest in formal and geometric ideas. The second was involvement in a practice for which one of the fundamental pursuits is the development of models which we use to make sense of and inhabit the world. I am very interested in gardens’ function as models, or in other words as compressed microcosms encapsulating and giving form to political, religious, or philosophical ideas. I went through the Master of Landscape Architecture program at the University of Pennsylvania, and have been practicing since for offices in New York and Philadelphia. I currently work at the multidisciplinary design firm WRT in Philadelphia. The last several years I have also been teaching elective seminars to landscape architecture and architecture master’s students at the University of Pennsylvania, and to the extent possible, I keep up research on the side.
What interests you most about landscape history?
Knowing landscape history gives me context for my professional work. I see increasing this knowledge both as an obligation for responsible practice as well as enriching my creative practice. In terms of responsibility, every increase in my knowledge of landscape history enables me to better situate contemporary ideas, understand the values they embody, and to evaluate them for my own use. In terms of creativity, knowing history loosens the mind, and I see it as a vital way into imagining beyond the hegemony of today’s norms.
What projects are you currently working on?
In practice, I am managing a preservation effort for a neglected but significant regional garden that is starting to get attention again after decades of being overlooked. I am also involved with our office’s work renovating one of Philadelphia’s large early 20th-century parks. In my personal research, which is practice oriented, I am studying the history of ideas around metamorphosis and the grotesque in garden design and kin disciplines such as architecture, film, and literature. This is a recent focus within my ongoing interest in how notions of mutation and evolution are perceived, employed, and positioned in garden design to hold ideas about our societal transformations, (in)stabilities, and multiplicities.
What is your biggest challenge at this point in your career?
Balancing efforts to grow in both the professional and academic aspects of my career. I consider myself very lucky to be able to simultaneously pursue both, but time, as we all know, is limited.
How did you become involved with SAH?
I was looking for a larger disciplinary community to become active in. As a part-time lecturer and someone invested in my own research, I felt the need for a relatively academic community but also didn’t want to feel like an outsider as someone who isn’t a full-time academic. So, I was delighted when I read that, “Anyone with an interest in the history of the built environment and its role in shaping contemporary life is welcome to join the Society of Architectural Historians.” Shortly thereafter, I saw the posting for the Contingent Faculty Committee, and I was really encouraged by this. I saw that SAH was not only open to me as a member, but they are also conscientious about their members in positions similar to mine.
Tell us about your work on the SAH Contingent Faculty Committee.
As a newly formed committee, our first work is to understand the breadth of contingent faculty membership in SAH as a basis for understanding how to support this subset of the members. Those of us on the committee all occupy “contingency” in very different ways. Recognizing this, we realized we needed to make sure we weren’t operating from any assumptions about what contingency meant for members. In addition to building our understanding of who the members the committee is in support of, we are also recognizing the need to create visibility for this portion of the membership and thinking about ways to do this.
Do you have a vision for how SAH should evolve in the future?
As a relatively new member, it would be imprudent for me to have a vision per se. For now, I am encouraged by SAH’s attention to their contingent faculty members, and I hope it continues in that direction. One thing I have noticed is that while continuing education credits are available for licensed architects at the annual conference, they are not available for licensed landscape architects. Expanding the continuing education credits to landscape architecture would be a great way to make active society membership more feasible to practitioners.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to enter your field?
Remain curious, focus on nurturing your creativity and work experience, build a humble confidence, and surround yourself with others who are committed to the same.
My dissertation project, titled “The Phantom of Empire: Qing Stagecraft of Art and Theater, 1700–1827,” focuses on the temporary stage architecture of the Qing Empire. I collected data by visiting various sites in Beijing to unearth traces of these cultural relics. A particularly striking site was Taoran Pavilion Park in the city’s southern part.
The park is marked by a vertical layout, crowned by a natural earth hummock, about 10 meters high, on the northern bank of a landscape of lakes, reeds, and bushes. Historically, this site was the center of an imperial kiln during the Yuan and Ming dynasties. However, in the Qing Kangxi era, its role as a kiln ceased, and it transformed into a favored spot for celebrating the Double Ninth Festival, offering panoramic views. In the early twentieth century, during the republican era, it became a practice ground for trainees of the Fu Lian Cheng Peking Opera School, who would gather to sing and drink tea.
In my study of the interplay between pavilion architecture and Chinese opera, I reflected on the term “pavilion” as used in Qing dynasty texts. A Kangxi-era dictionary describes “ting (pavilion)” as a resting spot on a journey. Meanwhile, the Manchu translation, “ordo”—stemming from the Mongol term for a mobile tent or horde—suggests movement. These interpretations, while sharing the theme of a sojourn, diverge in their nature: “ting” impiles stillness, whereas “ordo” implies motion. This nuanced understanding likely influenced the Qing Manchu view of pavilions, leading to a multifaceted concept and possibly facilitating their use as temporary stages for itinerant performances.
These insights gained from my fieldwork have been enlightening. First, the park exhibits a distinct vertical spatial arrangement: its lower level bustles with tourism, while the upper level, serene and culturally enriched, hosts genuine cultural events, balancing between public entertainment and exclusive cultural niches. Second, I observed that specific Chinese architectural styles, like pavilions, inherently draw lyrical activities. The Manchu translation of “ting” and the etymology of “ordo” together suggest a fascinating historical evolution, in which the pavilion transformed from a simple temporary structure into a centerpiece for itinerant lyrical expressions.
My rough diagram of Taoran Pavilion Park illustrates these findings, contrasting the lively, replicated pavilions on the lower level with the tranquil, culturally significant upper level. Accompanying this is a soundtrack that captures the diverse acoustic environment of the mountain pavilion, highlighting its strategic position and unique sound qualities that render it a sanctuary for opera enthusiasts.
Annie Schentag is a 2023 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.
"How was your trip?" That question always instills dread in me. I am far more interested in the specific than in the grandiose. That makes a task like this difficult: how to briefly summarize the lessons learned, when the true gift was all those moments of learning them?
As a 2023 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship, I traveled through five Latin American nations to study the intersection of urban regeneration and historic preservation. I wanted to explore the evolving expression of urban adaptation, activation, and resilience in unfamiliar contexts. I wanted to see how collective memory was manifested, expressed, and transformed in the built environment in places where revitalization is critical to moving forward from difficult, recent pasts. I began to do this, and more, in ways that I will still be processing in my career for many years to come.
Mostly, I was surprised. I was surprised at how little I had formally learned of these places prior to my travels. I was frustrated at how skewed my distant impression had been; these were not scary or sad places—these were places worthy of celebration, celebrating themselves already. I was in awe of the successful public spaces everywhere I went. Latin America knows how to build, adapt, and use a public space better than anywhere I’ve ever been. I was surprised I had never truly learned that from afar, as someone who studies and teaches about public space. There is so much to learn from these places and the people that shape and use them.
Figure 1: Public space along an active industrial waterfront is well used in Bahia Blanca, Argentina.
Figure 2: In Popayan, Colombia, the central square of Caldas Park is often thriving with activity, adjacent to the Catedral Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción.
I was also surprised by myself, at my willingness to trust complete strangers on a sailboat in the middle of the ocean or feel so deeply in conversations I never expected to have. I was unprepared for how important it felt for me to write these blog entries, at the gravity I felt in communicating even a portion of all I was learning at the time. I was relieved to discover how natural a sustained writing practice could be for me while traveling, blissfully outside the daily routines of balancing two full-time jobs. It snuck up on me slowly, but by the time I reached Buenos Aires I realized that I needed to invest more time in my own writing, long term. Once I returned home, I surprised myself again: I made the decision to take leave from my academic position next year in order to take the tentative, terrifying leap of pursuing my own research agenda outside of an academic institution.
Figure 3: Exploring a tunnel built in 1536 at the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena, Colombia.
This fellowship gave me so many gifts, including a long and growing list of topics, sites, and projects to develop. Above all, this fellowship gave me the gift of time. Time to pursue, time to wander outside myself, time to recalibrate, time to reprioritize, and time to explore all the ways that real change can look in my career and in my life. It is the most important and influential time I have ever spent in my career thus far, and that is a gift that will keep giving.
Throughout the fellowship, I was keenly aware of the unfair privilege of my well-funded travel through nations where displacement is pervasive. I constantly grappled with the dysphoric disconnect between the joy I experienced of passing through new places while for others the same passage was a form of horror. Sometimes we would even share the same bus, the same block, the same building—but I knew it was not a shared experience in any way. All I could truly understand was that I could not understand. There was no way I could ever pay the dues to earn the truths of their experience, but I could pay attention. It was an impossible equation to balance, to find any kind of equality amongst situations so radically skewed.
I sailed right past the Darién Gap in Panama, where thousands are still risking their lives to migrate northwards this year. While some sunbathe on the sandbar islands offshore, the Guna Yala continue to build shelters on the sand to provide temporary relief for migrants attempting a sea crossing instead of the jungle path. When I arrived back home to my city of Buffalo, I was newly engaged in the struggle to embrace and support some of those migrants who crossed that very same jungle to arrive here. Just a few months ago I sailed on a boat that was only a few dozen feet from the coastline of that dense jungle, but was still a world away. Paradise is relative.
Figure 4: Sailing the Alessandra in proximity to the Darién Gap, but never approaching the shore.
Figure 5: Viewing the Darién Gap coastline, always abstracted from a distance.
The architecture of displacement manifests in so many different ways, as other H. Allen Brooks Fellows have studied. In Bolivia, the loud and proud cholets celebrate a new form of urban indigeneity for Aymara displaced from the countryside. In Buenos Aires, informal settlements grow rapidly on the outskirts of the city, while others like Barrio 31 put residents at the center of participatory design. Colombian cities invest in public transportation to connect informal settlements to services in the urban core, seeking ways to balance the aid they give to Venezuelan refugees alongside rural populations still displaced within the nation’s own borders.
Figure 6: A cholet architecturally embodies urban indigeneity in the contemporary context of the predominantly Aymara city of El Alto, Bolivia.
In many of these places, preservation provides a tool to maintain democratic order. The struggle for democracy is a contemporary history in Argentina and Uruguay, for instance, a recent wound still healing. In Colombia and Bolivia, the preservation of ancient and pre-colonial sites enable historic interpretations of these nations to reclaim national identities outside of Spanish colonialism. In contexts like these, historic preservation is an act of remembering that also serves as a way of distinctly not forgetting.
Figure 7: The ancient site of Tiwanaku dates to at least 200 BCE, long before the Inca and Spanish arrived. It is situated near Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and still serves as a sacred site for many Andean cultures today.
Figure 8: Detail of carved faces carved set within the ancient walls at Tiwanaku.
I saw so many examples of adaptive reuse that stake a claim in justice. Rather than turn away from the darkness, the rehabilitation of sites of horrific history become opportunities to better serve marginalized communities today. The Palace of the Inquisition in Cartagena, Colombia, has been transformed into a museum acknowledging horrific tortures in order to advocate for inclusion. In Cordoba, Argentina, the Museum of Memory occupies a space formerly used by the Department of Intelligence as a clandestine center for detention and torture, with detailed artifacts about individuals still missing after being admitted there 40 years ago. The National Museum in Bogotá takes pride in its collection of Colombian artworks housed inside a panoptic prison. In Montevideo, Uruguay, the Punta Carretas prison has been transformed in a more capitalistic approach to panopticons: a shopping mall.
Figure 9: Entrance to the Museum of Memory in Cordoba, Argentina. The fingerprints on the exterior walls are comprised of the names of people who were kidnapped, tortured and/or executed by the Department of Intelligence in Cordoba, likely at this facility.
Figure 10: The National Museum in Bogotá houses a large collection of artworks, artifacts, and publicly curated exhibitions inside a nineteenth-century prison.
The foreign extraction of resources also manifests at the core of Latin American histories, and in the built environment. The architectural impact of this extraction manifests in both glamour and grit. It is present in the grandiose Baroque-Mestizo churches of La Paz and in the whitewashed walls of colonial-era towns like Popayan, Colombia, and Sucre, Bolivia, as well as in the UNESCO-heritage meatpacking plants of Fray Bentos, Uruguay. It repeats itself in every central square and street grid, laid out according to the Law of the Indies imposed from overseas. I encountered both implicit and explicit discussions of foreign extraction of resources in every nation I visited, all of which utilized architecture and preservation as a way of processing and responding to the centuries of impact it has made.
Figure 11: The Iglesia de San Francisco in La Paz, Bolivia is a great example of a Baroque-Mestizo church.
Figure 12: Detail of column at the Iglesia de San Francisco. The church contains a wealth of Indigenous symbols carved into the exterior.
This topic is also very much a contemporary issue. Thousands of citizens are protesting a recent government contract with a Canadian copper mining company in Panama, although it has not received the attention it deserves in major American news sources. Led largely by numerous Indigenous communities, this is only the most recent demonstration in a long Panamanian history of civic activism to protect environmental resources in this carbon-negative country, a nation with a canal literally cut through it by the United States. To the south, foreign influence in Colombia’s drug trade is increasingly well known, directly impacting virtually every aspect of the nation’s social, economic, and agricultural practices for the last several decades. The oil industry has a controversial, growing presence off the Atlantic coastline, as well as growing tensions over the Venezuelan oil trade network.
More than any other nation I’ve visited, Bolivia has been shaped by the extraction of its resources by foreign nations. It wears this history on its sleeve. The city of PotosÍ is a globally relevant example of the power and downfall of natural resource extraction. There, the silver extracted from a single mountain known as Cerro Rico almost singlehandedly funded Spanish conquest and the imposition of its colonial power during the sixteenth century. Aptly referred to as the “jugular vein of the viceroyalty,” PotosÍ was South America’s primary hub for silver mining and coin minting for centuries.1 The first 300 years of Spanish-controlled mining activity at Cerro Rico claimed about eight million lives, many of them Indigenous. Today, Cerro Rico is still an active mine even though the silver has run dry, where both local employees and freelancers spend up to 20 hours a day in darkness mining tin in extremely harsh conditions. The city was built to celebrate the glory of the rich minerals it once contained, and today its buildings also tell the story of the true cost of that extraction.
Figure 13: Grand courtyard of the National Mint of Bolivia (Casa de la Moneda de Bolivia). The lavish architecture of this large complex attests to the wealth of the Spaniards who built and used it to create coins from silver mined in deadly conditions at nearby Cerro Rico.
Figure 14: View of exhibition space in one of the buildings at the National Mint of Bolivia in PotosÍ.
Figure 15: Detail of floorboards, where traces of human labor are visible in the footprint worn into the floor towards the left. Interpretations of the human cost of the mint are present at this site in subtle ways.
Not far from the Uyuni Salt Flats I visited, Bolivia contains about one-quarter of the world’s known lithium. In a far too cyclical sense of history, foreign investors are vying for the rights to extract this resource from Bolivia in order to mass produce electric vehicles at their own profit. The nation’s recent gas wars and ongoing debates about lithium demonstrate these issues are still very much woven into the country’s plurinational identity, past and present. It is time to weave them into more architectural histories as well.
Figure 16: View of the Uyuni Salt Flats from Isla Incahuasi in Bolivia. This is the world’s largest salt flat, stretching over 4,000 square miles to Chile.
Figure 17: Detail of the Uyuni Salt Flats. This area contains one of the world’s largest lithium deposits, which many nations are currently vying for the rights to extract from Bolivia.
The things that most Americans don’t learn about other countries is an injustice. Frankly, I was often embarrassed at how little I had previously learned about the places I was visiting. In my extensive education, I never learned about the many generations of American imperialism in Panama’s Canal Zone, foreign influence in the Colombian drug wars, Bolivia’s socialist government, Argentina’s fight for democracy 40 years ago, or really anything about Uruguay at all. I also never learned any of the positive examples in these places either: the stunning examples of urban resilience, innovative architectural designs, top-notch museums, some of the best public spaces in the world, and creative design approaches that were ever-present once I set foot in countries that many people back home had warned about visiting.
This ignorance is a problem. It is not just my ignorance, and it is not just my problem. Some of it, surely, could be related to my particular specialization or educational approach, my own blind spots. Yet I am certain I did not learn anything at all about these topics in even the most basic way in my otherwise excellent education either. I’m pretty sure I was never required to even identify Bolivia on a map in school, let alone understand that its silver funded the majority of Spanish conquest for many decades. We need to move so much further away from the glory of New Spain in South America. There is so much else to talk about besides colonial architecture, beautiful as it can be.
Traveling on this fellowship provided a new education for me—in conversations, in observations, in civic institutions specifically designed to do so. I constantly tried to keep in mind that the purpose of this fellowship was to learn through travel, exploration, and experience, not intensive research. Perhaps expertise can come not just through a mastery of subject matter (which I didn’t have in these contexts), but through an empathetic approach. So I got out of the archives, and into the world. I learned these stories, instead, through places preserved for that purpose and through people willing to share their experiences with me.
Figure 18: Experiencing the juxtaposition of old and new at Panama Viejo.
Figure 19: Marveling at the Virgilio Barco Library, designed by Rogelio Salmona in Bogotá.
That is how I met new heroes in these international contexts. That is how I began to recognize a new lexicon of Indigenous symbols and learn from their legacies of activism. That is how I learned the names of dozens of incredible contemporary architects working in these countries. That is how I marveled at truly creative approaches to empowering the public in urban spaces. That is also how I learned the hard way that one should not say the word "drogas" aloud when trying to ask for "medicina" in a Colombian mall filled with police enforcement.
Figure 20: The vivacity of public space is ever-present in Bogotá, Colombia.
Travelling on the H. Allen Brooks Fellowship has been, and will continue to be, an education in humility. More and more, the act of teaching feels both limited and inspired by the knowledge that there is so much more to learn, together. I show up to my lectures excited to share photographs of places that my students have not heard of, or have not heard good things about. I share my experiences in a frustrated but earnest attempt at translation, and hope to connect my students to these places and ideas in ways that I had not been prior to this fellowship. More often, when they ask, "what did you learn on your fellowship?" I answer: I will be learning from it for a long time.
1 Eduardo Galeano and Isabel Allende, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997), 165.
Amanda C. Roth Clark’s work with SAH Archipedia has come full circle.
Nine years ago, Clark was a recent PhD graduate eager to pursue publishing opportunities. She was also an active member of SAH’s Marion Dean Ross Pacific Northwest Chapter. Diana Painter, then president of the chapter, reached out to Clark about writing for SAH Archipedia, the Society’s peer-reviewed online encyclopedia of the built environment of the United States. Painter put her in touch with Phil Gruen of Washington State University, who was the co-coordinator with Robert Franklin of the Washington’s Classic Buildings project for SAH Archipedia.
“I had soon signed up to write about five locations near my home in Spokane,” Clark recalls. “Thus began a multi-year process of writing and revising essays and hunting down compelling images.” Looking back, she was jumping into the deep end of the pool with those first SAH Archipedia building entries. The coordinators freely offered their editorial assistance for those first few essays.
“What began as what I thought was a one-off experience has turned into a passion,” says Clark. “I'm now deeply invested in the history and preservation of my regional built environment.”
Today, Clark is an architectural historian and dean of the Library & Special Programs at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. Her involvement with the Marion Dean Ross Chapter has continued, and she currently serves as the chapter historian. Clark is also the SAH Chapter Liaison and a member of the SAH Archipedia/BUS Editorial Committee.
And she’s once again working with Phil Gruen, this time as co-coordinator of Oregon content for SAH Archipedia, picking up where her father, Leland M. Roth—the original state coordinator—left off. Together, Clark and Gruen are managing contributions of peer-reviewed born-digital content for Oregon and expanding the open access SAH Archipedia, which today contains histories, photographs, and maps for over 22,000 structures and places.
“What SAH Archipedia was doing more than a decade ago was revolutionary and has since become best practice. During this past decade as a library director and now dean, I can see that the future of reference material is in digital form.”
Encyclopedias and dictionaries are now firmly established as born-digital resources, and libraries are moving away from print collections of reference materials. Librarians like Clark are also pushing the future of information sharing to be free and accessible to all.
“Where SAH Archipedia was a leader in the field, such open educational resources and open access materials are now the expectation and the norm,” Clark says. “SAH Archipedia is hitting all the sweet spots for me as both an architectural historian and a librarian.”
Jasper Ludewig is a 2023 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.
I finally find it in dappled light under a tree in Blohms Park, west of the city center. I am in Hamburg, on a stifling summer’s day, and I have been walking around for hours looking for a cast-iron statue of a lion (figure 1). Regret for my lack of discipline and subsequently poor lunch decision (currywurst and pommes, again…) is mixed with frustration at my inability to locate what I am looking for in the hot weather. I must be visibly excited when I eventually see the frozen silhouette of a lion across the park as I attract dubious glances from a group of youths nearby. My excitement is also captured in the number of pictures I take of my discovery. I am not sure what I was thinking, but I certainly didn’t need 27 photos of the undistinguished statue, regardless of how interesting its history may be. I enjoy what feels like a major accomplishment and take in the verdant surrounds before trudging back through the wobbly heat to my accommodation near the Elbe.
Fig. 1. The elusive lion statue in Blohms Park, Hamburg.
My lion friend is yet another example of the material dissimulation of the history I have been exploring in this fellowship project. Unlike the obdurate presentation of history I encountered during my travels to Tyntesfield in Bristol and Port Sunlight in Liverpool however, the anonymous statue in Blohms Park makes no claims to its historical significance, nor does it account in any way for its provenance. It is simply there: a hollow-eyed, somewhat graffitied and agitated figure, crushing an unknown species of serpent with its violent claws. Nevertheless, I know this lion well, having seen it many times in photographs of a building that no longer exists, but which once towered over the inner Hamburg suburb of Hamm (figure 2). The Villa Ohlendorff was a neo-Renaissance Stadtpalais (city palace) built between 1872 and 1874 to the design of the architect Martin Haller. Its owner, Heinrich von Ohlendorff, was the largest importer of Peruvian guano in nineteenth-century Germany, entering the trade in the 1860s shortly after the period of the Antony Gibbs & Sons monopoly discussed in my previous report. The villa was spread across two vast levels, containing 18 rooms on the parterre and a further 14 on the first floor. Marble stairs, columns, walls and bathrooms were offset by an oak-paneled dining room and a gold-leafed ceiling in the ballroom (figure 3). A windowless octagonal chamber adjoined the salon, dedicated to playing the card game skat without distraction by the blustery northern weather. The house was set in six hectares of parkland containing exotic trees, a waterfall, fountain, grotto and a greenhouse for Ohlendorff’s extensive orchid collection (figure 4).1 Two large staircases flanked the building’s entry, conveying visitors to the opulent interior, adorned at either end by a cast-iron statue of a lion. Following the destruction of the Villa Ohlendorff during the allied bombing of 1943, the Blohms Park lion is all that remains of Heinrich von Ohlendorff’s once sprawling guano palace.
Fig. 2. The Villa Ohlendorff, c.1920. Source: Commons.
Fig. 3. Interior of the Villa Ohlendorff c.1875. Source: Commons.
Fig. 4. The fountain and waterfall in the grounds of the Villa Ohlendorff, c.1875. Source: Commons.
As in Bristol and in Liverpool, so in Hamburg: Ohlendorff’s ostentatious home again obfuscated the conditions under which the capital invested in it had been acquired. Just as the Peruvian guano trade during the Gibbs monopoly period relied upon an elaborate and coercive labor regime to realize the latent value of the Chincha Islands within the emerging markets of industrial capitalism, so too did Ohlendorff & Co. profit from the “superexploitative character” of indentured Chinese labor in Peru (figures 5 and 6).2 The extracted material, once processed and sold as fertilizer, contributed to a dramatic increase in agricultural productivity: between 1870 and 1910, the value of annual harvests doubled in Germany as rates of chemical fertilization increased by over one thousand percent in line with Liebig’s entrenched model of “rational agriculture.” In supplying the fuel for this growth, Ohlendorff & Co. eventually established industrial facilities in Hamburg, London, Antwerp and Emmerich am Rhein, processing up to 140 shiploads of Peruvian guano annually.3 The company developed a major presence in the European fertilizer industry more broadly as a result, competing with the likes of Lawes Chemical Manure Company and delivering a personal fortune to Heinrich and his brother Albertus. In 1883, Ohlendorff & Co. was reconstituted as the Anglo-Continental Guano Works, transitioning to chemical fertilizer production—especially superphosphate—throughout Europe and England prior to the seizure of its assets outside of Germany following World War One.
Fig. 5. “Pelican breeding grounds on the Chincha Islands.” Source: Walter von Ohlendorff, “Die Guanolager in Peru und Chile,” Prometheus: Illustrierte Wochenschrift über die Fortschritte in Gewerbe, Industrie und Wirtschafft, no. 436 (1898), 311.
Fig. 6. “Guano deposits on ‘Lobos de Afuera’.” Source: Walter von Ohlendorff, “Die Guanolager in Peru und Chile,” Prometheus: Illustrierte Wochenschrift über die Fortschritte in Gewerbe, Industrie und Wirtschafft, no. 436 (1898), 313.
The original objective of this fellowship project was to understand the role of synthetic fertilizers in enacting a kind of triple displacement in the Australian colonies, whereby the biogeochemical transformation of Indigenous Country into the landscapes of colonial agriculture was enabled by the coercive expropriation of resources and labor throughout the Indo-Pacific, which in turn ensnared certain Indigenous populations and ecologies within the expanding geography of Australia’s settler colonial project. The term chemification, proffered by the sociologist Marion W. Dixon, has proven useful as a heuristic in organizing this thinking. According to Dixon, chemification encompasses “the processes by which imperial states gained territories (and land, labor, etc.) through industrial power built on assemblages of production, energy, and materials connected via a handful of chemicals.”4 However, in my travels to date, I have already found it necessary to extend my consideration of these processes to encompass the various continuities between the proto-industrial guano industry of the nineteenth century, developed by the likes of Ohlendorff & Co. and Antony Gibbs & Sons, and the heavily industrialized superphosphate industry of the twentieth century in which manufacturers such as Cuming Smith & Co. and Lawes Chemical Manure Company were active internationally. Drawing on Jason W. Moore’s work on “historical nature,” my last report argued that this shift from guano to rock phosphate involved scientific, imperialistic, and capitalistic innovations that expanded the possibilities for primitive accumulation by further cheapening nature and labor alike.5 Australian settler colonialism, given its disproportionate reliance on synthetic fertilizers, was thus an agent in the instantiation of the structures of global capitalism elsewhere.
Fig. 7. Map of the German New Guinea Schutzgebiet, which included both Nauru and Angaur following the incorporation of the German Marshall Islands in 1906. Source: Kaiser-Wilhelms-Land, Deutsch-Neuguinea, Landkarte, c.1906, Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig.
At the risk of straying still further from my original objective, I have spent the last month or so traveling around northern Germany. Germany is significant to this project because Nauru and Angaur—two Micronesian islands of great importance for the Australian superphosphate industry—were located in German colonial territory before World War One (figure 7). As I have traveled from place to place, my thinking has focused on the different kinds of political order that proponents of the chemical fertilizer industry were required to navigate and the types of spatial production these orders both presupposed and enabled in turn. I have found it helpful to conceptualize this relation as a question of form: how did the administrative form of German colonial governance over Nauru and Angaur—in particular, the legal instrument of the protectorate or Schutzgebiet—influence the spatial-technical form—buildings, machinery, equipment, infrastructure—deployed to exploit the rock phosphate deposits on both islands? Did this relation also work in the other direction i.e., infrastructural development informing the structures of colonial governance? What is the political relationship between Ohlendorff’s guano imperialism in Peru and the colonial phosphate industries established in German Micronesia? To what extent is this relationship still legible in the urban fabric of Germany today? And how does the history of the superphosphate industry figure within the broader history of Germany’s ascent as a global colonial power?
Fig. 8. The Dovenhof. Source: Commons.
Fig. 9. Ground floor plan of the Dovenhof, designed by Martin Haller for Heinrich von Ohlendorff in 1886. Source: Commons.
The story of Heinrich von Ohlendorff’s rise to wealth and prominence in Hamburg on the back of his company’s guano exploits in Peru presents a useful analogue of the corporate structure of German imperialism and its evolution towards outright colonialism in 1884. It is also a story in which the architect Martin Haller reappears as the designer of choice, not only for Ohlendorff’s private and commercial ventures, but for the colonial metropole of Hamburg more broadly. In 1886, three years after the formation of the Anglo-Continental Guano Works, Haller was again commissioned by Ohlendorff, this time to design the Dovenhof—the first Kontorhaus (office building) in the city. The Dovenhof represented a diversification in Ohlendorff’s business interests, the wealth extracted from Peru now being reinvested into an incipient real estate empire in Hamburg at a moment when the global fertilizer industry was transitioning away from guano towards more potent synthetic alternatives. The four-story building presented a neo-Renaissance façade to the street, curving at its corner and rising from street level to an unusual domed turret embedded into the main volume of the building between tall pilasters (figure 8). Mirrored glass windows and its scale in comparison with the surrounding urban form immediately signaled the modernity of the Dovenhof notwithstanding the conservative treatment of its façade.6 A tall octagonal vestibule—perhaps a nod to the octagonal skat room in the Villa Ohlendorff—connected the main circulation routes through the building, which incorporated the first steam-powered paternoster lift in continental Europe. Central heating and electric lighting maintained regular conditions inside the partitioned offices (Kontore), which opened onto corridors illuminated during the day by lightwells (figure 9). Two large courtyards punctuated the overall volume, bringing yet more light into the offices while also separating them from the storage rooms running along the back of the building.7
Fig. 10. The Dovenhof was demolished in 1967 to make way for the former headquarters of the newspaper Der Spiegel.
Fig. 11. The glazed masonry façade of the Martin Haller-designed Afrikahaus.
Fig. 12. Two life-size elephants occupy the courtyard of the Afrikahaus and are visible from the street.
Fig. 13. The entry portal to the Afrikahaus includes a sculpture of a Hehe warrior by Walter Sintenis.
The Dovenhof was a prudent exercise in speculation, located directly adjacent to the Zollkanal (customs duty canal), which marked the outer perimeter of the Hamburg free port and the emerging Speicherstadt (lit. “warehouse city”). The building’s tenants—importers, underwriters, lawyers and creditors—were therefore in the closest possible proximity to the Speicher (warehouses) through which overseas trade flowed into Hamburg. Other Kontorhäuser soon followed the example set by Ohlendorff’s Dovenhof, which was demolished in 1967 to make way for the offices of Der Spiegel (figure 10). Two prominent examples remain intact and are important points on the self-guided colonial walking tour developed by a network of organizations involved in the Hamburg Postcolonial initiative.8 The Afrikahaus, commissioned in 1899 by Adolph and Eduard Woermann for their company C. Woermann, was again designed by Martin Haller (figure 11). C. Woermann operated shipping services between and throughout German colonial holdings in Africa, boasting several company offices at key ports along the west coast. The Kontorhaus in Hamburg served as its global headquarters. Haller’s design for the self-supporting glazed masonry façade of the Afrikahaus incorporates the livery of the company’s fleet, as well as a variety of “African” ornaments including two life-size elephants and the figure of a Hehe warrior completed by the sculptor Walter Sintenis (figures 12 and 13). Offices are arranged around a narrow courtyard and are served by many of the same modern contrivances first incorporated in the Dovenhof.
Fig. 14. The Laeiszhof abuts the Nikolaifleet canal to the rear and addresses a small plaza formed around its main entry.
Fig. 15. The lightwell and paternoster lift of the Laeiszhof
Fig. 16. The central void in the Laeiszhof closely resembles Haller’s design for the Dovenhof, the original Kontorhaus in Hamburg.
