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Anne Delano Steinert is a recipient of the 2022 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.
Over the course of 89 days I visited 27 cities and towns. I arrived home at 11:00 pm on a Wednesday and gave a graduate orientation walking tour at 1:00 pm the next day. My faculty retreat was Friday morning, and school started Monday. Only now, months later, am I able to get the distance from the trip I need to see the big patterns and connect the dots of my experiences.
I have written and rewritten this final report more times than I care to count. At one point it was over four times the word limit! In that process I have figured out that I can’t possibly talk about all the places I traveled or all the things I wondered. All I can do is offer examples of how this trip has impacted my thinking and my teaching. For those of you interested in a chronological catalog of my journey, I provide a list here. As you look at the list, note some of these were just day trips, while our longest stay, in Venice, was almost two weeks.
Here are the places I went:
France - Paris, Versailles, Chartres, Marseilles
Spain - Barcelona
Italy - Verona, Florence, Venice, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Rome, Pompeii, Bari (for the ferry)
Greece - Piraeus, Athens, Tinos, Syros, Santorini
Italy again - Venice, Parma
Austria - Vienna, Salzburg
Hungary - Budapest
Czech Republic - Prague, Kunta Hora
Germany - Berlin, Hamburg, Bremen, Bremerhaven, Baden-Baden
France again - Strasbourg and Paris
Here are some thoughts:
1. It is hard to teach a place without seeing it.
I set my itinerary largely to cover European sites I have taught in a “History of Urban Form” course. Though I had seen plenty of images of Athens and Rome, I had never been to either. The impact of finally visiting these places was incredible and I think lives true to H. Allen Brooks’ vision for the fellowship. I am sure this will sound naive and am embarrassed to even write this, but I had no understanding that the Tiber was so narrow or that the Acropolis was so deeply embedded in Athens’ dense urban fabric. Being physically in those spaces has transformed my ability to teach about them and their larger context.
The Tiber River is not very big.
Back when I was in preservation school in the 1990s, the architectural history courses I took with Robert Stern and others were taught to highlight works of architecture as beautiful objects on display, separate from their environment. I don’t think that approach works. I now see how much about these places I failed to understand. When I saw that the Acropolis was part of a functioning city rather than a rarified archaeological site, or that Corbusier’s Unite d’habitation in Marseilles and Berlin actually work as housing in a way their descendants in the U.S. never did, it completely complicated my understanding of the architecture I study and teach and the interconnected continuum of architectural innovation across time.
Corbusier’s Cite Radieuse in Marseilles makes a lot more sense in its Mediterranean context.
2. Buildings need interpretation.
Another goal of my trip was to look for ways the built environment was able to speak or tell its story and/or how people were able to make meaning of the world around them. I had hoped that there were some basic interpretive patterns people use to make meaning of buildings and landscapes and that I could start to catalog or order these strategies. I would say this quest was a pretty significant failure. I traveled with an 18-year-old babysitter and my 12-year-old son thinking that I would observe their process. What I found was an lack of curiosity among these children of the digital age and that, unless there was a very heavy human hand involved (as in Raymond Isidore’s Maison Picassiette in Chartres) their ability to ask questions as an initial step toward investigation was limited.
Maison Picassiette sparked plenty of questions. This photo is a tile-covered chain in the interior. It doesn’t look very comfortable!
I found that without an interpretive interlocutor, most people, sometimes including myself, can’t make sense of buildings. The lesson in this is that we, as historians and preservationists, need to get busy interpreting buildings for people on the streets so that they value and save them. One great example of this is the digital Brno Architectural Manual which I learned about from my new friend, Vendula Hidnkova, while in Prague.1 The site combines architectural information with photos and a map in a digital format accessible from your phone, allowing passersby to learn about architecture in their midst. It seems clear to me that the fields of architectural history and historic preservation need to connect with public history to tell place-based stories in ways that will resonate with a broad public audience. The expertise is already out there if we can bridge our disciplinary silos.
3. People need connections to make places meaningful.
As you would expect, we were able to retain more information when we had something already in our heads to connect it with. In Rome, one of the rare moments my son got engaged in looking at architecture was when we visited the Colosseum. I had him watch a little Kahn Academy movie about the history of the building beforehand, which gave him details he could connect to. I have already written about the Forum light show. He will still say, “I wasn’t really paying attention until they said the Caesar had stepped where I was stepping.” The highlight of his whole trip was seeing buildings in Salzburg where the Sound of Music was filmed. In both places, he was more prepared to make meaning of buildings when he had pre-knowledge to attach them to. My son, Seneca (aptly named for this circumstance), became more engaged when he knew that he was in a space that connected him to historical figure or a beloved, if fictionalized, family chorale. The question then is how we link the history of buildings to things that people already know in a way that is authentic and meaningful and will enrich student understandings rather than merely pile on dates and styles to memorize.
The pavilion where “I am Sixteen Going on Seventeen” supposedly took place has been moved to a public park in Salzburg.
4. Experiencing places where things happened matters.
Most of our students cannot travel to all the places we teach about, and we will always need classroom experiences to bring them to far off places, but we also need to take advantage of nearby opportunities for place-based experience. I have previously written about my experience at the Museum of the Liberation of Rome, and I had similar experiences of a close connection to the past in places like the Ballinstadt Emigration Museum in Hamburg, or even in my youth hostel there, which turned out to have been a Nazi work camp in a previous life.2 Experiential education—the experience of really being in a place where something happened—is an incredibly powerful motivational force that makes education more meaningful and builds connections between student learning and “real life.”
Interpretive panels in my hostel about the building’s previous use as a Nazi work camp.
5. Learning happens best in multi-sensory settings.
One of the most powerful experiences of my visit was in the Jewish ghetto of Venice. I approached the ghetto through a tunnel under a tall tenement. I emerged from the darkness into a sunshiny open plaza where I found scores of Jewish men huddled up in a circle, arms in arm, singing in Hebrew. The moment had an otherworldly feeling, which held on until their tour guide chastised them that they needed to move on. The echoey sound in the enclosed space added a multi-sensory dimension that instantly made the place more powerful. As I toured Venice’s Jewish ghetto (the origin of the word ghetto) with a guide I saw a Jewish retirement home, two synagogues, a Jewish school and shops. These places became more meaningful because my sensory receptors had been opened up by the singing at the start of the tour. I was especially moved by the marks of missing (and extant) mezuzahs on entryways throughout the neighborhood which stood silent witness to the Jews now missing from this place.
A missing mezuzah on a door frame in Venice’s Jewish ghetto.
6. There is magic in ruins.
In a bookstore in Athens aptly named Flaneur, I discovered the book, Walking in Athens, by journalist and photographer Nikos Vatopoulos. This sweet little collection of essays captured everything I loved about Athens (and later Budapest). It is a meditation on the power of ruins and forgotten places. I am always struck by the buildings that seem just about to tumble down—right at the very edge of the possibility of saving. It seems to me that their exposed condition lets me into their secrets and stories. I have been thinking about how to harness the power of ruins to use it with students. I think it is rooted in feeling like you have found a secret and intimate window into the past that may not be there much longer—like you have a special opportunity. Maybe also an element of danger? Or adventure? Could I ask my students to write a paper about why ruins speak to us?
Athens has a wonderful stock of enchanting ruins like this one.
7. Preservationists need to be careful about human connections to place.
Before this trip, I remembered Chartres cathedral as a dark cavernous space pierced with light. Yet, when I visited the cathedral this time, most of the darkness had been replaced by clean bright walls restored by the French ministry of culture to their original appearance as part of a decades-long conservation project detailed in the 2017 New York Times article, “A Controversial Restoration that Wipes Away the Past.”3 For me, like many others, removing the dark layers of dirt accumulated over centuries felt like removing my connection to the generations of people who had visited this place before, laid their hand on a column, and left behind a little oil and dirt which, when combined with candles and incense, covered the building’s interior in a patina of the past. Part of the reason that historic places speak to me, and I think most of us, is that they connect us to those who have come before and remind us that we are part of a continuum of human experience over time. They tell us that we are not alone in the world with our one little life, but that we are a part of something bigger, even a marvel like Chartres Cathedral. I understand that the conservation of the church is what is believed to be best for the stone, that it returns the cathedral to its original appearance, and it allows visitors to see painted details long obscured, but those things come at a cost. I no longer felt like Chartres cathedral was a place I could feel the past humming around me and connect with the ancestors of this place. It now feels shiny and new—which I feel sad about. I know I’m not alone in this. I found this powerfully worded comment on a blog about the restoration, “My wife and I…used to go out of our way to stop-over in Chartres... Even for a confirmed atheist such as myself the cathedral interior was the most spiritual and awe-inspiring building that I have ever experienced and it truly became an inspirational place of pilgrimage for us. We were shocked and heart-broken, indeed out-raged, when we visited last year to find that the French had willfully embarked on this catastrophic campaign of so-called restoration. The result is that now we sadly have no wish to return, as we prefer to retain the memories of this Gothic masterpiece when it still retained the accretions of centuries which were responsible for so much of ifs mystical character.”4 I think that in our quest to save buildings and spaces for future generations we sometimes overlook the connections they hold for people living today.
Partially cleaned pier at Chartres Cathedral showing the contrast between pre- and post-restoration.
These snapshots are just a small fragment of everything I saw and thought about. I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to take this trip. It will forever impact my teaching and scholarship. Thank you, SAH, and thank you, H. Allen Brooks.
2 The A&O Hostel at Spaldingstrasse 160 in Hamburg.
Sundus Al-Bayati is the 2019 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.
I have to admit that I arrived in Seoul with a bias, ready to confirm my long-held suspicions that, out of all the cities I’ve explored, Seoul is a stark example of how post-war redevelopment can completely decimate a city’s architectural and cultural identity, resulting in the generic globalist aesthetic that is infecting our cities everywhere, making them all look the same. I already knew what to expect, the reason for my being here: the much anticipated sight of the ubiquitous high-rise apartment towers that became the defining image of Seoul. I was ready to take note of what didn’t work in Seoul. I was surprised to find what works here, works very well.
When I took a taxi from Seoul Station to where I would be staying for a month, I was concerned that I made a mistake booking an accommodation at the south edge of Bukhansan Mountain, which on the map looked far from the city center. By then, I hadn't been introduced to Seoul’s efficient and extensive public transit options: the subway, buses, and taxis. It only took me 30 minutes to get from my accommodation to the city center by bus. Even as a foreigner, the mass transit system in Seoul is easy to navigate: signs and announcements are in Korean and English. The more time I spent in Seoul getting around, the more my appreciation grew for this city’s exceptional infrastructure and multimodal system of mobility. Coming from the United States, where the view of public transit is social welfare meant for the urban poor who can’t afford to own a car, is reflected in the inadequate and sometimes non-existent infrastructure for public transportation in most parts of the country, with the exception of a few big cities. Even the best the American transit system has to offer doesn’t come close to the efficiency, cleanliness, accessibility and affordability of Seoul’s mass transit. One only needs one transportation card, the T-money card, to ride everything, even taxis. Seoul’s transit even covers the so-called ‘‘First Mile/Last Mile’’ problem that affects ridership and adequate access to transit in urban centers with neighborhood buses called Maeul Buses or Village buses. These are small green buses that can accommodate 8–10 people and run in a loop within a neighborhood connecting residents to the main bus or subway lines.
Seoul looked very different half a century ago. In the span of 30 years, South Korea transformed from a war-torn and impoverished agrarian society that struggled through 35 years of Japanese colonial rule, World War II and the Korean Civil War to become one of the strongest industrial economies in the world. Seoul’s rapid industrialization, a process that took European and North American cities over a century to achieve, was condensed in a short period of time, spurring unprecedented economic growth and radical state-led urbanization. Seoul’s character today is largely the result of this period of intense modernization between 1960s and 1990s that produced a global metropolis, often referred to as the “miracle on the Han River.”
To find a distinctly Korean architecture and imagine what Seoul might have looked like prior to the colonial Japanese rule and the Korean War, I started exploring the historical palaces in downtown Seoul. Traditional Korean buildings employed the same principles and architectural components for different building types: a wood frame structure topped with tiled or thatched roof. Size and level of ornamentation and detail distinguish a palace from a shrine from a house. I began in the palace complex of Changdeokgung and the Secret Garden dating back to 1412.1 Although the palace had been damaged and rebuilt multiple times, most recently after the Japanese invasion, it remains one of the most faithful examples of traditional Korean architecture and garden design from the Joseon Empire (1392–1897). There is a harmony between the palace structures and the landscape, unlike the linear and imposing form of Gyeongbokgung just to the west. Gyeongbokgung is the biggest of the Five Grand Palaces in Seoul and as an important symbol of Korean sovereignty, the Japanese leveled most of it and built the Japanese Government General Building right in front of the biggest structure of the palace, the throne hall, to intentionally block its view from the public. The building was demolished in 1996 after a controversial debate on Japanese colonial legacy in Seoul. For many, the Japanese Government General Building, which assumed official functions for the Korean Republic from the end of Japanese imperialism until 1996, was an image of Japanese subjugation of Korean heritage and culture and had to be removed to allow restoration of Gyeongbokgung.2
The Japanese systemically desecrated other palaces from the Korean Joseon Dynasty era: most of the buildings in Deoksugung were demolished and the palace grounds were converted to a park; Gyeonghuigung was destroyed and a school for Japanese citizens was built in its place; Changgyeongung was dismantled and turned into a zoo. Reconstruction of palaces destroyed by the Japanese didn’t begin until the 1990s when the government turned its attention to reviving neglected historical parts of Seoul after years of relentless urbanization projects. Pro-democracy mass protests ultimately led to South Korea’s transition to a democratically-elected government in 1987. The political movement was also critical of Seoul’s urbanism under the developmental state and conversations that were suppressed in the previous dictatorship, such as the issue of Japanese history in Seoul, began to take place.3
Figure 1 Donhwamun Gate
Figures 2–5 Changdeokgung Palace
Figures 6–7 Secret Garden in Changdeokgung Palace
Figures 8–10 Gyeongbokgung Palace
Across the street from Deoksugung, the debate over Japanese architectural heritage manifests physically in the old and new city hall buildings by Seoul Plaza. The old city hall, which now hosts Seoul Metropolitan Library, is a neo-classical style structure built by the Japanese in 1925. Soaring behind the old city hall in what looks like a wave that is about to crash over it, is the new futuristic all glass Seoul City Hall. The new building was part of the government’s urban renewal mega-projects of the aughts to make Seoul a global city. The city government wanted to demolish the old city hall, justifying it as a symbol of Japanese imperialism, but historic preservation committees were against it, positing that the building is an architectural and technological record of the time. In 2008, without permission or notice, the city government began demolition of the old city hall until the Cultural Heritage Committee quickly designated the building as a Historic Property and put an end to the demolition. What remained of the original building by then were only the front façade and tower.4
Figures 11–15 Seoul Metropolitan Library in the foreground (the old city hall building) and the new Seoul City Hall in the back
Seoul’s first phase of modernization after the Korean War began in 1961 under the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee that spearheaded South Korea’s economic miracle and turned it to an industrial powerhouse.5 The state’s obsession with accelerated industrialization at all costs drastically changed the urban character of Seoul, one that persists until today. The government’s strict and developmental program of rapid urbanization produced an efficient and a utilitarian city but largely ignored the social, historical, and environmental implications of clearing out vast areas and replacing them with new commercial and residential towers.