Nearby, Haller also designed the Laeiszhof in 1897—headquarters of the still extant shipping company F. Laeisz—together with Bernhard Georg Hanssen and Wilhelm Emil Meerwein (figure 14). Laeisz was heavily involved in the Chilean nitrate trade until the 1920s when the Haber-Bosch process eliminated the need to mine saltpeter for use as a fertilizer. The company was also involved in shipping in general, especially the importation of bananas and other fruit from Africa. To house its diverse activities, Haller returned to the Dovenhof as a precedent, again incorporating a large lightwell in the center of the building, which extends to the boundaries of its site abutting the Nikolaifleet canal. An operational paternoster lift still fills the interior with a drumming and whirring sound, propelling businesspeople between the building’s six floors (figure 15). White-painted walls and wrought iron balustrades bounce the filtered daylight around the central void of the building, combining with the electric lighting to produce a calm warm glow (figure 16).
Fig. 17. The limits of the Hamburg freeport are shown in green. Source: Richard Krause, Plan der Elbinseln Wilhelmsburg, Neuhof u. Hohe Schaar sowie Moorburg, Altenwärder u. Waltershof, 1900.
Fig. 18. Warehouses in Hamburg’s Speicherstadt.
Fig. 19. Shipping containers occupy the former site of Ohlendorff’s Anglo-Continental Guano Works.
Fig. 20. The Guanofleet, which once served Ohlendorff’s Anglo-Continental Guano Works, can be seen in the overgrown creek mouth to the left. The silver dome is a theatre dedicated to recitals of Disney’s The Lion King musical.
Like the Haller-designed Dovenhof, Afrikahaus and Laeiszhof, all of Hamburg’s Kontorhäuser were located near the Speicherstadt, which grew to become the world’s largest warehouse complex before World War One as a result of its status as a duty-free port (figure 17).9 Imported raw materials and goods—bananas, coffee, cacao, cotton, copra—were unloaded from seagoing vessels onto barges that navigated the free economic zone’s network of canals before being raised up to nine stories into the large, mechanized Speicher lining the canals (figure 18). All goods were received, stored and processed in the Speicher without attracting any duties until they entered the city as so-called Kolonialwaren (colonial wares). Crucially, as visible in figure 17, the duty-free zone not only encompassed the Speicherstadt, but also the industrial facilities developed on numerous islands on the opposite side of the Elbe: Wilhelmsburg, Steinwerder, Veddel and Kleiner Grasbrook. The Guanofleet, a narrow canal in Hamburg-Steinwerder, still recalls the once sprawling industrial footprint of Ohlendorff’s Anglo-Continental Guano Works, now replaced by a sea of shipping containers (figure 19). “India Harbor,” “Asia Quay” and “Africa Spit” were also once found throughout the Hamburg free port in areas now used to store second-hand cars bound for Africa, as well as a theatre dedicated to recitals of Disney’s The Lion King musical (figure 20).
Fig. 21. The Godeffroy & Sohn trading post in Apia, Samoa. Source: J. Ullstrom, The Pacific Trading Post, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, 23078019.
Fig. 22. The “Hamburg Street” in Lomé, Togo, c.1909. Source: Kurt Schwab and Fr. Böhme, Die deutschen Kolonien (Berlin: Publisher Unknown, 1910).
The Hamburg free port, which both enabled Ohlendorff’s multifaceted commercial enterprise and undergirded Haller’s career as an architect, was a spatio-political outcome of Hanseatic imperialism. This history long preceded the country’s unification under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1871, let alone its entry into formal colonialism in the 1880s. By 1846, Hanseatic firms already maintained close to 160 trading posts and so-called “Konsulanten” (consulates) globally, rising to 280 over the next two decades.10 The Hamburg merchant Johann Cesar Godeffroy, operating out of Samoa from the mid-1850s, developed a vast network of trading stations spanning Tonga, Wallis and Futuna Islands, Niue, the British Gilbert and Ellice groups, the Spanish Carolines and the Marshall Islands (figure 21).11 Godeffroy & Sohn eventually purchased coconut and cotton plantations worked by more than 1200 laborers and frequented by a company fleet of around one hundred ships, the majority of which had been built in Hamburg.12 In 1878, Godeffroy & Sohn was reconstituted as the Deutsche Handels- und Plantagengesellschaft der Südsee-Inseln zu Hamburg (German Trading and Plantation Company of the South Sea Islands), which would go on to play a decisive role in the commencement of phosphate mining on Nauru. By 1880, companies headquartered in Bremen and Hamburg had established approximately twenty trading stations on the west coast of Africa alone, acquiring goods, wares and resources that were regularly conveyed back to Europe by C. Woermann, F. Laeisz and others (figure 22). The establishment of the Hamburg free port, which followed the city’s accession into the German Customs Union in 1888, thus maintained the position of trade within the economic and political life of the city during the period of German colonialism.
Fig. 23. The Hamburg town hall, designed by Martin Haller.
Fig. 24. The Ehrenhof connects the Hamburg town hall and the stock exchange
Fig. 25. City crests affixed to the base of the second row of columns in this image run around the façades facing into the Ehrenhof, representing the historical geography of Hamburg merchants’ involvement in global trade. Allegorical figures representing each continent are seen above.
Heiko Möhle has observed that, in Hamburg, “the path between politics and the economy has always been a short one.”13 What in fact separates the two, however, is less a path than an enclosed square of approximately twenty meters in length—the so-called Ehrenhof—that spans the distance between Hamburg’s town hall (1897) and the city’s stock exchange building (1840), home to the Hamburger Handelskammer (Chamber of Commerce). The financial-administrative complex spatializes what Möhle describes as “a close relationship with a long history.” As the representative body of Hamburg’s merchant elite, “the Handelskammer defined the city’s economic interests, while the Senate worked to implement those interests politically.”14 Unsurprisingly, the design for the town hall in which the Senate resided was prepared (yet again) by the architect Martin Haller, whose career is emblematic of the commercial opportunities arising in the metropole as a result of German imperialism (figure 23). Haller’s design for the town hall formalized the interstitial space between it and the stock exchange—thereby creating the Ehrenhof—through the addition of two portals flanking a central square and fountain (figure 24). City crests and allegorical relief art run along all four facades facing into the square, representing the historical geography of Hamburg merchants’ involvement in global trade. The crests are arranged around the courtyard in a loosely geographical manner, starting with the Americas—New York, San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro and Valparaiso—then moving to the Asia-Pacific—Hong Kong, Melbourne, Sydney, Batavia, Singapore, Manila and Yokohama—before arriving at ports throughout Europe and the United Kingdom (figure 25). A series of strange figures intending to portray each continent is incorporated atop the city crests along the back façade of the stock exchange building—including, for example, an Australian Aboriginal woman adorned with a bow and arrow. In establishing the Ehrenhof as a kind of fulcrum between the Senate and Handelskammer, stitching them into a continuous architectural and urban fabric, Haller’s design worked to naturalize the imbrication of Hamburg’s foundational imperial institutions—the latter, an embodiment of the imperial, pre-colonial interests of the city’s merchants; the former, a vehicle for consolidating those interests during the period of high colonialism.15
Fig. 26. Hamburg’s Bismarck statue overlooks the city and faces towards the mouth of the Elbe in the North Sea.
Engaging with Hamburg’s urban history reveals the extent to which German colonialism can be understood as a political concession to the commercial interests (and indefatigable lobbying) of Hanseatic traders. In 1883, Adolph Woermann authored a memorandum sent to Bismarck on behalf of the Hamburger Handelskammer seeking enforceable protections for Hanseatic trading interests in Africa. “The interior of Central Africa,” argued Woermann, “with its dense population capable of high levels of consumption and the vast trade potential described by all travelers, offers a particularly favorable region for distributing European industrial products, especially since not only all commodities, but also all labor is paid for not with cash […] but always with imported goods.”16 The eventual colonial intervention of the German state in Africa came a year later in response to the sustained requests of the Bremen trader F. A. E. Lüderitz who likewise sought protection from the Reich over his business interests north of the Cape Colony. His request was finally granted by Bismarck in June of 1884, leading to the establishment of German South West Africa as the empire’s first Schutzgebiet. Bismarck’s oft-cited refrain, “Die Flagge folgt dem Handel” (the flag follows trade) placed German merchants’ interests at the center of formal colonialism, a fact commemorated in Hamburg with the erection in 1906 of an imposing statue of the former chancellor overlooking the city and facing towards the mouth of the Elbe in the North Sea (figure 26).17 Other Schutzgebiete soon followed: in Africa—Kamerun (1884), Togoland (1884) and German East Africa (1885); the Pacific—Kaiser-Wilhelmsland (1884), Bismarck-Archipel (1884), Marshall-Inseln (1885), Salomon-Inseln (1885), Nauru (1888), Die Karolinen (1899), Die Marianen (1899) and Deutsch-Samoa (1900); and China with the annexation of Kiautschou in 1898.18 As the legal scholar Cait Storr has argued, the expansion of the German state into these regions under Bismarck and his successors, and the “political balance between private equity and state subsidy” is best understood not as a “rapid expansion of ‘the German empire’ in the late nineteenth century but as an episode in a far longer history of the shift from one form of European imperialism towards another—from the non centralised merchant trade network run from the Hanseatic cities, towards the centralised state imperialism of the new Reich.”19
Fig. 27. The German Marshall Islands Schutzgebiet. Source: Paul Langhans, Schutzgebiet der Marshall-Inseln, Deutscher Kolonialatlas, Map 30, 1897.
The longer history Storr addresses not only shaped the urban development of Hamburg as a site where the spoils of German imperialism—including the guano imported by Ohlendorff—were processed in the most frictionless way possible, but also shaped the later administrative form of German colonialism via the legal instrument of the Schutzgebiet. “Whereas classical conceptualisations of protectorate status arose from an agreement between unequal sovereigns for ‘protection’ of the weaker party,” continues Storr, “in the late nineteenth century the label was increasingly used to describe a variety of imperial arrangements in which concepts of sovereignty, territory and property remained ambivalent, if not incoherent.” This ambivalence, Storr argues, enabled the German state to conduct a “unique imperial experiment” in which its consular jurisdiction was territorialized in the Schutzgebiete as minimally as possible, “with delegated executive control vesting in German companies themselves, with minimal subsidization and little to no legislative oversight.”20 The Schutzgebiet, in other words, was the fundamental legal-territorial condition of German colonialism, becoming the de facto manner in which German colonies were established into the twentieth century including on Nauru and Angaur. It incentivized the extraction and circulation of commodities and labor by German corporations as a basis for raising tax revenue rather than incentivizing migration and permanent settlement. This is one reason why many Germans still equivocate when it comes to the country’s colonial patrimony: “Yes, we had colonies but not real colonies like the British” is a refrain I encountered numerous times over the course of my travels. Insofar as this is an accurate assessment it is one that rests on a spurious distinction between the administrative forms of colonial sovereignty, reducing the plurality of modern colonialism to settler-colonialism only.
The geographer Joshua Barkan has argued for more nuanced understandings of what he terms “corporate sovereignty,” or the ways in which political sovereignty has been vested in private power—via, for example, the legal technology of the protectorate—and the subsequent importance of the corporation as an institutional form within liberal capitalism.21 The late-nineteenth-century German Pacific, owing to its deep political, economic and material entanglements with the evolving colonial metropole of Hamburg, arguably presents Barkan’s case in point: in 1884, the Deutsch Neuguinea-Kompagnie was formed as a chartered company to exploit resources and administer the territory of German New Guinea on behalf of the Reich; in 1888, the Jaluit-Gesellschaft was created to perform the same functions throughout the Marshall Islands Protectorate via a merger in Hamburg between Hernsheim & Kompagnie and the DHPG, which was itself formed out of Godeffroy & Sohn a decade earlier as already mentioned; and in 1902, the Jaluit-Gesellschaft was reconstituted as the Pacific Phosphate Company through a joint-stock agreement with the Pacific Islands Company in order to work the phosphate deposits on Nauru and administer the island.
German firms received various exclusive rights and the promise of military protection in these agreements. According to the historian Stewart Firth, in the administration of its Pacific Schutzgebiete, the German Imperial Government effectively functioned as an agent of “private companies, providing legality for whatever the companies wished to do,” and supplying them with “cheap land, long mining leases, low royalties and a disciplined, underpaid labour force” subject to minimal regulation.22 In the German Marshall Islands, the Jaluit-Gesellschaft was given “the right to take possession of ownerless land, the right to engage in fishing for pearlshell […and] the right to mine guano deposits,” in return for which it was expected to “meet the costs arising from the administration [of the Schutzgebiet]” and to collect license fees and “head-taxes.”23 In German New Guinea, the same administrative logic could be discerned in the discrepancy between the paltry European population figures up to World War One and the fact that the territories encompassed by the Schutzgebiet were heavily developed by this time—containing 10,000 hectares of plantations, roads, industrial mining infrastructure, a functional taxation system and a ten-year plan for future works prepared by Governor Albert Hahl.24 As stated by Secretary of State for the Colonies Bernhard Dernburg in his Zielpunkte des deutschen Kolonialwesens (1907), German colonialism should focus on precisely this kind of productive infrastructural development, substituting the “means of destruction (Zerstörungsmittlen)” he associated with settler-colonialism—referring in a veiled way to the genocidal war perpetrated by the Reich on behalf of settlers in German South West Africa between 1904 and 1907—for German medical, missionary and engineering expertise aimed at the “utilization (Nutzbarmachung) of the earth, its treasures […] and especially the people.”25 Efficient and reliable extraction and accumulation, not settlement and local state formation, argued Dernburg, were the primary goals of early-twentieth-century German colonialism.
Fig. 28. German government building in Tsingtao in F. H. Schmidt catalogue. Source: “F. H. Schmidt, Bauunternehmung, Altona, Hamburg, Tsingtau,” Historisch-biographische Blätter: der Staat Hamburg 7 (1905/6), Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg.
Fig. 29. F. H. Schmidt loading and unloading facilities fabricated for the la Société Le Nickel, Paris in New Caledonia. Source: “F. H. Schmidt, Bauunternehmung, Altona, Hamburg, Tsingtau,” Historisch-biographische Blätter: der Staat Hamburg 7 (1905/6), Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg.
The Schutzgebiet therefore presupposed and facilitated an infrastructuralism that was implemented on behalf of the state by private, usually Hanseatic companies. As Storr argues in relation to Nauru in the German Marshall Islands, the governmental history of that Schutzgebiet is one in which legal status shifted while administrative form accreted: “A simple administrative outline, originally sketched in 1888 by a Hanseatic trading company in a deal with the Bismarckian Reich, was progressively bureaucratised over time. Administrative tasks and practices intensified, were restated and renamed; but the form in which they were organised held firm.”26 Importantly, as Dernburg’s overt infrastructuralism already reveals, this gradual administrative intensification and bureaucratization—what Storr labels “accretion”—was also an enterprise premised on German technical expertise. Here, Nauru remains an instructive example: as soon as the Pacific Phosphate Company had been established to work the Nauruan rock phosphate deposits through a complicated agreement spanning Hamburg, Berlin and London, the Hamburg-Altona construction and engineering firm F. H. Schmidt was contracted to supply industrial equipment and facilities for a company settlement on the island, seemingly as a condition of the administrative terms established by the Reich. F. H. Schmidt had built houses, harbors, bridges and maritime infrastructure around Hamburg since the 1840s, portraying its engineering and logistical achievements as part of a wider narrative of German colonial ascendancy: “Since Germany has acquired its own colonies,” a promotional pamphlet from 1906 observed, “the company has substantially developed its activities in turn.”27 In German East Africa, F. H. Schmidt provided prefabricated government dwellings. In the German concession of Qingdao in China, it employed a large local labor force, designing and constructing the barracks, government buildings, brewery, hospitals, factories, offices and villas, as well as much of the civic and maritime infrastructure (figures 28 and 29). Reflecting on these and the many other projects it had completed by the time it was awarded the contract for Nauru, F. H. Schmidt was happy that it had, “for a number of years already, successfully elevated the reputation of German companies, German work and German ability through its building operations.”28 The continuities at play here are revealing: the acquisition of German colonial territory using the legal instrument of the Schutzgebiet—initially deemed most suitable in protecting existing Hanseatic trading interests—also secured new spheres of commercial activity for the same German technical expertise that had been cultivated in the Hanseatic centers since the pre-colonial period.
Fig. 30. The former Deutsche Nationalbank zu Bremen, meeting place for the Deutsche Südseephosphat Aktiengesellschaft.
Fig. 31. The former Deutsche Nationalbank zu Bremen, meeting place for the Deutsche Südseephosphat Aktiengesellschaft.
To better understand how the superphosphate industry figured among the blurred edges of German imperialism, colonialism and infrastructuralism, I traveled west from Hamburg to the neighboring Hanseatic city of Bremen. I find my first destination in the historic center, behind the city’s fifteenth-century town hall. The former headquarters of the Deutsche Nationalbank zu Bremen was erected in 1896—a year before Haller’s town hall was completed in Hamburg—to the design of the Deutsche Nationalbank’s in-house architect, Wilhelm Martens (figures 30 and 31). It was in this building’s stately interior that the board members of the Deutsche Südseephosphat Aktiengesellschaft (German South Sea Phosphate Company Limited, DSPAG), which was granted an exclusive phosphate mining concession for Angaur in German New Guinea, would come together for the company’s annual general meetings. The first of these was held in 1908 and the founding board members in attendance read as something of a who’s who of Germany’s financial-industrial-chemical complex: two seats were occupied by the Norddeutscher Lloyd (North German Lloyd) shipping company, which serviced the Reich’s Pacific territories and Australia; two were held by the Frankfurt-based mining and chemicals company Beer, Sondheimer & Co; the Deutsche Nationalbank zu Bremen held one position on the board and administered the company’s investment capital; one seat each was held by the Deutsche Bank in Berlin and H. & E. Albert of Wiesbaden-Biebrich, a superphosphate fertilizer producer formed in the immediate wake of Liebig’s discoveries in the 1850s, as well as the Rotterdam-based mining and shipping company H. Mueller & Co.
The DSPAG was established after Albert Hahl, Governor of German New Guinea, met with the general manager of the Norddeutscher Lloyd, Heinrich Wiegand, in Bremen to outline the commercial viability of the Angaur deposits. Hahl believed the Lloyd was especially well placed to work the island given its established shipping activities in the region. Wiegand agreed, reporting in 1906: “The great importance of the further economic development of the South Seas protectorate for our steamship lines prompted us last year to send an expedition to explore the mineral resources of the island region in conjunction with a number of associated companies.”29 The results of this expedition were favorable and revealed that the majority of Angaur was covered in valuable high-grade rock phosphate. Wiegand quickly got to work in assembling the cast of board members listed above, while Governor Hahl made the case for granting a mining lease on behalf of the Lloyd to Dernburg as Secretary for the Colonies—this being one of the very first issues to which Dernburg attended in his newly appointed role.
Fig. 32. Preliminary tracks, carts and loading equipment on Angaur, provided to the Deutsche Südseephosphat Aktiengesellschaft by F. H. Schmidt. A Lloyd steamer waits to be loaded in the background, c.1908. Source: Deutsches Bundesarchiv, Sammlung Heinrich Hagedorn, Bild 223-046.
My travels will take me to Angaur in the coming months and I will return to the infrastructural presence the DSPAG established there in greater detail in a future report. Here, I wish only to make two observations. The first is that, like Martin Haller in Hamburg, the construction company F. H. Schmidt reappeared throughout German colonial territories at the turn of the twentieth century, especially where governmental and industrial functions were combined as was the case on Nauru and Angaur. In the autumn of 1908, Lloyd company ships left Bremen for Angaur carrying the first shipment of DSPAG housing and mining equipment, which had been designed and constructed by F. H. Schmidt and included a full arsenal of locomotives, wagons, rails and sleepers, storing and loading equipment, prefabricated timber buildings, water treatment facilities, as well as the devices required to establish a radio connection with the island of Yap in the Caroline Islands (figure 32). F. H. Schmidt therefore provided the company settlements and industrial facilities for both rock phosphate islands in German Schutzgebiete in the Pacific, further expanding its own commercial geography in the process.
Fig. 33. Facilities at the Norddeutsche Hütten AG, c.1908. Source: Commons.
Fig. 34. The so-called Hoffnungshütte fabricated by F. H. Schmidt for the Deutsche Südseephosphat Aktiengesellschaft on Angaur, c.1912. Source: Deutsches Bundesarchiv, Sammlung Heinrich Hagedorn, Bild 223-038.
The second observation is that the DSPAG’s mining activities on Angaur are best understood in light of the broader expansionist project undertaken by the Norddeutscher Lloyd during Wiegand’s tenure as general manager. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Wiegand sought to transform the Lloyd into a vertically integrated industrial corporation, establishing the so-called “Wiegand industries” and becoming a major driver of industrialization along the Weser River. In addition to mining and exporting rock phosphate in German New Guinea, these industries included the Norddeutsche Maschinen- und Armaturfabrik (North German Machine and Instrument Factory), established in 1902, which supplied the Lloyd’s ships and other maritime equipment; the Norddeutsche Automobil- und Motorenwerke AG (North German Automobile and Motor Company Limited), established in 1906; the Norddeutsche Hütten AG (North German Metallurgical Company Limited) and the Norddeutsche Waggonfabrik (North German Wagon Factory), both established in 1908, the latter of which manufactured the trains that transported the coal and ore to the coking plant and smelters of the former, before being loaded again with pig iron conveyed to the Ruhr for steel manufacturing (figure 33). It is likely that the integrated phosphate crushing, drying and loading facility prefabricated by F. H. Schmidt for use on Angaur, named the Hoffnungshütte (lit. “hope hut), was understood as a Pacific outpost of the Wiegand industries (figure 34).
Fig. 35. The regularization of the Weser River is indicated in red in this plan. Source: Ludwig Franzius, Karte des Weser-Stroms von Bremen bis Bremerhaven, 1888.
Fig. 36. Pile driving works at the Weserkorrektion, c.1889. Source: Commons.
Fig. 37. The Bremen free port, c.1914. Source: Commons.
Fig. 38. Section through the harbor quay and warehouses in the Bremen free port. Source: Regierungsbaumeister, Zollanschlussbauten Bremen, Querschnitt durch die Hafenkais, 1879. Lilli Hasche, Janne Jensen, Katrin Amelang and Silke Betscher, “3. Baumwollhandel,” Ankerpunkte der Verflechtung: postkoloniale Spuren in der Bremer Überseestadt (Audio-Guide), accessed 10 November 2023, https://ankerpunkte.ak-hafen.de/.
Common to both the establishment of the DSPAG’s mining activities on Angaur and the expansion of the Norddeutscher Lloyd as a vertically integrated corporation was the comprehensive rationalization of the Weser River. Between 1886 and 1895, the hydrological engineer Ludwig Franzius led the so-called Weserkorrektion (Weser correction)—a major project undertaken by the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen to regularize the flow and increase the depth of the Weser (figure 35). Centuries of agricultural expansion and subsequent erosion had, by the nineteenth century, caused sufficient siltation to prevent vessels from reaching the unloading and storage facilities in Bremen, which presented a commercial disadvantage for the city in its competition for trade with nearby Hamburg. Subsidiary harbors had been purchased and developed by Bremen downriver at Vegesack (1671) and Bremerhaven (1830) to combat this issue, requiring all goods to be loaded onto barges before being transported upriver. As Franzius notes in his Korrektion der Unterweser (1888): “The aim is to improve the entire upper tidal area above Bremerhaven in such a way that the newly created conditions are maintained by the increased and regulated currents [...] and that the lower tidal area will also experience an improvement as a result of the increased inflow of flood water.”30 To achieve these increases in volume, current and depth, a dredge was used to remove 30 million cubic meters of sand from the riverbed of the Weser; curves were straightened by ramming timber piles into the soft banks and backfilling excavated material; and the edges along the entire length of the river north of Bremen were reinforced by foundation walls and breakwaters using 1.2 million cubic meters of imported stone (figure 36). Gradually, the Weser was transformed into a heavily engineered canal between Bremen and the North Sea along which large seagoing vessels with drafts of up to five meters could safely navigate all the way to the Europahafen (Europe Harbor)—declared a free port in 1888—and the later Überseehafen (Overseas Harbor) near the city center (figure 37). Here, the throughput of the logistical system designed by Franzius was accelerated further. Warehouses on long quays up to 400 meters in length were set back from the harbor edge by rail lines and flexible semi-gantry cranes. Goods could be loaded directly into waiting trains or stored in the multi-story warehouses for later distribution and transshipment (figure 38). Together, these measures were referred to as the “Bremer System,” devised to minimize cost by maximizing the speed of handling.31 To manage the operation of this system the city’s merchants established a port authority known as the Bremer Lagerhausgesellschaft (Bremen Warehouse Society), which continues to operate as BLG-Logistik today—a venture in which the city of Bremen holds a controlling interest.32
The Weserkorrektion secured Franzius’ international reputation in hydraulic engineering circles. In 1901, he submitted a proposal for the regularization of the Huangpu River in Shanghai in collaboration with the American engineer Lindon W. Bates. In Bates’ 1905 proposal for the Panama Canal, he celebrated his German colleague, declaring that “the world is indebted to [Ludwig Franzius], whose monumental success on the Weser attests to the genius which won an erratic river to a regular flow.”33 As argued in the walking tour audio guide produced by the Arbeitskreis Hafen Bremen (Working Group Bremen Harbor), the Weserkorrektion and the Bremer System are also indicative of the significance of maritime infrastructure as a fundamental technical and commercial mode through which German colonialism was advanced:
On the West African coasts, the German Imperial Government commissioned maritime infrastructure to meet the needs of colonial merchants and the logistical requirements of the so-called “Protection Forces” (Schutztruppen), for example by the Franconian engineering group MAN. In Kiautschou Bay, on the east coast of China, the Imperial Navy developed a harbor colony with the help of the Hamburg construction company Fehring on the recommendation of Ludwig Franzius’ younger brother. [...] The colony was conceptualized as an experimental space where hydraulic engineering methods and techniques could be tested under ideal conditions. In this respect, the Weserkorrektion was neither the sole concern of competing neighboring cities, nor can it be adequately understood as the intellectual accomplishment of a single engineer. Rather, the biographies of the Franzius brothers make it clear that the colonial project not only gave Hanseatic merchants the opportunity to expand their commercial activity, but also served as a practical field of innovation for engineering science and industrial manufacturing, both in colonial territories and in the metropole.34
Insofar as the Schutzgebiet was an administrative form suited to the extractive logic of German colonialism it also presented a series of technical problems—both at home and abroad—that relied on the engineering expertise and infrastructural intervention promoted and enacted by the likes of Franzius, Wiegand, F. H. Schmidt and Dernburg. As one such example, the Weserkorrektion remained central to the commercial interests of the Norddeutscher Lloyd and the DSPAG in particular: close to sixty percent of the early rock phosphate exports from Angaur were shipped along the corrected Weser River to Bremen on Lloyd vessels prior to distribution to superphosphate manufacturers. The closest such manufacturer was the Superphosphatfabrik AG Nordenham, which had also been established by the Norddeutscher Lloyd in 1906 as yet another of the Wiegand industries, anticipating phosphate imports from its mining activities on Angaur. The factory complex in Nordenham was located upriver from Bremen, on the opposite side to Bremerhaven, and provided superphosphate fertilizer to the extensive agricultural districts of Lower Saxony. As fate would have it, the company ultimately merged with Ohlendorff’s former Anglo-Continental Guano Works in the mid-twentieth century, becoming Guano-Werke AG.
As Dixon argues, chemification is characterized by a simultaneous extension into resource and labor frontiers (Chincha Islands, Malden Island, Lacepede Islands, Nauru, Angaur, Banaba, Christmas Island, Makatea), and a concomitant consolidation and intensification of industrial power in urban-imperial centers (Hamburg, Bremen, London, Melbourne, Adelaide, Auckland, Wellington). Reflecting on the German superphosphate industry in 1913, the chemical engineer Carl Elschner discerned this intensification in the transition from the “once primitive facilities” found during the time of Ohlendorff’s early guano works in Hamburg to the “highly developed superphosphate factories” such as the Superphosphatfabrik AG Nordenham. The latter factories now boasted “larger, ventilated storage and working spaces, rationalized crushing facilities with increased capacity,” in addition to widespread automation and mechanization of the production process. The modernization of the superphosphate industry, Elschner argued, was on par with the successes of the more celebrated chemical industries in Germany—especially paints and pharmaceuticals—for which the country had become known in recent decades. “If one were to briefly consider the history of the superphosphate and artificial fertilizer industry, especially in the last thirty to forty years,” Elschner hypothesized:
then I imagine one would come to the conclusion that it readily sits alongside the other branches of German chemical engineering—indeed, I would like to assert that it far surpasses them all, even if the majority of the German people have no real idea of the tremendous value that fertilizers represent annually and, much less, of the incalculable increase in the monetary value of our agricultural products that have been achieved as a result of the German artificial fertilizer industry.35
But the value of this industry went beyond simply increasing agricultural production in Germany. It had delivered significant returns to the Reich in the form of phosphate mining royalties raised in the Schutzgebiete; it had provided opportunities for German architects, construction companies and engineers to expand their professional spheres of activity; and it had contributed to the industrialization and modernization of waterways and urban precincts in Bremen and Hamburg. In the process, it had precipitated German corporations’ effective self-government of resource colonialism and prompted the state to formalize its approach to the acquisition of colonial territory. As Anneliese Scharpenberg and Hartmut Müller have argued, no German colonial-political measures were adopted in the phosphate industry “that would have incentivized exportation to the motherland and thus shifted the market position in favor of European sales.” Instead, trade relations in German Micronesia “were governed exclusively by global economic considerations,” influenced by factors such as comparative freight costs, more recent discoveries of phosphate deposits closer to Europe and the introduction of new types of synthetic fertilizer.36 The gradual shift of rock phosphate exports from Angaur and Nauru towards the Japanese and Australian markets in the early twentieth century was therefore the inevitable outcome of fluctuations in the world phosphate market. This was also entirely by design; the result of the administrative form and entrenched infrastructuralism of German colonial policy and its foundation in the market-based structures of Hanseatic imperialism (figure 39).
Fig. 39. Map showing German settlements, Schutzgebiete, shipping routes and telegraph cables. Source: Paul Langhans, Deutsche Erde (Gotha: Justus Perthes, 1908), map 10.
Fig. 40. The Antikolonialdenkmal—also known as “the elephant”—in Bremen’s Nelson Mandela Park.
In Bremen’s Nelson Mandela Park—which feeds into the larger Bürgerpark that was partially funded by Heinrich Wiegand and the Norddeutscher Lloyd—I stumble across a large masonry elephant known as the Antikolonialdenkmal (Anti-colonial Monument). After starting life as the Reichskolonialehrendenkmal (Imperial Colonial Monument) in 1931 to promote the reacquisition of German colonies, the statue was rededicated in 1990 to commemorate Namibia’s independence (figure 40). The elephant cuts a more imposing figure than the Ohlendorff lion in Blohms Park in Hamburg, and, also unlike the lion, the elephant is appended by a plaque outlining the changing perceptions of German colonialism in the city of Bremen. Facing the elephant, the Weser River lies behind me. I follow its course in my mind: from the warehouses in the old Überseehafen, along its regularized edges, past the former sites of the Wiegand industries at Vegesack and Nordenham before draining into the North Sea. I imagine something similar for each of the phosphate ports in Australia and New Zealand: thousands of ever-larger ships plying the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the Tasman, Coral and Philippine Seas, descending on two small islands in Germany’s Pacific Schutzgebiete. If I cannot find any mention—let alone memorialization—of the colonial history of Nauru and Angaur in Germany, I am curious what I will find on the islands themselves, which is where my travels will take me next.
1 Hans Joachim Schröder, Heinrich Freiherr von Ohlendorff: Ein Hamburger Kaufmann im Spiegel der Tagebücher seiner Ehefrau Elisabeth (Hamburg: Hamburg University Press, 2014), 32–36.
2 Lola Loustaunau, Mauricio Betancourt, Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “Chinese Contract Labor, The Corporeal Rift, and Ecological Imperialism in Peru’s Nineteenth-Century Guano Boom,” The Journal of Peasant Studies (2021), 11.
3 “Historische Bleiplomben,” Heimat- & Geschichtsverein der Gemeinde Nörvenich e.V., accessed 10 November 2023, https://www.hgv-noervenich.de/arbeitskreise/bleiplomben.
4 Marion W. Dixon, “Chemical fertilizer in transformations in world agriculture and the state system, 1870 to interwar period,” Journal of Agrarian Change 18 (2018), 783.
5 Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (London: Verso, 2015), 150.
6 Ralf Lange, “Vor dem Spiegel,” Quartier: Magazin für HafenCity, Speicherstadt und Katharinenviertel, accessed 10 November 2023, https://archiv.quartier-magazin.com/quartier09/vor-dem-spiegel.
7 “Dovenhof: Hamburgs erstes Kontorhaus,” Welterbetour, accessed 10 November 2023, https://www.welterbetour.de/author/admin/page/8.
8 The organizations include: Eine Welt Netzwerk Hamburg, Hafengruppe Hamburg, Arbeitskreis Hamburg Postkolonial, Grenzgänger and St. Pauli Archiv.
9 Heiko Möhle, “Kolonial-Spaziergang,” in Hamburg: 20 thematische Spaziergänge (Hamburg: Junius Verlag, 2009), 189.
10 Sebastian Conrad, German Colonialism: A Short History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 25.
11 Cait Storr, International Status in the Shadow of Empire: Nauru and the Histories of International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 56.
12 Möhle, “Kolonial-Spaziergang,” 189.
13 Ibid.,180. My translation.
14 Ibid., 181. My translation.
15 See Kim Sebastian Todzi, “Die Handelskammer Hamburg als Kolonialer Erinnerungsort,” University of Hamburg, accessed 10 November 2023, https://kolonialismus.blogs.uni-hamburg.de/2021/12/23/die-handelskammer-hamburg-als-kolonialer-erinnerungsort/. See also Jürgen Zimmerer and Kim Sebastian Todzi, Hamburg: Tor zur kolonialen Welt (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2021).
16 Adolph Woermann, “Denkschrift der Handelskammer über die deutschen Interessen in West-Afrika,” in Das Staatsarchiv: Sammlung der offiziellen Aktenstücke zur Geschichte der Gegenwart, ed. Hans Delbrück, vol. 43 (Leipzig: Dunker & Humblot, 1885), 236–37. My translation.
17 Storr, International Status in the Shadow of Empire, 47.
18 Jasper Ludewig, “Securing Territory: Grey Architecture and the German Missions of the Cape York Peninsula, 1886–1919” (PhD diss., University of Sydney, 2020), 28, fn. 53.
19 Storr, International Status in the Shadow of Empire, 54–55.
20 Ibid., 46.
21 Joshua Barkan, Corporate Sovereignty: Law and Government under Capitalism (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
22 Stewart Firth, “German Labour Policy in Nauru and Angaur. 1906–1914,” The Journal of Pacific History 13, no. 1 (1978), 37; 51.
23 “Agreement between the Jaluit-Gesellschaft and the Reich,” Marshalls Digital Micronesia, ed. Dirk Spennemann, accessed 10 November 2023, https://marshall.csu.edu.au/Marshalls/html/history/JaluitContract.html.
24 Peter Hempenstall, “Die deutsche Kolonialherrschaft in Ozeanien: Eine vielfarbige internationale Geschichtsschreibung,” in Aus Westfalen in die Südsee: Katholische Mission in den deutschen Kolonien, eds. Silke Hensel and Barbara Rommé (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 2018), 143.
25 Bernhard Dernburg, Zielpunkte des deutschen Kolonialwesens (Berlin: Mittler, 1907), 5.
26 Storr, International Status in the Shadow of Empire, 25.
27 F. H. Schmidt, Bauunternehmung, Hamburg, Altona, Harburg-Wilhelmsburg, Buenos Aires, c.1930, Deutsches Museum, FS 505593-2.
28 “F. H. Schmidt, Bauunternehmung, Altona, Hamburg, Tsingtau,” Historisch-biographische Blätter: der Staat Hamburg 7 (1905/6), Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg.
29 Quoted in Anneliese Scharpenberg and Hartmut Müller, “Die Deutsche Südseephosphat-Aktiengesellschaft Bremen,” Bremisches Jahrbuch 55 (1977), 141. My translation.
30 Ludwig Franzius, Die Korrektion der Unterweser: auf Veranlassung der Bremischen Deputation für die Unterweserkorrektion (Bremen: Guthe, 1888), 8. My translation.
31 Georg Skalecki, “Speicherbauten in Bremen,” in Stadtentwicklung zur Moderne: die Entstehung großstädtischer Hafen- und Bürohausquartiere, ed. Frank Pieter Hesse, ICOMOS Hefte des Deutschen Nationalkomitees 54 (Berlin: Hendrik Bäßler Verlag, 2012), 82.
32 Lilli Hasche, Janne Jensen, Katrin Amelang and Silke Betscher, “3. Baumwollhandel,” Ankerpunkte der Verflechtung: postkoloniale Spuren in der Bremer Überseestadt (Audio-Guide), accessed 10 November 2023, https://ankerpunkte.ak-hafen.de/.
33 Lindon W. Bates, The Panama Canal: System and Projects (Washington, DC: US Government Publishing Office, 1905), 65.
34 Lilli Hasche, Janne Jensen, Katrin Amelang and Silke Betscher, “2. Koloniale Infrastrukturen,” Ankerpunkte der Verflechtung: postkoloniale Spuren in der Bremer Überseestadt (Audio-Guide), accessed 10 November 2023, https://ankerpunkte.ak-hafen.de/. My translation.
35 Carl Elschner, Corallogene Phosphat-Inseln Austral-Oceaniens und ihre Produkte (Lübeck: Max Schmidt, 1913), 116–17. My translation.
36 Scharpenberg and Müller, “Die Deutsche Südseephosphat-Aktiengesellschaft Bremen,” 168. My translation.
Jasper Ludewig is a 2023 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.
Fig. 1. Tyntesfield House as seen from one of the many ornamental gardens flanking the building.
Tyntesfield is an extravagant Gothic Revival house and estate located just outside Bristol in Somerset. I visited during summer, its large carpark heaving with day tourists eager to inspect the ornamental gardens in full bloom. Well-kept gravel paths weave their way through the 540 acres of land passing by woods, kitchen gardens, orchards, and pasture. In the gift shop café, set in a former model farm (figure 4), visitors can purchase decorative tea towels and fake plants in rustic pots alongside David Matless’s Landscape and Englishness (2016) and Oliver Rackham’s The History of the Countryside (1986). The sour smell of scones and a gregarious murmur fill the air. I’m dressed in all black—an occupational hazard on such an irregularly warm day—and I stand out like a sore thumb. Volunteers are stationed across the site in large numbers and treat me with something between curiosity and suspicion, a situation not helped, it would seem, by my Australian accent. Gazes wander and conversation stalls completely, however, when I mention the reason behind my visit: guano.
Fig. 2. The large estate stretches across 540 rolling acres, often concealing Tyntesfield House from view.
Fig. 3. The walled kitchen garden under cultivation.
Fig. 4. A former model farm building now serves as a café and gift shop.
The Georgian farmhouse that once stood on the site now occupied by Tyntesfield House was purchased by William Gibbs in 1844—three years before his company, Antony Gibbs & Sons, acquired a monopoly for the supply of Peruvian guano to Great Britain. From initial shipments of less than 200 tons in 1842, rates of guano importation increased to 435,000 tons by 1862, the final year of the Gibbs guano monopoly.1 Mining targeted the rich deposits of the Chincha Islands, which, as I discussed in my previous report, eventually also supplied the Australian colonies with the highly effective fertilizer. According to Jane Hutton, the Chinchas “appear like three giant barnacles latched onto the horizon […] immersed in an underwater tumult of debris” drawn up from the ocean floor by the Humboldt Current.2 This debris nourishes the microorganisms upon which anchovies feed, who themselves routinely fall prey to the three main bird species responsible for the Chincha guano deposits: the guanay cormorant, Peruvian booby and the Peruvian brown pelican, their nests dotting the islands together with sea lions, penguins and terns. Centuries of low rainfall and the baking tropical sun converted the bird excrement into the richest deposits of nitrogen and phosphorous known to the mid-nineteenth-century world. Following positive chemical testing of samples in the early 1800s, European trading companies, including Antony Gibbs & Sons, weren’t far away.
Fig. 5. The Chincha (Guano) Islands: Middle Island, as seen from North Island. Source: The Illustrated London News, February 21, 1863, 200.
Fig. 6. Chinese labourers working the “Great Heap,” Chincha Islands. Source: Alexander Gardner, Rays of Sunlight from South America, 1865, New York Public Library, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/84c5d6c1-b6d8-d30e-e040-e00a18065090.
The guano trade operated on the Chinchas had sweeping and violent repercussions for the ecology of the islands and the workers transported to them. Accounts from the 1850s describe 100 ships being loaded simultaneously as hundreds more waited offshore (figure 5).4 Contemporary photographs depict the staggering deposits of guano and the scale of the systematic efforts to raze them to the ground (figure 6). Those tasked with doing so were typically indentured Chinese laborers, contracted in the tens of thousands under coercive terms as part of the so-called “yellow trade” (la trata amarilla).5 As Edward D. Melillo has suggested, companies such as Antony Gibbs & Sons, “faced with a post-slavery world, used new configurations of the long-distance labor trade to extract maximum surplus value from their workers” who were, in the process, transformed into debt peons.6 From the moment “workers were bonded along the Pearl River Delta,” explain Lola Loustaunau et al., “the disruption of human metabolism was constantly present,” often resulting in disease and death. Mortality rates during the five-month voyage to Peru reached 42 percent during the period of the Gibbs monopoly owing to the abhorrent conditions and treatment aboard the vessels. Once on the islands, workers lived in primitive barracks and received minimal rations and water. Soldiers were tasked in part with preventing worker suicides. Mining was conducted up to seven days a week, spent prying the guano apart using hand tools under the direct sun before breaking the larger mounds into smaller quantities for loading, releasing toxic ammonia vapours. Workers regularly died in the pits in which they worked, their bodies left where they fell as their colleagues were forced to continue working around them.7 As Loustaunau et al. conclude, what firms such as Antony Gibbs & Sons required in order to make the Peruvian guano trade profitable was “semi slave/semi-free labor that was entirely disposable, without rights or autonomy” which could, as a result, be “used up and disposed of in ways that capitalized on its superexploitative character.”8
Fig. 7. The original Georgian farmhouse at Tyntesfield was gradually surrounded by John Norton’s Gothic Revival additions during the early 1860s.
Fig. 8. The hall, living room and study are to the right, the boudoir is in the middle and the family chapel is to the left in this image.
Fig. 9. The galleried landing and clerestory above Tyntesfield’s central hall.
Between 1840 and 1880, the Peruvian guano trade delivered profits of approximately $13 billion in today’s USD, primarily to British firms and to Antony Gibbs & Sons in particular, which earned around £100,000 ($10 million USD) per year at the height of its monopoly.9 The year after the monopoly ended William Gibbs commenced a three-year period of renovations at Tyntesfield, significantly remodelling the original Georgian farmhouse according to the plans of John Norton (1823–1904) and the interior design of J. G. Crace (1809–89), both close acquaintances of Augustus Pugin. Norton’s additions subsumed the existing house within a constellation of new volumes centred on a double-height hall complete with a large stone fireplace and galleried landing above. Flanking the hall are the ante room, study, and library—all lined with English Oak—as well as Blanche Gibbs’s boudoir where carved wainscot panelling depicts different plants grown on the estate, including the Chilean Bellflower—a link to the Chilean saltpetre trade into which Antony Gibbs & Sons moved once the monopoly period had elapsed (figure 16). Portraits of members of the Gibbs family line the walls alongside paintings displaying rural and maritime themes—pieces in a collection estimated by the National Trust to exceed 72,000 items in total. A leering, life-size cardboard cut-out of William Gibbs looks out, inexplicably, onto the front entry of the house from a second-storey window (figure 11).
Fig. 10. The study contains antiques acquired by William Gibbs through the merchant activities of Antony Gibbs & Sons.
Fig. 11. The family chapel is in the background. William Gibbs looks out from a second-storey window in the turret to the left of the image, near the entrance to Tyntesfield House.
As I walk around Tyntesfield, navigating the ambivalent gazes of the volunteers, my mind keeps returning to the slightly confused image of an uninterrupted stream of Peruvian guano flowing onto the estate, depositing layer upon layer of material to eventually form the crystalline, lithic architecture one arch and buttress at a time. The building seems to participate in the verisimilitude of the image—its organic, Gothic features deliberately invoking an architecture that has emerged from the earth. Yet amidst the lavish display of the wealth it generated, the clearest link I can find to the guano trade in the architecture of Tyntesfield is in an otherwise unremarkable servant’s corridor leading from the hall past the kitchens to the rear courtyard abutting the Gibbs family chapel and crypt. In this corridor, a painted glass window seems to portray cormorants and boobies on small diamond panes separated by others depicting flourishing plants bearing flowers and fruit (figure 14). Other than this window, which receives no interpretation or explanatory plaque, the only reference I can find to guano on the entire estate is on a small sign in the hall: “By the late 1850s guano profits had enabled William [Gibbs] to amass a vast fortune. This wealth gave the family the confidence to embark on the grand Gothic remodelling of Tyntesfield in 1863–6.” Even here, the subtle semantic shifts in the sign’s explanation of the estate’s provenance—from guano, to wealth, to the confidence to renovate the existing house—incrementally sever the connection between the elevated form of living on display and the abhorrent conditions of the industry that funded it.
Fig. 12. Further additions made once Tynestfield House was inherited by William’s son, Antony, are visible in the colour difference in the stone.
Fig. 13. Weathering on the Gibbs family chapel.
Fig. 14. A painted glass window with cormorants and boobies, two of the bird species responsible for the guano deposits on the Chincha Islands.
My intention isn’t to be moralistic about the National Trust’s heritage interpretation at Tyntesfield; nor is it to advocate for a negative history as a corrective against this interpretation. Rather, my interest is to understand how this presentation of architecture works—deliberately or otherwise—to obscure the circumstances of its production; what that obscurity reveals about how colonial logics condition historical knowledge; and how architectural history might work to denaturalize them. These are questions that Daniel Abramson, Zeynep Çelik Alexander, and Michael Osman describe as a re-examination of the tools of architectural historiography, in particular “how practices of evidence and narrative intertwine with core concepts in history writing.”10 What might Tyntesfield be understood to evidence beyond versions of the same contracted narrative presented on the sign in its hall? What can it clarify for the history of chemification, as explored in my previous report—its origins, outer edges, and historical continuities? And what kinds of methodological approaches does the writing of such a history require in order to complicate formulaic narratives of accumulation at the center through imperialistic exploitation of the periphery?
Answers, I suggest, can be found within the broader history of agricultural chemistry to which Tyntesfield inescapably belongs. The Gibbs guano monopoly was established less than a decade after the German chemist Justus von Liebig published his vision for “a truly scientific organic chemistry” based on rational methods of analysis and experimentation.11 In 1840, Liebig’s Organic Chemistry in its Applications to Agriculture and Physiology was immediately translated into English, receiving widespread attention in the United Kingdom over the following years against the tumultuous backdrop of the Corn Laws and the Great Famine.12 Agricultural Chemistry, as the text became known, outlined a mineralist model of soil fertility, challenging the prevailing humus theory by arguing that plants subsisted primarily on inorganic elements in the soil, rather than the organic decomposition of flesh, compost or manure.13 “It must be admitted as a principle of agriculture,” argued Liebig, “that those substances which have been removed from a soil must be completely restored to it [...] A time will come when the fields will be manured with a solution of glass (silicate of potash), with the ashes of burnt straw, and with salts of phosphoric acid, prepared in chemical manufactories, exactly as present medicines are given for fever and goitre.”14 In Liebig’s model, the “magazine of inorganic matters” that determined plant growth—chief among them nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous (NPK)—could be understood on a systematic basis and, therefore, controlled, severing the once stable connection between soil and geography, and giving rise to open, energy-intensive agricultural systems in place of traditional crop and fallow methods.15 The new “rational agriculture,” Liebig argued, was based “on the principle of restitution” and stood in contrast to the “spoliation system” of existing models, which depleted the soil as agricultural production intensified.16 This model of soil management ushered in what agricultural historians refer to as the second agricultural revolution (1830–1880): a transition period from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century innovations in crop rotation, livestock management, market centralization, and enclosure to the eventual mechanization, genetic modification, and increased chemicalization of monocultural farming during the third agricultural revolution of the twentieth century.17
Fig. 15. Greenhouses in Tyntesfield’s orangery. Small amounts of guano were supposedly brought onto the estate in the nineteenth century to demonstrate its benefits to local farmers.
Guano became an early tool for enacting this transition. Over the course of the nineteenth century, fertilizers precipitated an eighty-fold increase in the productive capacity of agricultural soils around the world.18 Although the guano of the Chincha Islands had been used for centuries by the Quechua people, and had been known of in Europe since at least the seventeenth century, the nineteenth-century threat of soil exhaustion in England, combined with gains in soil science by the likes of Liebig, retrained attention on guano’s high amounts of soluble nitrogen and phosphorous. In the six years prior to the commencement of the Gibbs monopoly, between 1841 and 1847, the average importation of guano into England subsequently increased by a factor of 130 to 220,000 tons per annum.19 This rate of extraction would double over the next two decades of the Gibbs monopoly. For Karl Marx these shifts in fertilizer use completely inverted the foundations of existing theories of ground rent in the work of classical economists such as Malthus and Ricardo. Fertility “in our days,” wrote Marx in The Poverty of Philosophy, is not “so natural a quality as might be thought.”20 No longer was it determined by the “indestructible powers of the soil,” as it had been for Ricardo, rather it could be readily improved at comparably low capital/labor cost using modern fertilizers. The globalization of agricultural chemistry in this way also functioned as a proxy for the globalization of capital.
Fig. 16. Wainscot panelling in Blanche Gibbs’s boudoir depicts botanical specimens including the Chilean Bellflower, a subtle nod to the saltpetre trade in which the Gibbs family business became involved in the 1860s.
Unlike its predecessors—poudrette, ashes, bonemeal, and dried blood from urban slaughterhouses—the nutrients of which were conveyed in an almost closed circuit from the city to nearby rural areas and back again in the form of grains, fruits, vegetables and livestock, guano was extracted and shipped to capitalist nations from distant islands under slave-like conditions. Marx viewed this dependency on exhaustible resources and their cheapening through the exploitation of labor as the major ecological crisis of the nineteenth century, famously described as a metabolic rift in which intensive agriculture no longer found “the natural conditions of its own production within itself, naturally arisen, spontaneous, and ready to hand, but these exist as an independent industry separate from it.”21 For both Marx and Liebig, the Gibbs-dominated guano trade came to represent a process in which the earth “was robbed of its richness, the soil was depleted of its nutrients, and the separation between town and country increasingly became international” on the back of a global capitalist market and more reliable long-distance trade.22 In its transgression of human and ecological boundaries in pursuit of both mineral and capital accumulation, the second agricultural revolution thus ushered in what Melillo describes as “a prolonged phase of ‘restlessness’ for both the earth and those who reshaped its contours.”23
Fig. 17. The entrance to the Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading.
Leaving Tyntesfield, I alight from the Bristol-to-London train at Reading on a sunny Monday morning. Walking through the center by foot, it’s not long before I arrive at The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), an institution dedicated to recording the history of the English countryside. MERL’s displays include agricultural machinery, homewares, and thematic exhibitions, as well as a large educational garden with plant varieties of relevance to the exhibits inside. The historical locus of the museum is set out between key dates in the history of the English countryside that adorn the walls of MERL’s entrance hall: from 1801, when 80 percent of the English population lived in rural areas; to 1882, when the first refrigerated lamb arrived in the UK from New Zealand; and from 1901, when 80 percent of people lived in towns; to 1947 and the introduction of legislation designed to intensify the productivity of post-war British agriculture.
Fig. 18. The educational garden at the Museum of English Rural Life. The archive is located on the ground floor of the building.
The main reason for my visit to MERL, however, is to access the archives of a company that traced its history to the commercialization of Liebig’s agricultural chemistry in the nineteenth century: Lawes Chemical Manure Company. In 1839, at the Rothamstead Experimental Station in Hertfordshire, John Bennet Lawes observed that treating bones and mineral phosphates with sulphuric acid significantly increased yields on his turnip fields. From a dedicated laboratory housed in a converted barn, Lawes repeated his trials over the following years, commencing an uninterrupted period of crop experiments at Rothamstead that would last more than a century. As Lawes explains in his memoranda, his methods involved growing “some of the most important crops on rotation year after year for many years in succession on the same land without manure, with farmyard manure, and with a great variety of chemical manures being applied year after year on the same plot.”24 The experiments revealed that the superiority of phosphates treated with acid was due to the increased solubility of the phosphorous and its subsequent accessibility to plants, effectively mirroring the characteristics of organic guano—an innovation that had eluded Liebig years earlier in his failed attempt to manufacture a commercial fertilizer of his own. Lawes quickly patented the manufacturing process in 1842 under the name of superphosphate, the implications of which for the soils of the Australian colonies I was able to appreciate first-hand while trawling through the archive of Dookie Agricultural College and Experimental Farm in Victoria, as recounted in my previous report.
Fig. 19. Images of Rothamstead Experimental Station in Hertfordshire. Source: W. E. Barber, “100 Years of Rothamstead,” Country Life (July 1943), 152.
Indeed, Rothamstead Experimental Station served a similar purpose to Dookie, bolstering the position of Britain during the rapid spread of institutions dedicated to experimental agricultural chemistry throughout nineteenth-century Europe and the United States. “For more than half century,” argues a Lawes Chemical Manure Company pamphlet at century’s end, “[Rothamstead] has been the largest and most systematically conducted experiment station in the Universe.”25 Investigations were made into the maximum number of harvests the typical soils of the earth’s crust could sustain under different cropping regimes before they were exhausted. Published reports extended the findings of Liebig and other agricultural chemists working on plant metabolism and soil fertility.26 Unlike Dookie and its European and American counterparts, however, Rothamstead was tied to a private company, effectively as its research arm, bolstering the many claims made in Lawes marketing material, which regularly boasted of “the most up to date machinery” and the best “raw materials,” enabling the company to “produce a finished product of the higher grade” with the help of its in-house chemists.27
Fig. 20. Lawes Chemical Manure Company at Barking in c. 1850. Source: Lawes Chemical Company Ltd. Fonds, TR LAW PH, University of Reading.
Fig. 21. Lawes Chemical Manure Company at Barking in c. 1850. Source: Lawes Chemical Company Ltd. Fonds, TR LAW PH, University of Reading.
Fig. 22. Aerial view of Lawes Chemical Manure Company at Barking in c. 1920. The village of Creekmouth is visible in the background. Source: Lawes Chemical Company Ltd. Fonds, TR LAW PH, University of Reading.
Two years after securing the patent for superphosphate manufacture in Britain, Lawes purchased 100 acres of land fronting the Thames at Barking Creek, on the outskirts of London, where he established “one of the most remarkable industrial systems of its kind” in the domain of chemical manufacturing: an “immense works” that functioned as “a universal source of agricultural profit.”28 Already in the 1850s, Lawes erected a small village, named Creekmouth, directly adjacent to the fertilizer works for company employees, complete with around 50 houses, a school, church, store, and pub. By the 1880s, warehouses, wharves, sheds, and factories were spread across 35 acres, processing 10,000 tons of Spanish pyrite per annum to produce more than double this quantity in sulphuric acid (figure 22). A wide variety of fertilizers, including Lawes’ Dissolved Peruvian Guano and “superphosphates of all grades” were produced at Barking every year, totalling 50,000 tons in annual sales between the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States, and the colonies where the superphosphate industry was still in its infancy.29 With reliable supplies in place for the production of sulphuric acid, and with the depletion of the world’s guano deposits by the likes of Antony Gibbs & Sons, chemical fertilizer manufacturers pivoted to securing mineral phosphates—coprolites and apatites—within a new geography of phosphorous extractivism spanning North America, Africa, Europe, and the Pacific Islands.
Fig. 23. Map of the PIC’s trading interests throughout the Pacific Ocean. Source: Pacific Islands Company Limited, Chart showing Trading Stations, Guano and Coconut Islands held by the Company, c.1900, National Archive of Australia, 1340195.
Fig. 24. The Scalpel stands on the site of the former headquarters of the Pacific Islands Company and its successor, the Pacific Phosphate Company. The building is tenanted, among others, by the National Australia Bank.
Fig. 25. 22 Bishopsgate towers over the remaining historic fabric of the City of London, occupying the site of the former headquarters of Antony Gibbs & Sons, just around the corner from The Scalpel.
In 1881, world production of superphosphate fertilizer amounted to approximately 1,000,000 tons, rising to 11,000,000 tons at the outbreak of World War One—a trajectory mirrored in its inverse by the decline of guano exports over the same period.30 This accelerating demand for superphosphate led to the formation of new companies seeking to supply the world’s insatiable fertilizer plants with the raw materials they now required. One such firm was the Pacific Islands Company (PIC), established by John Thomas Arundel in the 1870s to operate as a mixed business involved in inter-island trade, guano mining, and copra production, primarily on islands now located in the Republic of Kiribati (figure 23). Its headquarters were located on Leadenhall Street in the City of London, on the site now occupied by The Scalpel, directly opposite the Richard Rogers + Partners Lloyds of London building (figure 24). Around the corner, the former headquarters of Antony Gibbs & Sons has been replaced with the newly opened 22 Bishopsgate (figure 25). Both buildings recede into the glassy skyline, recent instances of the gradual erasure of the historic fabric of the City where British imperial power and privilege has been dispersed for centuries.31 As I have suggested elsewhere, the Pacific Islands Company presented a paradigmatic example of Greater British enterprise in the Pacific, its directors, staff, procurement practices and distribution networks combining the capital and expertise of a vast array of actors spanning England, Australia, and New Zealand.32 By the turn of the century, its directors included Arthur Charles Hamilton-Gordon—the Lord Stanmore—the first High Commissioner for the Western Pacific (1877–83), as well as Robert Herbert, the first premier of Queensland (1859–66) and John Bramston, former Assistant Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (1876–98). With the PIC’s discovery of enormous deposits of rock phosphate on the islands of Nauru and Banaba, however, the company was liquidated and reformed in the early twentieth century as the Pacific Phosphate Company (PPC).
Fig. 26. More than 30 architects were purportedly employed by Lever in the realization of Port Sunlight village.
Fig. 27. Every housing block in Port Sunlight adopts a different style to its neighbors.
Fig. 28. Tudor is the predominant style adopted for the housing in Port Sunlight.
William Lever—the “millionaire soap king” and later the Lord Leverhulme—was a major investor in the new PPC venture, its sole purpose being to exploit the mining rights it had acquired on highly lucrative terms from the German (Nauru) and British (Banaba) imperial governments. Arriving in Liverpool, I travel across the River Mersey to Port Sunlight: a garden suburb and factory developed by Lever in 1888 as a model village to house his growing workforce. The guided tour offered by the Port Sunlight Village Trust leads us past the Lady Lever Art Gallery (1922), the former hospital, parks and garden allotments, a school, church, and pub—all paid for as part of a profit-sharing model Lever viewed as a form of enlightened capitalism. For Lever, who had only recently opened a coconut oil processing facility in Balmain in Sydney (to avoid paying duties on the importation of soap from Port Sunlight), Arundel’s invitation to invest in the PPC came at a fortuitous time. As part of the deal brokered between the two, Lever was able to secure a takeover of the PIC’s expansive holdings throughout the Pacific (figure 23), in particular coconut plantations in the Solomon Islands, opening-up vast reserves of coconut oil for his soap production.33
Fig. 29. Flemish brickwork was also popular for the housing in Port Sunlight.
Fig. 30. Lever lived on a large estate on the Wirral Peninsula. The house shown here is where he stayed when visiting Port Sunlight.
Fig. 31. The Port Sunlight soap works were once accessible through the brick arches in the background of this image. The garden suburb therefore ran directly into the sprawling industrial complex.
The profits being shared at Port Sunlight were funneled into England from a vast and disaggregated territory of extraction. In Lusanga on the Congo River, Lever planned an African counterpart to Port Sunlight, a “model colony” named Leverville run by the Lever Brothers subsidiary, Les Huileries du Congo Belge.34 In the British Solomon Islands, Levers Pacific Plantations eventually acquired 400,000 acres of land spread across multiple islands. But, as Gregory Cushman has argued, it was Lever’s investment in the Pacific Phosphate Company that ultimately secured the growth of Lever Brothers in the early twentieth century. Approximately 800 houses were developed at Port Sunlight during the period of the PPC’s phosphate operations on Nauru and Banaba, each household equipped with running water, a bath, and flush toilet in a village regarded as a “shrine for the worship of cleanliness.”35 Although not its core business, the extraction of Pacific rock phosphate—a kind of shadow commercial empire for Lever—marked the beginning of Lever Brothers’ transformation into a vertically integrated corporation that capitalized on the rising interest in personal hygiene and urban cleanliness, enabling its consumers throughout the anglosphere to “make use of distant ecosystems and rinse away unwanted waste—to participate in neo-ecological imperialism.”36 Following a merger between Lever Brothers and Margarine Union in 1929, the resulting company, Unilever, immediately became one of the world’s most pervasive corporations. “All of this,” Cushman concludes, “got its start with soap factories and the purchase of Arundel’s vast network of trading depots and guano islands in the Central Pacific.”37 The profits derived from the PPC’s phosphate mines then allowed this network to be developed further.
Fig. 32. Approximately 800 state-of-the-art houses were developed at Port Sunlight during the period of the PPC’s phosphate operations on Nauru and Banaba.
On the back of Lever’s early investments, the PPC installed increasingly elaborate mining machinery and infrastructure on both islands, prefabricated in Europe and Australia to facilitate larger and more reliable rock phosphate exports. Preliminary processing, including crushing and drying, occurred on the islands prior to loading and shipping. To work the mines and operate the machinery, approximately 800,000 Pacific Islander, Japanese, and Chinese workers were indentured within the Pacific phosphate industry before World War One.38 The records of the PPC—now accessible at the National Archives in Kew—capture the structural conditions of this massive mobilization of people onto Banaba and Nauru. Annual reports throughout the 1920s reveal the disparate terms under which different categories of employee were engaged by the company. Rations for Europeans were roughly four times those for Chinese mechanics, five times those for Pacific Islander workers and six times those for unskilled Chinese laborers. White staff were afforded more sophisticated hospitals, freshwater showers, and state-of-the-art tropical housing compared with the seawater baths and windowless, crowded dormitories built for each group of indentured workers. Wages, bonuses, instances of hospitalization, and mortality rates were characterized by similar discrepancies among the heavily racialized workforce.39 Protests against these conditions were used by PPC management as justification for further controls on the islands, including the introduction of police forces and increased surveillance.40 Labor, processing, maintenance, and freight costs were regularly plotted in graphs against the fluctuating market price of rock phosphate for annual reports—figurations of corporate accumulation reflecting a managerial logic thoroughly divorced from the conditions determining productivity (figure 33).