Figure 16 view of Seoul and the Han River. Lotte World Tower in the background.
For many years after the war, Seoul remained stagnant and underdeveloped in a period rendered with corruption and dependence on U.S. aid. The full force of post-war reconstruction in Seoul launched under Park Chung-hee, who propelled economic growth by empowering family-run industrial conglomerates, known as chaebols, through low-interest loans, import exemptions, and other kinds of state assistance to improve the industrial capacity of South Korea. Chaebols started out as small private family enterprises but with the state’s full support, some grew into giant corporations, like Hyundai, Samsung, and LG, that amassed power and influence over the political and economic reforms of South Korea.6 Chaebols’ power extended to the built environment through construction and real estate development that was backed by the state’s drive to produce a modern and an efficient city very quickly to reflect the success of the South Korean state to the world and especially to its rival North Korea, who had already achieved economic stability by then. Chaebols' urbanism model, facilitated by development incentives and close ties with the state, manifested in the continuous construction of apartment complexes, shopping malls, and entertainment businesses that relied on their services and products.7
After the Korean War ended, Seoul was completely devastated and poor. A growing population of returning Seoulites, North Korean refugees, and migrants from rural areas poured into Seoul and exacerbated the post-war housing shortage leading to the formation of shantytowns and slums all around the city. The apartment towers that came to define the image of Seoul first started rising in central areas, replacing shantytowns that dominated Seoul’s landscape in an effort to address the housing shortage and improve the image of the city.8 The urban poor that lived in these settlements were evicted and pushed out of the city center to make room for new developments. One infamous example is the Cheonggye Stream where migrants settled in makeshift homes along its banks until the government cleared them out in 1958 and paved over the stream to make a roadway.
Figure 17 Makeshift homes on the banks of Cheonggyecheon (credit: The Korea Times)
The displacement of poor populations further out of the city persists in Seoul as the city continues to expand and develop every fragment of land. For some time, “moon villages,” informal neighborhoods that have grown on the hills around Seoul for decades, have become the target of urban renewal projects. New developments are usually geared towards middle and upper class families leaving displaced residents with no option to continue to live in their neighborhoods. One of the last remaining “moon villages” is Guryong Village, which has become a popular destination for Youtubers traveling in Seoul to shine a light on the other, darker side of the city.
The rise of dense apartment complexes through aggressive state-driven urbanization efforts were at its height during the 1970s and 1980s in Seoul.9 The demand for more housing continued to exceed supply as Seoul’s population doubled from 1960 to 1970 to 5 million and over 8 million in 1980. In need for more expansion, the state turned its efforts to developing the riverbanks of the Han River and the agricultural land south of it. The Gangnam area (which translates to land south of the river), known to the world as Seoul’s upscale district of modern skyscrapers, luxury apartments and high end shopping malls and restaurants, was not more than a scarcely populated farmland until 1970.10
To encourage a population transfer from the overcrowded northern part of the city to Gangnam, the government relaxed regulations and provided tax incentives to attract real estate development there. At the same time, the state curbed new construction in central Seoul to force commercial and entertainment businesses to establish themselves in Gangnam. The area started to become a desirable place to live for middle and upper class families and especially after the state relocated prestigious high schools from central Seoul to draw families to the new district.11 Real estate speculation, enabled by development-friendly policies, became a viable path to wealth for many; as more apartment towers went up, so did their prices. State and chaebol-led urban renewal projects, as well as a class keen on social mobility through real estate development, kept Seoul in an endless cycle of construction and exponential increase of home prices.12 Apartment prices continue to surge in Seoul today and, according to a study cited by The Korean Herald, is one of the contributing factors to the nation’s low birth rate, which is one of the lowest in the world.
Figures 18–20 view of Seoul from Inwangsan Mountain
In the early 2000s, however, a new type of urban development began in Seoul as South Korea sought to join the global economy following the Asian economic crisis of 1997. To promote Seoul as a global city and improve tourism, the government needed to reflect a new image of urban development that presented Seoul not as an industrial “hard” city but as a cultural “soft” city.13 The state’s focus shifted back to Gangbuk, or north of the river, after years of concentrated development in Gangnam. Gangbuk possessed what Gangnam lacked: a historical identity that was visible in what remains of the palaces of Joseon Dynasty and Bukchon, the area between the Gyeongbokgung and Changgyeonggung, where traditional Korean architecture was still extant, although mostly deteriorated.
After years of neglect during the industrialization fever of the past century, the government turned its attention to recover the history of Seoul in the remaking of Bukchon Village through the Bukchon Hanok Regeneration Project in 2000.14 A hanok is a traditional Korean single-story house made of wood structure, ondol—underfloor heating system—and tiled or thatched roof. To revive what remains of Korean vernacular architecture in Bukchon and turn it into a tourist hub, the government subsidized hanok owners to repair or rebuild their hanoks by providing grants and low-interest loans, a departure from the previous century’s policies that prevented the smallest changes to these buildings, which ultimately led to their dilapidation. The new preservation policies, however, led to even more destruction of original hanoks as owners were able to demolish and rebuild their residences to add another story or to entirely modernize them and switch their use to become a bar or a restaurant, for example.15 The Bukchon Hanok Village is one of the most touristy spots in Seoul, because it seemingly provides a glimpse into the history of the city but most of the hanoks that exist there are only a facsimile. Although, among a landscape of repetitive grey buildings, being in Bukchon or Ikseondong, another neighborhood that retains some hanoks, is a much more pleasant experience.
Figures 21–25 Bukchon Hanok Village
In addition to a revival of vernacular architecture to raise Seoul’s cultural profile, the state initiated several iconic mega-projects like the restoration of Cheonggye Stream and the construction of Dongdaemun Design Plaza by Zaha Hadid. Both projects were controversial for the fear of displacing local communities, shops, and markets that developed there over decades.16
Perhaps one of the most symbolic projects of the government’s effort to rebrand Seoul’s image is the restoration of Cheonggye Stream, which was covered with concrete and turned into a roadway in 1958. In 1976, an elevated highway was built on top of it and remained in use until the stream was restored in 2005. The project became central to Mayor Lee Myung-bak’s bid for election, for he promised to improve Seoul’s cityscape and revitalize its economy through major urban interventions that increase tourism.17 The project gained public support as it removed the elevated highway, a symbol of the developmental state’s urbanism, uncovered the drying stream underneath the concrete, and introduced a pedestrian recreational space in a very congested part of the city. While the project does create a unique urban experience that provides a much needed respite from the hustle of the city, environmentally it does little.18 It’s not a true stream. One scholar described it as a fountain where “running water is pumped up and sent flowing along the course. Moreover, because the bottom of the stream is made of concrete, and therefore nearly incapable of performing any purification functions, it stands to reason in some sense that the water would become progressively unclean.”19 Following the Cheonggye Stream eastward, one arrives at the alien-looking structure of Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP). The DPP was built after the destruction of Dongdaemun Stadium that stood there since 1925.The flea markets that were displaced from the Cheonggye restoration project had used the stadium as their new location until they were eliminated to build the iconic DDP.20
Figures 26–29 Chyeonggye Stream
Figure 30 Dongdaemun Design Plaza
Figure 31 Dongdaemun Design Plaza with ruins of the old Dongdaemun Stadium
If we consider a successful postwar reconstruction a resumption of economic activity, return of displaced populations, physical recovery of infrastructure and transportation networks, then Seoul has all the markers of an effective reconstruction. Seoul’s remarkable rebirth as a global metropolis in a short time makes it hard to remember that it had ever experienced war in its recent history. There are not many reminders of the Korean War in Seoul, perhaps with the exception of the War Memorial of Korea. In many of the cities I’ve visited during the fellowship, the effects of war often still manifested as physical scars or memorials that expressed what story the city wanted to tell about its past, based on what was memorialized and by whom. Seoul is a special example in that its postwar narrative was always more concerned about its future rather than past. The prevalent description of Seoul as a city that had risen from the ashes or a “miracle on the Han River” limits the discussion of Seoul’s urban ecology after the Korean War to a parable of how a city overcame adversity and succeeded to become one of the richest economies in the world. This narrative was mainly born out of the heavy-handed government-controlled development of the first three decades after the war, where city-making was only a means to achieve economic goals. Efficiency and functionalism became the neutralizing brush that painted over Seoul’s urban landscape, producing neighborhoods of lookalike towers distinguished only by numbers, compromising in the process its cultural and historical identity.
However, Seoul’s commitment to modernize and reinvents itself began long before the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. The last king of the Joseon Dynasty, King Gojong, opened the country’s ports to trades in the late 19th century, which led to the introduction of new ideas and technologies. Western architectural styles that were popular in Japanese cities then began to emerge in Seoul, like in the King’s own Seokjojeon Hall, built in a Neo-Renaissance style, which stands side by side with vernacular Korean structures in Deoksugung Palace. While most of Seoul’s modernization occurred under the control of imperial Japan and the authoritarian regime after the war, a drive for innovation had always been part of its history.
Figure 32 Seokjojeon Hall, built in 1910
Figure 33 Deoksugung Palace buildings
Even to the detriment of its architectural heritage, what makes Seoul a unique city is its willingness to change and experiment in city-making, whether it is converting an old railway line into the dynamic Gyeongui Line Forest Park to add more public space or to turn metro stations into art galleries as in the Ui-Sinseol subway line. For a visitor, it might be hard to distinguish one street lined with towers and department stores from another, but once you veer off the big thoroughfares and turn into a side street or an alley, Seoul’s rich spirit unfolds in a dynamic unpredictability of scenes, eclectic street facades, and a strong social life that populate its cafes, restaurants, and food markets at any time in the day and night.
Figure 34–36 Gyeongui Line Forest Park
Perhaps a concrete jungle is not the urban image Seoul wants for itself, but its post-war model of development became a distinctly South Korean expertise that the country exports to other war-torn societies in the world to aid in their reconstruction. In my own home city of Baghdad, the Korean construction conglomerate Hanwha leads the first and largest urban development of Bismayah New City, a planned community that consists of apartment towers, schools, hospitals, and other public facilities. Bismayah is the first of its kind in Baghdad’s low-rise sprawling urbanism but now the city is seeing a multiplication of this form of development as more gated and planned communities rise up in its skyline. South Korean officials are already meeting with the Ukrainian government to discuss post-war reconstruction and city planning of destroyed Ukrainian cities. Planning post-war cities has become an essential block of the South Korean economy.
1 Seoul Museum of History
2 Yun, Jieheerah. Globalizing Seoul: The City's Cultural and Urban Change. Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.
4 Kal, Hong. “Seoul Spectacle The City Hall, the Plaza and the Public.” City Halls and Civic Materialism: Towards a Global History of Urban Public Space, 2014.
5 Yun, Jieheerah. Globalizing Seoul: The City's Cultural and Urban Change. Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.
6 Douglass, Mike. “Creative Communities and the Cultural Economy — Insadong, Chaebol Urbanism and the Local State in Seoul.” Cities 56 (2016): 148–55. doi:10.1016/J.CITIES.2015.09.007.
8 Jung, Inha. Architecture and Urbanism in Modern Korea. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014.
9 Yun, Jieheerah. Globalizing Seoul: The City's Cultural and Urban Change. Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.
11 Jung, Inha. Architecture and Urbanism in Modern Korea. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014.
12 Douglass, Mike. “Creative Communities and the Cultural Economy — Insadong, Chaebol Urbanism and the Local State in Seoul.” Cities 56 (2016): 148–55. doi:10.1016/J.CITIES.2015.09.007.
13 Yun, Jieheerah. Globalizing Seoul: The City's Cultural and Urban Change. Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.
16 Jung, Inha. Architecture and Urbanism in Modern Korea. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014.
18 Marshall, Colin. “Story of Cities #50: the Reclaimed Stream Bringing Life to the Heart of Seoul.” The Gaurdian, May 25, 2016.
Magdalena Miłosz is a historian at Parks Canada. She lives in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, and has been a member of SAH since 2017.
Tell us about your career path.
I grew up in Toronto and attended the undergraduate program in architectural studies at the University of Waterloo in Cambridge, Ontario. I enjoyed the emphasis on cultural history in the program: reading, writing, visiting buildings, watching films, and looking at works of art were respites from grueling days in the studio. The co-op program allowed me to get a sense for different forms of architectural practice, as well as trying out related fields like urban design and planning.
After graduation, I worked in the Toronto practice of Moffet & Duncan for a couple of years, focusing mostly on schools as well as getting involved in the business side through writing proposals. I returned to UW to complete a professional master’s, working with the late Andrew Levitt, Robert Jan van Pelt, and William Woodworth. I wanted to write a research-based thesis, eventually settling on the architectural history of residential schools as a topic, at the suggestion of John McMinn. As an immigrant to and settler in Canada, I had had the typical experience of learning next to nothing about Indigenous issues before going to university. The legacy of residential schools was gaining more public visibility at the time due to the struggle of survivors for acknowledgment of and compensation for their experiences in these institutions. I became really interested in the role of architecture in this history.
After I defended my thesis, I worked as an intern architect at a local firm, but found myself drawn back to the work I had started in graduate school. I began my PhD in architecture shortly thereafter, under the supervision of Annmarie Adams at McGill University in Montreal, with Ipek Türeli and David Fortin, now of the University of Waterloo, on my committee. Recently, I started working as an architectural historian with Parks Canada as I finish up my dissertation.
What projects are you currently working on?
My main project outside of work is, of course, my doctoral dissertation. It currently has the slightly too-long title, “‘They Have Decided What Houses Will Be Built’: Indigenous Peoples, Architecture, and the Settler-Colonial State, 1920–1970s.” I look at the built environment as a site of encounter between Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian government, particularly the role of architecture in materializing oppressive federal policies against Indigenous communities in the mid-twentieth century. I have recently wrapped up a few pieces of writing as I figure out how to balance employment, dissertating, and side passion projects (it’s hard—pick two). These include a book review of Cheryl Cowdy’s Canadian Suburban: Reimagining Space and Place in Postwar English Canadian Fiction on H-Net Environment and an entry on the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67 for Smarthistory. Since 2019, I have also served as a board member of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada and in this role have enjoyed working primarily in communications.
In my role at Parks Canada, I’m working on public history, heritage, and commemoration projects, specifically places nominated by the public for consideration as national historic sites, as well as federally owned heritage buildings. So far, I have been involved in projects touching on Indigenous and settler-colonial histories, the history of education, and the history of medicine, all through an architectural lens. I’m still quite new to this role, but so far I see it in many ways as both a continuation of my previous work as well as a sideways move outside of academia. I’m excited about everything I’ve learned so far, and I look forward to seeing where the work goes.
Do you have a particular memory of when you first became aware of the significance of architecture or when you knew you wanted to study it?