Fig. 33. Tons of phosphate raised versus total island working costs for Nauru and Banaba, 1921–22. Source: British Phosphate Commission, Island Efficiency and Cost Figures for Ocean Island and Nauru, 1920–23, National Archives of Australia 824.
Marion W. Dixon describes this institutionalization of unfree “free labour” within the Pacific rock phosphate industry as “a coercive, racial labor regime” that further entrenched the global division of labor already evident in the mid-nineteenth-century guano trade. As Dixon argues, “this era of ‘global reconstruction’ […] was forged with the abolition of chattel slavery and through the subsequent intense struggles over labor and access to land for the continuation and expansion of commodity production in existing and new territories.”41 The process of chemification is therefore not only evident in the acceleration of commercial agriculture under industrial conditions but also in the emergence of new regional hierarchies “between a generalized wage labor force in the urban-industrial complexes of the imperial states and coerced labor in the frontier regions.”42 The challenge for the historian is to deduce a mode of history writing capable of traversing these disparate sites and trajectories of chemification without producing a narrative that becomes unwieldy and confused or reductive and simplistic.
Fig. 34. The Lawes Chemical Manure Company works at Barking were celebrated in industrial chemistry literature for the scale and degree of automation with which they handled the imported rock. Source: “The Manufacture of Artificial Fertilisers,” The Industrial Chemist (April 1933), 2.
Once loaded and shipped by the PPC, Pacific rock phosphate arrived at ports around the world bearing little trace of the conditions under which it had been picked, scraped, and blasted from the coral substrate of each island. Claiming the longest history of any early-twentieth-century superphosphate manufacturer, the Lawes works at Barking were widely celebrated in industrial chemistry literature for the scale and degree of automation with which they handled the imported rock (figure 34). Shipments were unloaded at the company’s private wharf using electric cranes before being moved to storage sheds by Lister trucks and portable conveyors. Processing commenced with grading the rock through crushers until it was broken down into half-inch cubes. Bucket elevators then transported the phosphate to a fine grinding apparatus comprised of three concave metal rollers, which deposited the now powdery material onto 100-mesh vibrating screens. Screw conveyors next moved the phosphate to storage bins connected by elevators to the mixing department. Batches were automatically weighed before proceeding into the superphosphate mixer where the mined rock first came into contact with sulphuric acid. The mixing process required only one minute before the pasty product was deposited into storage dens for the remaining chemical reactions to take place (figure 35). Once finished, the dry powder was bagged and distributed to Lawes outlets throughout the wider anglosphere (figure 36).43 By 1930, superphosphate production—using similar processes to the Lawes works at Barking—had increased by 4000 percent in New Zealand and 200 percent in Australia, the primary consumers of Pacific rock phosphate after World War One. During this period, the deposits on Banaba and Nauru were set aside for the exclusive use of manufacturers throughout Greater Britain, an undertaking managed by the British Phosphate Commission until 1981.44
Fig. 35. Fresh superphosphate at the Lawes Chemical Manure Company works in Barking ready for bagging, c.1930. Source: Lawes Chemical Company Ltd. Fonds, TR LAW PH, University of Reading.
Fig. 36. Bagged Lawes Chemical Manure Company granular superphosphate, c.1950. Source: Lawes Chemical Company Ltd. Fonds, TR LAW PH, University of Reading.
On the train to Liverpool, I reflect on the dramatic effects of this influx of phosphorous into antipodean soils and what their chemical transformation meant for the material viability of settler-colonial dispossession in Australia in particular. I think somewhat differently now about what I labelled “invisibility” in my first report, by which I meant to refer to the elusive quality of fertilizer to disappear into other things and hence resist historicization. I now see the importance of retraining attention from the effects of the application of superphosphate to the material/chemical transformations involved in its production alongside the energy/work upon which those transformations relied. Doing so, as I have attempted to in this report, reveals a wider set of technics and relations that, working together, converted phosphorous into what Jason W. Moore calls historical nature. “[H]istorical natures are not ‘produced’ in linear fashion,” Moore explains, “but co-produced by the biosphere and capitalism; historical natures are products of capitalism, but also of new capitalist arrangements.”45 I find it useful to think about the various technologies of facilitation—legal, financial, logistical, scientific, political—that enabled the Gibbs guano monopoly in these terms, becoming less uniform but more pervasive and reified into the twentieth century as phosphorous was no longer sought in deposits of guano but rather in rock phosphate. As Moore continues:
An ecological revolution occurs when the innovations of capital, science, and empire forge a new unity of abstract social labor, abstract social nature, and primitive accumulation. These unities are world-ecological regimes. Technical and organizational innovations allow for rising labor productivity. Ways of mapping, quantifying, and discovering new historical natures—and new use-values—allow for the rising appropriation of unpaid work/energy. And the coercive-intensive process of territorial conquest and dispossession opens new, largely uncommodified, natures to the penetration of global value-relations.46
Fig. 37. A Lawes Chemical Manure Company stand at an agricultural fair, c.1900. Source: Lawes Chemical Company Ltd. Fonds, TR LAW PH, University of Reading.
The accumulation of phosphorous in the soils of the industrialized world, the eutrophication of water bodies from fertilizer runoff, and the more indirect, unforeseen ways in which intervening in the biogeochemical cycle continues to interact with processes of climate change and ecological decline—the unintended outcomes of Liebig’s “rational agriculture”—are symptomatic of phosphorous’s transformation into historical nature.47 The patents, debentures, leases, contracts, ships, dormitories, driers, crushers and mixers deployed along the way by Gibbs, Lawes, Arundel, Lever and others are the technical correlates of this transformation, incrementally calibrating unfree labor and predictable chemical processes towards the sustained accumulation of profit. As the most “architectural” extant products of this profit, Tyntesfield and Port Sunlight remain opaque—both as sites of history in general but especially in their relation to the colonial systems of extraction that made them possible. Similar opacities characterize the businesses with which they are affiliated: the absorption of Lever Brothers into the almost impenetrably large Unilever; the eventual acquisition of Antony Gibbs & Sons by HSBC; and the conversion of the PPC into the multi-national British Phosphate Commission. What Tyntesfield and Port Sunlight evidence—to return to an earlier question—is therefore as much the lucrative terms on which capital participated in the global metabolic rift of the long twentieth century as the myopic, sanitizing effects of time. A sign tucked away in a darkened corner of the Port Sunlight Museum (figure 38) tentatively suggests this may be about to change: “We recognise that, so far, we have not explored the problematic aspects of the business enterprises practised by Port Sunlight’s founder, William Lever, in our museum or public spaces.” The sign continues, declaring that the “fuller and more balanced” story the Port Sunlight Village Trust wishes to tell will “piece together and share the history of William Lever’s global colonialist enterprises.” A small pamphlet from 2022, available online, provides a brief overview of the racist history of Lever’s business practices in the Belgian Congo, promising further research to unpack Unilever’s guarded corporate archive. I leave wondering if this revisionist history will also take stock of Lever’s phosphate empire—described by Lever himself as a “gold brick”—or whether, as at Tyntesfield, it will remain consigned to the marginalia.48
Fig. 38. A sign in the Port Sunlight Museum outlining the Port Sunlight Village Trust’s commitment to anti-racism in the presentation of the history of Lever Brothers.
1 Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “Guano: The Global Metabolic Rift and the Fertilizer Trade,” in Ecology and Power: Struggles over Land and Material Resources in the Past, Present and Future, eds. Alf Hornborg, Brett Clark and Kenneth Hermele (London: Routledge, 2012), 68–82.
2 Jane Hutton, Reciprocal Landscapes: Stories of Material Movements (New York: Routledge, 2020), 38, 44.
3 Hutton, Reciprocal Landscapes, 42.
4 Clark and Foster, “Guano,” 75.
5 Edward D. Melillo, “The First Green Revolution: Debt Peonage and the Making of the Nitrogen Fertilizer Trade, 1840–1930,” The American Historical Review 117, no. 4 (2012), 1029.
6 Melillo, “The First Green Revolution,” 1030–31.
7 Lola Loustaunau, Mauricio Betancourt, Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “Chinese Contract Labor, The Corporeal Rift, and Ecological Imperialism in Peru’s Nineteenth-Century Guano Boom,” The Journal of Peasant Studies (2021), 11–14.
8 Ibid., 11.
9 Ibid., 5.
10 Daniel Abramson, Zeynep Çelik Alexander and Michael Osman, “Introduction: Evidence, Narrative, and Writing Architectural History,” in Writing Architectural History: Evidence and Narrative in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021), 16.
11 Justus von Liebig, “Ueber einen neuen Apparat zur Analyze organischer Korper und uber die Zusammensetzung einiger organischer Substanzen,” Poggendorffs Annalen der Physik und Chemie 21, no. 8 (1831), 21.
12 Pat Munday, “Politics by Other Means: Justus von Liebig and the German Translation of John Stuart Mill's ‘Logic’,” The British Journal for the History of Science 31, no. 4 (1998), 409–411.
13 Munday, “Politics by Other Means,” 412.
14 Justus von Liebig, “Organic Chemistry in Its Applications to Agriculture and Physiology,” in Liebig's Complete Works on Chemistry, ed. Lyon Playfair (Philadelphia, PA: T. B. Peterson, 1852), 63.
15 Liebig, “Organic Chemistry in Its Applications to Agriculture and Physiology,” 11.
16 Justus von Liebig, Letters on Modern Agriculture (London: Walton & Maberly, 1859), 183.
17 John Bellamy Foster, “Marx's Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology,” American Journal of Sociology 105, no. 2 (1999), 373–74.
18 Greta Marchesi, “Justus von Liebig Makes the World: Soil Properties and Social Change in the Nineteenth Century,” Environmental Humanities 12, no. 1 (2020): 205–226.
19 Foster, “Marx's Theory of Metabolic Rift,” 377.
20 Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (New York: International, 1963 ), 163.
21 Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, quoted in Melillo, “The First Green Revolution,” 1035.
22 Clark and Foster, “Guano,” 76.
23 Melillo, “The First Green Revolution,” 1031.
24 W. E. Barber, “100 Years of Rothamstead,” Country Life (July 1943), 151.
25 Lawes’ Chemical Manure Company Ltd., Chemical Manures, and the great benefit derived by all crops from their judicious use (London: Lawes’ Chemical Manure Company Ltd., c.1895), 5.
26 Abbot Payson Usher, “Soil Fertility, Soil Exhaustion, and Their Historical Significance,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 37, no. 3 (1923), 391–93.
27 Lawes’ Chemical Manure Company Ltd., Chemical Manures, 13.
28 "Lawes’ Chemical Manure Company,” Industries of London Illustrated (1888), 88.
29 Ibid., 88.
30 A. N. Gray, Phosphates and Superphosphates (London: International Superphosphate Manufacturers’ Association, 1930), 58.
31 Amy Thomas, “Risk in ‘the Room’: Negotiating New Economic Paradigms in the Architecture of Lloyd’s of London Insurance Market,” Architectural Theory Review 26, no. 1 (2022), 14.
32 Jasper Ludewig, “‘Lonely Dots’: John Thomas Arundel and the Architecture of Greater British Enterprise in the Pacific,” Fabrications 32, no. 1 (2022): 340–67.
33 Gregory T. Cushman, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 107.
34 Port Sunlight Village Trust, Racism, the Belgian Congo, and William Lever, pamphlet, second edition (June 2022), 4–5.
35 Cushman, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World, 102–103.
36 Ibid., 107
38 Ralph Shlomowitz and Munro Doug, “The Ocean Island (Banaba) and Nauru Labour Trade 1900–1940,” Journal de la Société des océanistes 94 (1992), 103.
39 British Phosphate Commission, Island Efficiency and Cost Figures for Ocean Island and Nauru, 1920–23, National Archives of Australia 824.
40 Marion W. Dixon, “Phosphate Rock Frontiers: Nature, Labor, and Imperial States, from 1870 to World War Two,” Critical Historical Studies 8, no. 2 (2021), 299.
41 Dixon, “Phosphate Rock Frontiers,” 296–97.
42 Ibid., 302.
43 “The Manufacture of Artificial Fertilisers,” The Industrial Chemist (April 1933): 1-3.
44 Gray, Phosphate and Superphosphate, 267–69.
45 Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (London: Verso, 2015), 150.
46 Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, 150.
47 Dixon, “Phosphate Rock Frontiers,” 303.
48 Ludewig, “‘Lonely Dots’,” 352.
After 2000 kilometers of circuitous driving, I have finally arrived in central narrm/Melbourne, amused as always by the contrast of its orderly, gridded streets and the tortured bombast of so much of its architecture. Today alone I have driven for close to 10 hours, from the far north-western corner of the state, descending after dark onto the plain across which the city unravels. The two-laned road doubles, triples, and then quadruples in quick succession before I eventually pull into a parking facility and scurry through the drizzle to my accommodation. It’s here that I begin this first report of my H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship: in a room in a city I now see as an important threshold in the historical geography my travel attempts to retrace.
Fig. 1. Panoramic view of the Paterson Valley from Mount George. Property boundaries, nature reserves and the curving river are clearly visible.
Fig. 2. One of the many agricultural relics on display along the roadsides of the Paterson Valley.
Over the past month, I have visited different regions along the eastern seaboard of what is now known as Australia looking for evidence of its systematic transformation as Country—the term used by Indigenous Australians to describe the lands, waterways, seas and skies with which they are intimately connected—into the landscapes of colonial agriculture. This transformation commenced in the late eighteenth century, radiating inland from a string of settlements established at river mouths and natural harbours in the colony of New South Wales before accelerating over the course of the nineteenth century, propelled by a growing population, global commodity markets, and the advent of political self-governance. Throughout this process, agricultural expansion was colonial expansion—both in the geographical sense of the actual material dispossession and occupation of Indigenous land (clearing, fencing, planting, building), and in the political economic and juridical sense of state formation and the reification of systems of colonial governance (land regulation, taxation, policing, establishing institutions, etc.). Of course, the supposed absence of agricultural systems—a cynical interpretation of well-documented Aboriginal land management practices—was also used by the British state and its representatives as moral and legal justification for the invasion and violent dispossession of Indigenous land in keeping with the doctrine of terra nullius. One assumption I have therefore made over the past month of traveling is that to interrogate the material history of Australia’s agricultural development is also to consider something essential to the manner in which colonial sovereignty was purported and enacted.
More specifically, my travels are based on my emerging understanding that the viability of the colonial project in Australia—given this imbrication with agriculture—depended to a large extent on the biological work performed by fertilizer. Sovereignty and fertilizer may seem an incongruent pairing, but their relation encompasses an approach to the organization of people, land, and materials (and eventually also buildings) that both recasts prevailing understandings of the environmental effects of colonization, as well the forms of governance that were elaborated in their service. The sociologist Marion W. Dixon terms this relation—referring to its twentieth-century incarnation—“chemification,” or “the processes by which imperial states gained territories (and land, labour, etc.) through industrial power built on assemblages of production, energy, and materials connected via a handful of chemicals.”1 This fellowship project is something of a meditation on chemification understood as a discrete historical process; from its pre-industrial, colonial origins to its fuller expression in the early twentieth century. What is the historical geography of chemification? What were its spatial—agricultural, infrastructural, technological, architectural, rural, urban—modes of articulation? What kinds of political order did it give rise to? Whose futures did it secure? Whose did it foreclose? And how does chemification, as a methodological lens, enable us to better collocate colonialism and capitalism as interlinked systems that have facilitated humans’ intervention in the processes that govern life within the biosphere?
Fig. 3. An abandoned turn-of-the-century homestead in the Paterson Valley.
Evidence in service of my questions is admittedly difficult to recover through travel. Fertilizers leave no visible trace in the places they are applied; and, unlike other agricultural technologies, they are meant, by design, to dissolve and disappear into other things—soil, water, roots, stems, flowers and fruits—which are themselves routinely removed or replenished. The result, I have learned, is that one struggles to find much (any) information about the use and effects of chemical fertilizers in the (many) local history museums dotted throughout the agricultural districts between meanjin/Brisbane and narrm/Melbourne. Instead, it seems that chemification is best approached indirectly, by seeking out its epiphenomena: the statistics of increased crop yields recorded at nineteenth-century experimental farms; importation rates of the raw materials purchased by fertiliser manufactures; the almost total devastation of the landscapes at which these raw materials were extracted; and the land-use patterns and forms of living that fertilizers have sustained in a radically different ecology to those in which European farming systems were originally devised.
Fig. 4. The main buildings of Tocal Estate at sunset.
Fig. 5. Tocal’s stone barn, constructed in 1830 using convict labour to dry tobacco.
Fig. 6. The barracks built to house Tocal’s 35 convict laborers during its development in the 1830s.
Fig. 7. Tocal Homestead was built to the 1841 design of the Scottish architect William Moir. It was constructed from sandstone with a slate roof, most of which was quarried directly from the Tocal site.
Fig. 8. Tocal Homestead is sited at the top of a slight rise on the property, elevating its legibility within the landscape.
Three weeks prior to my arrival in narrm/Melbourne, I arrived in the Paterson Valley, on Wonnarua and Worimi Country, in the Hunter Region of New South Wales. The Paterson Valley is one of the oldest European agricultural districts in Australia, occupied from the early nineteenth century by small-scale farmers supplying Sydney and Newcastle. James Webber was one such colonist, arriving from Britain to take up a land grant in 1822, which he subsequently developed into one of the most successful farms in the colony: Tocal. The main buildings and grounds of Tocal have been carefully preserved, embodying the changing regimes of political order and colonial land use in the district, from the erstwhile tobacco shed (1830) and convict barracks (1835), to the late-Colonial Georgian homestead (1841) and the famous Blacket Barn (1867). Today, Tocal strikes an uneasy balance between its dual role as part open-air colonial heritage display and part bucolic wedding venue—its overabundance of pithy interpretive plaques, affixed to its photogenic buildings, counterposed by the glaring omission of any meaningful engagement with the Indigenous history of the valley. Even the word “tocal,” which the plaques purport to mean “plenty” in the Wonnarua language (the Wonnarua Nation Aboriginal Corporation’s official dictionary suggests otherwise), operates at the level of simulacrum: naturalizing the colonial history of the estate by establishing a false continuity with its Indigenous “past.” Axe-grinding grooves formed by members of the Gringai clan, located on a sandstone outcrop in the middle of a pasture separating Tocal’s main buildings, seem like the only authentic historical remnant on the entire estate.
Fig. 9. The Blacket Barn owes its name to the celebrated nineteenth-century colonial architect Edmund Thomas Blacket, known for his churches and public buildings throughout the colony of New South Wales.
Fig. 10. The symmetrical floorplan and timber roof trusses have earned Blacket Barn the mantle of the “Cathedral of Barns” from the contemporary architect Philip Cox, commissioned to design nearby Tocal Agricultural College in 1963.
Fig. 11. The fine detailing of the Blacket Barn plays a central role in Tocal’s state heritage listing.
Fig. 12. Today, Tocal Estate caters as much to wedding guests as history enthusiasts. Its buildings and grounds are presented to emulate nineteenth-century rural life in the colony.
The history of Tocal, like so much of Australia’s European history, is largely reducible to its geology. Australian soils are among the most nutrient poor in the world and are especially lacking in phosphorous, which promotes plant growth and improves fruiting. Where government officials such as James Grant, writing from the Paterson Valley in 1801, saw “long luxuriant grass” and “plenty of land for agriculture,” they therefore projected a cultural and ecological imaginary onto the landscape—and into its soils—that anticipated, erroneously, an equivalence with the soils of Britain.2 Invisible to Grant and his contemporaries was the work of the Wonnarua and the Worimi, undertaken over millennia, to manage the non-alluvial areas of this landscape through fire. The famous open forest of the New South Wales hinterland, described by Peter Cunningham in 1827 as in “every way suitable for pasture without cutting down a single tree,” was in fact the intentional result of routine cool burning, which supressed the growth of saplings and thickets, encouraging the germination of native perennial grasses instead.3 Fleet-footed kangaroos, wallabies, emus, and other animals flocked into the forest clearings the fire left behind, providing a reliable food supply alongside native tubers, lilies, flaxes, and sorghums. Mistaking grasses for signs of fecundity, colonists such as Webber poured into the Paterson Valley, stocking the once soft and spongy land with hard-hooved sheep and cattle, and planting cash crops—tobacco, grapes, hops, and maize—along the alluvial corridors. Within only a few years, the colonists had ringbarked the eucalypts for timber while their livestock compacted the earth and razed the grasses, causing widespread erosion and degradation of the already poor soil.
In search of more fertile tracts of land, colonists quickly moved throughout the Paterson Valley, practicing a land-extensive agricultural system known as “soil mining.” “The consequence of this miserable system,” observed James Atkinson in 1826:
is that the land in a few years gets exhausted, and having very little tillage, is entirely covered with weeds. […] The plan then adopted is to let this lie fallow, as it is termed, that is, to suffer it to lie untouched for several years, to be overgrown with mimosas, and to become a nursery for rank and noxious weeds of every description; in the mean time, the Settler clears another piece of fresh land, and with this proceeds as before.4
For the soil miner, managing soil fertility was of secondary importance to the availability of an inexhaustible supply of more land nearby. Attempting to constrain colonial settlement, which was rapidly expanding due to the activities of soil miners and others, the government imposed what became known as the Limits of Location in 1829—a semi-circular perimeter radiating 400 km outwards from Sydney that delineated the area in which settlement was legally permitted. The territory within the Limits was broken into 19 counties, which were surveyed and valued in turn; the available land was organized into different classes, each attracting a different rate per acre based on its agricultural potential; and crops were used as collateral against mortgages to enable capital-poor farmers to take up land within farming districts such as Paterson. In effect, the Limits of Location transformed the interior of the colony into a patchworked, “improved” landscape, still clearly legible in the view over the Paterson Valley from Mount George (Figure 1).5 The Limits are particularly fascinating when understood in relation to contemporary political economic theories of land price, rent, and soil fertility. As David Ricardo notes in his 1817 treatise, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation:
Rent increases most rapidly, as the disposable land decreases in its productive powers. Wealth increases most rapidly in those countries where the disposable land is most fertile, where importation is least restricted, and where through agricultural improvements, productions can be multiplied without any increase in the proportional quantity of labour, and where consequently the progress of rent is slow.6
Fig. 13. One of Tocal’s many pastures, heavily transformed through land clearing, grazing, and chemical fertilizers. The main building of Tocal Agricultural College can be seen in the distant background.
Fig. 14. Widespread grazing has suppressed native grasses, compacted the soil, and made large swathes of land highly susceptible to flash flooding and erosion.
Fig. 15. A field in the vicinity of the former Rutherglen Experimental Farm in northern Victoria.
Fig. 16. “Field E” at the former Rutherglen Experimental Farm in northern Victoria, later the Rutherglen Viticulture College and then Rutherglen Research Institute.
Augmenting the productive powers of a more limited supply of land through the use of fertilizer was therefore not only a question of agricultural production, but also formed part of an incipient colonial property regime in which the value of land was—at least initially—determined by the “indestructible powers of the soil” and the amount of capital/labor required to exploit it. In the Paterson Valley, and throughout the territory delineated by the Limits of Location more broadly, a land-extensive frontier model of soil mining thus gave over to an incipient yeoman ideal focused on regimes of improvement. Tocal occupies a unique position within this history. Its buildings—or, more accurately, what lies beneath them—testify to how the more tightly controlled system of land allocation established by the Limits ultimately reconfigured the biological profiles of Australian soils. Although “hardly a single pre-[European]-contact soil profile survives intact anywhere across the nation,” observes the geographer Stephen Gale, “a rare exception to this generalisation comes from Tocal.”7 Rather than the “well structured, strongly stable” soils found throughout the Paterson Valley today, the soils beneath the original Tocal homestead are “very friable, poorly structured and have a weak aggregate stability.”8 The comparison reveals the cumulative effects of more than a century of colonial attempts to transform Australia’s Indigenous landscape—the sum total of myriad entanglements between the law, capital, agricultural development, and ecological violence descending upon the value latent in the soil. Leaving the valley along the old Paterson Road, which traces a double of Yimmang (Paterson River) along the intensively farmed floodplain, I recall the words of the Gurindji man Daly Pulkara who, when asked by the anthropologist Deborah Bird-Rose what he thought of the denuded—but heavily “improved”—landscape of a cattle station in the Northern Territory, simply remarked: “It’s the wild. Just the wild.”9
Fig. 17. Dookie College administration building and museum, formerly the college laboratory.
Fig. 18. The Dookie College buildings were designed by the Victorian Public Works Department, which provided similar facilities at the Rutherglen and Longerenong colleges.
Fertilizers quickly followed the intensification of agriculture in nineteenth-century Australia. They were used to more reliably extract larger harvests from smaller properties on aberrant soils year after year, but also—as Tocal demonstrates—to drastically transform the chemical composition of those soils over time. On my way to the Wimmera district in western Victoria—one of the country’s most diverse grain growing regions—I was fortunate to visit an important site in the uptake of chemical fertilizers in Australia. Dookie Agricultural College and Experimental Farm is the oldest agricultural college in Victoria and today forms part of the University of Melbourne, specializing in land management and restoration, viticulture, and food security research. Dookie seemingly appears out of nowhere, nestled into rolling hills on Yorta Yorta Country in the lee of Mount Major; a distinctly proto-urban setting amidst a sea of serried fields and empty gravel roads. Its history dates to 1877 when the Victorian Board of Agriculture established the Cashel Experimental Farm, tasked with training colonists in the latest scientific methods of rational agriculture. Ten years later, 50 people were on the waiting list to enroll in Dookie, where students tended to the almost 5,000 acres as part of a rigorous program housed in state-of-the-art buildings—laboratories, cellars, and greenhouses—designed by the Public Works Department.10 As reported by a journalist following an inspection tour of Dookie in 1888, “the curriculum includes chemistry, botany, geology, entomology, English, mathematics, surveying, bookkeeping, besides practical farm work in all its branches.”11 Formal training in agriculture was viewed as a matter of economic security in a globalizing world, as well as a domain for state intervention given the value of export duties to annual revenue. “In these days of competition and rapid progress,” proclaimed one local newspaper, “the advantage is with those who know how to make the best of their opportunities, and are acquainted with the latest discoveries in science as applied to the cultivation of the soil.”12 Dookie moved the colony of Victoria in this direction, following the examples set by experimental farms throughout the anglosphere in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand, and demonstrating a more modern approach to agricultural science later emulated throughout the colony at Rutherglen in the northeast (viticulture) and Longerenong in the northwest (wheat growing).
Fig. 19. “Agricultural Education in Victoria.” Poster promoting Dookie and Longerenong colleges, c.1895. Source: Victorian Places.
Fig. 20. Experimentation continues at Dookie College today as part of the University of Melbourne.
The archive at Dookie remains beautifully chaotic, its records distributed between a small campus museum—the college’s former laboratory building—and a windowless storage room in which I was permitted to spend multiple hours sifting through boxes. Amidst changing curricula, new pupils, upgraded facilities, and annual reports, the records evince two things in particular: the overwhelming predominance of failed experiments over successful ones, and an obsessional commitment to understanding the natural capacities of the soil:
Plot 42 – Buck Wheat – Sown August 3rd, came up very well but progressed slowly… Consider this a most useless crop in this dry district. …Plot 43 – Brown Corn – Sown in drills 24 inches apart, August 4th, 1879. Came up very indifferently… Consider this district unsuitable for this crop, as it requires a deep black soil. …Plot 44 – Flax – Sown broad cast in finely prepared soil, 5th August. …The fibre is not of sufficient length to be of any value as a marketable product. This crop certainly cannot be recommended as a sure and profitable one in this district.13
As the experiments tick over into the 1880s, more and more appear in which traditional fertilizers—bonedust, saltpetre (potassium nitrate), and cow and chicken manure—were being replaced by imported guanos. Although guano can refer to the dried excrement of a wide variety of animals, only seabird guano was used at Dookie. It had been extracted and shipped there from three vastly different island groups spread across two different oceans: the Chincha Islands in the Pacific Ocean near Peru; Malden Island in the Central Pacific Ocean; and the Lacepede Islands off the coast of Western Australia in the Indian Ocean. This geography becomes almost unfathomable when encountered in the abstract on a 150-year-old spreadsheet in an anonymous storage room on an isolated experimental farm in central Victoria. The collapse of physical distance presented in the spreadsheet, however, more clearly frames the historical movement of the guano itself: from the sites of its extraction to those of its application, which, in this case, are the fields that stretch out in every direction from the building in which I am sitting. Guanos quickly appear in almost every experiment I now come across: wheat, potato oats, Norway oats, white Tartarian oats, English barley, Cape barley—all are pickled and mixed with different blends of imported bird excrement, the results recorded as reliable increases in the yield of each crop per acre.
Fig. 21. An original timber barn sited opposite Dookie’s historic olive grove from the late 1890s.
Fig. 22. “The Dookie Agricultural College – Drilling and Rolling.” Drilling typically involved so-called “combines,” which deposited both seeds and superphosphate in furrows at regular intervals and set depths. Source: Victorian Places.
Guano is much more potent than other manures and immediately delivers more highly concentrated nutrients to plants, as well as protecting them against drought by promoting root development.14 As research stations such as Dookie confirmed these characteristics, nineteenth-century guano traders pushed further into the Central Pacific, as well as onto the Great Barrier Reef Islands off the coast of Queensland, deploying mobile mining infrastructure and contracting indentured laborers into a frontier industry established to serve the growing demand of farmers throughout the Tasman world and beyond.15 By the turn of the twentieth century, the surface guano deposits on most islands had been exhausted. In the interim, however, fertilizer manufacturers had shifted their focus from the importation of guano to the production of a synthetic compound known as superphosphate—or, in typical Australian fashion, simply as “super.” Dookie seems to have been an early adopter of this new agricultural technology, stating that of the manure experiments conducted in 1888, “the greatest results… were obtained from superphosphate for 30 [shillings] worth of which a yield of 35 bushels per acre was obtained,” far outperforming bonedust, Malden Island guano and saltpetre.16 By the late 1800s, super was made by mixing sulphuric acid with roughly equal parts pulverised rock phosphate ore—a kind of geological fusion of weathered surface guano, dead marine life and coral substrate—which delivers a much higher concentration of phosphorous into the soil than guano while remaining soluble enough to nourish plants. Returning to the Pacific and Indian Oceans in search of rock phosphate, a new cast of European companies advanced a second wave of phosphate imperialism on a handful of remote islands boasting the world’s purest deposits: Christmas Island, south of Java; Nauru and Banaba (Ocean Island) in the Central Pacific; Angaur in Palau; and Makatea in French Polynesia.
Fig. 23. Winter fields in the Wimmera. Minimal trees are left to provide shade during pasturing.
Fig. 24. A rare sign of the heavily engineered environment beneath the topsoil.
Fig. 25. Winter fields, shade trees, and a hill covered in prickly pear cactus.
Fig. 26. Fences, roads, lots, and furrows all point the same way in the Wimmera.
Fig. 27. The only curves found in the Wimmera, other than the creeks and rivers, are at the corners of its fields, where tractors and machinery complete a ninety-degree sweeping turn.
By 1910, adoption of superphosphate for the fertilization of wheat—Australia’s largest export crop—had risen to around 80 percent from only 25 percent two decades prior.17 By the outbreak of World War One, Australia was the highest user of superphosphate of all land-abundant economies, including the US, Russia, and Canada.18 The effects of superphosphate over this period radically altered entire ecologies such as the Wimmera Mallee—an almost completely flat, once forested sandy plain that was comprehensively cleared to make room for wheat fields. Driving across the Wimmera today, the violence to which the Mallee was subjected is largely invisible. Instead, the fences, gates, irrigation systems, and occasional sheds read as inert props in the performance of an entrenched ruralism, their banality somehow all the more confronting when encountered with the broader material and political history of chemification in mind. The serpentine rivers and creeks appear almost alien in the otherwise orthogonal landscape, redoubled in the dense stands of eucalypts that follow the banks and edges before petering out into stubbly winter fields. Concrete grain silos reappear whenever the road intersects with a deteriorating rail line, infrastructural remnants of a centralized distribution system that once connected the Wimmera’s wheat fields to international markets via the Port of Melbourne. At Murtoa, I stop to walk through the Stick Shed: a vast 265 x 60 meter emergency bulk wheat store, referred to as the Cathedral of the Wimmera, that was constructed during World War Two to preserve up to 3.4 million bushels of grain. More than 500 unmilled Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans) poles reach up to around 18 meters high, fixed to timber roof trusses using galvanized hoop iron and lending the interior a sense of impossible lightness. Integrated into the same rail line as the concrete silos it was designed to replace, the Stick Shed attests to the cumulative development of agricultural systems in the Wimmera, where infrastructural interventions built on and expanded the productive capacities of those that preceded them. Today, growers store their harvests wrapped in plastic and left on the ground in so-called “sausages,” ready for when the market price turns in favour of selling a particular grain.
Fig. 28. Concrete wheat silos in Warracknabeal built in the 1930s, now redundant as grain growing has diversified.
Fig. 29. The abandoned train station in central Warracknabeal, built in 1886 to connect the booming Wimmera to the Port of Melbourne.
Fig. 30. The exterior of the Murtoa Stick Shed. Light passes into the interior through thousands of old screw holes in the metal roof sheeting.
Fig. 31. The unmilled Mountain Ash poles form a central aisle running the length of the Stick Shed. Grains of wheat still fill the cracks in the concrete slab. The smell is a mix of mechanical equipment—oil, diesel, grease—and the sweetness of the wheat.
Fig. 32. A longer exposure photo of the Stick Shed’s interior. The ties that cross-brace the tall poles wobble with each gust of wind that hits the exterior of the building.
The straight road eventually deposits me on Wotjobaluk, Jaadwa, Jadawadjali, Wergaia, and Jupagik Country, in the town of Warracknabeal: the capital of the Victorian wheat district and, surprisingly, the birthplace of the musician Nick Cave. Much like Tocal, the history of “Warrack” is one of spectacular landscape transformation in pursuit of profit. As explained in Prosperous and Progressive Warracknabeal, a 1910 pamphlet promoting the development of the town:
Up till a few years ago it was no uncommon thing for a Land Board to say persuasively to an applicant for Mallee land: “There is a fine block adjoining your land. You can have it, too, if you will only keep the rabbits down.” And in all probability the applicant would say that he had quite enough Mallee already. To-day, if he wanted the same land, he would have to pay anywhere from £5 to £10 per acre for it. It is only a few years ago when it seemed that Warracknabeal would be buried beneath the drifting Mallee sands, but in the same town house rent is higher than in Melbourne. Building is being rushed ahead almost feverishly to keep pace with the demand for houses, and on every side are the evidences of prosperity and expansion.19
The accumulation of capital in the Mallee was directly linked to the accumulation of phosphorous in its soils and the development of the technologies required to deliver it there. “The Mallee was always fertile,” continues the pamphlet’s author, “but the fact was not known, or, if it was known, the knowledge necessary to take advantage of it was lacking. But the chemist, the implement maker, and the experienced farmer appeared on the scene, and, lo! a transformation.” While the chemists demonstrated “how the use of fertilizers added manifold to the productiveness of the soil,” the implement makers “armed [the settler] for the fight.” Meanwhile, the state extended irrigation channels throughout the northern plains, “with the result that the Wimmera and the Mallee are even now rendered practically drought proof.”20 Once again, the historical record denaturalizes the contemporary landscape, revealing it to be a heavily engineered terrain.
Fig. 33. “15 Ton Truck Mallee Roots, c.1930.” Roots of the Eucalyptus dumosa, known as the Mallee tree: a small Eucalypt with a dense lignotuber, allowing it to survive fire and making it notoriously difficult to clear. Source: State Library of Victoria, Victorian Railways Collection, H92.301/243.
Fig. 34. A Type AL harvester manufactured by the Sunshine Harvester Works on display at the Wheatlands Agricultural Machinery Museum in Warracknabeal.
Fig. 35. The Sunprong Pasture Renovator, manufactured at the Sunshine Harvester Works in c.1935. Doses of superphosphate are dropped onto the ground before the rotating prongs turn over the topsoil, mixing in the fertilizer.
Equipment from the early period of the Mallee’s transformation is exhibited at the Wheatlands Agricultural Machinery Museum on the outskirts of town. Among grain cleaners, seed picklers, harvesters, harrowers, and winnowers from Britain, Canada, and Germany, by far the most impressive machinery on display stems from the Victorian Sunshine Harvester Works. To provide farming machinery to the burgeoning Wimmera district, as well as South Africa and Argentina, a large industrial facility emerged on the outskirts of narrm/Melbourne in the late nineteenth century, forming an entire suburb still today known as Sunshine.21 The recognizable red and yellow paint schemes applied at the Sunshine factory formed part of the company’s marketing strategy, which extended to the model names assigned to each implement. The Mallee Rake, for example, boasted spring-loaded steel teeth that could withstand “the severest strain… If the land is covered thickly with Mallee, it will rake it up quite as easily as if sparsely laid. Nothing left behind.”22 Horse-powered Sun Grain Drills deposited pickled seed in furrows at the correct depth along with a small dose of superphosphate. The Sunprong Pasture Renovator aerated the field with rotating steel prongs while mixing in an adjustable quantity of super prior to planting. Understood as technologies of improvement deployed at the coalface of colonial dispossession and ecological destruction, the bright colors and optimistic marketing produce a jarring effect.
It should be stressed that the chemical transformation of Australia’s soils through the routine application of increasingly potent fertilizers did not, in fact, erase Country. As explained by the late Big Bill Neidjie, a Bunitj man and Gagudju speaker from the Kakadu area of the Northern Territory, Country is omnipresent, inextinguishable and abiding:
Our story is in the land […] it is written in those sacred places. My children will look after those places, that’s the law. Dreaming place […] you can’t change it no matter who you are. No matter you rich man, no matter you King. You can’t change it […] Rock stays, earth stays. I die and put my bones in cave or earth. Soon my bones become earth […] all the same. My spirit has gone back to my Country.24
While they did not displace Country, fertilizers nevertheless enabled the physical transformation of the Australian landscape—into “wilderness,” to paraphrase Daly Pulkara—in pursuit of imported agricultural systems and attendant ideas of political order and sovereignty. Aileen Moreton-Robinson, a scholar and Goenpul woman of the Quandamooka people in Queensland, argues that the legal regimes of the colonizing state place “Indigenous people in a state of homelessness because our ontological relationship to the land, which is the way we hold title, is incommensurable with [the state’s] own exclusive claims of sovereignty.”24 These claims emerged from the imbrication of the law, the atomization of the land as property, and the material practices of improvement to which it was subjected over time. In other words, colonial sovereignty is processual and material as much as it is a historical product of the legal imagination—material in the sense that it takes place and is enacted in discrete ways, and perhaps especially through the extraction of value from and transformation of the soil.
Fig. 36. Cuming Smith & Co.’s Yarraville works in c.1906. Source: “Catalogue of Manures,” 1906–7, Cuming Smith and Company Limited Collection, University of Melbourne Archives, 126.96.36.199.
Fig. 37. Plaque in Yarraville outlining the history of Cuming Smith & Co., from its establishment in 1870 until operations ceased in 2000. The timber attached to the concrete plinth was reclaimed from one of the former factory buildings. The site is now part of a major new infrastructure project.
Fig. 38. Dee Cottage (c.1880), the former residence of James Cuming, founder of Cuming Smith & Co.
In narrm/Melbourne, I spend time organizing my thoughts after many days of driving on my own. I visit Sunshine but find no real trace of the former factory. I drive to Yarraville, which adjoins the Port of Melbourne, seeking an industrial heritage trail I had read about online. I was eager to see one site on the trail in particular: the former factory of Victoria’s most influential superphosphate manufacturer, Cuming Smith & Co. From the 1870s on, the company imported hundreds of thousands of tons of guano and rock phosphate into the colony, blending them with acids, sulphates, and nitrate of ammonia to offer a diverse range of chemical fertilizers. Its awkward—albeit direct—slogan reappears on the catalogues for its Sickle Brand of manures, which I access the following day at the University of Melbourne archives: “BEFORE USING ‘SICKLE’ MANURES: HARD WORK, NO CROPS. BUT AFTER USING, SPLENDID CROPS, NO WORK, AND THE BANKING ACCOUNT GREW LARGER AND LARGER.”26 In addition to manufacturing superphosphate, Cuming Smith & Co. also conducted its own experiments into topdressing ratios, sponsored a state school propaganda program, organised pasture and crop yield competitions, and was instrumental in the formation of an industrial cartel, the Victorian Fertiliser Association, in 1907. Perhaps attuned to the veneration I had encountered in the heritage interpretation at Tocal, or maybe because I had already read the 200-page report commissioned to inform its contents, I was surprised by the meagre plaque I eventually located at the former factory site. Affixed to a bland polygonal concrete plinth, the plaque disappeared into the overgrown road siding; almost invisible unless—even if—you knew what you were looking for. Further along the road I came across Dee Cottage: the boarded-up former residence of Cuming Smith & Co.’s manager—a building, much like the plaque, seemingly resigned to its untimely demise as foreshadowed by the sprawling construction site that already surrounds it.
Fig. 39. “A Grain of Wheat.” Microscopic view of the main source of wealth in the Wimmera—wheat—painted on a display board at the Wheatlands Agricultural Machinery Museum in Warracknabeal.
Chemification—its historical geography, effects, residues—is shot through with invisibilities at different registers, a point reiterated here at Yarraville in the diminishing presence of some of its most legible sites and buildings. The type of thinking to which architectural historiography is accustomed (object-oriented, preoccupied with intention and authorship) struggles to accommodate the material movements and displacements inherent in this history. But as the past month of travel has made plain, chemification is also fundamentally a spatial process; a kind of triple displacement in which the transformation of land through the routine application of synthetic fertilizer drew on material and labor elsewhere, which in turn displaced both people and nature in service of the colonial project. This is what the sociologists Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster refer to as the “environmental overdraft,” imperialistically drawing on natural resources to fuel “the social metabolic order of capitalism.”26 Intervening in the biogeochemical cycle in this sense involved a telescoping of space across scales, connecting geological material excavated from the Pacific and Indian Oceans to chemical processes controlled in urban factories in the metropole, to yet more chemical processes in the soils of the Tasman world, producing diverse profits along the way. Buildings, equipment, and infrastructure appear at every turn and with varying degrees of causality—the disaggregated relics of an otherwise largely subterranean and invisible history. It is to its European dimensions that I turn in my upcoming travels.
1 Marion W. Dixon, “Chemical fertilizer in transformations in world agriculture and the state system, 1870 to interwar period,” Journal of Agrarian Change 18 (2018), 783.
2 James Grant, “Journal of Exploration of Hunter’s River, 1801,” in Historical Records of Australia, vol. 3, ed. Frederick Watson (Sydney: Government Printer, 1915), 407.
3 Peter Cunningham, Two Years in New South Wales (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1966 ), 77.
4 James Atkinson, An Account of the State of Agriculture and Grazing in New South Wales (London: J. Cross, 1826), 31–32.
5 Atkinson, An Account of the State of Agriculture, 32.
6 David Ricardo, “On Rent,” in On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (London: John Murray, 1817), 65–66.
7 Stephen J. Gale, “Making the European Landscape: Early Contact Environmental Impact in Australia 2003,” conference paper, Geographic Society of New South Wales, 2003, 8.
8 Gale, “Making the European Landscape,” 8.
9 Deborah Bird-Rose, Reports from A Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2004), 4.
10 M. A. Clements, “Frank Tate and the Politics of Agricultural Education in Victoria, 1895–1905,” in Melbourne Studies in Education 1977, ed. Stephen Murray-Smith (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1977), 192.
11 “Visit to Dookie Experimental Farm, Cashel, Victoria,” South Australian Register, 10 November 1888, 6.
12 “Agricultural Colleges,” The Horsham Times, 11 November 1884, 2.
13 “Table Showing Result of Experiments Conducted at Government Experimental Farm, 1879,” University of Melbourne, Dookie Historical Collection, LJ20.
14 Jane Hutton, Reciprocal Landscapes: Stories of Material Movements (New York: Routledge, 2020), 28.
15 Jasper Ludewig, “‘Lonely Dots’: John Thomas Arundel and the Architecture of Greater British Enterprise in the Pacific,” Fabrications 32, no. 1 (2022): 340–67.
16 “Visit to Dookie Experimental Farm, Cashel, Victoria,” 6.
17 Derek Byerlee, “The Super State: The Political Economy of Phosphate Fertilizer Use in South Australia, 1880–1940,” Jahrbuch für Wirtschaftsgeschichte/Economic History Yearbook 62, no. 1 (2021), 108.
18 Byerlee, “The Super State,” 100.
19 J. Edward Robertson, Prosperous and Progressive Warracknabeal, Victoria’s Greatest Wheat-Growing District, Present and Future (Melbourne: Wilke, Mitchell & Co., 1910).
20 Robertson, Prosperous and Progressive Warracknabeal.
21 Ken Arnold, ed., Sunshine Harvester Works. H. V. McKay: An Agricultural Icon (Bendigo, Vic.: Crown Castleton Publishers, 2005), 8
22 Arnold, Sunshine Harvester Works, 12.
23 Quoted in Aileen Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty (Minneapolis, Min.: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 3.
24 Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive, 16.
25 Cuming Smith & Coy Propy Ltd., Sickle Brand Manures, Winners of All First Prizes in Australasia since 1873, Catalogue of manures, 1905–6, Records of Cuming Smith & Company Limited, University of Melbourne Archives, 15.1.4.
26 Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “Ecological Imperialism and the Global Metabolic Rift: Unequal Exchange and the Guano/Nitrates Trade,” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 50, no. 3–4 (2009): 311–34.
Annie Schentag is a 2023 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.
The streets of El Alto, Bolivia, are a delight of pure chaos—a refreshing sense of confusion that contrasts to many South American cities with their well-ordered streets and colonial squares. As the highest major city in the world (over 13,500 feet above sea level), it presents a series of unique challenges that left me short of breath.
El Alto is essentially the Aymara capital of the Andes. The city is both strongly Indigenous and deeply connected to international economies. During the mid-to-late twentieth century, many Indigenous communities were displaced from the Bolivian countryside due to a series of political, economic, and environmental forces. Aymara populations, in particular, settled in El Alto, which was previously an informal settlement on a high plateau outside of the city of La Paz. In 1987, El Alto was officially incorporated as a city, politically apart from La Paz as its own urban entity. The city proved itself to be a formidable force in the gas conflicts of the early 2000s, demonstrating the political power that an urban Indigenous population could wield during the Evo Morales years.1 About 80 percent of the population is Aymara today, with substantial Quechua and Mestizo populations as well.
Figure 1. The Mi Teleférico cable car system leading from La Paz to El Alto. These two cities are connected by a multi-line cable car system, the longest and highest in the world.
Figure 2. View of El Alto from the teleferico transit system. A cholet stands out amongst a sea of red brick architecture.
The city is a place of high contrasts, evident in the cold air and hot sun that cast sharp shadows in many of my photos. El Alto is growing so rapidly that public infrastructure struggles to keep pace, particularly at the city’s edges where there are many unpaved roads, a lack of consistent electricity, poor access to running water, and insufficient garbage disposal. It has surpassed La Paz in population, but is connected to that city through the highly sophisticated Mi Teleférico cable car system. Below that futuristic vision of silent cable cars, most of the streets are crowded by several undefined lanes of traffic, with trufis (shared minivans) and taxis competing for space with Indigenous street vendors.
You can buy anything in El Alto for a ridiculously low price, if you negotiate in Aymara for goods made in China. This city has one of the largest informal marketplaces in Latin America. While Bolivian officials cultivate relationships with China for larger trade networks and lithium extraction, the Chinese presence is pervasive at the pedestrian level in El Alto. Business owners in El Alto learn Mandarin rather than English to better negotiate with Chinese dealers. One Aymara businessman, who made his fortune in trading Chinese fireworks, built his cholet to reflect the origins of his fortune.
Figure 3. A cholet constructed for an Aymara family who made their fortune selling Chinese fireworks in El Alto.
Figure 4. A page from the Bolivian graphic novel "El Altopia," which envisions a futuristic El Alto.2 This page includes an Aymara cholet with a strongly Chinese-influenced design, particularly in the residence at the top of the tower.
El Alto demonstrates that indigeneity can indeed be urban. Contemporary identities can be both rooted in and resistant of colonial traditions in modern Bolivia. The colorful textiles of Aymara cholitas (female Indigenous women, often entrepreneurs) coexist with the capitalist cultivation of profits by selling Chinese imports obtained in a global trade system. These foreign and Indigenous elements manifest simultaneously in the physical environment, in the way that only an urban set of contrasting forces could. As scholar Agnus McNelly has reflected, “Modernity in Latin America contains multiple, overlapping and contradictory temporalities, which coalesce into the appearance of outward-facing, globalized capitalism juxtaposed with traditional indigenous political forms and practices.”3 This is tangible in El Alto at every turn, and nowhere is it more obvious than in the city’s many cholets.
The cholet emerged as an architectural expression of urban indigeneity over the last two decades. Cholets are multi-storied buildings that are most prevalent in El Alto, but there are some examples in other parts of Bolivia as well. Typically, cholets are built by and for an Indigenous economic elite that is both locally rooted and internationally connected. The word "cholet" combines the Bolivian word "cholo" (urbanized Indigenous highlanders) with a loose reference to the glamour of a Swiss alpine chalet. Cholets are characterized by their brightly colored ornamentation inside and out, with a three-part organization visibly evident from the exterior. The elaborate ornamentation typically features many shapes and colors affiliated primarily with Aymara culture, inspired by symbols such as the chakana, or Andean cross, among others.4
Figure 5. Cholets located near a teleferico station in El Alto.
Figure 6. An early example of a cholet by architect Freddy Mamani’s work in the 6 De Marzo district in El Alto (constructed ca. 2001).
Figure 7. Cholets at an intersection in El Alto.
Cholets are easy to spot on the streets of El Alto—they are not subtle. Rather than blend in, they stand out as an expression of renewed pride in Indigenous identity and financial success. For many generations, Indigenous communities in Bolivia experienced extreme prejudice. Many children were not taught the Aymara language by their parents, for instance, as a reflection of this marginalization. Change is occurring in Bolivia, however, which is now officially known as the Plurinational State of Bolivia to recognize and incorporate 36 major Indigenous communities and languages. In La Paz, for instance, Aymara appears as an official language on public transit signs. Encouraging a new generation of urban Aymara, the cholets loudly pronounce the identity of their owners rather than hiding or diluting their culture.
Aymara traditions are part of the conception of a cholet even before the building is constructed. Like many buildings in El Alto and La Paz, to construct a cholet one must first make an offering to Pachamama (akin to Mother Earth) in order to build. This process begins with a trip to the Witches’ Market, where one consults a yatiri (spiritual leader) who assists with the offering. Offering baskets are purchased, typically with a range of sugar candy representations of the type of bounty one hopes the building will bring. Dried baby llama fetuses are typically the centerpiece of these offerings, which I was assured were the result of natural deaths. The llama is a longstanding, multifaceted symbol, as well as a reference to the power of Pachamama to “take care of all.” Because buildings are not part of the earth, these offerings secure a form of safe passage for construction and bond the man-made buildings to the natural power of the earth itself. Placed inside the foundations of the building, these offerings seek, and ideally provide, protection for the construction crew and occupants of the building once it is completed.
Figure 8. A basket of sugar symbols and dried llama fetus, typically offered to Pachamama prior to the construction of a cholet. These offerings are located inside the foundations of many buildings in El Alto and La Paz today.
Figure 9. The witches’ market in La Paz contains many stores like this one, run by Aymara yatiri who specialize in many types of offerings, potions, and traditions.
As a typology, cholets serve a mixed-use function that is rooted in financing their construction.
The ground floor typically holds a commercial storefront, the floors above hold a large event space, and the rooftop level is crowned with a large semi-freestanding residence for the building owner. They are usually designed by an architect as a complete building but are often constructed in multiple stages. Sometimes a building owner is wealthy enough to construct a cholet all at once, but more often they are built in three major stages from the ground up. Once the storefront level has earned enough money to finance the next stage, the upper floor event space is constructed. Finally, the residence is built, now that the lower floors have financed its construction.
Figure 10. A cholet under construction reveals the structural importance of columns and the interplay of brick and concrete.
Figure 11. Two cholets in El Alto. The completed Girasol cholet on the left contrasts with the cholet on the right, in which the upper floors are still under construction. In the latter, note the details in the doorway of the completed storefront, typical of many cholets that are built in multiple stages.
In both its construction and its functions once completed, a cholet attests to the financial prowess of its owner. The storefronts serve as important commercial spaces for local businesses, typically selling imported Chinese goods, bodega style snacks, or Aymara textiles. They are the most publicly accessible spaces of a cholet, so I had the privilege of visiting a few under the guise of purchasing an unnecessary toothbrush or bag of chips. Their elaborately painted ceilings do not disappoint.
Figure 12. Peeking into the storefront of a cholet designed and constructed by Freddy Mamani, ca. 2001.
The upper floor event spaces are architectural proof that Aymaras know how to party. Serving as the primary financial driver of cholets, these event spaces compete for customers by providing increasingly lavish, bright, intense rooms. Some employ different themes to brand themselves as the primary event destination of the month. Architecturally, they sure know how to commit to a theme. At least two Transformer-themed cholets exist in El Alto, for instance, where subtlety is not on the party agenda. This type of architecture is an experiment in maximalism that some have called "Bolivian Baroque," well-suited to the Aymara tradition of all-night community parties.5
Figure 13. A Transformer-themed cholet designed and constructed by Santos in El Alto.
I was able to access the event space of one particularly prominent cholet in El Alto, the Imperio del Rey building designed by Aymara architect Freddy Mamani Silvestre. Freddy Mamani, as he is widely known, has established his career as the major architect for designing cholets—a typology that he is credited with inventing. At Imperio del Rey, I can see why.
Figure 14. Exterior view of the Imperio del Rey cholet in El Alto, designed and constructed by architect Freddy Mamani.
A complex series of stepped ornamentation creates layered references to Aymara culture, painted in bright, symbolic colors inside and out. Using a set of oculi, for instance, he simultaneously references the flamingos of Oruro (where the building owners are from) on the exterior and the five eyes of the Aymara sun god, Inti, inside. Plaster-clad steel columns support a large open space for dancing and drinking, painted and adorned with bright, even psychedelic patterns and forms. Drains in the floor are a great example of an element specifically designed to suit the spaces’ function in this cultural context: every time Aymara partygoers cheers one another, a little bit of alcohol must be poured onto the floor for Pachamama.
Figure 15. Inside the main event space on the upper floors of the Imperio del Rey cholet. Note the drain on the floor is specifically designed to accommodate Aymara party traditions.
Figure 16. Detail of windows inside the Imperio del Rey cholet. This series of shapes references the face of Inti, the Aymara sun god.
Figure 17. View of ballroom space, bar, and balcony inside the Imperio del Rey cholet.
When Aymara communities moved to El Alto, they faced the challenge of adapting their customs to a different living environment. The city lacked the regular sun exposure prevalent in the countryside, which regulated not only time but also spiritual, commercial, and physical rhythms. The residences atop cholets reflect this dedication to the sun, which maximize sun exposure in their orientation, setback, large windows, and other details intended to trap heat and provide plenty of light. Pointed rooftops, pagoda-inspired gables, and numerous ornamental details distinguish the residences and their design inspiration from chalets. Architectural symbols of European financial success are merged with global capital endeavors, Indigenous spiritual references, and colonial practices into a proud Aymara display—a truly El Alto blend.
Figure 18. Detail of residence at top of the Imperio del Rey cholet in El Alto, with Mamani’s characteristic pagoda-inspired roofline.
There is so much I did not know about cholets, and so much more that I still do not know. But I do know that I want to see cholets appear in more classrooms, more articles, more conversations in American institutions. To do that, I had to learn about them differently, to somehow see a cholet with different eyes.
For some crazy reason, I tried drawing a cholet—while on a shaky bus, winding through the Andes, no less. To be more precise, I only drew a portion of a cholet, for the sake of my own sanity. I don’t quite know why I started my own journey into drawing with a cholet, of all buildings. I blame the high altitude, it goes straight to the head.
I am an architectural historian, not an architect. I draw conclusions, not buildings. I can barely draw a straight line. My students are architects and designers, but I do not design. This has been one of the biggest struggles of my teaching career thus far. I encourage them to draw, yet I do not do it well, nor often. There has been a cognitive dissonance in that.
So, with the time and distance this fellowship has granted me, I tried drawing as an exercise to see differently, not simply see different places. I tried my hand at drawing a cholet, not to create but to see, rather than merely look.
Figure 19. The author’s attempt at freehand drawing, July 2023.
The result was a humbling, yet educational, disaster. Until now, I had not quite internalized Alain de Botton’s reflection that, “Drawing brutally shows our blindness to the true appearance of things.”6 The very act of drawing can transform a building from an overall impression to a series of interconnected forms, materials, challenges, and values. After drawing a cholet, for instance, I finally saw that windows are not merely windows: they are interlocking systems of impossibly straight lines that could also serve as free spaces between complex patterns. These cholets were far more intricate than my brain would admit.
It was a deeply imperfect exercise, but that became the point. It was not about the product, but the process. It was an entirely uphill battle of detail, of not quite straight lines in asymmetrical arrangements. But my sad attempt at drawing a cholet still had massive gains for me. The level of ornamental detail on a cholet became even more impressive once I tried to draw one, poorly. I will share cholets with my students this fall semester, but I expect this post will be the only time I share my drawing. I will leave them and their much straighter lines to their own conclusions.
Like international travel, drawing reminded me just how much there always is to learn. Exploring the unknown requires an approach of determined vulnerability. Drawing helped me become a student again.
1 Shafik Meghji, “Bolivia’s Soaring City,” Geographical (May 2022), 42–49.
2 Alejandro Barrientos and Joaquin Cuevas, El Altopia (La Paz, Bolivia: Editorial El Cuervo, 2022), 8.
3 Angus Mcnelly, “Baroque Modernity in Latin America: Situating Indigeneity, Urban Indigeneity and the Popular Economy,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 41.1 (2022): 6–22.
4 Franck Poupeau, “Indigenous Cosmogony and Andean Architecture in El Alto, Bolivia,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (2020), 164–175.
5 Eric Allen, “Architect Freddy Mamani has Transformed El Alto, Bolivia, Into a Mecca of Modern Architecture,” Architectural Digest (July 25, 2018).
6 Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel (New York: Random House, 2002), 195.
Sundus Al-Bayati is the 2019 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.
I started this fellowship wanting to study cities that have experienced war, to learn which of their urban and spatial qualities today are attributed to decisions that were made during the reconstruction years by what was physically rebuilt after the war, or by policies that govern a city’s development and growth. I wanted to understand the irreversible long-term consequences of wars on place-making across different cultures by observing what kind of cities wars produce.
I began with the same question in each city I visited: what was driving the narrative of reconstruction when the war ended? Political ideology? Economic rebirth? A need to break from a difficult past? Opportunities to correct certain problems in the urban environment that were suddenly liberated from constraints of historic preservation?
Berlin was the perfect city to begin this research because not only was it destroyed during WWII by allied bombing but for 30 years it was a divided city and the ideological battleground between East and West during the Cold War. Berlin is one of the best examples to observe how architecture could be utilized to express and cement political ideologies when looking at the reconstruction of West and East Berlin side by side. It is also a city that still interrogates the assumptions behind what was rebuilt, neglected or demolished after the war and the end of Nazi Germany, always contending between coming to terms with its tainted past or moving past it. The Humboldt Forum in Berlin is a good example of how the questions and debates of post-war reconstruction can continue for decades, because what is eventually built has the power to tell its own version of history.
Figure 1. A snapshot of recent articles following the opening of the Humboldt Forum
Figure 2. My sketch illustrating the history of the site
The second guiding question for my research was: what replaced destroyed neighborhoods or buildings of historical importance when the war was over? Who had the power to decide what should be built? In Warsaw, the new communist government and the public were determined to rebuild an exact replica of the Old Town after the Germans obliterated it as they fled Poland. For the Polish people, the attack on Warsaw was akin to cultural cleansing and rebuilding a facsimile of the Old Town was a way to preserve a cherished record of Polish history notwithstanding the lack of architectural documentation that was needed to build the demolished quarter.
Figures 3–4. Warsaw’s Old Town
While the unique cultural context of each city produced a different approach to reconstruction, as I went from one place to another, I tried to observe what similarities war-torn cities in their reconstructed states share. Were there universal symptoms that plagued the post-war city that could be learned from and avoided as governments, policymakers, planners, architects, and other actors rush to rebuild cities ravaged by wars in Ukraine or the other lesser covered war-torn cities in Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan? Early on in my fellowship travel, it became apparent to me that destruction of architectural and cultural heritage by the development-driven approach of a global free-market capitalism, often led by foreign development companies, pose an equal, if not exceeding, threat than wars on the built environment. War-torn cities are especially vulnerable to this type of sweeping, large-scale urban transformations as it is one of the first viable paths towards economic recovery. In addition, the intervention of the international community bringing investment and aid to the post-war city means that decisions of what should be rebuilt are no longer rooted in the needs and desires of the local context. As I observed in Sarajevo, Istanbul, and Seoul, the result of this market-driven reconstruction is an increasing commodification of urban space that produces a standardized global aesthetic of apartment towers and shopping malls, making cities across different cultures and continents look the same.
Figure 5. BBI Centar, a shopping mall in Sarajevo, part of a privately owned development that was built after the war to replace an iconic state-owned department store, Robna kuca Sarajka, that stood on the site since 1975
Figure 6. Sarajevo City Center
Figures 7–8. View of Seoul from Inwangsan Mountain
Seoul is still trying to correct the aggressive government-controlled urban development of the first 30 years after the Korean War. Reconstruction was only a functional means to achieving economic prosperity through accelerated industrialization, and frenzied building was led by industrial conglomerates that controlled South Korea’s economy. However, when the definitions of what it means to be a global city shifted in the early 2000s to encompass cultural, environmental, and historical characteristics of a city, Seoul began to shift its attention to reviving its old palaces and historical quarters that until then were neglected and in ruins. Until today, Seoul continues to struggle to rebrand its image from the efficient industrial city of high-rise towers that was born after the war to a cultural destination. Seoul is a good example of the risks of the early decisions of reconstruction that become lodged in the urban form and almost impossible to undo the losses to the historical and cultural identity of the city.