Like many architecture students, I was inspired to enter the field because I had a lot of interests and couldn’t quite settle on one side of the arts/science divide. And my high school guidance counsellor suggested it as a profession that might be a good fit! Aside from these somewhat clichéd experiences, I was really moved by the teaching of Robert Jan van Pelt in my first year of studies. As a Holocaust historian, Robert Jan had us thinking early on about difficult histories and their relationship to architecture. I can now see the impact of that in my academic interests.
What is your biggest professional challenge?
I’m currently learning a lot about neurodiversity and different ways of thinking, working, learning, and understanding the world. In particular, I am interested in how these differences manifest within work environments and are or are not allowed to be expressed. One of my biggest challenges has been trying to navigate educational and professional settings based on neurotypical standards and not understanding why I often felt like I was falling short. For example, as an architecture student I often found the studio to be an overstimulating and draining environment, something I couldn’t reconcile with the expectation to spend long hours there (the same was true for open-plan offices later on).
I want to acknowledge that lockdowns, and the pandemic in general, have been extremely difficult for many people in very different ways. For me, and I think for some others who gained the privilege of working from home during the last few years, there was an epiphany that there are alternatives to force-fitting oneself into neurotypical molds. Realizing and coming to terms with my neurodivergence is an ongoing process, and I am still learning how to talk about it. However, I wanted to put it out there in case it resonates for anyone else!
Another challenge, not unrelated, is the issue of moving outside of academia in the midst of or after completing a PhD. Coming from a professional, rather than academic, background, I wasn’t fully aware of what a PhD meant when I decided to pursue it, nor of the typical academic career path until I was well into my studies. While that path is right for some, I realized along the way that it wasn’t a good fit for me and began to explore alternatives. I think the PhD can be a great experience and have tremendous value for careers outside of academia proper, including university administration, government, heritage, the GLAM sector (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums)—and beyond. There are a lot of challenges along the way, but my sense is that this type of shift is becoming a much more common and even desirable option.
When and how did you become involved with SAH?
My first encounter with SAH was in 2018, when I attended the annual conference in Saint Paul, Minnesota, to present at the Graduate Student Lightning Talks. I really appreciated the other presenters’ ability to pare down super complex topics into engaging, yet succinct, five-minute talks—an essential skill with which I still sometimes struggle! That year, I was also a volunteer to get a feel for what happens behind the scenes of a major conference, as well as to take advantage of the reduced registration fee. I highly recommend this experience to students and anyone else interested in getting a bit more involved during conferences.
I learned a lot at the sessions that year and had a great time discovering the Twin Cities. In particular, I really enjoyed the tour of University Avenue, which took us between the downtowns of Saint Paul and Minneapolis on the Green Line LRT. Every few stops, we got off to look at some cool historic buildings, including several that had been adaptively reused or were being restored. It was a wonderful way to experience the urban history of the area.
How has SAH enriched your experience in architectural history?
Being involved with SAH has expanded my network of colleagues in architectural history, exposed me to new methods and ways of thinking about the field, and resulted in some great learning opportunities, such as helping to coordinate the SAH Annual Conference Student Diversity Fellowship in 2021–2022. I’ve also gotten to travel to conferences and experience directly the built environment in places I may not otherwise have visited.
Do you have a vision for how SAH should evolve in the future?
In the years since I joined SAH, I think the organization has made commendable strides towards becoming more diverse and inclusive. The IDEAS committee is doing fantastic work in this area, as are various affiliate groups. I think as someone from Canada, I am very much US-adjacent and not necessarily aware of the barriers to participation that scholars from other parts of the world may experience. I love the idea of a more global, multilingual SAH.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to enter your field?
Network. As a neurodivergent introvert, I used to dread the very idea of networking. But then I heard it explained this way: “It just means staying in touch.” (Apologies to the author of this fantastic reframing; your identity has slipped my mind, but your advice has stayed with me). Whether it’s waiting until after the conference to write a note to someone whose ideas intrigued you, picking up the thread of correspondence with an old colleague, being open to helping someone who asks, or seeking advice from a mentor, you will come out stronger when cultivating community in the ways that are available to you.
And stay open to possibilities. There are many ways to do architectural history, both in terms of methodology/approach and in the sense of a career path. Explore!
Sara Varanese is the 2022 recipient of the SAH Dissertation Research Fellowship. She is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History at Rutgers University. All figures author’s own.
I am in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha in Eastern India. Since I arrived, I am spending days and days at each of the many temples of this medieval city. I get to know the material slowly by going through each detail, taking notes, describing the iconography and location of each image. I measure each of the empty niches where icons are missing, maybe carried off to some museum, maybe lost to the antiquities trade. I take notes by hand, I sketch the layouts, I draw the base moldings.
In this process of just being with the temples, I encounter another kind of source. Temple goers, curious to see me there, stop and ask questions. Sometimes they tell me the reason why they are at the temple. Sometimes they explain the stories behind the temples and the deities. The Brahmins ask what I am doing, why I am there every day. I show them my notebook, the sketches. I explain that I am a researcher. And in these encounters, I can also start asking questions.
Figure 3: The site of the Rameswara temple, with the three temples dedicated to his brothers located just across the street. Behind the Rameswara is a large water reservoir, the Ashoka Jhara.
I am sitting in front of three of Bhubaneswar’s oldest temples, dating from the sixth century (Figure 1). A man has been performing a ritual for his son’s wedding. When he understands that I am working on the medieval city, he volunteers the story of the temples. The heroes of the Ramayana, one of the most known epic tales of India, came here to repay their karmic debt after slaying their enemy, Ravana, who was a demon but also a Brahmin.1 "This is where Ram and his brothers sat and did penance," I am told. The three temples are named after Lakshmana, Bharata, and Shatrughna, Ram’s three brothers. A bigger temple just in front of them and across the street is named Rameswara, after Ram himself (Figures 2 and 3). In the oral history of Bhubaneswar, these temples are the petrification of a mythological event.
The next day I am at the temples again, and a Brahmin gives me the second half of the story. To reward the brothers for their penance, the god Shiva descended and showed himself to them, thus establishing himself in Bhubaneswar. This event also corresponds to a physical site in the city. The main temple in Bhubaneswar, the Lingaraj temple, is built around a svayambhu lingam, a natural rock formation that is believed to be a manifestation of Shiva (Figure 4).2
The sequence of events transmitted by communal memory is confirmed by the landscape. Oral history establishes a series of events in time, and connects them to the site of the Rameswara, where the three brothers sit, then to the site of the Lingaraja, where Shiva appears (Figure 5). The dating of the temples themselves, in their earliest iteration, places all of them at the very beginning of temple-building activity in Bhubaneswar, around the sixth and seventh centuries.3 They are all equally ancient, part of the earliest ritual foundations of the city. However, another element of the landscape suggests a greater antiquity for the Rameswara site. Just behind the temple, a water reservoir named Ashoka Jhara is the find site of a capital dating from the third century BCE.4 The name of the Ashoka Jhara and the archaeological findings here indicate that the site does in fact pre-date the Lingaraja temple.5
Figure 4: The Lingaraja temple dates from the eleventh century, but its enclosure contains sculptures and fragments dating from the seventh century. Historical texts also suggest the existence of a structure here at least from the sixth to seventh century.
Figure 5: The sites of the Rameswara and Lingaraja temples in the context of Bhubaneswar. The grey outline marks the approximate extent and distribution of the medieval material in Bhubaneswar. A denser urban core is surrounded by satellite clusters around a mile away from the central area. One of these clusters is the Rameswara group.
As I spend time in the field, I understand more about the role of oral history in my research. I started working on the landscape of Bhubaneswar from maps and satellite imagery, referencing secondary bibliography and scholars’ dating of its many temples and archaeological sites. I mapped the temples in a digital software and connected each element of the landscape to a database, literally a collection of "data," as I tried to understand the history of this city and reconstruct a chronology of its urbanization. Now that I am in the field, I realize that my analysis of the physical landscape, of materiality and spatiality, is not enough to describe its ritual spaces. When grounded in the lived experience of the temples, my project takes on additional layers, which must somehow coexist with the "data," even while confusing it sometimes. I am still learning to navigate these forms of tradition and knowledge that have been passed on from person to person—sometimes eventually written—in what is known as "twilight language," sandhya, where information is kept beneath the wavering surface of narration and symbol. Oral history and the language or myth are not "data," yet they are a fundamental part of the experience of the city and essential to its understanding. At least for the area around the Rameswara temple, oral history and archaeological material coincide in identifying this as one of the oldest sites in the settlement’s history, predating the construction of the first temples by almost a millennia.
Figure 6: View of the water reservoir of the Ashoka Jhara, slightly depleted during the dry season. The spire of the Rameswara temple is just visible behind the trees in the background.
1 The Sanskrit epic of the Ramayana was composed between the seventh century BCE and the fourth century CE. In the story, the hero Ram and his three brothers slay the demon Ravana. However, Ravana is a Brahmin, and his killing is considered one of the most terrible sins that can be committed. To recover from their karmic debt, Ram and his brothers turn to the god Shiva, who orders them to go to Bhubaneswar to worship him in order to atone for their act.
2 A svayambhu lingam is an especially potent natural occurrence that automatically establishes a sacred landscape, as it indicates a place that was chosen by the deity itself to establish their presence in the landscape. Svayambhu literally means "self-created" or "self-manifested." A lingam is an aniconic representation of the deity Shiva, considered to be more powerful than his anthropomorphic icons. It has a phallic shape, symbolizing creation and fertility.
3 The Rameshwara dates from the early twelfth century, but is built on seventh-century remains of an earlier stucture, possibly contemporary to the three smaller temples of the Shatrughneshwara, Bharateshwara, and Lakshmaneshwara, all dating from the sixth century themselves. The extant Lingaraja temple dates from the late eleventh century, but the earliest date reported by historical texts for the existence of a shrine at this site is the seventh century. See Thomas E. Donaldson, Hindu Temple Art of Orissa, vol 1, Studies in South Asian Culture, v. 12 (Leiden: New York : E.J. Brill, 1985); Chandra Krishna Panigrahi, Archaeological Remains at Bhubaneswar (Orient Longman, 1961); Charles Louis Fabri, History of the Art of Orissa (Bombay: Orient Longman, 1974).
4 The site of Bhubaneswar in general has a long archaeological history that is connected to the Mauryan period (c. fourth to second century BCE) and to the emperor Ashoka, whose capital, Toshali, has been identified by some scholars in a ruined fortification just southeast of the medieval city. See Chandra Krishna Panigrahi, Archaeological Remains at Bhubaneswar (Orient Longman, 1961), 178–180.
5 Scholars consider contemporary ritual performance in Bhubaneswar as additional proof of the preexistence of the Rameswara. "The sanctity of this site is still celebrated today by a festive visit once a year on the day of Ashokastami in the month of Chaitra (March–April) by the movable images of the lord Tribhuvaneswara (Lingaraja) and his family members, a ritual suggesting the deity of a later shrine paying homage to the deity of an earlier shrine." Chandra Krishna Panigrahi, Archaeological Remains at Bhubaneswar (Orient Longman, 1961), 190. See also Thomas E. Donaldson, Hindu Temple Art of Orissa, vol 1, Studies in South Asian Culture, v. 12 (Leiden: New York : E.J. Brill, 1985), 31.
Adil Mansure is a 2022 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.
Various Indigenous peoples have dwelt for thousands of years along the Arctic circle. Here, time, frost, and colonial oppression have inevitably vetted out stellar models of living sustainably. What are these architectures of adaptation, buoyancy, and persistence? And what about them don’t we still understand and are not able to pin—and pen—down? Many of these peoples never took to writing or drawing, yet, their elders, who they deem to be spiritual librarians of their communities, transfer thousands of years of architectural knowledge through their stories. This traditional and ecological knowledge is rich, holistic, and not siloed into narrow knowledge domains; architecture, too, is a phase in the life cycle of carbon chemistry involving food, clothing, energy, and shelter. Architecture is thus important in mitigating change pertaining to migration, climate, and resource management, and not merely an outcome of industrial production. For this traveling fellowship, I sought to speak to the elders and knowledge-keepers of various Indigenous peoples about the architectural knowledge that lay intertwined in their stories, myth, and worldviews. It is precisely in the ‘unwritten-ness’ of their knowledge that its adaptability and sustainability lies—and this oral epistemological format thus compels an ‘oral history’ project. Given similarities in climate and other geographical conditions along similar latitudes, and also to some extent similarities in how Indigenous peoples were colonized, I proposed a comparative, circumpolar, oral history project. Thanks to the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship, I traveled to Iceland to talk to the Icelanders, to Southern Yukon to talk to various Yukon First Nations, and to Haida Gwaii to talk to the Haida.
I want to use this brief essay to discuss some ideas common to the various conversations I have had during my travels. Examples that discuss these themes in further detail can be found in each of the monthly fellowship reports I have written, which I will point to in this essay. I also want to note that, like previous reports, any accounts I am sharing are deliberately being kept anonymous. This report is not the space to disclose personal stories or make ‘human subjects’ out of the people who were kind enough to have conversations with me. I have made promises to not record or transcribe, but simply describe through abstract and third-person narratives, the attitudes and ideas that have struck me as most remarkable.
I must clarify first that I am not myself Indigenous, and prior to these travels, knew little about the Indigenous communities I wished to speak to for this oral history project. I am of Indian and Pakistani origin, belonging to an Indian minority, and now a Canadian minority. Being from a colony of the British empire, I relate somewhat to the oppression that many Indigenous communities have endured on the grounds of language, race, religion, public identity, and spatial expression. Language is particularly important here, both from a personal and global perspective. I think of English as my second language—‘second,’ however, not to any one ‘first.’ And this is something that I have discovered to share with several elders and artists of the Indigenous communities I have spoken with. The imposition of English upon the now-Canadian First Nations and banning the use of their languages—especially in the residential schools that Indigenous children were coerced into—was a major weapon of colonization that even today continues to manifest its deleterious effects. The Indigenous communities I have spoken to are now witnessing a crucial multi-generational void, and ruptures of both a cultural and an epistemic nature. Where then might strands of continuity be found for the fostering and regeneration of Indigenous traditional knowledge and culture?
Not by any means a scholar of Indigenous culture or architecture, I came to this project primarily with an interest in and some prior work on language and space. I am deeply interested in how world-building occurs primarily through language. Not only are we compelled to language from our very beginnings, but we make sense of the world significantly through the terms of common parlance. In Louis Althusser’s terms, we are interpellated by language; that is we become ourselves as mediated through and by the languages we speak.1 However, we are not only shaped by language, we also simultaneously and collectively shape the languages we speak. Personalities are influenced and shaped by, but by no means entirely decided by language. Like any technology—architecture included—creation and identity occur and recur in the interstices between the coda of any convention. This nature of language, this shared technology abundant with entropy, is not only incredibly complex but also mysterious and intriguing to study—especially in the language uses of the Canadian Indigenous peoples I have spoken to, even in their use of English. With them, it is evident that ‘meaning’ lies beyond and in-between their common symbols, structures, grammar, and rules of language use, and it is only by engaging with them personally that I have even a slight understanding of their culture and knowledge. So with language, we find ourselves to be in a double bind: we approach community and culture through language, we shape it and are shaped by it, but ultimately we reach that point where we know that what lies beyond escapes it. It forms both the local and general at the same time. How language escapes the symbolic for the peoples I have met interests me very much, since I conjecture that architectural knowledge tests the symbolic in similar ways. Language, engaged with in this way is precisely what it shares with architecture: it yields the very spaces where we can model how we are immersed in our societies, technology, cultures, and indeed the environment.