Sarajevo’s reconstruction after the Bosnian War in 1995 is a cautionary tale of how a post-war city could be reshaped by external actors such as international aid organizations and foreign governments who, as donors, often set the priorities of reconstruction for the city. For Sarajevo, not only did these interventions ignore real needs like the importance of recovering sites of cultural significance that brought different groups of people together, but the flow of foreign capital followed along political and ethnic lines, exacerbating the divisions between Bosniaks and Serbs in Sarajevo.
A paternalistic approach to reconstruction that is disengaged from the local context is not uncommon within the context of international aid in post-conflict cities. In 2020, UNESCO, with the support of the UAE, announced a competition for the reconstruction of Al-Nouri Mosque in Mosul, in my home country of Iraq. The mosque was damaged in 2017 by ISIS. The winning entry by an Egyptian team caused an outcry from Iraqi architects and residents of Mosul who saw the design architecturally divorced from the vernacular of Mosul and closely resembling in materiality and language the architecture of the UAE, who is funding the project. The alien design is currently under construction despite the controversy and pleading from renowned Iraqi architects like Ihsan Fethi.
Figures 9–10. A ruined Al-Nouri Mosque in Mosul (Image from archdaily.com)
Figure 11. The winning competition entry to reconstruct Al-Nouri Mosque (Image from https://news.un.org)
When I came across the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship, I had for a long time this research idea to explore how the numerous wars in Iraq shaped my hometown of Baghdad, including the 2003 war, which I grew up under. It was a topic that I began exploring in some of my research papers in undergraduate and graduate school but couldn’t find a place for within my academic and professional career. I found that when the issue of war and architecture are explored, it is often within the framework of immediate emergency response such as the design of temporary and modular housing to mitigate a refugee crisis. But as someone who had a lived experience of war and who had seen the destruction of my hometown, I understood that rebuilding in such contexts encompassed more abstract notions that related to people’s sense of place and history, considerations that went beyond mere survival. So when I discovered the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship, my research fell into place: in order to begin to understand how to rebuild a city, like Baghdad, that had lost so much of its architectural heritage, I had to look elsewhere, at other cities that have been destroyed and rebuilt to learn what their stories of reconstruction could teach us about the challenges and risks in designing for post-war societies.
The most valuable gift of this fellowship was that of time: time spent reading about each city I visited; time spent walking, sketching, writing, and thinking. Even time spent processing some of my own experience of war in relation to the history of wars and conflicts I was studying. Spending a month on average in each city allowed me to observe not only what was destroyed and rebuilt but the quality of the urban experience in terms of access to public transport, walkability, public space, parks, and cultural experiences. This had added a valuable dimension to my research that I had not anticipated. The transformative last year and a half of travel and exploration showed me that research alone is not enough to understand and conclude what a building or a city is like. I am very grateful to the Society of Architectural Historians for granting me the opportunity to launch this research project, which will continue to be part of my future work beyond this fellowship.
Drawing Connections, a sketchbook-led walking tour of the French Quarter of New Orleans funded by an American Architecture and Landscape Field Trip grant from the Society of Architectural Historians, has been created and is now a regular offering of the Friends of the Cabildo (FOC) and Louisiana State Museum (LSM). In total, Drawing Connections has reached 574 students between 3rd grade and college. While the reporting period for the grant may be at a close, this program will continue for years to come; currently there are 228 students from four schools registered for Drawing Connections in July and August of 2023.
The planning and preparations needed for Drawing Connections guided walking tours consisted of the creation of the guided sketchbook and the training of volunteer tour guides. The sketchbook began in January 2022 with Barbara Holdsworth (FOC) and Chris Cook (LSM) preparing the first rough draft. Consulting architects Sandra Baptie and Charles Ruello first reviewed the sketchbook in February 2022. Both Sandra and Charles also contributed drawings to the sketchbook; Sandra for the Creole Cottage and Shotgun pages, Charles for the Historic Preservation pages. In addition, an early draft of the sketchbook was reviewed and critiqued by architect and Friends of the Cabildo board president Robert Cangelosi, Jr. After edits, the sketchbook rough draft was sent to the graphic designer. Barbara Holdsworth and Chris Cook each contributed over 30 hours to this project, including 14 hours of meetings and 5 hours of trainings.
While work on the sketchbook was ongoing, Barbara Holdsworth and Chris Cook began recruitment efforts for the volunteer tour guides. Using the pool of volunteers available through the Friends of the Cabildo, two potential guides were recruited to help develop the walking tour.
Friends of the Cabildo walking tour guide program graduates Roger Nadeau and Carrie Smith worked with Chris Cook on the timing and number of stops for the walking portion. We piloted this tour in partnership with Historic BK House and Gardens' arKIDtecture Crunp. In three 2.5-hour sessions in June 2022, Roger and Carrie led a total of 36 kids ranging in age from 8 to 13 on the Drawing Connections tour. Despite the heat of New Orleans in June, we were able to adjust the timing as well as devise strategies for weather-driven adaptations. Feedback from the arKIDtecture educators was incorporated into the final draft of the sketchbook. In the fall of 2022, we experimented with college students on this tour, giving it to a total of 62 students from Louisiana State University and Texas A&M University.
In February, 2023, Chris Cook and Barbara Holdsworth organized a tour guide training session led by Carrie Smith and Sandy Baptie. Seventeen guides completed the training and remain available to lead this tour.
Between December, 2022, and May, 2023, we were able to serve 476 students between 3rd and 12th grade.
Drawing Connections was advertised by mentions in the Louisiana State Museum's educators' newsletter as well as the Friends of the Cabildo's newsletter. Direct outreach efforts included hand-delivery of program flyers to area schools and participation in the April 2023 New Orleans Public School Resource Fair. Chris Cook presented on Drawing Connections at the Louisiana Department of Education's Teacher Leader Summit in New Orleans on May 31, 2023; 168 teachers were registered to attend Chris' session and all received sketchbooks.
As mentioned above, Drawing Connections is now a regular offering of the Louisiana State Museum and Friends of the Cabildo, and as bookings continue to come in for 2023, we wish to sincerely thank the Society of Architectural Historians for the funding to create and launch this program.
Destiny Kirumira is a PhD student in the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture at McGill University. She lives in Montreal, and has been a member of SAH since 2021.
Can you tell us about your career path?
After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and Physics from the University of Alberta in 2018, I completed my Master of Architecture at the University of Calgary in 2021. I am currently completing my Ph.D. in Architecture at McGill University, which centers on the architecture of Black settlements in western Canada. My research attempts to reconcile the roots of racism which have limited research on the contributions of Black people in the field. Since being at McGill, I have been awarded the Inaugural Indigenous and Black Engineering and Technology Ph.D. Project (IBET) award, which has opened up doors to so many amazing opportunities and connections. Since then, I have had the pleasure of meeting a plethora of other Black scholars within and surrounding our field who have supported my academic journey greatly.
Now that I have completed my comprehensive examination, I will be focusing on visiting archives and conducting fieldwork. I want to give this research as much attention as possible and have tried not to overwhelm this time with too many additional projects. That being said, I will also be contributing a chapter to an upcoming book project on racism in universities and the impact of race on the design of university campuses. We are still in the early stages of the project, but I am looking forward to learning more about this topic and working with other incredible scholars on addressing these issues.
Do you have a particular memory of when you first became aware of the significance of architecture or when you knew you wanted to study it?
My upbringing taught me about the significance of architecture and the role it can play in people’s lives. I was born in Germany to Ugandan parents who both valued education. Growing up my parents made an effort to surround our family with people from as many walks of life as possible with different ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. This meant I saw some of the most dire and affluent living conditions during my younger years, and it framed how I saw space and the possibility of architecture’s inert power. By the time I was ten, I had seen more than a dozen spatial organizations of apartment living rooms, several ways of decorating that reflected people’s heritage, and the way religion can shape or alter the way we see even the most ordinary of spaces.
My awe for design and architecture only grew when I was fortunate enough to have a close family friend of mine be an architect whose work I greatly admired. Her modern church designs in a German landscape that was draped in Gothic cathedrals inspired me and left me wanting more. It was then that knew I wanted to study architecture and I have not changed my mind yet.
What is your biggest professional challenge?
Throughout my career, my biggest professional challenge has been the devaluation of lived experience and how it has been weaponized against me in an effort to underestimate my expertise. Professors and fellow colleagues have in the day-to-day discussion surrounding my research focus diminished or dismissed the insights that lie in my Black lived experience, and yet praised scholars who relied on the very same wealth of knowledge for their work. The field is still slow to recognize other forms of knowledge, and it has held us back until recently.
When and how did you become involved with SAH?
I became involved with the SAH at the beginning of my PhD, in the fall of 2021. My supervisor, Dr. Ipek Türeli, was the Chair of the Minority Scholars Affiliate Group and offered me the position of technical assistant to the affiliate group. Since then, I have been a member of the SAH and have just attended my first SAH conference this past spring.
Can you tell us about your work with the SAH Minority Scholars Affiliate Group?
As a technical assistant, I had the opportunity to see behind the curtain and learn what it means to run and organize an affiliate group at the SAH. Beyond running the communications of the affiliate, which included our newsletter, I also organized opportunities for our members to connect with each other through events hosted throughout the academic year. Our newsletters allowed me to see and curate the many new opportunities that were being created both inside and outside the SAH for our members. My position also allowed me an inside look at how governance works in the SAH and received advice from senior minority scholars on how to navigate the academic world. Though I have stepped down from the role to focus on my doctoral studies, I hope to continue supporting the affiliate group and all of its endeavours in the future.
SAH needs a cultural shift beyond the inclusion or uplifting of its minority or marginalized members. I think many organizations over the past three years have implemented some structural maneuvers to try to balance the scales. The efficacy of these actions is still under review, and many would argue that they are simply not enough, and they would be right. But perhaps worse yet, is the urgent need for white folks to see the benefit of those who were or are sidelined, and not given opportunities finally having access to reaching their own potential. If this mental shift does not occur, then it will only be a matter of time until we revert to the decades of injustice we had before. Empathy, no matter how radical it is, is not enough. We must see the success of others to be our success. And for many marginalized groups, that has not been the case which means trust needs to be rebuilt.
This may seem as though I am trying to evade the question, but I think the advice I would give would greatly depend on the person who is seeking advice and the extent to which I know them. Moreover, all I can really provide them is largely based on what I have experienced, and perhaps to some extent, the advice others who have similar experiences as mine, would have advised.
The only advice I can impart is to protect at all costs the very idealistic, impassioned, and perhaps even naïve reason you entered the field in the first place. Above all else, this must be your prized possession, to fuel what it is that excited you about the material and architectural landscape we live in. I know of many "would-have-been-architects" who have made the decision to move to the study of buildings instead of the designing of them: a decision, I cannot say I have fully succumbed to quite yet. Most of them often cite an inability to draw, a disinterest in the design process itself, or a mere fascination with a building or site's historical background as the reasons they don’t regret this decision. But in the midst of securing teaching positions, publishing, securing funding, and somehow finding the energy to be a person, I find they can seldom remember the very reason their topic or building type captivated them in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, it is a human response to an atmosphere that often breeds burnout and demands hyper-productivity, but a younger version of each of us would be astounded by all we have learned and understood about the buildings that predate us and surround us. So, I would advise anyone who wants to enter your field to have a good reason to do so. And hold onto that feeling of wonder and excitement, because it can be fleeting.
Throughout my studies, I have been approached by many other Black women who either said they thought about doing architecture or studying buildings, but immediately felt inadequate or intimidated by the still largely white and male-dominated field. The inclusivity of marginalized populations into the academic sphere in our field has been a slow one, but one certainly worth the while. It’ll take some time for a Black woman like me to not be the only Black woman in my classes but by then I’ll be done with my PhD. But to the Black women I have encountered both preceding me in my studies and those who have yet to consider it, I would advise you to congratulate your achievements daily. If you have felt the sting of isolation, disdain for our "not white enough" topics or lack of support both in and outside our faculties, you’ll understand how there is a need to celebrate our steadfastness. Our big successes and triumph have only lately received more notoriety, but the daily tenacity needed to imagine yourself in a place you are not welcome and make that a reality, deserves our highest respect. We are due awards and accolades we may not receive or have yet to but let us celebrate all we have survived in the meanwhile.
And if somewhere you come across a young Black woman who is thinking about entering our field, tell her immediately that she belongs here. Sometimes we all need a little help imagining ourselves where we are yet to be.
SAH members engage with the history of the built environment through a broad array of specializations, professional fields, and areas of interest. Member Stories is a regular feature that recognizes the expertise and unique experiences of our members.
Colombian cities can turn trash into treasure. I mean that literally—some of the most inspiring architecture I experienced in Colombia was built on former garbage dumps. In Medellín and Bogotá, major government initiatives have transformed landfills into libraries. Crime zones have become community centers. The least loved places have become the most central to the nation’s urban regeneration. In terms of urban design and public policies, the United States has a lot to learn from this nation. I spent almost a month in Colombia, absorbing every lesson like a sponge that I am still wringing out.
Bogotá’s public libraries inspire grandiose dreams of writing novels on rainy days. There is something moody and intellectual about the city overall, full of turtlenecks and coffee shops and charming fireplace-heated nooks in which to read and write. The libraries scattered across the city manifest this atmosphere in concrete, brick, and wood, each interpreting it in their own way. In an ideal life, I’d spend each week writing from a different library in Bogotá. There are over a dozen of them, constructed across disparate parts of the city as major public spaces.
Intended to serve as community anchors, these libraries not only hold books but also host events, provide free classes, and serve as distribution centers for major public services. Most of these libraries were constructed in the last 10–50 years, and many of them are located in neighborhoods that once had little else to boast about. All of them are architect-designed wonders that feature different utopic visions of literacy as the path towards community and connectivity.
Figure 1. The main reading room at the Virgilio Barco Library in Bogotá.
The Virgilio Barco Library is perhaps one of the better-known examples of Rogelio Salmona’s work in Bogotá. Constructed in 2001 as part of the three mega-library projects across Bogotá, this library is a major destination today, visited by about 60,000 people per month.1 The site posed several challenges to the architect, one of the biggest names in contemporary Colombian architecture. The large triangular site was located on a former dump for construction materials. Rather than constructing a more obvious triangular-shaped building, Salmona designed the library as a snail-shaped edifice in harmonious dialogue with a large, landscaped park. Its plan and orientation require a rambling pace, winding through ramps and promenades inside and out.
Figure 2. Exterior entrance to the Virgilio Barco Library.
Figure 3. A series of stepped water features leads to the main entrance of the Virgilio Barco Library.
Entrance to the Virgilio Barco Library occurs through a series of modern lintels that provides a sense of compression and release, following a pathway of water features that connects to moat-like elements throughout the park. Inside, spirals unfold in graceful curvature. Salmona’s characteristic attention to detail shines through in materials, evident in his own design for a specific wood grain reference in pre-cast concrete and hand-selected glazed bricks in elegant patterns. In addition to the main reading rooms, the three-story building includes an open-air auditorium, multi-purpose gathering spaces, a cafeteria, shops, and exhibition space. At every turn, large pane glass windows frame thoughtfully curated views of the park outside.
Figure 4. A scale model of the Virgilio Barco Library.
Figure 5. Brick, concrete, and wood details grace one of the stairways inside the Virgilio Barco Library.
Figure 6. The Virgilio Barco Library is designed to frame views that connect the inside to the park outside.
Across the city of Bogotá to the southwest, the El Tintal Public Library is a study in diffused lighting and urban rejuvenation. Located—you guessed it—on a former garbage dump, the building was designed to reference its prior use in both topography and design. Designed by architect Daniel Bermudez Samper in 2001, the library was formed from a partial reuse of an abandoned two-story concrete waste management plant on the site. The upper floor is approached directly from the outside via a reused slope formerly used for truck entrances, now absorbed into a large public park surrounding the building.
Figure 7. Exterior view of El Tintal Public Library in Bogotá. A public services fair occurred that day under the tent.
Figure 8. Raised entrance on former truck approach to the El Tintal Public Library.
Figure 9. Second floor lobby accessed from former truck entrance.
In the main reading room, a sequence of lateral lightwells serve both an aesthetic and practical function. The apparent simplicity of these lightwells, which look almost like garbage exhaust ventilation on the exterior, is remarkable. They diffuse the lighting to protect the books inside, but also transform concrete walls into a visual attraction itself. They serve as a graceful reminder that design can transform some of the least-valued places into successful public spaces.
Figure 10. Spiral stair in El Tintal Public Library.
Figure 11. View of reading room with concrete wall skylights visible to the left.
In Medellín, the Moravian Cultural Center hosts a constant array of after-school programs, social events, classes, and recreational facilities. Designed by Rogelio Salmona from 2004 to 2007, the building exhibits his signature use of red brick in a series of asymmetrical curves and angles. Situated atop a former landfill hill alongside a small creek, the building responds to the context of its urban environment rather than dominating it. This building has transformed a former garbage dump into an active hub, providing well-used public space that intentionally keeps at-risk youth away from drug activity by connecting them to one another instead.
Figure 12. The Moravian Cultural Center in Medellín.
Figure 13. View of the Moravian Cultural Center in the context of its site, on a former garbage dump next to a creek.
It was impossible to get a "clean" picture of this building, without people in it—and that’s the point of its design. I could not participate in more traditional forms of architectural photography that typically separate the building from the people using it. Instead, the daily crowds of people surrounding the building demonstrate its success. This building is used in many ways and at many times of day by many people. It is the opposite of a landfill. It cultivates community.
This community center is also just blocks away from the Jardín Botánico, a stunning, free public botanic garden that provides a strong dose of nature within the density of the city. It is connected to the working-class Moravia neighborhood by bike lanes busy with teenagers riding free public bikes to connect to the metro, the planetarium, a science museum, and several major public squares. On a Friday afternoon, each of these places were filled with local residents of all ages- walking, biking, eating, talking, playing music, doing whatever people do on a Friday afternoon. This neighborhood was alive, vivid, lived-in like a familiar shoe.
Figure 14. The Orquideorama at the Jardín Botánico in Medellín.
Figure 15. Public space at the Parque de Deseos in Medellín.
The designs for these buildings and spaces are gorgeous, but what is even more incredible to me is that people use these spaces, daily. In urban design, that often seems to be the biggest challenge, the x-factor that we can’t quite figure out. How do we attract people to public spaces and make sure they will adopt these places as their own? Medellín has figured out that magic formula.
Public architecture, public spaces, public transportation, and public programming—this has been a major series of interconnected investments aimed to improve quality of life for Colombian residents. Basic human rights and quality of life are clear priorities in the nation’s policies and practices, ranging from affordable housing to public health to socially inclusive legislation. The nation has installed its own fiber-optic network cables to provide free internet access in all public spaces and increased transportation networks to serve the poorest communities.
Figure 16. Colombia’s approach to high design for the common good is evident in examples such as Rogelio Salmona’s Torres del Parque (1968–1970), a public housing tower with elegant, shared spaces and individual balconies in Bogotá.
Colombia is not a silenced state. Both authorities and residents have acknowledged the negative, persistent realities that the country faces as a method of collective improvement. The nation faces the challenge of overcoming a reputation that is no longer a reality in most places. Visiting Colombia, you will not encounter the land of that shall-not-be-named Netflix show and the shall-not-be-named infamous drug lord. His name is so controversial in Medellín, actually, that some tour guides will not say it aloud. Colombian residents do not hide that reality, but they seem more interested in moving forward.
Frankly, I am not interested in discussing Colombia in relation to its violent drug-fueled history. Most people I met were not particularly interested in discussing it either. They acknowledge it as an unfortunate fact, as a frustrating era of unfathomably complex opinions and losses. People do not pretend it never happened. They incorporate it as one major aspect of a far more complex, diverse, and rich national identity. There is so much Colombia to discuss, outside of drugs. They are working hard to change that conversation, and I am happy to follow their lead.
Even as an outsider, a week in Bogotá provided a quick, introductory level education to the major issues faced in the city right now: debates over oil production, legalizing marijuana sales, displaced residents and refugees, sexuality inclusive policies, and femicide. Organized demonstrations occur regularly and generally peacefully in the nation’s capital, typically in major public squares and in front of government buildings. Artful signage with compelling language hangs on official police barricades right in front of military buildings, officially embraced as a form of dialogue for everyone to see even if it is explicitly criticizing the military or government.
Figure 17. The Plaza de Bolivar is a major public space for demonstrations and celebrations in Bogotá.
I learned all of this mostly by simply walking around, being in the city. By viewing visual, performative, and political dialogue, the city makes it easy to learn the discussions at hand and the stakes involved. It is a place in conversation, with each other and with officials and with the city itself. Public spaces such as Plaza de Bolivar serve so many key functions, especially in hosting demonstrations, debates, and celebrations. The nation’s capital does not hide its challenges but instead takes pride in the ability to work them out collectively and publicly. Despite, even because of, all of these challenges and problems, the overwhelming attitude seems to be a sense of pride in urban regeneration. There is a lot to be proud of.
The Medellín neighborhood of Comuna 13 is an often-cited example of the city’s urban regeneration practices. This community was originally an informal settlement that experienced some of the worst violence during the 1990s and 2000s, but today it is a major destination for learning about Medellín’s transformation.
Figure 18. Comuna 13 is a neighborhood located on steep hills at the edge of Medellín.
Figure 19. Public pathways in Comuna 13, with the central city in the distant valley.
The area’s steep hills and location at the west edge of the city made it a key point for controlling shipment networks. As a result, Comuna 13 was essentially under control of cartels for many years. The area was also physically disconnected from the civic resources in the center city of Medellín, requiring a steep climb along narrow, disconnected paths of stairs for nearly an hour in order to reach major hospitals, schools, and places of employment. Even once Escobar was killed in 1993, Comuna 13 continued to suffer from the lack of basic public resources.
The installation of the cable car system in 2004 and a series of escalators in 2011 proved to be major turning points for Comuna 13. The escalators reduced a difficult climb to a pleasant five-minute ride. Connected by a series of landings, these long escalators provided a free ride up and down the steep hills, covered to protect riders from sun and rain. At the bottom of the hill, one could leave Comuna 13 and ride the cable car into the city, where it connects to the metro to access any major part of Medellín—and along with it, hospitals, schools, markets, and other essential services.
Figure 20. Entrance to one of the public escalators in Comuna 13.
Figure 21. Artwork adorns many surfaces in Comuna 13, with shops accessed by long sets of stairs alongside the escalators.
The city did not build expensive new schools or hospitals in Comuna 13, it instead invested in connecting this community to other communities as a first step. It is a mind-blowing example that provides a major lesson: public transportation can be one of the most effective ways to address and ameliorate poverty, violence, and injustice. In 1991, Comuna 13 was the "murder capital of the world." Thirty years later, it is a major tourist destination on the rise.
I had the privilege of visiting Comuna 13 five years ago in 2018, when only two tours were offered. Visiting again in June 2023, it is clear this community has become a tourist hotspot for many types of national and international visitors. Now there are dozens of tours, a whole street of vendors, Comuna 13 branded t-shirts and hats designed by local artists, and even nightlife that occurs in select locations after dark. The area has clearly embraced tourism as part of its economic regeneration.
Figure 22. View of street at entrance to Comuna 13 in 2018.
Figure 23. Tourists watch a breakdancing demonstration on the same street in 2023.
The ongoing story of Comuna 13 is presented on tours as one of resilience and regeneration, not solely of victimized suffering. Many of these tours are led by former gang members, who established their own tour companies and obtained funding partially as a result of the 2016 peace deal. Just to be clear: that means that the Colombian government funds the telling of these stories and does not control the way they are told. Instead, it provides employment that simultaneously strengthens the local economy and empowers residents to transform and translate their own history.
Bullet holes still dot the sides of buildings in Comuna 13, but they are incorporated into official public murals. Rather than gang-related graffiti, the public art of Comuna 13 is celebrated worldwide. Major competitions occur in order to paint in Comuna 13, with famous names like Chota13 and YesGraff represented alongside those of local residents. These pieces are a major form of storytelling, which attract many tourists on art-specific tours. They are also places of play, expression, and narrative exploration for residents, a part of daily life as it continues to unfold.
Figure 24. A glimpse of daily life in Medellín’s Comuna 13.
Public transportation is a major point of pride in Medellín and Bogotá, and I can see why. They are the cleanest, most efficient, and most affordable systems I have ever experienced. Celebrated as best practices of public transportation worldwide, these systems prioritize the daily needs of the communities they serve. It is a form of urban activism in Colombian cities, installed and used as a means to connect assistance to those who need it most.
The Metro and Tranvia cable car system in Medellín was first constructed in the mid 1990s and expanded in the early 2000s, during a time when the city was experiencing major violence and unrest in the midst of drug trade conflicts. Today it serves the city of about 2.5 million people, connecting the informal settlements on the Andean foothills with the many central neighborhoods in the Aburra Valley for the cost of about 75 cents (USD) per ride.
Figure 25. Typical station on the Medellín Metro system.
Figure 26. The cable car system in Medellín.
In Bogotá, the Transmillenio was first constructed in 2000 and expanded again in 2006, the second system of its kind in the world after Curitiba, Brazil. Essentially operating as a metro in disguise, this Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system has large buses occupy their own lanes with designated stops around the city and into the tall peaks of the Andes for about .70 cents (USD) per ride. Many urban studies have already praised Medellín and Bogotá’s systems for their quick construction, environmentally sensitive technology, effective routes, and socioeconomic impacts.2
Figure 27. The Transmilenio BRT system in Bogotá features separate lanes designated for buses, with specific stations at the center of the street such as this one.
Figure 28. Every Sunday in Bogotá, over 10 miles of streets are closed to vehicular traffic for the Ciclovia for 7 hours. This biking- and pedestrian-centered event has been so successful that it occurs every Sunday in other Colombian cities as well.
What often gets lost in these discussions, however, is the sheer joy of riding these networks. In their routes and signage, they encourage safe and friendly human connections. In Medellín, a voice recording on the overhead speaker periodically reminds everyone to inhale and exhale amidst announcements. Small signs dot the trains, stating "calidad de vida" (quality of life) as a reminder of the motivations behind the Metro.
Commissioned artwork adorns major stations, but the trains remain squeaky clean inside and out. I did not witness a single piece of litter in any train, bus, or station in Colombia. I did not witness nor experience any interactions that were anything less than cordial—no violence, no pickpocketing, no harassment. I felt safe in Colombia, which seemed as important to locals as it did to me. I felt safe because the nation works hard to create a sense of perceived safety and takes great pride in that safety. No one will mess with the Medellín Metro. It is a known and celebrated asset, and it is often the safest place to be.
On Medellín’s Metro and Bogotá’s Transmillenio, I witnessed and experienced numerous acts of kindness that might seem extraordinary in other places. Strangers of disparate socioeconomic backgrounds sharing kind words, sharing seats, sharing food. Just a typical commute that provides the "calidad de vida" that Colombia has earned the hard way and now revels in, every day. It embraces a romance of mundanity that can feel like a privilege after it has not felt like a right for so long. In short, riding public transportation in Medellín and Bogotá felt like a microcosm of how living in cities should feel and can be, at its best.
1 Laura Saenz, “Architecture Classics: Virgilio Barco Library,” Arch Daily (May 17, 2023). Accessed July 2, 2023 at https://www.archdaily.com/1000228/architecture-classics-virgilio-barco-library-rogelio-salmona
2 There are at least dozens of studies by accomplished and emerging scholars on these transit systems. Perhaps the one that has influenced me the most (about Bogota in general) is: Berney, Rachel. Learning from Bogotá: Pedagogical Urbanism and the Reshaping of Public Space. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017.
The decision to sail from Panama to Colombia, rather than fly, may seem like an odd choice for my itinerary. Famously, there are not many buildings around for an architectural historian to view while at sea. There are actually more than you might think, but that wasn’t the initial motivation behind the journey anyway.
The city of Cartagena, Colombia, is connected to Panama City through a complex system of historic and contemporary shipping networks. Both cities were and are still part of an extensive system of Atlantic trade, historically functioning as key ports in the ever-present triangle of enslaved people, natural resources, and manufactured goods. Due to their geographical positions along the coast, both cities were among the earliest permanent European settlements in the Americas. As a result, both also faced the challenge of protecting their resources from pirates and European confrontations vying for control of the New World on the Caribbean Sea.
Figure 1: Ruins of San Lorenzo Fort in Panama
Figure 2: Detail of round arched brick ceiling with view of Chagres River at San Lorenzo Fort
Figure 3: View atop San Castillo Fort in Cartagena
Aside from the canal, these historic shipping networks are still visibly present at their UNESCO-designated forts: San Lorenzo and Portobelo in Panama and the San Castillo Fort and Fortification Walls in Cartagena. These forts all face the Caribbean Sea, and together comprise the most extensive and one of the most complete systems of fortifications in South America. Having visited each of these forts, I can say that they tell similar narratives of swashbuckling pirates and colonialism. Some walls are original, others have been reconstructed. In any case, tourists sure do like seeing those cannons pointed outwards.
Figure 4: Canons aimed towards the Caribbean Sea at San Castillo Fort. Bocagrande district of Cartagena in the distance
I wanted to understand the historic relationship between these two cities, so I needed to view both according to their original primary entrances: from the sea. I spent five days sailing from Panama to Colombia on Alessandra, an 85’ wooden schooner that was built in New Zealand in 1988 as a near-replica of a 16th-century pirate ship. It was both more glamorous and less glamorous than you might imagine.
Figure 5: The Alessandra, my transport through the San Blas Islands
There is something ancient about sailing. In contrast to the mechanized sights and sounds of the cargo boats passing through the Panama Canal, sailing is full of creaks and breezes. Sailing provides a tangible reality of the in-between that is often unspoken in histories of seafaring. After only five days at sea, I became strongly aware of all of the nothingness in between destinations. I also became strongly aware of the lack of plumbing and fresh water.
Sailors and pirates surely must have fought boredom between conquests. They must have entertained themselves with social dramas and nightly storytelling in ways that do not often surface in contemporary tales of their own historic adventures. Sailing as transportation is time made visible, a manifestation of distance. After days at sea on a sailboat, "where" becomes "when," with only a vast expanse of "now" forming swells to propel you forward. Until the destination appears out of nowhere, and everything becomes "suddenly."
Figure 6: View from the Alessandra of one the many San Blas Islands
Yet even this vision of a "vast expanse of nothing but sea," is not true. We sailed through the Comarca de San Blas, a semi-autonomous province that belongs to the Guna Yala. This Indigenous population of about 60,000 has multiple villages across the 365 San Blas islands. Many of these islands are sandbars that are too perfect to photograph, paradise made unbelievable by decades of computer screensavers. Other islands host dense, sophisticated villages.
Figure 7: View of road in Guna Yala village
Figure 8: This court forms a major public space in the village
Figure 9: Detail of typical wooden entrance to Guna Yala storefront, likely hand carved local Mahogany
The Guna Yala villages present a complex urban reality that appear seemingly out of nowhere. At one community of about 900–1,000 people, I could see there was indoor plumbing via PVC piping in straight lines visible under dirt roads. Public buildings are constructed of concrete while residences are of bamboo, each with an internal courtyard. A grid-like plan is oriented around key public spaces, with paved basketball courts, governance centers, and a public square designated for drinking a locally fermented alcohol on days where a female child is born. Coconuts are a form of currency and solar panels charge satellite dishes above palm-thatched roofs.