I chose to begin in Iceland; an unconventional choice, one might think, given that Icelanders might not be considered to be Indigenous, per se. However, as I explained in my first SAH fellowship report—beyond being a sub-Arctic land sharing geographical similarities with other Indigenous communities I spoke to—not only does the island have a history of austerity, impoverishment, and (soft) colonization, but furthermore, it has a unique history of literary arts (evident in the Sagas and Eddas, for example) that exhibits an intriguing interplay between writing and orality. Although writing has been a significant endeavor that numerous Icelanders undertook, and despite being a uniquely highly literate society in world history having vast readership, recitation and (oral) story-telling in Iceland formed significant activities of cultural life around which other activities of familial life were organized. So writing and orality here are not in opposition, on the contrary, and to echo Walter Ong, each advances the other.2 Speaking to Icelanders about this interplay between the written and the oral has provoked incredibly fruitful conversations about the shaping of various Icelandic topoi (notions of space that exist somewhere between linguistic and architectural space). As I elaborated on in my SAH fellowship report focused on Iceland, such topos are evident in their legends and myths shaped about and around particular landforms of the rather active Icelandic geo-scape; for example, how the features of trolls, ogres, elves, and other huldufólk (hidden folk) are shaped by and relate to specific places and features of the land.
Fig 1: Basalt rock formations at Reynisfjara; commonly spoken about as a petrified troll
Fig 2: Basalt rock formations at Reynisfjara, mirrored in the Hallgrímskirkja, and the National Theater of Iceland buildings in Reykjavik
I have found such stories to be a circumpolar theme: not only in Iceland, but across Canada, and in Lapland (where I did not travel but spoke to members of the Sami peoples), features of the various species on the land and the landforms alike are extended, augmented, and metamorphosed to yield protagonist personae of their stories. It must be noted that these stories are inseparable from their spatio-temporal contexts of telling: in Iceland, for example, they were recited (often read from manuscripts) at gatherings within their domestic spaces (usually turf houses) during their long winters; or told during wayfaring, where the stories indirectly contained vital information about where to go or not go, and how to do so.
Fig 3: Reconstructed turf house complex, transported to and exhibited at the Skógar Museum, Iceland
Fig 4 & 5: Interior of the main/living room at the turf house complex renovated by Hannes Lárusson, Austur-Meðalholt
Fig 6: Kitchen of the reconstructed turf house complex, transported to and exhibited at the Skógar Museum, Iceland
Fig 7: Abandoned turf house at Drangurinn í Drangshlíð
The landforms and various animate species co-exist as protagonists, as it were, in an ongoing environmental theater—where both species and spaces are brought into existence with their features shaped by (or with) constant exchanges with the other. Similarly, people from the Yukon and Northwest Territories I have spoken to have spoken about encountering tall creatures whose features were shaped by their ecosystems; and likewise people from Haida Gwaii have gestured to creatures shaped by the dynamism of the intertidal zone—or the chaw saalii in the Haida language3—that the Haida inhabited. In fact, Haida and other coastal peoples’ very conceptions of space reflects what they observe other creatures’ patterns of spatial inhabitation to be; for example, they perceive the worlds of killer whales under the surfaces of waves to be mirrors of sorts, of the spatial patterns the Haida produce. Conceptually speaking, such exchanges between places and people, the significance of which I will try to articulate further in what follows, I have found to be common themes between various regions of the sub-Arctic North. What is of importance here is not the ‘legitimacy’ of any claims of having witnessed so-called mythical creatures, but the way human behavior, society, and space are shaped about their common beliefs. Not only do information exchanges here best occur through oral language, but modeling the shaping of their information, cosmologies, and worldviews is best done by studying their oral exchanges and dispersions.
I have found these stories to be information-rich, in ways that have only recently been appreciated by various scientific communities. The stories I encountered contained archaeological information and information pertinent to environmental history that could be deciphered, so to speak, by coupling, carefully looking at landscapes with relating them back to incidents in the stories. This, too, is a northern circumpolar theme: the marriage of traditional knowledge and its means of formation and sustenance; in other words, oral epistemologies with scientific means—especially geology and archaeology. In Iceland, in the Yukon, and other parts of Canada, stories have contained vital information about not only how the lands have been shaped for thousands of years by various geological factors, but also how the ancestors of the storytellers reacted to these environmental changes and how their patterns of life, migration, and sustenance came to be.4 It must be noted that these stories are told not simply for curing intellectual interest, rather, they contain vital know-how for sustenance and for taking care of the environment. Through my travels, I have spoken to anthropologists and geologists who highlighted that it was by forming vital relationships with particular Indigenous communities that they came upon precious knowledge about both the land and the people. (Of course, many of these relationships are rather contentious as scientists have often disrespected the generosity of the Canadian First Nations and dug up their ancestors’ graves, lied about various stories for their academic glory, and engaged in other misdemeanors. I have been fortunate to speak to a few people where the relationships continue to be ones of mutual respect, and furthermore, I have been very fortunate to speak to both sides.) These stories and this knowledge deal with long durations and vast geographies, and exhibit varied knowledge-keeping methods—unlike the ‘analysis and inference’ processes of recent scientific research methods. The peoples look at the mountains, movements of glaciers and rivers, and other geographical features, and identify how times have passed differently in the various places their ancestors encountered. And although I have not been able to circumambulate the globe along sub-Arctic latitudes as originally planned, I have spoken to some members of the Sami (from Lapland) and the Inuit (from Canada and Greenland) at a circumpolar Indigenous festival in the Yukon, and finding such value in their information-rich stories appears to be very common indeed in the circumpolar North. Thus, not only are natural occurrences of various scales and magnitudes recorded by shaping protagonists in stories that correspond to them, but geological, natural, and environmental history are themselves mediated by way of oratory practice and recital.
A significant feature of this oral epistemological format is that it is evident how the information pre-exists the categories of information that we have forced knowledge into since the Enlightenment. Stories flow freely from imagination to life lessons to teaching about morality to passing on valuable skills required in everyday life. The vital presence of these stories and the contexts in which they come to be are significant parts—and indeed forms—of life itself and cannot be sheared away into measured quanta of informational material. Much of the knowledge is tacit, or even tactile. The stories thus live on somewhere between matter and mind; between Descartes’ infamous categories of res cogito and res extensa.5 Neither are categories such as form and content, or narrative and content, applicable here. Architecture, too, in such knowledge comes through not as a discipline but as a phase in the life cycle of carbon chemistry, and is intermingled with food, clothing, energy, and shelter.
Fig 8 & 9: Hut for drying cod fish in the turf house complex renovated by Hannes Lárusson, Austur-Meðalholt. Similar buildings for processing fish have been built along the coasts of circumpolar sub-Arctic regions.
A point I want to emphasize that underlies this project is: the depth and richness of information of Indigenous knowledge come from an ethos and a culture of care invested in the survival of all species and spaces, and not from atomizing knowledge into bits of information to generate speculative value and use. And this is perhaps also why their language deployed so has (at least until recently) escaped writing and other forms of inscription that attempt to freeze language into visual and uni-sensory quantifiable forms. The imperatives toward their oral epistemology are especially prescient today, and these imperatives are precisely what we must learn from various Indigenous peoples.
Long ago · it was · she said, · my mom, · water · flooded · earth · on.
No · land · area seen.
Bald eagle · and · Raven · driftwood · on · they sat.
Fish little · and · seaweed · they eat, · that · by · they lived.6
As this short excerpt from a transcript of a tale told by Nakhela—Hazel Bunbury in the Southern Tutchone language (from Southern Yukon) shows, the deployment of language is direct, with periods and intonations punctuating long and silent, but heterogeneous durations. As is evident above, the emphasis of storytellers is often on acts or activities and objects, which are expressed in succinct phraseology. Not only did the impetus to speak come from places I was quite unfamiliar with, but with meters and rhythms strikingly particular. Unlike many a European language, where the strict grammar, sentence constructions, and other rules of language use take prominence and attention—thus, also disciplining their speakers—Indigenous linguistic experience appears to yield more tolerance, give, and dynamism. Although hardly any native speakers of these languages survive, the voice of the author has effects that I find to resonate and resound even in transcriptions—but only having witnessed the telling of some of these stories. And it is precisely the spirit of such orations and narrations that I have witnessed the elders I encountered on my trip to foster, even in their use of the English language. Catherine McClelland has discussed the role that language played for the Yukon First Nations and emphasized that it was used rather sparingly.7 Words, acts, and other symbols carried an emphasis that clued the fact that the gestures to be communicated lay somewhere just beyond the realms of the symbols used. Elders were verbose only in times when important knowledge was to be passed on, when expression was coupled with the intensity of (non-linguistic) action. Such patterns of silence, followed sometimes by enthusiastic and focused narrations, are precisely what I recognized in the conversations I have had with the Canadian First Nations. It can generally be said that language was valued because of a restraint that was usually at work, a linguistic restraint and culture of valuing that mirrors other facets of their life.
In many of the stories told, some that I witnessed directly and others that I discussed with artists and elders, the voice of the storyteller caught my intrigue. I was struck by not only the oratory patterns and acoustic resonances, but also by the positioning and authority of the narrator. Stories were often told in a ‘first-person’ voice, as if the teller was present in the (historical or mythical) time that the stories took place. The Ice Ages, for example, which I thought to be far and distant in both history and geography before my travels, I found to be ever-so-fresh in many of the stories that I witnessed—as if it had just happened! Such a notion of time is perhaps what the scholar of ancient cultures Mircea Eliade refers to as illud tempore (in ‘that time’, a mythical time that legitimizes the repetitions of a culture’s rituals and practices).8 By no means did the first-person voice stand for a transcendental force or God, but merely one who had witnessed many incidents over the years, learned the stories from their ancestors (by repeating verbatim), and thus could weave together ways of presenting best practices and modes of adapting for survival and care-taking to subsequent generations. Such a voice, in addition to conveying important information, also produces immense affect and induces a life-like presence in the very time and space of the present or recent telling of the story. It is the voice of an individual, but also of their ancestors and peoples. Tenses as well as the identity of the author are not fixed, but shift positions between various historical and present times, in accordance with the subjects or listeners being addressed. To be sure, such affects of presencing are not superadded, and neither are they representational or purely leisurely. They are the very lifeline of the peoples, since history, myth, morality, and so on, were inextricably interwoven in their stories. Such a voice is thus also how the common ground of the people is continuously sustained and reinvigorated.
The imperatives of such voicing are perhaps best discussed with an almost forgotten domain or discipline: rhetoric. However, rather than discuss the stories and knowledge using the concepts and terms of rhetoric, I want to shift slightly the discussion about the voice of the storyteller to how the rhetoric associated with such voicing operates through art. In previous reports, I have discussed numerous works of art and the conversations I have had with their creators: I am thinking of those reconstructing turf houses in Iceland and sod-houses in many parts of the Canadian North (Fig 10 & 11); of those tanning and stringing the hides of caribou and moose in the Yukon (Fig 12); of those building kayaks using dried animal hides (Fig 13 & 14); and of those carving totem poles and dug-out canoes in Haida Gwaii (Fig 15 & 16).
Fig 10 & 11: Turf house complex renovated by Hannes Lárusson at Austur-Meðalholt in South-Iceland
Fig 12: Vadzaih dhòh (Caribou Skin) by Copper Caribou (Montana Prysnuk and Delaney Prysnuk), exhibited at the Yukon Arts Center, Whitehorse, 2022
Fig 13 & 14: A kayak and canoe made from animal hide by Doug Smarch (and others) from Teslin, exhibited at the Adäka Festival 2022 in Whitehorse, Yukon
Fig 15 & 16: Formline comparison between: A Gitxsan totem pole in Gitanyow, BC, and a Haida totem pole in Old Masset
Fig 17, 18, 19: Formline comparison between: A Gitxsan totem pole in Gitanyow, BC, a Haida totem pole in Old Masset (Note the flat and fat lip. This was a symbol of a higher-ranked individual in the Haida social matrix), and a Gitxsan totem pole at the Ksan Historical village in Hazelton, BC
Fig 20 & 21: Dug-out canoes at the Haida Gwaii Museum, Skidegate.
In retrieving the tools of their ancestors, reforming contact with the sources and contexts of their materials, and attempting to (re)invent their most vital skills and know-how, are they not embodying precisely the first-person voice of a storyteller? Not only are these Indigenous artists inevitably positioned as repositories of their peoples’ knowledge—and their artistic processes being key means of retrieving further knowledge—but they also recall and collapse into the moment of artistic creation, precisely those historic and mythical times (illud tempore, as per Eliade) of their heritage. If the first-person voice and authority of the storyteller are vital in regenerating the common knowledge and conversational fabric of a peoples, is not art serving a similar role and regenerating the common skills, artistic heritage, and being a conduit to other forms of knowledge and memory? Even if rhetoric as a discipline or mode of inquiry is largely forgotten, its modes of operation are thus very much active through the artistic practices of the circumpolar North I have witnessed.
It is evident that a non-human-centric perspective is adopted in the conceptions of knowledge I have surveyed. I have hinted at this, but let us discuss it further. Significant tropes of such a perspective are animism and empathy (which I have also discussed with examples in each of my monthly SAH fellowship reports). As Mallgrave and Ikonomou have discussed in their book, Empathy, Form, and Space, ‘empathy’ emerged as a significant term, at least in nineteenth-century discourses of German aesthetics pertinent to architecture.9 In these theories, humans are described to perceive architectural and other objects by projecting upon them human-centric tropes and characteristics. As Wölfflin has suggested (in the above-mentioned book), ‘proportion’ as conceived in a Humanist framework relies on precisely such a conception of empathy and, since the Renaissance, has become tethered to the dimensions of the human body (which also has a history of being taken a bit too literally, as is the case with Francesco di Giorgio’s comparison of a sprawled-out human body to a cross church plan!)10 What is valuable in Wölfflin and the other ‘empathy’ theorists’ work is their insistence on space being not a pre-existing category of human intuition, but in fact coming into being in our very act of perception, in the dynamic and kinesthetic relations born in the moment of our seeing and cognizing that seeing. What I do find restrictive, however, is the object being limited to sculpture or architecture and the subject to humans. What about non-human animals? What about non-animal species? A further question that I have after witnessing Indigenous notions of space is: if we can see tropes of ‘human’ in buildings and other objects, how could we not extend them with human notions of care? Why is this Humanism not humane to all humans and other species? In what follows I will discuss how, in a non-human-centric worldview, the projections (of human to space) are much more complex and empathetic; how the ‘projectiles,’ as it were, of projection are not just uni-directional but form a complex web through which humans, animals, and objects/spaces interact and co-evolve.