Figure 10: Detail of solar panel for individual residence
Figure 11: Modernity mixes with tradition throughout this Guna Yala village
Once we left the San Blas islands and headed to open sea, the term "new world" made a little more sense to me after having sailed across the Colombian border. Days at sea were punctuated by a distant shoreline of dense jungle on steep cliffs. There were whole days where no other boats were in sight, no visible buildings on the distant shoreline, only open sea in many directions. I couldn’t help but think of those European explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries, seeing this same coastline of dense jungle with no buildings. From this perspective on a boat, where everything is rich and green, so threateningly dense with forest, the New World they did not "discover" can still appear so completely illegible and alluring at the same time.
The Colombia-Panama border is abstracted at sea, and only designated as a border in 1903 anyway. There were no boats or customs officers in sight, just a craggy outcropping. That is a truly delightful way to cross a border, borderless. I could not help but think that the Darién Gap looks a lot more romantic from sea than on land. Right now, there are thousands of vulnerable, determined individuals crossing that jungle to head north to the United States border.1 That jungle was too dense for Europeans to survive in hundreds of years ago, and for good reasons it is still labeled as "impassable" today. Yet here I am, waxing poetic about that jungle as a gorgeous, distant coastline. The way we approach a place deeply effects the way we understand its value, even if we only see it as a façade presented to the outside.
Figure 12: View of border crossing at sea. The rocky outcropping marks the Colombian border and the jungle to the right is a portion of the Darién Gap.
In travel, the way we first arrive somewhere foreign is rarely a great experience—usually it is a mess of baggage and vendors, traffic congestion and confusion, a vulnerable jostle of strangers at an airport or train station. But in sailing, I’ve experienced the privileged anticipation of a slow approach, the first appearance of land far in the distance, the civility of stone walls and chaotic markets as a promise to come.
Figure 13: Atop the walls of Cartagena as a ship docks
The true façade of Cartagena is only visible when approaching from the ocean. On land it is delicious confusion, hard to tell where the primary "entrance" to the old city is except through the Clock Tower gate at the rear. Massive walls surround the perimeter of the UNESCO-designated old city, constructed of stone and coral in the 16th century to protect European claims to the city against pirates and other nations. According to UNESCO, these walls are the most remarkable system of fortifications in all of Latin America. Approaching from the sea, those walls seem impenetrable from the outside. For others, those walls may have resembled a cage to keep them inside instead.
For many years, Cartagena de Indias was the primary port in South America for receiving enslaved peoples brought from Africa. Tour guides, preservation strategies, and museum exhibitions embrace the realities of this history. Much of the tourist infrastructure celebrates the mix of African, Indigenous Caribe, West Indies, and other cultures that comprise Cartagena’s population. Right outside the gates of the old town, the former Plaza de las Negras (Black Plaza) was renamed the Plaza de la Paz (Plaza of Peace), where demonstrations of African-influenced folkloric dances such as the Mapalé occur nightly. This square historically functioned as a place where both enslaved and free blacks sold produce and meats at market.
The museum at the Palace of the Inquisition tells a story of oppression in a different light. Housed in a set of three interconnected 18th-century houses forming a palace, it is one of the city’s most impressive examples of Spanish Colonial architecture. As the museum notes, however, focusing solely on the building’s architectural qualities would conceal the stories of unjust suffering and persecution that occurred inside. The Court of the Holy Office of the Inquisition was established in Cartagena in 1610, the third in the Americas after Mexico and Lima. During its 200 years of operation in the city, the Court investigated, tortured, and punished almost 900 people.
The exhibits provide a remarkably nuanced, refreshing take on the Spanish Inquisition in South America. Details were provided regarding individual names and accusations, including information that countered those investigations. Exhibits on local medicinal and spiritual practices were arranged in direct contrast to accusations of witchcraft, for instance. The museum explicitly acknowledges torture and suffering without veering too far into fetishized dark tourism strategies. Above all, it promotes a clear message of tolerance and human rights. These exhibits, combined with the graffiti outside the museum doors, provide an unexpected contrast to the more typical educational plaques and whitewashed walls at the city’s restored Cathedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría, a major tourist destination just a few blocks away.
Figure 14: Courtyard of the Palace of the Inquisition
Figure 15: Mural outside the entrance to the Palace of the Inquisition reads "Acknowledging our demons will set us free. Bye Inquisition!"
Figure 16: Inside the Cathedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría
Cartagena is also the place where the first independence processes in America took place. It was the first province to become independent from Spain in 1811. Long before then, it also hosted the first free settlement of Africans on the continent, the town of Palenque de San Basillo. The town was founded in the 16th century by Benkos Biohó, a former African king from either the Democratic Republic of Congo or Angola, who was sold into slavery and escaped the slave port of Cartagena in 1599. Established over the next several decades due to a sophisticated, hidden information network that included braided hair in codes, Palenque became a refuge for Africans and those of African descent. Local authorities recognized the freedom of its inhabitants with mixed results in the early 1600s, and the town was officially declared free by the Spanish Crown in 1691. This made them the first free Africans in the Americas and Palenque the first free settlement on the continent. Today, women from Palenque still travel into Cartagena, wearing colorful dresses and carrying fruits atop their head to pose for photos with tourists, a modern incarnation of the palenquero.
Figure 17: The school of dance in Palenque, with palenquero language on the walls
Figure 18: Monument to the founder of Palenque, Benkos Biohó
I visited the town of Palenque on an impossibly hot day in June, about an hour’s drive inland from Cartagena. UNESCO declared the town a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005, and since then only a small number of tourists actually make their way to Palenque from Cartagena. I took a tour with Black Legacy Experiences, a company with strong ethics surrounding tourist engagement via participation in activities that promote and perpetuate the heritage of Palenque. Needless to say, I was the only white person on the tour and in the town. I noticed my awkwardness at that, then I got over it (mostly). I learned to dance a traditional dance (badly) with a group of school children, took a boxing lesson (badly), sampled some herbal medicines (tasty), helped prepare corn meal from scratch (badly), and formed a few sentences in the Palenquero language (barely).
As the UNESCO designation indicates, Palenque has an oral heritage, an "intangible one." The buildings were all built in the last couple decades out of concrete. They were not the main attraction. How does one visit something officially deemed intangible? In other words, it was way outside of the comfort zone of a white American architectural historian who does not really study those methods or subjects.
Without having earned it, I was warmly welcomed by people who were very excited to share their heritage with me. This is a living culture with open arms. Although I found myself wanting to be invisible, I could not hide behind a camera in order to take pictures of old buildings. I could not hide at all. I could not view or analyze from a distance, instead I had to participate in order to understand. It was the extremely uncomfortable type of cultural engagement that I’ll be forcing myself to do more often.
1 Julie Turkewitz, “In Record Numbers, Venezuelans Risk a Deadly Trek To Reach the U.S. Border,” New York Times (October 7, 2022).
Maria Elisa Navarro Morales is an architect and architectural historian. She lives in Dublin and has been a member of SAH since 2012.
My career developed slowly. I studied architecture at the Universidad de Los Andes in Colombia, a program I joined at a very young age and, as many others, I saw in architecture a good compromise between my love for math and my interest in art history. I was lucky to have studied at Los Andes in the late ‘90s in a program envisioned by a young director, Dr. Fabio Restrepo, who saw the importance of balancing design studio with the humanities and technology. This helped me appreciate aspects of the discipline beyond design, something that ultimately impacted my career. I graduated from a five-year professional program in 1999. After, I worked for a couple of years in offices in Bogota, but as most of the people of my generation, I ended up leaving a war-stricken Colombia in 2001. I think back at those years and realize how difficult it was to find your feet after leaving your country unwillingly, something many young people are faced with today. In 2005 while living in the US, I decided to apply to the MArch program in History and Theory at McGill University. I was familiar with the program since in 1998 I went to Montreal as an exchange student and took Prof. Alberto Pérez-Gómez's course, Architectural Intentions. When I arrived at the History and Theory program at McGill, I felt I had found my way and I decided to apply to the PhD program, a possibility I never considered as a young Colombian architect. I completed a PhD on the architectural theory of Juan Caramuel de Lobkowitz in 2013 under Prof. Pérez-Gómez´s supervision. While at McGill I had the opportunity to teach as a summer replacement in the School of Architecture at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, in 2010. The following year I moved to Halifax to work as assistant professor at Dalhousie. At the end of 2013, the possibility to move back to Colombia appeared and in January 2014 I moved back to Colombia to work at the School of Architecture at Universidad de Los Andes. After spending five years in Colombia it became clear that the opportunities for doing research and get the experience and exposure I sought are still very limited in Colombia, so I moved to Dublin in 2019, where I work as an assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin.
My main project right now is a monograph on the architectural theory of Caramuel de Lobkowitz. This is a project that has developed over the last 10 years, first with my doctoral research where I read very carefully Caramuel´s treatise “Archtectura Civil Recta y Obliqua” and wrote a critical edition. More recently while doing archival work I discovered the unpublished fourth volume of “Architectura Civil” at the archives in Vigevano, which demonstrates that Caramuel’s treatise was published incomplete and makes necessary a revision of our interpretation of the treatise to date. In my book, I show how Caramuel used architecture to investigate political, philosophical, historical, theological, and astronomical questions. Through an in-depth study of Caramuel´s treatise, including the unpublished fourth volume, my book explores how early modern architecture was a tool and method for knowing the world.
In addition to the manuscript, I am also preparing a transcription of the found manuscript, which I intend to publish in a digital edition.
One experience that marked me was working as a young architect in Bogotá at the end of the nineties. At the time the mayors of the city, Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñaloza, developed a policy to improve the living conditions of the city, and the office of urban planing developed many projects including the construction of sidewalks along some of the main commercial streets. Before this project, sidewalks in Bogota were considered private parking spaces for the shops facing it. They were developed in a patchwork manner without any consideration for continuity or accessibility. The project was designed at the central planning office and developed by individual architects’ firms, including the one I was working for at the time. There was a lot of resistance to the project at the time, especially shop owners who were concerned that removing the parking was going to affect their sales. When the project was finished, the city had many kilometers of public space, and the city was transformed. The sidewalks were real public space where people meet, walk, and go shopping and where everyone has the same rights to it. I think this project is one of the first that showed me the importance of architecture and how the build environment can completely transform the lives of people with simple interventions.
I think one challenge historians of any sort face today is how to negotiate a work that takes a very long time to produce with the immediacy that characterizes our society. I feel there is a lot of pressure to respond to current questions with our research and these questions change very quickly without us having time to think and respond to them. I think the challenge then is to remain focused and trust the importance of the research we do outside from current trends and be able to communicate this importance and timelessness.
I became part of SAH when I was doing my PhD and I presented a paper at the annual conference in 2013 in Buffalo, NY. I have been a member since then and presented papers in some of the annual meetings including Pasadena 2016 and the online conference in 2020. At this conference I met Prof. Jesus Escobar, whom I consider a mentor. Through SAH and the opportunities it advertises, I learned about the research project “Spanish Italy and the Iberian Americas,” which I joined from 2016 until 2023. Being a member of SAH has helped me build a network of scholars working that has significantly impacted my work.
I think SAH is an impressive organization that supports architectural historians in many ways. I think the current initiatives of SAH IDEAS on inclusion, diversity, equity, accountability, and sustainability are commendable, and I hope to see them continue in the future. I have seen more and more the diversity of themes and geographies included in the conferences and in the journal. The Society supports students and academics in early stages and is active in supporting those with precarious or contingent positions. Personally, I find it reassuring to have an institution like SAH lobbying for us on these matters in the U.S.
I think as a leader in the Americas SAH should find partners that will allow it to extend that support to Latin America. While other associations in the UK and Europe exist, scholars from Central and South America are less fortunate. I would love to see a Latin American chapter for SAH.
This is a difficult question. The first thing I would say is that they are entering a fascinating and exciting field and that I hope they enjoy it as much as I do. I think it is important to be passionate about the topic one studies as it takes most of our time and lives. You have to be in love with what you study to stay interested and endure the hardships of academic life.
My advice to people entering architectural history is to take time making decisions and informing themselves on the opportunities available to them. Architectural history is a rich field and I think it is important to take time deciding things like where and with whom to do a PhD as well as understanding what are the professional opportunities available. Academia is very competitive and with schools of architecture reducing their offerings on architectural history more and more, the jobs are few and competition very high.
I think the future of architectural history is in the hands of those entering in the field, and they have a difficult challenge in making changes that are necessary. We need to strive for more jobs with more stability and we have a long way to go to achieve equity and diversity. But I believe if newcomers are aware of the challenges and the value of their work, architectural history will be in good hands.
Annie Schentag is a 2023 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.
Of all the incredible buildings in Panama City, it was actually a McDonald’s that surprised me the most. It certainly was not on my itinerary. In my first week on the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship, those golden arches were the last thing I wanted to see. This adventure was meant to put me at the doorstep of ‘true’ Panamanian architecture, a mythical local landscape far beyond American influence. I had not anticipated that this particular McDonald’s would be an excellent place to study the architecture of American imperialism.
Figure 1: McDonald’s adjacent to the Administration Building in Balboa, Panama City
Figure 2: McDonald’s located inside former Balboa train station
Positioned in direct contrast to the Panama Canal Administration Building in the former Canal Zone, this fast-food nuisance tells a nuanced story of international relations between America and Panama during the twentieth century. Situated at the edge of the town of Balboa in the former Canal Zone, this McDonald’s is located in an area that still conveys strong historic associations with twentieth-century American occupation of Panama. About 10 miles wide and 50 miles long spanning the width and length of the Panama Canal, the Canal Zone was created as part of the 1903 Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty. Written in English by the United States, this treaty declared Panama’s independence from Colombia. In order to protect American interests and investments in constructing the canal, the treaty also included a major clause that designated the Canal Zone land for American use as if it were their own sovereign land. This essentially created a strip of American land within the country of Panama, where generations of canal workers, military personnel, and their families lived as American citizens until it was officially given back to Panama on December 31, 1999.1
The architecture of the Canal Zone that remains today was largely built by and for Americans, with former military bases, residences, schools, and a cemetery attesting to this near-century of occupation. Commercial buildings and restaurants there once catered to American families, providing a strange sort of whiplash of American architecture slicing across Panama. Travel writer Paul Theroux described the Canal Zone as a “company town, simultaneously comprised of a military base dressed up like the suburbs, a government department, and colonialism in its purest form.”2 The former refers to the Ciudad Del Saber, a suburban style community that adaptively reused the Clayton military base used by the United States forces during the early twentieth century and during the U.S. Invasion of Panama City in 1989. Occupied mostly by Panamanians today, the Ciudad Del Saber is now a cushy residential area with one of the city’s best schools today. It even has a McDonald’s nearby.
Figure 3: Ciudad del Saber, in the former U.S. Clayton military base
The town of Balboa was founded as the administrative capital of the Canal Zone in the early twentieth century. It was carefully planned and designed by architect Austin Lord from 1912 to 1914 to serve as the administrative center for the construction and operation of the Panama Canal by the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC). Richard Guy Wilson, among the first architectural historians to study the Canal Zone as American imperialistic architecture, compared Balboa to the National Mall from the McMillan Plan for Washington, DC, and the Court of Honor at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. In short, he stated, “it personifies power.”3
Figure 4: Administration Building at Balboa
Utilizing City Beautiful principles, Balboa is oriented with the Administration Building at the top of Lone Tree Hill and the Prado lined with tidy rows of palm trees on a broad grass median below. The positioning of streets and buildings reinforces a strong axiality that is central to the plan. Smaller, two-story office buildings line the boulevard within constant view of the authoritatively placed Administration Building at the top of the hill. Since the territory was turned over to Panama in December 1999, these buildings are now occupied by the Panama Canal Authority, still serving an administrative function overseeing canal operations today. Ancon Hill looms in the distance, with the national flag of Panama as a reminder of the successful struggle for Panamanian sovereignty.
Figure 5: View of Goethals’ monument and Prado from Administration Building
Figure 6: Looking along Prado towards smaller administration buildings
The Administration Building itself is a grand sight, an E-shaped steel-framed concrete building that faces in two directions. Designed in 1912 to house the ICC, the building set the standard for future construction in the Canal Zone, with a red tiled roof and a blend of Spanish and Italian Renaissance Revival style details. A 1954 monument to the engineer George W. Goethals was situated at the intersection of the Prado and the base of the steps leading to the imposing Administration Building. Together, the Administration Building, monument, and boulevard lined with smaller offices presented a clear sense of design intentions to convey American organization and power. Always wary of that kind of architecturally-imposed authority, I took the requisite photos, marveled at the pristinely preserved building amidst the 90-degree heat, then politely asked if we could visit the McDonald’s on the other side of the hill.
This was not just any McDonald’s. It was located inside a former railroad station building, a stop on the railroad that ran between Colon and Balboa since the 1850s. Originally built by an American company to accommodate the increased demand of travelers and shipments going to and from the California Gold Rush, the rail lines essentially formed the first complete path across the Panamanian isthmus and the first transcontinental railroad in the world. This route later inspired the route of the Panama Canal, although this later required some alterations to these lines in a few places. This particular station was constructed as the Balboa stop, an early twentieth-century American addition to the passenger rail service that still runs across a portion of the isthmus for cruise ship passengers today.
Figure 7: View of McDonald’s central entrance and railroad platform
Figure 8: Original rail tracks and sign for Panama located at the edge of the drive-through
It is the kind of relatively modest train station that you might see at a whistle stop in the American Midwest or in the smaller stations of the Northeast. The one-story brick and concrete building has a red tiled gabled roof, with a wood overhanging roof supported by simple wood brackets to shelter passengers on the raised platform. Quatrefoil windows attest to European stylistic influence at one end of the building, and a fading painted sign for a ‘lavanderia’ (laundry) attests to previous other uses at the rear. A glass box framed by thick square concrete piers has been expanded and enclosed from the original entrance to house the McDonald's. Any alterations that have been made are relatively modest and do not detract from a clear understanding of the building as a former train station. If there were any doubt about the original function, the train tracks are still present. They lead directly up to the drive through before they are stopped at the asphalt paving, where a former ticket booth became a service window, demonstrating changes in transportation over time.
Figure 9: Drive-through window along original platform
Our driver, Levy, was clearly confused as to why I would want to leave the monumental buildings up the hill to take photographs of the McDonald’s down the road instead. My Zonian tour guide, Tereza Harp, was excited that I was excited about it, however. She had fond memories of eating there in the late 1980s. “You have to understand,” she shared, “when I was a little girl, there was no fast food in Panama. So the only place you could go to get fast food was the Canal Zone area. That McDonald’s was the first ever in Panama, it was a special treat.” To her it was a childhood symbol of modernity, a destination for the shiny food Americans can buy with gasoline as they rush about their busy, comfortable lives. I bought the most forgettable fries in order to take photos inside.
Inside, well, it looks mostly like a late 1980's McDonald’s in America. An apathetic teenager at the counter served the same fried food in American currency, since Panama still uses the U.S. Dollar as currency. Linoleum tiles, acoustic drop ceilings, sticky cushion benches, and fixed glass pane windows characterized the space. Somehow this was even more disorienting, as if I had teleported or time traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1985 rather than come all this way to Panama City in 2023. In a manner similar to McDonald’s everywhere, American influence left a trail of breadcrumbs and French fries behind, even before they officially turned over the Canal Zone to Panama in 1999. No one wanted to help me eat any of the fries.
There is no greater emblem of American influence in Panama than that particular McDonald’s. And conversely, there is perhaps no greater example of Panamanian adaptation than the reuse of an American-built train station to become the country’s first major fast-food destination. American influence is omnipresent in Panama, but that McDonald’s is the first place where I could begin to see these intertwined histories manifested in architecture.
I did not learn any of this history in school. Despite receiving an excellent American education in a college-preparatory high school, high-ranking private college, and an Ivy League Ph.D., I am ashamed that I did not learn anything substantial about the Canal Zone. At home in Buffalo, I live only a few blocks away from the site where Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated as U.S. President, after U.S. President McKinley was shot for his involvement in the Spanish American War at the Pan-American Exposition down the road. There was no mention of American involvement in treaties, territories, and displacement, only the glory of the Panama Canal itself. The 1989 U.S. Invasion to capture Manuel Antonio Noriega is only a very vague memory to me as I was four at the time. I do not remember hearing of the final days of America leaving Panama in 1999 amidst the more popular media coverage of the impending Y2K phenomenon that December. Even as a historian of the Erie Canal, the Panama Canal and Canal Zone very rarely is mentioned in my academic circles. My partner, who majored in International Studies and is an immigration lawyer, did not learn anything of these treaties or the Canal Zone either. So, I feel only slightly less embarrassed at my lack of knowledge on the subject prior to visiting Panama.
I suspect some of this ignorance is due to generational differences in media exposure to current events and some due to educational specializations. Regardless, it illustrates the absence of nuanced conversation in American higher education about American foreign policy and architecture in Panama. I willingly acknowledge that I am new to these subjects—Panamanian history and American Imperialism in Panama—but I suspect I am amongst a large group of younger Americans who know very little about this. I am only beginning to learn the many complexities of these stories through research, readings, and conversations, but I can already tell you these absences manifest in the tourist industry in Panama in a few distinct ways.
I feel a strong affinity for places that emerged as shipping and transport hubs, so it was an obvious choice for me to begin my itinerary in Panama City. As a historian of Buffalo, I could not ignore the similarities between Panama City and my own city. In Buffalo, ahem, we also have an important canal. With that canal came industrial innovations, growth and wealth, diverse racial and ethnic communities, a flourishing of arts and culture, and architecture that still embraces and expresses those origins. These cities are clearly quite different, with very different historic and contemporary contexts. Regardless, every time a tour, exhibition, or conversation in Panama City celebrated those aspects it felt like a shared celebration for my city as well. In acknowledging that, I can feel a tectonic shift beneath the surface of my own Buffalo-focused work. I will be bringing home a lot of lessons I am still learning about heritage planning in the context of canal towns, from Panama City, in particular.
Every tour and museum tells a different story of the Panama Canal, depending on the intended audience. Like historiography, heritage tourism practices reveal the creative processes of remembering and forgetting. The tourism industry in Panama faces a major challenge that many ex-colonial places do: how to integrate colonial heritage with a reinterpretation of both Indigenous and modern history.
Figure 10: Observation platform at the Miraflores Visitor Center
Figure 11: Posterboard for IMAX movie at the Miraflores Visitor Center
The story of the Panama Canal is told to American tourists with great sensation in Panama City. I took two such tours, which each went to different ends of the canal. Tours like those at Miraflores and Agua Clara Visitors Centers emphasize the difficult environmental conditions of the canal’s construction, the marvel of its complex engineering, and its commercial benefits in a global economic system. A 40-minute IMAX movie at Miraflores boasts this in 3D, where Morgan Freeman narrates a rapid transition from Indigenous canoes heading down the Chagres River through the apparently linear path of western progress towards a sophisticated technological system that shapes global shipping networks. At the locks, auditorium style seating provides a view of the canal in action, with massive cargo ships passing through slowly as every step is described on a megaphone. This emphasis on the canal as a feat of engineering is certainly warranted—it is indeed a marvel. But it also conceals many of the social aspects of its history, as if by design.
The Museo de Canal (Panama Canal Museum) tells a different story, aimed towards a broader audience of Panamanians, Zonians, and foreign tourists. The building itself embodies the many stages of Panama City’s history that the exhibitions discuss inside. Constructed in 1874 as a hotel, it became the head office of the French canal company. In the early 1900s it was the headquarters of the U.S. ICC, until that same organization moved into the newly constructed Administration Building in Balboa in 1912. It served as a post office from that time onwards until 1997, when it became the Museo del Canal. Like many buildings in Panama City, the building’s significance occurs in many layers of multiple nationalities and historic relationships to the canal.
This museum was about an entirely different canal, one experienced by diverse groups of people in different ways over time. It provided primarily a social history: one that empathized with the workers of the canal, illustrated the disparity of wealth in the built environment, and took pride in the great diversity of races and cultures that came to Panama to work on the canal. Several panels and videos were devoted to discussing the Gold and Silver payroll system for workers on the canal, where white Americans were paid in gold and the rest of the workers from the West Indies, China, and beyond were paid in silver. This racially segregated payroll system was also reflected in the built environment of worker housing at the time, where gold-level housing featured grander buildings with window screens, with better educational and entertainment facilities. Silver housing resembled barracks, with fewer amenities, smaller spaces, and substandard social and educational facilities. This type of racial segregation is obviously familiar to Americans, a lamentable transplant of national practices to Panama at the time. This museum was the first and only major place that I encountered that discussion. There was not a megaphone or IMAX in sight.
Figure 12: Photographs illustrating differences between Gold and Silver architectural conditions at the Museo del Canal
There is yet another major story missing from many tours and exhibitions of the Panama Canal. In 1912, the U.S. ICC took steps towards depopulating several towns along the Chagres River. Located within the Canal Zone according to the 1903 treaty, towns such as Gorgona were forced to relocate once the U.S. determined it would be necessary to flood the area to create Lake Gatun to assist with the operation of the Panama Canal. This town, along with several others along the Chagres River, had thrived as a hub for commercial transport between the oceans even before the railroad was constructed in the 1850s. At a time when slavery still existed in America, the town of Gorgona had a Black mayor who oversaw a substantial community. Once the population was forced to relocate in 1912, the town was flooded.4 I took a boat tour across Lake Gatun, which pointed out several monkeys and birds but never mentioned that we were floating above entire towns that were destroyed to construct the canal in the early twentieth century.
In order to get this perspective on the Canal Zone, I was thrilled to meet with Panamanian historian Marixa Lasso while in Panama City. Dr. Lasso’s book, Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal (2019), reveals and analyzes the often untold stories of these former towns along the Chagres River. Her book was deeply influential to me before I traveled to Panama, and even more so now. We sat in a café in Casco Viejo, where our coffees sweat almost as much as I did. When I asked her, with doe-eyed optimism, if there was anything left at all to see of these former towns, she said there was only one part of one church wall. That’s it. One part of one wall of one building of one town, all that is left of several towns that were all dismantled and flooded.
A few months ago, I had never even heard of these communities. Now, I was deflated to hear there was nothing substantial enough left to visit. I cannot even imagine how the descendants of those populations must feel. There is no permanent exhibition to address this, yet. After serving as tenured associate professor at Case Western Reserve University for many years, Lasso returned to Panama City to establish a research center for Panamanian heritage. In an effort to connect her expertise with local and national heritage efforts, she is organizing guest lectures, consulting on exhibitions, and creating a center for researching Panamanian history from multiple perspectives. There may only be a few stones left, but Lasso’s efforts aim to leave none unturned.
There are juxtapositions in Panama City everywhere: ones that complicate traditional binaries between old and new, east and west, nature and industry, invention and tradition, local and global. Every view offers new lessons in harmonious contrasts and multifaceted memories.
Figure 13: View of downtown Panama City from Casco Viejo
1 For more on the complexities of this controversial treaty and notions of sovereignty, see Katherine A. Zien, Sovereign Acts: Performing Race, Space, and Belonging in Panama and the Canal Zone (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017).
2 Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979), 204.
3 Richard Guy Wilson, "Imperial American Identity at the Panama Canal,” Modulus (1981), 26.
4 Marixa Lasso, Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019).
Stathis G. Yeros is an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Florida. He lives between Gainesville and New York and has been a member of SAH since 2021.
My big passions that have shaped my choices in educational and career paths are art and politics. So it makes sense then that architecture, combining both, was the right choice. But the course was not straightforward. My first degree is in art history and theater, where I focused on experimental performance and feminist theory influenced by debates at the time about women's representation in the art world. I studied in Glasgow, Scotland, a city with a robust alternative music, art, and performance scene, which opened my horizons and allowed me to experiment with art as a way of life that transcends any single form.
These experimentations opened the door to architecture. As a master's student at UC Berkeley, I paired formal training with my interest in the social side of making space. After a brief time as a designer in San Francisco, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. that combined my interest in alternative cultures—queer and trans cultural expressions in this case—with their political dimensions. My doctoral training was a period of intellectual growth and soul-searching to find the right combination of design as art and social practice. As an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Florida, where I moved last year, I am lucky to be able to engage both with design through studios and with history/theory through seminars and research initiatives.
The project that occupies most of my time is finishing my first book, Queering Urbanism: Architecture, Embodiment, and Queer Citizenship, which is currently under contract with the University of California Press. The book examines queering as a historical, economic, and cultural process whose meaning changes as it encounters neoliberal urban governance regimes in San Francisco and Oakland, home to some of the most symbolic sites for LGBTQ+ rights activism and contemporary debates about gentrification. I argue that everyday decisions about how people live and the aesthetics of queer and transgender spaces, for example, leather or camp, shape and are shaped by what I define as insurgent queer citizenship. Using a citizenship lens, I identify how alternative forms of kinship and subaltern urban minority coalitions based on race and class lead to claims for "the right to the city" that shape queer social politics and urban public life.
As I complete this project in the next few months, I am beginning two new ones. The first is a study of queer and trans spaces in the U.S. Deep South (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and parts of Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, and Florida) that I tentatively call Building the Queer South. I am structuring this as a set of itineraries through the Deep South to interview people and observe queer and trans social life in the spaces where it takes place. Recent legislation against drag shows and trans athletes and my move to Florida to teach led me to dig deeper into the themes of my previous work: how do LGBTQ+ people resist mainstream assimilation; how do physical spaces inform the construction of insurgent LGBTQ+ cultural identities; and how do their politics work with and against state institutions to safeguard LGBTQ+ people's rights to these spaces and ways of life?
The second project extends the thread of queer citizenship, a critical analytical lens for studying space in my work. For this project, I plan to explore local attachments to physical spaces and the politics of design through contemporary citizenship transnationally. What do designers mean when they talk about citizen participation? And what can contemporary discourse about queer, insurgent, minority, and urban citizenships offer to design for spatial justice in different global contexts?
The first time I considered the power of design to influence people's lives was in fourth or fifth grade in primary school, when I wrote a report for my teacher to deliver to the Mayor of Kos, the town where I grew up. The report outlined what I thought were urgently needed infrastructural improvements. They included everything from re-paving the port to adding traffic lights and even the specific intersections where I thought they would make the most significant difference. In retrospect, it was maybe inevitable that I studied urbanism. Architectural design was another passion that I developed early on. In middle school, I spent long hours drawing my future home, eventually landing on a design hybrid between a greenhouse for plants with an area for living with movable partitions and a creek passing through the kitchen. In fact, if I were not an architect, I would probably be a horticulturalist. My parents encouraged this passion and even helped me get some experience in gardening by planting a small vegetable garden that lasted for a couple of summers. I hope I get a chance to build that greenhouse attachment to my home one day!
My biggest challenge in embarking on an academic career is finding a clear way to explain my work's central focus in order to develop a legible profile as a scholar and professional. My research could fit under several academic disciplines studying space and social life. The most important thing I had to do was to clarify—for myself first—what would sustain my interest in research and teaching long-term. Design was an important part of it. That allowed me to better explain the different parts of my work as one trajectory combining design teaching, practice, and a research agenda that employs historical and ethnographic methods to understand social life in the present.
On a more practical note, I learned through a lot of trial and error that clarifying a new project's research goals and contributions early on and seeking out as much feedback as possible is imperative for successful grant applications. Unfortunately, this process can sometimes take years and can be a significant source of anxiety in building a career as an academic.
I first learned about SAH when my studio instructor over a decade ago attended a conference, and I remember perusing the program online. I was impressed by the breadth of topics, but I was not yet ready to fully comprehend what architectural historians do. I became involved with SAH much later, toward the end of my doctoral studies, when I was ready to share my research with colleagues and contribute to field discussions. I did not consider my research as primarily historical for a long time. However, during this year's SAH conference and ongoing virtual programming, I found many colleagues sharing similar interests and a rich intellectual environment to grow as a scholar.