First, unlike Western conceptions of neutral or homogenous space, the spaces that we are dealing with here are not understood in the abstract, but rather, quite directly from the various animal organs out of which objects of daily use were made.11 I highlighted in prior reports, how the Yukon First Nations used the intestines of moose and caribou as vessels to store in, and their stomachs used as vessels to boil and cook in. These organs and membranes have astonishing plasticity and variances, and these properties are evident in the peoples’ very conceptualization of space. The geometry that they work with is astoundingly complex, dealing with topologies of both curvature and flexibility. The knowledge of how to work these surfaces is very much tactile—and even tacit—and propagated by being practiced communally. Along the Arctic circle, the Inuit often used whale bones as structural skeletons for their own shelter. These were usually covered with animal hide. In the case of the Haida, and other peoples influenced by the dynamism of littoral zones, the geometry of marine animal bodies, seashells, and so on influences their conception of space. Not only is the initial conception of space highly influenced by the topology of the animal body that is (re)discovered in each act of harvesting, but (and especially in the case of the whale bone structure, which also involves enveloping human bodies with animal hides and furs) humans ‘place’ themselves within the animal bodies they consume. Furthermore, the spatial conceptions of various Indigenous peoples are not simply influenced by the internal spaces of animals, but also by the ways in which they observe shoals/herds/groups of animals to pattern and produce space. And to zoom out a magnitude further, both the animal and human body and relations between various species do not occur in a closed system, but are dynamic and changing as shaped by environmental factors. What happens within an animal body is a reflection of what occurs outside, and vice versa. This is evident in many Indigenous cosmologies, for example, for the Sami people from Lapland, the arterial network of reindeer is seen as analogous to their river networks, both of which are key sources of nourishment. I must also note here, as I did in my report on the Yukon, that harvesting an animal did not imply a lack of respect for the animal; in fact, as much of the literature I have discussed in that report shows, relationships between animals and humans are historically and environmentally complex where agency has been relegated equally to animals and humans in various instances.12 I also discussed how humans have not only taken from animals, but also given much; for example, Indigenous peoples harvesting herds of reindeer while also protecting them from other predators—an exchange that various First Peoples believe to be understood and acknowledged by the herds.13 Another point that must be emphasized is that the above notions of space are low on content that can be easily and permanently visualized; rather, they persist somewhere between common and tacit knowledge, tactile memory, and orally-transmitted (yet multi-sensorial) comprehension. Thus, complex relations and topologies of hunter and hunted, consumer and consumed, and outside and inside emerge here. And evident through the notion of empathy is a deep and holistic, information-rich understanding of the various entanglements between human, animal, and environment.
Finally, such an understanding of empathy does not exclude flora or inanimate objects. In Iceland, for example, the turf houses involve the roots of grass or turf interlocking after the laying of blocks of topsoil and turf to form walls. The structural stability of the buildings depends on life or nature itself to continue its processes upon and into the turf houses. Indigenous peoples in Canada practice a different dimension of empathy involving trees, where they are treated not only as natural resources to be used, but as archives of environmental history. The peoples decipher from their trees the history of the climate, the conditions of the land, and patterns of migration of various species (including humans), to mention a few aspects. This information was vital in deciding which parts of the lands or waters to inhabit and tend to, where materials could be harvested in ways that would benefit the land, and so on. Relationships were developed with each tree as it periodically yielded pitch, bark, resin, and many other resources. The uniqueness and personality, as it were, of each tree was understood. In harvesting trees for any artifacts, such as canoes and totem poles (in the case of the Haida and the Tlingit speaking tribes of the Yukon, British Columbia (BC), and Alaska), the characteristics of trees played an important role in its transformation into its subsequent life form—where ‘life form’ refers to the animated spirit each artifact was attributed to have. For example, in the making of a coastal Tlingit and Haida dug-out canoe, logs are first floated on the water, and the design of the canoe depended on how the log would float. No two canoes could be the same, as no two trees were the same. Furthermore, the connection of each canoe, totem pole, etc., to where it came from is never severed, as the story of its coming into being is shared in stories to be repeated through generations. Here, not only are sophisticated forms of mnemonics at work, but they simultaneously emphasize relationships of care and empathy, while also augmenting the richness of the language, know-how, and stories of the people.
Fig 22: In-progress portions of the turf house complex being renovated by Hannes Lárusson at Austur-Meðalholt (focus on the interlocking roots of turf that bond the blocks of topsoil together)
Fig 23 & 24: Trees at the Naikoon Provincial Park
Although my previous reports have been focused on specific peoples and the lands and waters they inhabited, there has been much information exchange between them. For instance, the connection of the Haida and coastal Tlingit to the inland Tlingit in the Yukon (the Teslin Tlingit First Nation) and northern BC (Atlin Tlingit First Nation). These exchanges are evident in not only the trade networks set up between them—which were further expanded in the last two or three centuries by British traders—but also in the formations of First Nations, tribes, and clans through the languages that consolidated. For example, the inland Tlingit First Nations were highly influenced by their coastal counterparts and the sub-marine cosmologies of the latter are hence evident in their boat making, acoustic instruments such as drums, and their shelters. The language maps, as it were, hence mirror exchanges in the skills, methods, buildings, and arts of the peoples of a region. Such maps are common (oral) knowledge, which have recently also been visualized, for example, the widely circulated maps of the Yukon Indigenous languages.
Many of these exchanges, and the differences in the worldviews of the peoples can be observed in the various versions of their common stories. For example, in this story told across Yukon, northern BC, and Alaska:
After Crow made the world, he saw that sea lion owned the only island in the world.
The rest was water—he’s the only one with land.
The whole place was ocean!
Crow rests on a piece of log—he’s tired.
He sees sea lion with that little island just for himself.
He wants some land too so he stole that sea lion’s kid.
“Give me back that kid!” said sea lion.
“Give me beach, some sand,” says Crow.
So sea lion gave him sand.
Crow threw that sand around the world.
“Be World,” he told it. And it became the world.14
In this origin story featuring the raven (or crow), depending on where and by whom the story is told, the other characters and details change. For example, in the versions told by the inland First Nations, the sea lion is replaced by a gull, and other elements also reflect the specific peoples’ lay of the land. What remains common in the many versions of this story, is that the narrator affects not a ubiquitous transcendental (or god), but a witness of sorts, one who simply happens to be around various acts of creation. Another common theme is the trickster persona of the Raven, who, in playing tricks for seemingly trivial gains, accidentally gets involved in various creative or originary acts. The accidental nature of much that happens is thus highlighted. In the region this story spread, there are several other commonalities: for example, skills such as boatbuilding, drum-making, and the building of longhouses, most of which were transferred from the coast to inland—whereas skills related to the skinning of animals and producing hides, furs, and so on transferred from inland to the coast. I highlighted in my report on the Yukon, how methods of treating, stretching, and stringing animal hides were common to building kayaks, drums, and tents—and how these led to the artifacts even exhibiting similar aural properties.
Fig 25, 26, 27, 28: An animal hide canoe made by Doug Smarch from Teslin, exhibited at the Adäka Festival 2022 in Whitehorse, Yukon; Drums from various Canadian First Nations, played at the Adäka Festival 2022 in Whitehorse, Yukon; Vadzaih dhòh (Caribou Skin) by Copper Caribou (Montana Prysnuk and Delaney Prysnuk), exhibited at the Yukon Arts Center, Whitehorse; An animal hide tipi erected at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural center in Whitehorse, for the Adäka Festival 2022
A significant commonality that persists among Indigenous peoples is the complete absence of the notion of waste. Every part of the animal body harvested is put to some use, and this has also proven to be a stellar source of ingenuity and innovation. The artwork, kayaks, dug-canoes, and longhouses of First Nations with inland Tlingit heritage in the Yukon and northern BC make for interesting examples not only as they form nodes, both geographical and cultural/linguistic between the geographical extremities of the regions discussed, but also as they exhibit exchanges between the domains of transport, music, ritual and celebration, and shelter.
In the case of the longhouses of the region, common methods of orienting and building them are found. As well, in most cases, the lack of separation between domestic and sacred space is common, and the longhouse is thus generally a monadic space. Of course, a significant way in which longhouses differed from each other was the materials available, for example, only on Haida Gwaii could one find 300-foot cedar trees (which the Haida also gave second lives to as totem poles and canoes). Smaller trees led to longhouses of lesser spans and depths, as well as to different proportions, dictated especially by the angle of the roof.
Fig 29: Haida longhouses at the Haida Gwaii Museum, Skidegate
Fig 30: Gitxsan longhouses at the Ksan Historical village in Hazelton, BC
Fig 31: Carcross/Tagish First Nation longhouses at the CTFN Cultural Center
Yet, the spatial matrices of the coastal longhouses can be observed in those built inland. As discussed in detail in my report on Haida Gwaii, but consider now as general properties of the spatial axes/matrix of longhouses of the region: the archetype of its horizontal axis involves the weather approaching across the water, through the length of the longhouses, to the forests behind; whereas the archetype of its vertical axis includes the root cellars or caches for storing food, its fire pits and smoke-holes, the stilts where applicable, adjacent totem poles, and surrounding trees spiraling upward.15 The axes of such a spatial matrix are not origins in their space-making processes (like the three-dimensional Cartesian axes or matrices of many Eurocentric spatial conceptions), but rather, are non-visual archetypes that recur in their production of space, informed by their common knowledge, cosmological models, and epistemologies, and transmitted through their stories not only to their younger generations, but also across the lands and waters.
Fig 32, 33, 34, 35: Construction details of a (nearly complete) Haida longhouse in Old Masset
I must begin to conclude by stating my infinite gratitude to the Society of Architectural Historians and to the committee of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship for making these travels possible. Not only have I discovered new ways of traveling—staying in places for longer durations and seeking out people for multiple visits and conversations—but I have also discovered new methods of research and writing. I must confess that this essay is not a historical or an anthropological endeavor. I never aspired to legitimize information in the ways of the institutional sciences or even social sciences. Even history, and especially an oral history, can easily suffer the lack of trust when not evidenced by stuff found in dusty archives or heavily footnoted to gain legitimacy from other existing histories. The information here lies somewhere in between received know-how; consonant theories and attitudes to adopt in building, researching, and traveling; and aspirations for worldviews and attitudes to be explored further.
Generally speaking, in the various stories of these First Nations, and indeed in my conversations with them, I have thoroughly enjoyed the casuality, colloquialism, and incredible leeway for topics to seamlessly drift. After all, is this not one of the wonders of orality: that one can shift between thoughts and sentences, topics, intensities, and emotions? Broken and grammatically incomplete sentences often seem not only fitting but at times even more informative. And these are often not closures or completed understandings of matters but rather questions and openings in the knowledge that only probe further and deeper than one might have previously imagined.
I must make a few other concluding remarks about Indigeneity in a Eurocentric world. In the last few decades, much progress has been made in Canada in empowering Indigenous First Nations as well as in other places across the circumpolar north to make amends for centuries of misdoings by the colonizing powers. However, numerous other Indigenous peoples continue to not be acknowledged even today, with little respect given to their ways of life, wisdom, traditions, and heritage. Even among the peoples I have visited in Canada, there are disparities in how amends have been made, and a comparative framework of travel has made these clear. (I will not refer to specific peoples here at the risk of imparting information that is not mine to share.) Despite this, generally speaking, in the Canadian North, wonderful efforts are underway by many First Nations to return themselves to self-governance and to practice their traditions (hunting, trapping, fishing, etc.), many of which they have been denied for many decades. Efforts are also underway in attempting to regenerate their languages, which colonial powers had barred them from speaking, causing severe generational ruptures of knowledge transfer. And as I have discussed, Indigenous artists are supremely important conduits of regeneration, as they renew their traditional art forms by reinvigorating lost methods and even integrating them with contemporary ones. So although most conversations today about becoming whole again and cultural regeneration inevitably begin with residential school experiences, there is also much hope, enthusiasm, and effort expressed in the regeneration of traditional activities, languages, and, importantly, art. An inductive research method such as mine opens one up to the common conversational fabric of the regions I have visited, and thanks to the generosity of the wonderful people I have spoken to, I have been able to grasp a little bit of what it means to regenerate entire civilizations.
Finally, I must comment that any history reflects, first and foremost, not an objective account of past events or facts, but rather, the shifting concerns and exigencies of the present it is written in. Hence, my plea to listen to the oral histories of the Indigenous people is also a plea to holistically address issues of decolonization, ethnic and spatial equity, and cultural and architectural preservation. I hope that some of the Indigenous methodologies, imperatives, and cultures of care that I have gestured to can be infused into the mainstream of architecture, both in architectural history and practice. Indigenous stories must be ‘listened to’: an effort to listen and understand Indigenous methods is indeed to decolonize, to responsibly globalize—and to apologize.
1 Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (Monthly Review Press, 1972), p162–174.
2 Walter J Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Routledge, 1982), p7–11.
3 “The forest, sea, and sky (…) None of these is the human realm. Humans are only at home on the chaaw salíi, [translated as “the place where the tide has been”] the boundary or intertidal zone, at the conjunction of all three. A few strokes of the paddle or a few steps into the bush are enough to leave the human world behind."
See Robert Bringhurst, A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Vancouver/Toronto/Berkeley: Douglas & McIntyre, 2011), p157.
4 For such themes in Iceland, see Emily Lethbridge, “Digital Mapping and the Narrative Stratigraphy of Iceland,” in Historical Geography, GIScience and Textual Analysis (Springer, 2020), p19–32;
and Emily Lethbridge and Steven Hartman, “Inscribing Environmental Memory in the Icelandic Sagas and the Icelandic Saga Map,” PMLA 131, no. 2 (2016): p381–91.
5 To be fair, I must note that I am here using Descartes as a strawman of sorts. These conceptions, like many other popular philosopher’s concepts are oversimplified and used in popular intellectual discourses, and this often not only leaves out important nuances but also distorts their meanings and implications.
6 Kwanlin Dun First Nation, Kwanlin Dün: Dä́kwändür Ghay Ghàkwädīndür--Our Story in Our Words (Figure 1 Publishing, 2021), p42–45.
7 Catharine McClellan, Part of the Land, Part of the Water: A History of the Yukon Indians (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1987), p110.
8 Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959), p20–21.
9 Harry Francis Mallgrave and Eleftherios Ikonomou, eds., Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873–1893 (Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1994).
10 See Heinrich Wölfflin, “Prolegomena to a Psychology of Architecture,” in Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873–1893 (Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1994).
11 For detailed descriptions of many more traditional acts, skills, and methods, see McClellan, Part of the Land, Part of the Water: A History of the Yukon Indians (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1987)
12 Citations included in the report on Yukon include: the introduction of Tim Ingold, ed., What Is an Animal? (Routledge, 2016), and; Tim Ingold, “From Trust to Domination: An Alternative History of Human-Animal Relations,” in Animals and Human Society (Routledge, 2002), p13–34.
See also: Norman Alexander Easton, “‘It’s Hard Enough to Control Yourself; It’s Ridiculous to Think You Can Control Animals.’ Competing Views on ‘The Bush’ in Contemporary Yukon,” Northern Review, no. 29 (2008): p21–38; Paul Nadasdy, “The Gift in the Animal: The Ontology of Hunting and Human–Animal Sociality,” American Ethnologist 34, no. 1 (2007): and; Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (routledge, 2002)
13 See Bathsheba Demuth, “Reindeer at the End of the World,” Emergence Magazine, July 5, 2020, https://emergencemagazine.org/essay/reindeer-at-the-end-of-the-world/
14 From an origin story of the land, as told by Angela Sydney to Julie Cruikshank. See Julie Cruikshank, Life Lived like a Story: Life Stories of Three Yukon Native Elders (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002), p42-44.
15 In addition to my report on Haida Gwaii, see George F MacDonald, “The World Is as Sharp as a Knife: An Anthology in Honour of Wilson Duff,” in Cosmic Equations in Northwest Coast Indian Art, ed. Wilson Duff, 1977; Here, pertaining to the Haida's cosmic distributions along the vertical axis, he gestures to the five layers of the cosmos above the “sky door” or smoke-hole of their longhouse, as well as five levels in the underworld.
See also: George F MacDonald, Chiefs of the Sea and Sky: Haida Heritage Sites of the Queen Charlotte Islands (UBC Press, 1989). MacDonald explains how non-human animals consonantly describe the Haida’s conception of space through axes and zones, the three primary divisions being: the strata of the underworld (creatures below the ground and the sea); the middleworld (creatures that live in the forest); and the upperworld (aerial creatures).
Adil Mansure is the 2022 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.
The forest, sea, and sky (…) None of these is the human realm. Humans are only at home on the chaaw salíi, [translated as “the place where the tide has been”] the boundary or intertidal zone, at the conjunction of all three. A few strokes of the paddle or a few steps into the bush are enough to leave the human world behind.1
I write this report from Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the coast of British Columbia in Canada. Called the Queen Charlotte Islands by the British Empire and then Canada, these islands have been inhabited for thousands of years by the Haida. Previously blessed with an abundance of food from the Pacific Ocean, Hecate Straight, and several rivers, the Haida had ample time to advance their literary and visual arts, as well as develop other facets of their civilization. As is commonly referred to on the islands, even until about two centuries ago, as many as ten to twenty good fishing days followed by drying and smoking could sustain the Haida for the whole year. Somewhat different from the Yukon First Nations discussed in my previous fellowship report, the Haida were relatively less Nomadic, and much of their sustenance was met by forming clans and clusters and spreading out along the coastlines of each of the islands of the archipelago, which they all collectively stewarded. Other features of the islands that inform their architectural wisdom are: receding behind each coastline are some of the densest and richest rainforests in the world. Sustained by ample precipitation through the year, Haida Gwaii is home to incredibly bio-diverse flora and fauna. The incredibly tall cedar trees are perhaps the Haida’s most important harvest; these approximately 300-foot-long trees are also given second lives not only as immensely long beams for their longhouses, but also as totem poles and dug-out canoes. (Fig 1) Smaller artifacts from trees include spruce-root hats and baskets, tapestries, and carved masks and boxes. The ocean and the forest gave the Haida more than just food and art: they also developed advanced boat-building and sea-faring abilities, and their culture reflects rich exchanges from lands afar. Another feature of the island is that it is geologically unique and diverse, for example, the stone argillite is found almost exclusively on Haida Gwaii. I have found the Haida to have a unique sense of architectural space, which has undoubtedly emerged from an immense variety of factors, some of which are listed above—this is what I attempt to understand and articulate.
Figure 1: A totem pole and a dug-out canoe at the Haida Gwaii Museum, Skidegate
It must be remembered that colonization has been uniquely detrimental to the Haida Nation. Among some of the atrocities that several North American First Nations faced—such as forcibly bringing their children to residential schools, banning the use of their languages, limiting their fishing and hunting, and compelling Indigenous individuals to give up their status in exchange for permission to buy alcohol and other goods—the population of the Haida uniquely collapsed due to waves of smallpox epidemics in the mid-nineteenth century.2 Only a very small percentage of the population survived this, and they were forced to cluster into two villages: Hlg̱aagilda & G̱aw, now known as Skidegate and Old Masset. In speaking with elders and artists, the smallpox epidemic appears to be a truly dominant feature of their history. The other major atrocity that every Haida talks about is against a different kind of their kin: against marine life. I have been told absolutely shocking tales of bloodshed against species that competed with humans for fish. After such predicaments—and much further worsened in the twentieth century when Haida children were dragged to residential schools on the mainland—what linguistic, cultural, and epistemological continuity could a Nation have?
To repeat some important features of my oral history project from previous reports: I am repeatedly told that for what I want to do—conduct an oral history project where I talk to elders and knowledge-keepers of various Indigenous peoples to understand how thousands of years of (holistic and sustainable) architectural knowledge is embedded in their myths and stories—I am about 5–10 years too late; the last generation of elders who lived purely off the land, relatively less-influenced by British and Canadian colonization, have recently passed on. Yet, on Haida Gwaii, I witnessed rich strands of continuity in their visual arts. There are also incredible efforts toward the regeneration of their language, other lost arts, and cultural traditions such as potlatches. Another aspect of this project I must mention is the anonymity of those elders and artists who have been kind enough to speak to me. This report is not the space to disclose their personal stories or make "human subjects" out of them. I have made promises to not record or transcribe, but simply describe through abstract and third-person narratives, the attitudes and ideas that have struck me as most remarkable.
With regard to the regeneration of Haida culture, it is precisely the uniqueness and richness of their arts, especially painting and carving, that have sustained a muscle memory of sorts through the centuries, and now serve as vital conduits for regeneration. As Bill Holm described in Northwest Coast Indian Art: an analysis of form, the paintings (both on flat surfaces as well as on hats, bowls, canoes, totem poles, and so on) and carvings exhibit a unique formline, which is almost a geometric framework that guides each artist to achieve certain proportions, an appropriate balance of positive and negative spaces, and so on.3 (Fig 2 & 3; Fig 4, 5, & 6) The ovoid was an important geometric element of the Haida formline. A key feature that Holm highlights is the varying widths of the lines that gives them an almost calligraphic character. And the analogy to writing (text) here is no coincidence, indeed, Haida artforms such as totem poles, masks, and canoes produced using their formline could be "read" for significant information. For example, the number of rings or horizontal carved layers on a totem pole signified the number of potlatches held by the chief or patron who the pole commemorated. (Fig 7) Such visual principles, however, are only one aspect of their art that continue to thrive and serve to regenerate their culture. With the carvers especially, the knowledge of how to work into their cedar surfaces is very much tactile and even tacit, and has been regenerated by some of the knowledge that has been passed down within families—but importantly, also by artists picking up the tools of their ancestors and reforming connections with the few remaining patches of old growth forests. Another non-visual aspect of Haida art is its contextuality. Haida carvers worked on canoes, wooden beams (and other architectural-structural support members), totem poles, and many other artifacts. These, however, only meant something in a certain place and time. Totem poles, for example, were stories that, if one knew how to "read" them, told of the identity of the Haida families and clans inhabiting the place, their various hierarchies and tribe structures, the other clans that they might be related to or allied with, and so on. Their beauty or visual appeal were not ends in themselves. The placing of totem poles is very important: not only their place-ment in a space but also the very act and event of raising them into place. Pole-raisings are still carried out at potlatches. How a totem pole could be read meant something only at a certain time, and for a certain people, and once raised, they were not meant to be modified, moved, or taken down. Their place, as it were, was with and among those who raised them.
Figures 2 & 3: Formline comparison between: A Gitxsan totem pole in Gitanyow, BC, and a Haida totem pole in Old Masset
Figure 4, 5 & 6: Formline comparison between: A Gitxsan totem pole in Gitanyow, BC. A Haida totem pole in Old Masset (Note the flat and fat lip. This was a symbol of a higher-ranked individual in the Haida social matrix). A Gitxsan totem pole at the Ksan Historical village in Hazelton, BC
Figure 7: A totem pole, Skidegate
Today, several villages with their totem poles, longhouses, and other structures lay abandoned around the coastlines of Haida Gwaii. To the horror of many heritage conservationists, especially in the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve (which forms the southern tip of the archipelago), Haida elders have decided to simply let this physical heritage be untouched, for these poles to now nourish other members of the bio-diverse lands and waters. Moss, lichen, and new trees now sprout from their remains, and will eventually dissolve and digest them into the ground. (Fig 8) Those villages and peoples have ceased to be, what then can totem poles or any other artifacts mean without those whose stories they tell?
Figure 8: Trees at the Naikoon Provincial Park
The way Haida elders think of the physical heritage of the villages of Gwaii Haanas today is representative of significant features of Haida spirituality. What I have surmised from various conversations with artists and elders of the Haida Nation is that in their cosmology, each pole, each animal (marine or terrestrial), and each canoe is treated as a being and as having a place. Animals, humans, and trees are believed to live in similar spaces, in their appropriate cosmic zones, and to even have similar social organizations.4 As is commonly referred to in Old Masset, elders often thought of the Haida social ties to be analogous to the way the roots of the massive cedar, spruce, and hemlock trees on the archipelago interweave, support, and structure each other. And with the density of forests on Haida Gwaii, such interweaving and the birthing of roots occurs not only under the ground but also in several upper registers or heights of the forest. (Fig 9 & 10) With forests teeming with as much life in the ground, among the trees, and aerially, how could one not think of them as "spirited"? This is perhaps also what Emily Carr captures in her paintings of coastal BC.
With the Haida, there is an understanding that behind each being or creature exists a soul (for lack of a better English word). Here again, as in my previous fellowship reports, we are dealing with the notion of animism and empathy as pan-Indigenous themes describing (cosmic) architectural space. The notion of a mask and skin is helpful in the case of the Haida: it is believed that many a supernatural being often wore the skin of a killer whale, seal, halibut, and so on; that is, the outward appearance of a being is thrown in question and it is not known what inner being a mask or skin may conceal—and how it came to do so. Here, humans and animals alike may be masks and/or skins.5 Such spiritual beliefs were also literalized and physicalized: Haida festive attire often included wooden face masks and made use of the skins of fish, seals, rabbits, and other creatures. Respect and empathy, influenced perhaps by caution and fear too, are therefore to be extended to each being. Over and above all, the uncertainties of the oceans are to be navigated with both humility and knowledge, which in turn breed empathy. In Haida mythology, I am told, it is believed that various supernatural beings may have their worlds adjacent to and bordering human worlds. Killer whales, for example, are believed to have their spatial matrix mirror those of human worlds—where the surfaces or edges of waves form not only the axes of mirroring, but also the common edges and thresholds of the worlds of both species.6 As Robert Bringhurst put it, “the primary realm of the gods, in Haida cosmology, is not celestial; it is submarine”. How can it not be, with such an active and dynamic littoral zone?
On the one hand, the might of the ocean and (possibly supernatural) abilities of certain creatures command respect. On the other, however, there is also an understanding that what sustains the mighty (including humans) are smaller creatures which must not be taken for granted and be given an equal amount of respect. Trees are also understood to be an invaluable part of their ecosystem and given personae, respect, and empathy—in complete contrast to the way loggers extract trees from the old growth forests of Haida Gwaii (Fig 11 & 12). Such empathy is well captured in the Haida artist April White’s series of paintings titled The Herring People. As White herself claims, “Gina waadluxan gud ad kwaagiida” or “Everything depends on everything else”.7 The series consists of eight different species such as dolphins, humpback whales, salmon, humans, and others all painted as nested within a large herring, thus highlighting their dependency on herring. The interconnectedness between species is thus highlighted, as well as the pivotal role of herring in the ecosystem. White’s visual representation emphasizes the popular Haida trope of the nesting of figures one within another, as well, their scaling beyond their actual dimensions and proportions. (Fig 13, 14 & 1). The Haida formline elegantly incorporates the nesting of figures, which is evident in their carved totem poles, painted bowls, spruce root hats, canoe paddles, and so on. Similar—but not the same—formlines are also evident in the artwork of other First Nations of the Pacific Northwest (Fig 15). Evident in these are not only reciprocities and dependencies, but also a cyclicality in natural progressions of being nourished and providing nourishment—which humans are part of, and must not disturb the balances of. The work Herring People unites not only Haida cosmological and spiritual ethos with their formline, but it is also a work of activism that draws our attention to the overfishing that has chased shoals of herring away from the region. Fisheries continue to fail to understand the way things are interconnected, forcibly extract, and generate vast amounts of waste that do not return to the ocean to complete their various cycles of life. In complete contrast, to cite an anecdote of how the Haida conceived of human-animal relations: their way of harvesting herring roe was not to force them to spawn using various industrial means, but to lay seaweed on a baton and wait for them to lay their roe. If they were ‘gifted’ roe, they took it as the will of the shoal of herring and not as an extractive process guaranteed to yield. Thus the herring and humans both have agency in the relations the Haida forge with them. In Haida cosmology, a recurring theme is that we must always be cautious, empathetic, and most importantly, appreciate the implications of being in a non-human-centric universe.
Figure 11: Burnt remains of post-logging tree bases and roots, Moresby Island
Figure 12: Heaps and fields of post-logging burnt remains of trees, Moresby Island
Figure 13: A totem pole, Skidegate
Figure 14: Gitxsan painting on a longhouse at the Ksan Historical village in Hazelton, BC
Figure 15: A longhouse at the Ksan Historical village in Hazelton, BC
Much of the information-rich and layered cosmology of the Haida also came from the fact that they were advanced seafarers, with exchanges as rich as the mercantile city of Venice (but without its fame or glamor). The Haida knew the resources that were plentiful on their lands but also those that were not and could be brought from elsewhere.8 They undertook long voyages in their masterfully crafted dug-out canoes—which are significant works of both art and science: not only was there much insight and wisdom involved in picking the right cedar that would be destined to be a canoe, and carving it accurately to the grain to achieve optimal performance, weight, and durability; but the carving and painting of canoes was also the realm of extremely talented Haida artists practicing their formline to yield slenderness and aero-dynamism. (Fig 16 & 17) Indeed, the naturally gifted strong vertical axes of the cedar forests of Haida Gwaii were tactfully extended into the horizontal realm through their canoe-making. These skills and their knowledge of how to navigate the ever-surprising oceans made the Haida extremely adept long-distance seafarers. Of course, their exchanges (including marriages and other human exchanges) with the neighboring Nisga’a, Tsimshian, coastal Tlingit, and other First Nations of British Columbia were more frequent than their longer voyages. Copper, for example, discovered in what is now the Yukon, came to be coveted on Haida Gwaii, and formed a significant possession of wealth. Not only was giving a copper shield a means of wealth transfer or a show of immense gratitude or a favor (especially during marriages), but copper also penetrated several spirit and myth-worlds of the Pacific Northwest.9 (Fig 18) Other commonalities and relations in the region are also evident in the common moiety structure of the raven and the eagle, and in several common crests such as killer whales, frogs, wolves, and so on. Other than these relatively shorter trips to neighboring peoples, I am also told by Haida elders how their ancestors were influenced by—and in turn influenced—lands as far as Polynesia, China, and India. Traces are still found in their language, for example, the word naani (used to describe both a grandmother but also an elderly aunt or woman acquaintance) is common to Haida and several Indian languages. These exchanges all ensured the continuous strengthening of the pool of techniques, tricks, and technologies that formed their traditional knowledge and heritage. And the expressions of this knowledge are well-encapsulated in their myths and stories, all passed on through their oral traditions.