I am new in my engagement with SAH and still learning about the organization's history. After attending the latest conference in Montréal, I returned with renewed energy to engage with colleagues who explore different ways of "doing" architectural history. I think the balance that SAH strikes among its members' various methods and research interests is one of its strongest assets, and I hope future conferences maintain this breadth. I am also really interested in how we can better integrate architectural history in design education in architecture schools. To that end, I believe that SAH could expand existing programming to help junior faculty like me learn from more experienced teachers.
Each person's trajectory is different. Reflecting on what brought me here, I can offer three of my mistakes as examples of what I had to improve over the years. First, I learned to approach my colleagues and, consequently, the field with humility. When I began my Ph.D. I often jumped to expressing my opinion or disagreement before listening carefully. Second, I had to clarify the big picture of why I wanted to do this job. Sometimes legitimate worries about funding, a project deadline, or even a course paper obscured the long-term commitment to my work and brought thoughts of quitting. Though it is impossible to eliminate those thoughts altogether, after considerable efforts to change this, I now bounce back sooner. And finally, I had to develop a listening ear and appreciate critical feedback as a gift that only someone who cares about my work enough to engage with it thoughtfully would offer.
In 2022, Leuven University Press published The Sound of Architecture: Acoustic Atmospheres in Place, edited by Angeliki Sioli and Elisavet Kiourtsoglou. The book came out of an SAH conference session organized by the two scholars. We interviewed the two collaborators to find out how an SAH session became an edited volume.
Angeliki Sioli and Elisavet Kiourtsoglou have been friends since 1999, when they met during the first year of their bachelor’s program at the University of Thessaly. After graduation, they pursued PhDs at different schools—Sioli in the history and theory of architecture at McGill University and Kiourtsoglou in architecture from Université Paris 8—but kept in close contact through weekly Skype calls. It wasn’t until 2018, however, that they decided to collaborate professionally.
“At some point we were like, ‘Why don’t we try something together?’ So, we tried to bring together our interests,” Sioli explains. Sioli, now an assistant professor in the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at Delft University of Technology, and Kiourtsoglou, an assistant professor in the Department of Culture, Creative Media and Industries at the University of Thessaly, decided to submit a session proposal for the Society of Architectural Historians’ 2019 Annual International Conference.
The session, “The Sound of Architecture: Acoustic Atmospheres in Place,” was included in the call for papers distributed by SAH in April 2018. According to Sioli, the two friends and collaborators were interested in examining “how the experience of sound within particular locations, in situ, very specifically, could actually allow us to study and understand space differently.” This, adds Kiourtsoglou, is because “sound is an element of our memory, that comes into our understanding and experience of the place. Atmosphere is also part of our history in a way.”
The topic struck a chord with other scholars. More than 25 abstracts were submitted for consideration and Sioli and Kiourtsoglou had the difficult and unenviable task of whittling them down to the few that would ultimately comprise their session. To make their selections, the pair booked a two-week stay at a rental house on the island of Aegina in the summer of 2018. “We already knew that there was interesting material, so there were some options and ideas, but at that moment we were focused on figuring out how we could put them together and what would be the best grouping,” Sioli explains. “It was quite hard,” Kiourtsoglou continues, “we had all the abstracts on the wall, trying to figure out which is the best, what we have to pull out… It was kind of a puzzle.”
As Sioli and Kiourtsoglou were close to making their final decisions, they got an email from Mirjam Truwant, acquisitions editor at Leuven University Press. Truwant had read their session description in SAH’s call for papers, knew the topic was of interest to the press, and asked if they would be interested in developing the session into a book.
Sioli and Kiourtsoglou were excited by the request. Says Sioli, “The beauty is that Leuven University Press really follows SAH.”
Sioli and Kourtsoglou told Truwant that they were interested in developing the session into a book proposal. “For us it was very helpful and very honoring to have this proposal from Leuven University Press,” Kiourtsoglou says. “This took us on a very long journey of two years.”
In April 2019, Sioli and Kiourtsoglou traveled to Providence, Rhode Island, to co-chair their session at the SAH conference. It was Sioli’s second SAH conference and Kiourtsoglou’s first. Despite having just broken her leg, Kiourtsoglou said that there was no way she would have missed the conference. She found the variety of topics at the conference appealing. Having been trained as an architect and not an architectural historian, Kiourtsoglou felt “it was a window to a totally different way of working.”
“There is a high level of rigor and quality in the discourse that is super refreshing and, of course, that is why you want to be a part of it,” Sioli notes. Sioli added that social events such as the breakfast for session chairs and speakers are an important part of the conference. “There is a very beautiful social aspect that the conference provides. That is really valuable.”
Their session was well received, but Sioli and Kiourtsoglou decided to wait until the summer of 2019 to start work on the book proposal. “We wanted to wait to see the outcomes of the conference, because at the conference we had four fully developed papers. We knew of the quality,” Sioli says. “And that’s why we started with the book proposal afterwards, because we wanted to make sure that we had something strong.”
Their advice to those looking to publish is to start with the book proposal and work from there. “Check online, because most presses have a template for what they need when it comes to book proposals,” Sioli suggests. While there are some similarities between what presses are looking for—such as how a book will fit into the existing bibliography—they each have specific areas that are of interest to them. Sioli found that looking at the requested format for the book proposal before drafting it “worked for me in a very imaginative way,” and helped shape the manuscript. “I think it would be a different book if it were addressed to a different press.”
Sioli and Kiourtsoglou submitted the book proposal in December 2020 and spent a year working on the manuscript. They invited some of the contributors who submitted abstracts for their session as well as others who specialized in the field to be a part of the publication. The editors and contributors faced many challenges during the pandemic, including limited access to archives.
“I have to say, people were very determined,” Sioli says. With contributors throughout Europe and the U.S., constant communication was vital to let everyone know how the project was progressing. “We didn’t know all these people in person, but after all this it felt like we knew them so well.” Kiourtsoglou says, “It was like a family.”
Even still, “editing a book like that, it was also learning about managing people,” Kiourtsoglou points out. It was about learning how to go through texts and critique people’s work in a very tactful way. “If diplomacy’s not your strong suit, you shouldn’t try it at all. Write a monograph!” Sioli adds with a laugh.
Their edited volume, The Sound of Architecture: Acoustic Atmospheres in Place, was published by Leuven University Press in 2022. The collection of essays explores the acoustic atmospheres of diverse architectural environments and examines how sound and its atmospheres transform architecture and space. Contributors to The Sound of Architecture include Anna Ulrikke Andersen (University of Oxford), Timothy Carey (Independent Scholar), Ricardo L. Castro (McGill University), Joseph L. Clarke (University of Toronto), Carlotta Darò (ENSA Paris-Malaquais), Michael de Beer (Independent Scholar), James Deaville (Carleton University), Ross K. Elfline (Carleton College), Clemens Finkelstein (Princeton University), Federica Goffi (Carleton University), Klaske Havik (TU Delft), Paul Holmquist (Louisiana State University), Pamela Jordan (University of Amsterdam), Elisavet Kiourtsoglou (University of Thessaly), Alberto Pérez-Gómez (McGill University), Cécile Regnault (Lyon School of Architecture), Angeliki Sioli (TU Delft), Karen Van Lengen (University of Virginia), and Michael Windover (Carleton University).
When Sioli and Kiourtsoglou first proposed their session five years ago, they had no idea that their collaboration would evolve into a published collection of essays by a group of international contributors. Reflecting on their journey, Kiourtsoglou shares that “what this process also taught us is that small steps make a big difference.”
One of the first things I read at the beginning of this fellowship journey was John Hersey’s Hiroshima. A small pocket-sized book, it was hard to get through its page after page of graphic content of the first few moments and days after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima by the US military. In the book, six survivors of the bomb at various distances from the hypocenter recount their stories before, during, and after the explosion. It’s hard to unlearn what could happen to the human body when exposed to the heatwaves of a nuclear blast. These stories came back to me when I arrived to Hiroshima, the city-turned-memorial to the event of August 6, 1945. After the war, Hiroshima was a nuclear wasteland: more than a third of its population, around 140,000 people, had perished in the explosion and the effects of radiation several days and months after the bomb.1 With more than 70% of its buildings destroyed and its industrial sector disbanded, the city had very little of a path forward.
Not long after the war ended, Hiroshima quickly went from a city ravaged by the atomic bomb to the poster image of international peace. The narrative that immediately began to dominate the post-bomb climate in Japan promoted images of rebirth and new beginnings: the dawn of a new Hiroshima that was a symbol of peace and hope rather than the reality evident in its radioactive landscape, that the city was the tragic recipient of the first nuclear bomb in history.
The acceptance and advancement of this narrative by Japan and Hiroshima’s local leaders was essential, however enforced, for the city’s survival and growth under the American occupation that lasted until 1952. The occupation’s mission to “democratize” Japan meant controlling the country politically and economically as a whole, and in the case of Hiroshima, a direct censorship of journalistic investigation and scientific and medical research into bomb-related damage and radiation effects on victims.2 Instead, the United States promoted imperialist propaganda that regarded the atomic bomb as an American scientific achievement that was crucial to ending World War II and thus bringing peace to the world, justifying the human cost of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Japan’s defeat in the war was announced on the radio when the emperor of Japan spoke to the Japanese people directly for the first time and presented Japan’s surrender as necessary and even heroic to prevent more senseless deaths of Japanese citizens. Japan’s only path towards reinventing its economy and rebuilding after the war was through accepting and promoting reconciliation of US-Japan relations.3 In Hiroshima, the local government, desperate to rebuild, began to publicly embrace a similar view of the bomb as the colonizer’s, that Hiroshima’s suffering and sacrifice was a prerequisite for peace.4 This is not to say that there wasn’t a sincere desire by Hiroshima’s citizens to envision a new city that symbolized peace and hope for a better future after the most devastating experience in their history but being under the US occupation, Japan had little agency in crafting its own story. The interpretation of the atomic bomb as an impetus of peace was beneficial to the US interests in Japan as an ally in the Cold War. For Hiroshima, historically a major military center, rebuilding with the message of peace also provided a possible path to economic recovery during the challenging post-war years.
With many Japanese cities devastated by the end of the war and limited government funding available for reconstructing industrial infrastructures, Hiroshima pursued a special consideration for assistance from the national government for its unique condition as a victim of a nuclear bomb.5 While reconstruction efforts began shortly after the war, in 1946, the vision of rebuilding Hiroshima as a memorial city became a viable opportunity with the enactment of Hiroshima Peace Memorial City Construction Law of 1949. The law directed special financial assistance and national land to aid in Hiroshima’s reconstruction, even when other major Japanese cities, like Tokyo, had suffered greater physical damage. A group of architects led by Kenzo Tange won the competition to plan and design Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, encompassing the area that fell under the bomb’s hypocenter. The park occupies a large area of the city, roughly 122,000 square meters, in what used to be a bustling and central downtown district prior to its annihilation by the atomic bomb. It is not so common that a city decides to transform its most central and valuable real estate district into an open memorial park in the reconstruction years, but rebuilding Hiroshima carried a symbolic importance greater than all the other badly damaged Japanese cities, including Tokyo. Hiroshima’s destruction was unique. As early as 1946, tourists, encouraged by tourism pamphlets produced by the US army, began to flock to Hiroshima to see the ruined site of the “Atomic City.” This proved that Hiroshima’s future could be found in the preservation of its history as the site of the first atomic bomb.6
I arrived at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park from the east side after crossing the Motoyasubashi bridge, which miraculously survived the blast, despite being only 100 meters away from the hypocenter. It was a rainy day, which made the memorial park feel even more somber. My first stop was the Children's Peace Monument that commemorates the children of Hiroshima who died as the result of the bomb. The monument is dedicated to Sadako Sasaki, who died at the age of 12 after struggling for 10 years from exposure to radiation during the blast when she was two. The monument consists of a statue of Sadako holding a crane over her head and surrounded by glass cases full of colorful paper cranes. Origami paper cranes are a symbol of healing and long life in Japanese culture, and they became associated with Sadako’s story because she folded 1,000 cranes during her final months in the hospital.
Figure 1. Children’s Peace Monument
In the distance, I could see the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum’s main building floating over the park, sitting at the end of the axis that pulls visitors through the Flame of Peace and the Cenotaph for the A-Bomb Victims first before arriving at the museum, where they will come in close contact with the grim details of August 6, 1945. I entered the main building, the part of the museum that is dedicated to the damage of the bomb to Hiroshima and the effects of the blast and radiation on victims. Exhibits of dark gray walls take visitors through room after room in semi-darkness, creating an oppressive atmosphere where visitors have no choice but to face the difficult artifacts presented under the spotlights. The contents of this section included personal articles of clothing and objects that were on the victims when they vanished in the blast and large graphic photographs of irradiated victims with harrowing injuries and deformities. Passing by these photographs, I began to quicken my pace to reach the end of the exhibit course as I began to feel heavy and confined. Conveniently, this dark section ends with releasing visitors into the airy and light-filled volume of the gallery hall overlooking the memorial park where visitors can stop to rest, take in the views of the park, and sit with their discomfort in this dark city.
Figures 2–3. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
Figures 4–5. Cenotaph for the A-Bomb Victims
Figures 6–14. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
Figure 15. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum’s main building gallery looking out into the memorial park
Figure 16. View from Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum towards the memorial park and A-Bomb Dome
Leaving the museum, I headed towards the most iconic building in Hiroshima and where most tourists can be found, the Atomic Bomb Dome (Genbaku Dome). Standing on the east side of the Motoyasu River is a skeletal structure of what remained of the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, which was right at the center of the blast and somehow remained standing. In its glory days, the building served as an exhibition space that was used for displaying the prefectural industrial products of Hiroshima. Genbaku Dome, which later became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, is perhaps the most visited site in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. But its preservation was controversial as most Hiroshima residents wanted the building removed because it was a reminder of a very dark and painful day. Nonetheless, junior and high school students persisted to advocate for the building’s preservation as an important part of the city’s history, and the city council of Hiroshima decided to preserve the building in 1966.7
Figures 17–25. A Bomb Dome, Hiroshima
Figures 26–27. Hiroshima Castle, a reconstruction from 1958 of the 1590s original building that was destroyed during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima
Figures 28–31. Views from Hiroshima Castle
Being in Hiroshima, immersed in the memories of the atomic bombing, I reflected back on Tokyo’s lack of a trace or a memorial to the firebombing of 1945. One of the first destinations I outlined for Tokyo was the Center of Tokyo Raids and War Damage. I went there during the first week of my fellowship, eager to start my research in what I thought was a major museum on the history of the US’ firebombing of Tokyo. Surely such a historic and painful episode in the history of Japan that claimed 100,000 lives in a single night would be documented and exhibited extensively, I thought. I was confused when I arrived at what resembled a three-story apartment building from the outside, set in the residential and quiet neighborhood of Koto City. The entrance was marked with a small eyebrow awning and the location on my Google maps all pointed to this being the center I was looking for. I entered. The place was empty. I peeked around and found someone working in a small administrative office. I asked him if I was in the right place and he confirmed but let me know that the center was closed that day. I told him their website said otherwise. He tried to explain something in broken English, then gave up and came over to cut me a ticket and told me that I could enter even though it was closed. So I had the whole place to myself for an hour and a half. The kind man pointed me to the first room of the exhibit and disappeared. Again, I was surprised. This was just a small room with some printed materials on the walls, not the museum experience I was imagining for such a historic event. The large prints on the wall started with a timeline leading up to the night of March 10, 1945, when the US dropped 1,665 tons of incendiary bombs on Tokyo. There were maps outlining damage to Tokyo’s neighborhoods, objects from victims, photographs and original art of the night of the raid and a model of the bombs carried by the B-29 bombers. Warning signs on the walls asked visitors not to take photos of the paintings and personal artifacts exhibited in the rooms.
The last room briefly discusses the efforts that led to the establishment of the center, which started documenting and collecting artifacts about Tokyo’s air raid damage since 1970. The center was built in 2002 from exclusively private donations when government plans to build a memorial hall for the firebombing of Tokyo fell through in 1999. The center doesn’t elaborate more on the Japanese state’s neglect to memorialize the events of March 10, 1945, but there are few theories as to why Tokyo’s reconstruction steered clear from creating spaces of remembrance. For one, Japan’s need to sustain its relationship with its new ally, the United States, necessitated an avoidance to memorialize the atrocities committed by the US military in Japan. Second, a memorial site to the firebombing of Tokyo would call into question Japan’s own legacy of firebombing Chinese cities.8
Examining Tokyo and Hiroshima side by side, two Japanese cities that have experienced a similar degree of destruction and trauma but with one city determined to remember and the other to forget, shows the power of reconstruction as a political tool to reach certain ideological and economic outcomes, often times divorced from the real needs of a place after war. The narrative of peace allowed Hiroshima to gain support for its reconstruction from both the Japanese national government and the US. For Japan, Hiroshima’s new identity as a Peace City would rebrand Japan’s image on the world stage after the war from the atrocities it had itself committed in China and Korea. For the US, shifting the conversation of the bomb from a war crime to that of peace was favorable to its own narrative of the bomb as a saver of lives.
1 Koichiro Matsuo, “Urban Reconstruction and Symbol Systems: How Hiroshima Became a Peace Memorial City.” The Teikyo University Economic Review, 49(2): 123–137, (2016).
2 John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: W.W. Norton & C./New Press, 2000).
4 Ran Zwigenberg, “The Atomic City: Military Tourism and Urban Identity in Postwar Hiroshima,” American Quarterly 68, no. 3 (2016): pp. 617–642, https://doi.org/10.1353/aq.2016.0056.
5 Koichiro Matsuo, “Urban Reconstruction and Symbol Systems: How Hiroshima Became a Peace Memorial City.” The Teikyo University Economic Review, 49(2): 123–137, (2016).
6 Ran Zwigenberg, “The Atomic City: Military Tourism and Urban Identity in Postwar Hiroshima,” American Quarterly 68, no. 3 (2016): pp. 617–642, https://doi.org/10.1353/aq.2016.0056.
7 Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
8 Yoshikuni Igarashi, Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945–1970 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).
The firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 claimed more lives and caused more urban destruction than the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few months later. The plan for Tokyo’s burning started 5000 miles away, in a secluded site in Utah desert where the US Army had been experimenting with biological and chemical agents, such as napalm, to ensure effective and maximum destruction of cities and “morale” in both Japan and Germany during the Second World War.1 In 1942, Standard Oil contracted the Czech American architect Antonin Raymond to design a replica of a Japanese middle-class neighborhood for the US Army to test how effectively they would burn once set ablaze by incendiary bombs. The Dugway Proving Ground, where the Japanese Village and its German sister were secretly built, lies to the southwest of Salt Lake City. It was established by the US Army in 1942 as a test site for chemical warfare and included a five-square-mile complex for the precise construction of a Japanese housing block and German mietskaserne tenement apartments, which were repeatedly bombed and reconstructed at least three times. The Japanese Village consisted of twelve apartments of Tokyo’s typical wood construction, complete with traditional interior furnishings, faithfully curated by set designers from Hollywood. Perhaps what is more shocking than Antonin Raymond’s work in Dugway Proving Ground, is that one of the most renowned architects of the 20th century, Erich Mendelsohn, was responsible for the design and construction of the German Village in Utah’s desert.2 Berlin’s cheap and overcrowded tenement blocks housed poor and low-income industrial workers. Debates over inaccurate “area” bombing versus “precision” bombing directed at military bases all but faded in this stage of war as the target in both the Japan and German villages was unquestionably the everyday worker.
On my first day in Tokyo, I went to the Asakusa district where the popular Nakamise Shopping Street stretches in a straight line from the Kaminarimon Gate to the monumental Senso-ji Temple, lined along the way with shops selling traditional Japanese foods and crafts. Not able to take more than two steps at a time, I slowly made my way through the crowded Nakamise Street, vowing to come another day, not on a weekend, to properly explore this historical quarter. In Edo, as Tokyo was known until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, temples and shrines weren’t only gathering spaces for religious ceremonies and festivities but were also the primary forms of public and green space, equivalent to the role of public parks in a Western city.3 Entertainment districts and commercial establishments flourished near temples, similar to the rows of businesses that form Nakamise Street. During the Meiji Restoration period, public land around temples became the property of the Tokyo Metropolitan government. Commercial establishments along Nakamise Street that were allowed by the Edo Shogunate to set up to serve the large numbers of pilgrims and visitors to the temple were removed and replaced with modern brick buildings.4 These Meiji-era buildings and Nakamise Street were destroyed in the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and the street was rebuilt again in 1925. Incidentally, this area near the Sumida River was the first to burn when USAAF’s B-29 bombers dropped napalm incendiary bombs over Tokyo, putting their successful chemical experiment at Dugway Proving Grounds into action. The raid, which occurred on March 10, 1945, after midnight, became the deadliest single raid in history claiming the lives of 100,000 civilians and unhousing one million Japanese residents. Nakamise Street and Senso-ji Temple were part of the 16-square-mile area that were engulfed in flames that night.
Figures 1–2. Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo
Figure 3. Five-story pagoda in Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo
A cycle of destruction and reconstruction have historically been a characteristic of Japanese urbanism. Great fires were so frequent in Edo that a popular saying goes: “Fights and Fires are the Flowers of Edo.”5 As Japanese cities were traditionally built of wood and paper, fires repeatedly burned their tightly built neighborhoods to the ground. Despite numerous reconstructions, changes to Edo’s urban form were minimal. As soon as the fires were extinguished, people rebuilt their homes and businesses themselves in the same location with the same building materials, improving little in the process to minimize their losses when the next fire hits. “Indeed, the Japanese seem to have accepted the recurrent advent of urban destruction in general. The location and function of many disaster-battered cities were rarely, if ever, challenged.”6 In general, there is an acceptance of the notion of impermanence as part of the cycle of death and renewal in Japanese culture, found specifically in the core beliefs of the country’s two main religions, Shintoism and Buddhism. The best example of this tradition is found in the cyclical destruction and reconstruction of the Grand Shrine of Ise, Japan’s most sacred Shinto structure: every 20 years, the shrine buildings are destroyed and reconstructed as a way of preserving traditional ways of building and passing on that knowledge to the next generation.
Twenty-two years before the firebombing of Tokyo in World War II, the city had undergone one of the most catastrophic earthquakes in its history. The 1923 Great Kanto earthquake leveled much of Tokyo when massive firestorms spread across the city, swallowing swaths of Tokyo’s wooden neighborhoods, killing over 120,000 people and leaving two million people homeless. The damage from the Great Kanto earthquake paralleled what Tokyo would experience years later in 1945. Both the 1923 earthquake and firebombing of Tokyo produced a similar burned out landscape that inspired grandiose and idealistic reconstruction proposals that were never implemented as Tokyo’s urban form and planning tradition proved more reluctant to change than other disaster-stricken cities.
Tokyo’s flattened landscape after the earthquake appeared as the perfect clean slate to implement radical plans for a new modern metropolis that expressed Japan’s rise to join the industrializing nations in the West. An elite class of ambitious bureaucrats, politicians, and urban planners proposed reconstruction schemes for a rational city with broad avenues, monumental public buildings, public parks, and green belts that would act as firebreaks to prevent the quick spread of fire that had plagued Tokyo for centuries.7 But the production of a calamity-resistant city was only one part of the ambitious plans for Tokyo’s reconstruction: the earthquake was viewed as an opportunity to recreate imperial Tokyo and eradicate the social ills of industrialization such as the impoverished and densely-built slums that contributed to the fire-prone character of the city. But the overly ambitious reconstruction proposal, led by Tokyo’s Home Minister Goto Shinpei at a budget of 4 billion yen, was contested by government officials and cabinet members who balked at the financial infeasibility of the project.8
Furthermore, strong patterns of landownership revealed that Tokyo wasn’t the clean slate it looked to be after the earthquake. The plan was strongly resisted by Tokyoites who were eager to return to a sense of normalcy by rebuilding their homes and livelihoods as quickly as possible.9 For a traumatized citizenry that had lost everything, the five-year reconstruction proposal was idealistic and disconnected from their immediate needs. Makeshift homes of wood and tin had already proliferated all over Tokyo shortly after fires were extinguished. Eventually, the dream plan for a new Tokyo was reduced in scope to a budget of 700 million yen. The implementation of the plans to reconstruct Tokyo were limited to the process of Land Readjustment where the government was allowed to appropriate ten percent of private land without compensation to widen roads, add firebreaks, build parks, and increase public space to create a more resilient and fire-resistant city. Land Readjustment would later become the dominant planning method in Japanese cities after the war.10
Only two decades after the destructive 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, Tokyo was a scorched plane again, along with 215 other Japanese cities. Tokyo’s post-war reconstruction didn’t produce drastic or innovative changes to the urban form but was pragmatic and slow as the state concentrated its efforts on expanding the country’s industrial infrastructure and transportation systems to kick-start its broken economy, leaving the rebuilding of individual neighborhoods and housing to the private sector and individual citizens.11 This explains the ad-hoc and eclectic architectural character of Tokyo’s neighborhoods that persist until today. What makes Tokyo such a dynamic city is the constant variation of urban experience as one walks down its streets from intimate residential neighborhoods to narrow alleyways of commercial establishments. The city reflects how its residents adapt and adorn their urban environment with a variety of styles, textures, and ornamental plants and pots that soften the edges of its streets and adds a green element in a city that doesn’t offer a lot of park space.
Figure 4. Typical wood construction in Yanaka neighborhood, one of the few neighborhoods in Tokyo that escaped the firebombing in WWII
Figure 5. Tokyo after March 10, 1945
Although visionary schemes for rebuilding Tokyo emerged before the war’s end, the ideal city was never built. Ishikawa Hideaka, the head of planning of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, proposed an ambitious plan to fundamentally restructure Tokyo and transform it into a network of smaller, population-controlled sub-cities, separated by green belts and parks.12 However, the Japanese government didn’t have the financial capacity to undertake such a radical reconstruction in Tokyo, as many other Japanese cities lay in ruins and required rehabilitation funds as well. In addition, the urban planning tradition in Japan was relatively new, and since its introduction to the Japanese administrative government, was limited to the task of modernizing specific industrial or business centers rather than developing urban regeneration projects of entire districts.13 As an island nation that was closed off to the world for centuries, industrialization and modernization projects didn’t start in Japan until after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the beginning of the Meiji Restoration in 1868. During this period, national, prefectural, and municipal government functions were established to facilitate industrial development. Government-led modernization projects were primarily concerned with building industrial infrastructure, leaving the rest of Tokyo’s development such as residential neighborhoods to the private sector.14
There weren’t the same contentious debates in Tokyo like there were in European war-torn cities like Berlin or Warsaw over the social and political implications of reconstruction. The post-war plan for Tokyo didn’t hold the same symbolic meanings, and any ambitious plans were significantly curtailed during the first few years after the war in lieu of a pragmatist approach. This is also because Japan was an occupied nation and was restricted from dreaming up massive reconstruction campaigns that glorified the rebuilding of its cities. Instead, the Japanese government continued its pre-war reliance on Land Readjustment procedures that were used after the Great Kanto earthquake to make improvements to the urban environment.15 In addition, persistent patterns of landownership and a citizenry that was accustomed to rebuilding their cities after disaster as quickly as possible mounted considerable resistance to such idealistic schemes that proposed rebuilding beyond the damaged areas of Tokyo.16 Compared to Seoul, where the war resulted in the construction of a completely new city, Tokyo’s reconstruction was rather a continuation of existing, pre-war plans to modernize the city. As a result, planning efforts in Tokyo didn’t go beyond widening and straightening of streets and adding more public and green spaces.
It is essentially the failure to implement a central masterplan for Tokyo’s reconstruction that allowed the city’s many unique urbanisms to flourish and retain some aspects of its traditional urban layout. In my first month in Tokyo, I stayed in the glitzy commercial district of Shinjuku near the world’s busiest train station, where bustling and crowded streets, lined with neon-lit billboards unfold in every direction, tucking underneath a chain of restaurants, bars, claw machine parlors, electronic stores, and other endless shopping opportunities. The administrative functions of the city like the Kenzo Tange-designed building for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government lies in Shinjuku’s business district among a group of other glass skyscrapers. A 20-minute walk away from the station area and Shinjuku’s busy thoroughfares and tall skyscrapers disappear and the city transforms into what feels like a small town.
In one of my walks, I set out to explore the neighborhood of Shimokitazawa, one of Tokyo’s unique neighborhoods that had escaped wartime destruction and had strongly resisted the city’s redevelopment efforts to preserve what had evolved to become a counterculture district that attracted artists, musicians, and anti-Vietnam war protestors. Music clubs, vintage clothes stores, and many small restaurants sit intimately within a residential neighborhood of winding small streets. I started my walk from Shinjuku westward, passing the outskirts of Shibuya. I was surprised when shortly into my walk the noises of the bustling metropolis seemed to have vanished: I had stepped into a different city. Suddenly I was walking in small neighborhoods that encompassed a mix of functions: single family homes and low-rise apartment buildings of two to six stories, schools, small neighborhood parks, and convenience stores all within walking distance. Planters and bollards mark the edges of pedestrian-only streets whose surfaces are covered with kid-friendly rubber material. How is this one of the densest and busiest cities in the world when you could walk a few blocks from a major business and entertainment district and seem to have stepped into a quiet semi-suburban neighborhood? Unfortunately, corporate-led urban developments are catching up in Tokyo and are beginning to change its urban layout that had survived a multitude of fires and wars. Will Tokyo’s unique urban qualities emerge again after the dust settles from the accelerating market-driven developments?
Figure 6. Ameyoko shopping district, Tokyo
Figure 7. 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan, shopping street under the JR railway tracks, Tokyo
Figure 8. Businesses and shops under the JR railway tracks, Tokyo
Figure 9. Koenji Pal shopping street, Tokyo
Figure 10. A river that was paved over in 1974 flows under the Kuhonbutsu promenade in Tokyo
Figure 11. A typical mix of housing types in one of Shinjuku neighborhoods viewed from the Yayoi Kusama Museum, Tokyo
Figures 11–19. Eclectic mix of styles, scales and functions in Tokyo’s neighborhoods.
Figures 20–25. Pedestrian-only streets in Tokyo’s residential neighborhoods not too far from Shinjuku’s urban core
Figure 26. Infill development in progress in Tokyo
1 Davis, Mike. Dead Cities and Other Tales. New Press, 2004.
3 Sorensen André. The Making of Urban Japan: Cities and Planning from Edo to the Twenty-First Century. London: Routledge, 2006.
5 Hein, Carola. “Resilient Tokyo: Disaster and Transformation in the Japanese City.” Essay. In The Resilient City How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, edited by Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
7 Schencking, J. Charles. The Great Kantō Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.
8 Sorensen André. The Making of Urban Japan: Cities and Planning from Edo to the Twenty-First Century. London: Routledge, 2006.
9 Hein, Carola. “Resilient Tokyo: Disaster and Transformation in the Japanese City.” Essay. In The Resilient City How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, edited by Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
11 Sorensen André. The Making of Urban Japan: Cities and Planning from Edo to the Twenty-First Century. London: Routledge, 2006.
13 Hein, Carola. “Resilient Tokyo: Disaster and Transformation in the Japanese City.” Essay. In The Resilient City How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, edited by Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
15 Sorensen André. The Making of Urban Japan: Cities and Planning from Edo to the Twenty-First Century. London: Routledge, 2006.
16 Hein, Carola. “Resilient Tokyo: Disaster and Transformation in the Japanese City.” Essay. In The Resilient City How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, edited by Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.