The above-described aspects of the Haida civilization—their food harvesting methods, carving, voyaging, and their myth worlds—all form a marine cosmology, from which emerges their notion of architectural space. I have found their geometry and proportions to be not only astoundingly beautiful but also complex; the topologies of both curvature and variation of marine architectures (such as shells) appear to be somehow encapsulated in their seemingly simple and elegant spaces. I don’t quite understand how, and this continues to intrigue and provokes curiosity; and the following writing is a means to articulate what appears to be deeply mystical to me.
Haida cosmic space appears to consist not just of the oceans and the Hecate Straight approaching from across the horizon, but also of a moisture-laden vertical axis: the ample rain that sustains one of the world’s densest rain forests.10 And indeed the dynamic bio-chemistry and bio-diversity of these rich forests in-form the Haida conception of space, which I characterize as grand and beautifully proportioned, but also flexible, varied, and dynamic. While beams and canoes address the axis of—and toward—the ocean and horizon, the totem poles and smoke-holes in the roofs address the vertical axis or the axis mundi. The longhouses well encapsulate these sensibilities. I must mention that I have not witnessed a traditional longhouse as I have heard it described to exist, and to the best of my knowledge, the ones existing today are only a part of a more elaborate spatial typology. (Fig 19 & 20) And of the ones existing today, I have been most drawn to the longhouse shops built and used by carvers. The traditional longhouse is one I have understood only through oral accounts and memories of those I have spoken to on the island. Not only were they literally long with their dominant axis gesturing to connect the forest with the oceanic horizon, but the houses continued with a quay-like outdoor component built on stilts onto the horizon (which cease to exist today in most cases). Additionally, these horizontal axes were often further extended with small farms or plantations behind the houses, bordering the forest. The axes of the distant voyages as well as the approaching clouds and weather are all encapsulated in this axial gesture of the longhouse. Various vertical axes—the axis of the tall cedar forest, but also of the rain, lightning, and so on—are also gestured to with the longhouse, with its totem poles (Fig 21), smoke holes in the roof (Fig 22), the stilts that wade through the intertidal zones, and with the columns or posts being carved and curved to taper and gently continue vertically past the height of the eaves of the roof. (Fig 23) Haida elders also mentioned the importance of a root cellar to me, which I also find to be an important vertical component of the Haida spatial matrix: it grounds an infinite upward extension, not visually, but conceptually with the common knowledge of the importance of the root cellar in the lives of the Haida.11 MacDonald has described two types of Haida longhouse constructions: one punctuated by a few columns within and a simpler and lighter roof structure (Fig 24); and a second type with a roof supported by—and expressed by—heavy beams along its long axis, which allow for longer spans and an uninterrupted volume within.12 (Fig 25) He describes the latter as having evolved by incorporating wood joinery used by the Europeans, an incorporation that was unique to the Haida and distinguished their longhouses from those of their neighbors in the Pacific Northwest. Thus, while the longhouse is a common typology found in several Indigenous communities in the region, the way space is gestured to and articulated through the Haida longhouse, I hope, situates the uniqueness of its being, and of not taking, but holding cosmic space.
Fig 23: Construction detail of a longhouse in Old Masset
Let us also explore this uniqueness by revisiting some tropes of how the Haida situated humankind with regard to other species and spaces. First, the longhouse, or rather any enclosure was an apparatus to not only mark the passage of time, but also locate their place in the cosmos. The smoke-holes that were used to track the light of the suns and stars were significant. This reminds one of Greek antiquity. However, unlike Greek sacred buildings, they do not only abstractly situate a notion of space, time, and the shape of the cosmos; but they are also telling of the social constructions and lives of the Haida. For example, several members of a clan would share a longhouse and could be identified with the crests on their frontal totem pole (with the appropriate "reading methods" described earlier). Moieties (raven and eagle for the Haida) and associated crests dictated the family structure and thus who could inhabit a longhouse. Entrances of longhouses were often ovoid—which is also a dominant shape of the Haida formline—with their heights positioned such that one would have to bow while entering, thus making themselves vulnerable. This not only served to protect the clan against intruders, but bowing was also a way of paying respect to the sacred space they were about to enter. Such innuendoes told one longhouse apart from another. Unlike the separation of temples and living quarters in Greek society, Haida longhouses were both sacred buildings as well as homes. This difference is highly significant. The divisions in Greek society—of domesticity and private life (oikonomia) on the one side, and sacred and public or civic life on the other (which were placed together in their architectural or urban planning)—did not exist for the Haida. The realm of supernatural beings for the Haida is not in separate spaces that share no contact with human spaces; rather—and as the masks and skins in their beliefs discussed earlier also suggest—supernatural beings can exist among humans, wearing skins of various species, and their worlds are adjacent to or even juxtaposed with ours, only slightly outside our plain-sight. The longhouses, plank-houses, skin-tents, or any other buildings erected by the Haida encapsulate such an understanding: the conditions of architecture in a non-human-centric universe.
We are clearly dealing with a highly complex civilization with an intricate cosmology and a difficult history. In this short report, I have tried to approach a holistic understanding of the beliefs that structure Haida space, as carried through their oral history and embedded in their arts, using an inductive research method has involved talking to elders and artists in various cafes, artist’s shops and studios, and luckily, also attending ceremonies such as a "Headstone Moving." For all of this, I am infinitely grateful to those who were willing to speak with me and invited me into their communities, and to those from the village council of Masset who helped set up the initial meetings. I have been extremely fortunate to have met these lovely people, develop friendships with them, and by doing so, understand a little bit, their rendition of what Haida Gwaii is and used to be. And it is to them that I graciously owe this writing.
1 While I appreciate and use Robert Bringhurst’s work about the Haida, I also do so hesitantly. I have been informed on the island of how his work and relationship with the people face various ethical dilemmas. Robert Bringhurst, A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Vancouver/Toronto/Berkeley: Douglas & McIntyre, 2011), p 157.
2 The common Haida belief is that smallpox and other diseases were intentionally spread by the Colonial powers, and were thus bio-weapons used against their people.
3 Bill Holm, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form (University of Washington Press, 2017).
4 George F MacDonald, “The World Is as Sharp as a Knife: An Anthology in Honour of Wilson Duff,” in Cosmic Equations in Northwest Coast Indian Art, ed. Wilson Duff, 1977, p 229.
5 The site of Levi-Strauss’ formative work on a general theory of masks was Haida Gwaii and a few other coastal First Nations of the Pacific Northwest. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Way of the Masks, trans. Sylvia Modelski (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982).
6 The edge is a popular theme in Haida Gwaii, and this is well encapsulated in many titles of Haida art or about Haida art; for example, the Edge of the Knife (the first Haida language film made) and A story as sharp as a knife (a book about Haida poetry).
7 From the artist’s website: http://www.aprilwhite.com/art/v/serigraphs/herringpeople/herringpeopledogfish/herringpeopledogfishIII.png.html
8 Learned via several conversations. For a few accounts, see also George F. MacDonald, Chiefs of the Sea and Sky: Haida Heritage Sites of the Queen Charlotte Islands (UBC Press, 1989), p 21.
9 Lévi-Strauss describes how copper was used as currency in somewhat similar ways by different peoples of the Pacific Northwest Lévi-Strauss, The Way of the Masks, p 35–39; 89–92; 228.
10 As MacDonald has pointed out, for the Haida, along this vertical axis are the strata of the underworld (creatures below the ground and the sea); the middleworld (creatures that live in the forest); and the upperworld (aerial creatures). MacDonald, “The World Is as Sharp as a Knife: An Anthology in Honour of Wilson Duff,” p 228.
11 And as MacDonald has pointed out, along this vertical axis, the Haida perceived of five layers of the cosmos above the “sky door” or smoke-hole of their longhouse, as well as five levels in the underworld. MacDonald, Chiefs of the Sea and Sky: Haida Heritage Sites of the Queen Charlotte Islands, p 17.
12 See especially his diagram of the two types. MacDonald, p 22.
Ashley Gardini is an adjunct instructor in the Department of Architecture/Engineering at Diablo Valley College. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been a member of SAH since 2019. She also can often be found on Twitter, @AshleyGardini.
Can you tell us about your career path?
I teach at community colleges. I kind of stumbled into architectural history, but I couldn’t be happier! While attending classes at my local community college, I enrolled in an art history class and absolutely fell in love. What I enjoyed most in those classes was learning about a building’s history and design. At the time, I had no idea architectural history was its own field (it would take me years to figure that out). I went on to earn a BA in art history and after graduation, I spent several years working for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
After I realized working in museums wasn’t the career path for me, I decided to apply to graduate schools to pursue art history. While there, I ended up studying under an architectural historian, pursuing a thesis on Italian Futurist architecture, and finding my path into architectural history. It was also during graduate school that I realized my passion for teaching. Once I decided I was going to teach, I knew it was going to be at the community college level. Some of the best instructors I’ve ever had were when I was attending community college myself. I wanted to be one of those instructors.
I’m at a bit of a crossroads for projects, and it’s a nice place to be. Previously, my research focused on Italian Futurist architecture and the legacy of Antonio Sant’Elia. While I still am really fascinated by that period of architectural history, I feel like my role there is complete.
Since then, I’ve become far more interested in how we teach and engage with architectural history. This really is an influence of my time serving on the Advisory Committee for the SAH Data Project. (I should note here that the SAH Data Project collected a fantastic amount data on our field, and I hope everyone reading this had a chance to check it out!). There were a lot of interesting findings from that project, but one section that has stuck with me is how students are introduced to architectural history. For example, it showed that my experience of not realizing architectural history was a field of study in college—which is why I pursued degrees in art history—is a common experience. So how do we change that? And while, as expected, visits to historic buildings or museums initiated many respondents’ interest in architecture, many students who responded to the survey also pointed to media, such as movies, television, or podcasts, as sources that drew them to architectural history before college. How can we use that in the classroom? How can we use that to grow our field?
My interest in “how we engage with architectural history” is also shaped by teaching at community colleges. The student body you encounter in your community college classes is incredible—everyone from first-year college students or high school students to those returning to education late in life or simply taking the course for fun. How do you create a class that serves all those needs? This is something that I’ve been analyzing and exploring since I started teaching, but the SAH Data Project gave me a model to think about how obtaining data can provide proof to anecdotal experiences.
I don’t know where this avenue of research is going to take me. Right now I have a lot of questions and not many answers.
Who has had the biggest influence your work or career?
There have been so many people who have supported and influenced my work. From community college to graduate school, I had instructors who challenged me while cultivating my love for this field. Some were also so open and honest about the pros and cons of working in both museums and academia. This allowed me to pursue my career and research with reasonable expectations.
My writing on Italian Futurism was greatly influenced by two individuals: the author Patricia Albers and the scholar Dr. Günter Berghaus. I was fortunate to meet Albers as an undergraduate and years later she graciously agreed to be on my thesis committee. At the time, she gave me some of the best writing advice I’d ever received and I’m still grateful for the encouragement she gave me during that process. Dr. Berghaus encouraged my research to continue after graduation, resulting in my contributions to the International Yearbook of Futurism Studies.
My career now has been shaped by many of my fellow instructors—both ones I work with in person and ones I’ve met through Twitter. We support each other. We share teaching material. We sympathize. Academia is a far less lonely place when help is only a text away.
What is your biggest professional challenge?
My biggest challenge is making academia work within a healthy work-life balance. It’s difficult! When I first started teaching, I was working constantly. As any new adjunct developing course material knows, those few hours of lecture each week require hours upon hours of preparation. It also feels hard to say “no” when you’re contingent and are hoping to be offered employment in future semesters. Academia (at least in the United States) rewards those with a workaholic nature.
As I’ve become more secure in my adjunct career, it’s become easier to say “no.” And recognizing how difficult it was for me at the beginning of my career, I’ve also tried to become more vocal about creating and maintaining a healthy work-life balance for fellow adjuncts and students. Students are often left out of this discussion, but I try really hard to create class policies that respect their time and health. Especially in this moment where we can all work from home, and thus work all the time, it doesn’t benefit anyone to have a burned-out instructor teaching a class of burned-out students.
Why did you join SAH?
I was invited to join. It turned out that SAH was looking for someone with my type of experience—teaching architectural history at community colleges—to serve on the Advisory Board for the SAH Data Project. As a community college adjunct, professional academic organizations never felt like a very welcoming place, and sadly, I’m sure there are still a lot of folks out there who still feel this way. I’m glad to have found a space in an organization that values the diverse perspectives across academia.
You currently serve on the SAH Board and Membership Committee. Can you tell us about your work at SAH?
I am really enjoying my time serving SAH. In serving both the SAH Board and Membership Committee, I try to be an advocate for contingent faculty. That’s the voice I represent, but let me emphasize that I’m not the only one serving SAH and bringing up these concerns. This organization is made up of so many committed individuals who recognize the many different academic experiences.
I should use this profile to mention that I’d absolutely love to hear from SAH members who are emerging scholars and contingent faculty. Please reach out!
Do you have a vision for how SAH should evolve in the future?
Being an advocate for contingent faculty, I’d love to see more support for those of us working precarious positions in academia. That can come in many ways. More financial support is always a plus, but also just making space to recognize and validate our concerns also helps. SAH has spent the last couple of years asking itself how the organization can be more inclusive and more transparent. These are important steps for the organization. I see this bringing positive changes, and I’m excited to see how SAH continues to evolve.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to enter your field?
Go for it! Teaching at the community college level is so fulfilling. At that level, you are introducing so many students to architectural history for the first time. You are literally changing how they see the world around them. It’s truly the best position there is.
Anne Delano Steinert is a recipient of the 2022 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.
Walking through the center of Prague is like visiting an outdoor museum of the Art Nouveau (and Art Nouveau-adjacent forms of experimental and hybrid early modernism). Every turn seems to bring a new treasure into view.
Figure 1: Buildings like these at 11 and 13 Gorazdova štít are ubiquitous throughout Prague. It seems like every corner you turn reveals new Art Nouveau facades like these.
Figure 2: Upper-level details at Gorazdova štít 13.
Figure 3: Door detail at Gorazdova štít 11.
Figure 4: Corner detail at Gorazdova štít 11.
I was surprised by the way Art Nouveau details and ornament were freely mixed with other styles in Prague. Often Art Nouveau features were applied to more traditional façades, or they were combined with other elements that were more Art Deco.
Figure 5: Though this building at Masarykavo 8 has applied ornament at the door that I would call Art Nouveau, the overall façade is more complicated and favors geometrical forms which lean more toward Art Deco.
Figure 6: Door detail at Masarykavo 8.
I have long been drawn to Art Nouveau. I am taken with the graceful fluid organic forms of flowers, trees, and human bodies. I love the innovative uses of materials and the provocative sense of motion. Prague has all these things plus color. Buildings here are painted bright colors and they feature colorful mosaics, tile work, and frescos. Most of these buildings are five- to six-story apartment buildings and hotels with storefronts at the ground floor, but there are also more use-specific buildings like the main train station and the Prague Municipal House.
I did some research and learned that Art Nouveau architecture came to Prague in the late 1890s. There was a building boom in response to the 1893 law which called for the modernization of the old urban slums leading to mass demolition, especially in the old Jewish quarter. (It is worth noting here that this pattern of destroying the oldest and least modern homes housing citizens with the least resources for “urban renewal” is a pattern that repeats again and again in urban history, particularly in the destruction of African American neighborhoods across the United States in the 1950s and 60s). Newly vacant lands were redeveloped as housing for wealthier urbanites, a good deal of it built in the Art Nouveau style.1 The first known Art Nouveau design in Prague was the interior of the Café Corso designed by Friedrich Ohmann, professor at the Prague School of Applied Arts, in 1898.2 As in all cities, the Art Nouveau here was a reaction against the formality of nineteenth-century architectural styles and part of the beginning of the quest for a modern architectural expression of the complexities of the new urban industrialized landscape. As industrialization brought new wealth, new technologies, and new materials, it also brought crowded urban conditions and new ways of living in cities now connected by electric rail lines where large department stores displayed glittering piles of goods available to a new urban elite. The number of Art Nouveau hotels in Prague is an indicator that travel was also an important part of modern Prague. (Today’s Palace Hotel, Hotel Central, Hotel Grand Europa, and Hotel Meran are a few of them).
The adjacent hotels Grand Europa (originally Hotel Archduke Stephan) and Meran (originally Hotel Garni) on Wenceslas Square were given their Art Nouveau facades between 1903 and 1905. Sources differ about attribution but agree that Bedřich Bendelmayer was the primary designer.3 The buildings are currently undergoing a massive renovation (as you will see from the photo), so the interior was closed, but the exterior is fantastic.
Figure 7: The Hotel Europa and Hotel Meren on Wenceslas Square.
On one of my many walks through Prague, I happened across the Hlahol building designed by Josef Fanta and Čeněk Gergor and built between 1903 and 1906. The building was locked so I didn’t get to go inside to see the concert hall, which I learned later included paintings by Alfons Mucha, but the stunning exterior was enough to reminded me that architecture is really public art.
Figure 8: Hlahol at Masarykovo nábřeží 16 features Art Nouveau tile, metal, sculpture, and painted detail.
Figure 9: Hlahol building roofline detail.
Figure 10: Hlahol building door detail.
Figure 11: Hlahol building sculptural detail.
The Prague main train station, formally known as Franz Josef Station, was built between 1901 and 1909 and designed by Josef Fanta.4 The smaller original station has now been joined to a massive modern train station and shopping mall, making the original part of the station hard to find and photograph, but the original entrance rotunda is intact and well restored. I also stumbled upon an unrestored bit of the station in front of the baggage check room. This section includes a non-functioning clock flanked by two figures above the modern concourse. You can see from my photos that this guano-stained remnant of the original architecture stands out starkly against the blah interiors of the modern station.
Figure 12: Franz Josef Station rotunda.
Figure 13: Art Nouveau clock and sculpture visible from the lower level of the modernized station.
Figure 14: Clock detail. This clock is only right twice a day!
The Prague Municipal House is a total riot of color, pattern, and ornament encrusted on nearly every surface, almost to the point of absurdity. The multi-purpose building includes a café, two restaurants, a cavernous basement beer hall, formal presentation halls for the mayor and other dignitaries, offices, and a concert hall currently seating 1,259 with an entire floor of coat racks. Stylistically it is a hybrid. It has a baroque-inspired façade and concert hall with layer upon layer of Art Nouveau and distinctly Czech ornament. It was built between 1904 and 1912 on the site of the former Royal Court by Antonín Balšánek and Osvald Polívka.5 The applied ornament includes metal work, railings, mosaics, floor tile, upholstery, tapestries, clocks, stained glass, and paintings executed by a huge group of artists (including Alfons Mucha, who contributed paintings in the anteroom of the Mayor’s chamber). Sadly, the result of involving so many artists is a decorative program that doesn’t hold together very well. Each individual piece is beautiful and masterful, but as a whole, the building feels disjointed and disorganized, as the photos will show.
Figure 15: The Prague Municipal House exterior shows an explosive mix of styles.
Figure 16: Municipal House concert hall ceiling showing Baroque-inspired forms with Art Nouveau metal work and stained glass.
Figure 17: Municipal House stair hall view into the lower level showing multiple materials and decorative approaches.
Figure 18: Municipal House lower-level beer hall.
Figure 19: Municipal House second floor tapestry detail with a uniquely Czech stylistic approach.
Figure 20: Municipal house second floor metal ventilation grate.
Figure 21: Municipal Hall second floor ceiling panel painting by Alfons Mucha
I understand that Art Nouveau is not everyone’s favorite. I know many people find it garish and over-the-top or argue that it is nothing more that the application of a falsely innovative surface onto a traditional exterior, but I do think that my attraction to it illuminates a few things about how non-experts (which I definitely was in Prague!) perceive the world around them. This brings me back to the subject of my previous blog post. For folks who haven’t read that post, my premise was that if we want to preserve historic buildings, we need to make sure that they are valued, so we need to find ways to communicate their value beyond trained experts.
I have tried to explore every possible means available to ordinary folks who want to learn about the history of cities and architecture. I have visited urban history museums in Athens, Budapest, Marseille, Vienna, and Barcelona. I have taken public and private walking tours. I have read signs and plaques, looked at works of art, and climbed up to see views from tall towers. I have read guidebooks and listened to audio guides. (Thank you, Rick Steves). I went to light shows in Chartres and Rome, and I even checked out a virtual reality history program in Vienna called “Time Travel Magic Vienna History Tour,” then put on VR goggles to view a sister program called “Sisi’s Amazing Journey.” (They were both deeply troubling). I have taken boat rides and a bus tour and tried to take advantage of all the ways people might find to learn about cities. I have watched people interacting with the built environment, including my own child. A few patterns have emerged.
What I found is that using the built environment as a way to teach about the past is not about providing accurate factual information. Even where such information exists, very few people take advantage of it. While having the facts on hand is useful, the first and more important step is generating enough curiosity to get people to stop and look. You might know that Eleanor Roosevelt quote where she said, “I think, at a child's birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.” Of course, she was right. What I have observed is that if buildings, exhibits, signage, and the like can generate curiosity, then the observer will follow that curiosity to generate questions and then investigate the questions to get the answers they’re seeking. Having factual information or historic photos available in an exhibit makes the answers easy to find, but with the internet most people can instantly find answers just by typing in a few simple search terms.
So how do we generate curiosity? Well, first people have to look. Everywhere I have been folks are busy looking down at their cell phones rather than up at all the amazing architecture they are passing. Cell phones, much as they are handy to help us answer our questions, are a huge impediment to generating questions. If people are watching a TikTok or texting their bestie, the chance of noticing the Municipal House as they walk by goes way down. In my experience across Europe the three attributes most likely to generate a look up, and therefore curiosity, have been color, motion, and authentic immersion (these attributes clearly echo those that draw me to the Art Nouveau). I’m going to offer a few examples of each. Some overlap.
The best and simplest example of color as a tool for curiosity creation in the built environment were the historic markers in the city of Parma in Italy. They are bright yellow. The text is written in big letters and the sign is placed in an obvious spot next to an important landmark. These are the equivalent of our American “brown signs,” but they have color working in their favor. While neutral brown blends in and is easy to overlook, these bright yellow signs scream at you and tell you there is something important to notice.
Figure 22: Historic signage in Parma, Italy.
Color was also an important part of the nighttime light show in Chartres, but it added motion, too. This light show may have been the most engaging thing I’ve experienced on the whole trip. The show offered free projections on buildings throughout the town for two hours each night. Some of them were merely beautiful, but the projections onto Chartres Cathedral were also designed to spark interest in the history of the church. There was a classical music soundtrack playing and the projections mapped exactly onto the details of the building, calling out shapes and spaces visitors might have missed in the daylight. The show offered details from medieval construction methods and historical figures associated with the building. It didn’t offer much information about them, but it combined a few details with light, color, and sound in a way that generated curiosity, even in my eleven-year-old. The show raised the kinds of questions that would motivate many people would go home and google answers.
Figure 23: Chartres Cathedral light show using light to highlight architectural details.
My second nighttime light show was of Julius Caesar’s forum in Rome. This one was something visitors have to pay for and a reserve a time. Visitors use an audioguide set to their preferred language as they move to specific locations through a set path in the nighttime dark of the forum (with a human guide there to keep us moving along). The audio guide offered descriptions of specific sites as they lit up with light. It was like an immersive history lesson where I had a lecture in my ears and the pointer illuminating each piece of the talk as I walked past. Using light, the production was able to fill in missing pieces of the ruins or highlight the ways buildings had changed over time. Being immersed in the space made it easier to imagine life there. It was incredibly effective at both generating curiosity and providing accurate information. It added a reality and sense of connection, which is missing in the stark white ruins visitors see during the day.
Figure 24: Roman light show of Caesar’s forum uses a building exterior to project a historic interior cut-away view
Part of the advantage of using buildings to teach about the past is that interacting with architecture is an immersive and sensory experience. We move into buildings, feel their textures, see their colors, experience their volume. We hear how sound can be contorted by walls and openings. We experience the echoes of stair halls and bathrooms. We feel the temperature change when we step into a shaded courtyard. This interactivity generates curiosity. We wonder because we have had an experience, and the space has become relevant to use because we are in it. These spaces are authentic—where something really happened—where we can allow ourselves to be transported in time.6
This authentic immersion was a key piece of the power I experienced in a small museum on Via Tasso in Rome—the Museum of the Liberation of Rome. In this nondescript apartment building there is a museum made up of two former apartments that were used by the SS as a prison during World War II. The museum clearly operates on a limited budget. Their displays are old-school and relatively simple, and yet being in the space where prisoners were actually kept (and killed) makes reading the smuggled notes from their families feel so much more moving. A highlight of the museum was a closet that was used by the SS as a solitary confinement cell. The walls of this space are covered in graffiti carved by prisoners—many of them sending a last message to a loved one, or making peace with their actions before their death. The closet included a projection of some of the graffiti being read out loud and then translated to English. It was incredibly moving. I sat on the floor of that closet for a long time.
My favorite heart-wrenching piece was “Love Italy more than you love yourself, more than the realm of your beloved, more than life itself and more than your dear ones, beyond limits with unshakable faith in its destiny.”
Figure 25: Graffiti on the cell walls at The Museum of the Liberation of Rome.
Figure 26: Graffiti projected as being read out loud in Italian and English.
Beyond the authentic immersion of being in the space where something actually happened, I want to add that interacting with the past is sometimes most compelling when the experience is unexpected. Yes, I was deeply connected to history at the Museum of the Liberation of Rome, but I chose to go there and I paid a fee to enter. Knowing that this is a powerful place doesn’t actually help reach everyday people, and so I want to add a few examples of effective forms of urban serendipity—places where people can just stumble across opportunities to interact with the past as they go about their lives.
The first of these are the stumbling stones used to mark the former homes of Jewish people murdered by the Nazis. I first saw these in Venice, but have now also seen them in Vienna, Prague, Budapest, and Berlin. These are small bronze squares fitted into the pavement replacing ordinary pavers. Each one bears one person’s name, birthdate, date taken by the Nazis, and, for most of them, date of death. They are placed in front of that person’s last known address. As people walk through cities they will “stumble” upon them and are free to interact with them in any way they like. I know, largely through conversations with European historian Emily Gioielli, that these stones are contested for several reasons. I admit that they are imperfect memorials, yet I want to talk about some of the reasons I think they work. Visitors (myself included) come upon stumbling stones by accident outside an ordinary apartment building. They are permanently embedded in the pavement and they will be there whether we notice them or not, but if we do notice them, they give a surprising jolt of “Something horribly tragic happened in this place. This ordinary place exactly where I am standing.” For me the next thought was, “If it could happen in this place, it could happen anywhere, like in my neighborhood or my city.” This cautionary impact is, to me, their greatest value. Yes, they pay homage to one person and commemorate an individual death. They become available to families to visit as a gravestone would for people properly buried. They bring echoes of the past into the present. To me, their greatest power is to remind us not to ever let the past they mark into our future.
Figure 27: Stumbling stones in Venice.
To close I will offer two more humble and human forms of interaction I saw in Budapest that I think might offer models for public historians and preservationists. The key to these monuments is that they involve ongoing human action and interaction.
The first is Budapest’s Memorial to the Victims of German Occupation. Here the government put up a monumental sculpture without public input. The monument seems to imply that big-bad Germany, symbolized by an eagle snatching the royal orb from the hands of innocent Hungary, was solely responsible for the murder of Hungarian Jews. The reality is that Hungary was complicit in the murder of the nation’s Jews. There was so much controversy over this monument that it was actually erected in the middle of the night. When Budapest’s Jewish community saw the lie this new monument implied, they built a moving counter-memorial across the street from the official one. This makeshift monument, now weathered and decaying in a very evocative way, includes shoes and suitcases of murdered Jews dug out of attics and closets and offered up in protest. It includes photocopies of photos and documents, and typed stories of the harm Hungary did to its own Jewish population. This second monument has a powerful loud voice and tells visitors that something important is going on. It invites interaction as visitors leave stones as one would at a Jewish grave.7
Figure 28: Memorial to the Victims of German Occupation, Szabadsàgtèr, Budapest showing counter-memorial across the street
Figure 29: Detail of the counter-memorial.
Finally, there is a more formal form of ongoing interaction with the past I found in Budapest. This is the hanging of wreaths. The city is covered in plaques on façades commemorating this or that famous person or this or that historical event. These are exactly the kinds of plaques that most people completely ignore in their real lives. What is different in Prague is that under most of these plagues, there is a small hook where people can hang wreaths and other memorials. When I asked a guide about who puts the wreaths on the hooks, he said it was usually the neighborhood councils, but that if an individual person put up a wreath or a ribbon that would be fine, too. What this regular active commemoration did was to transform these wall plagues from a static background to urban life into an active changing place. A new green wreath or colorful bows would appear at some important moment in the year, then wilt, weather, and fade until they were taken away to be renewed again next year.
Figure 30: Plaque with wreaths in Budapest. Though this one clearly features an early figure in Budapest’s history, plaques with a hook below are all over the city and commemorate figures up to the very recent past.
When I wrote my first blog post I naively thought I might find one brilliant model that would help everyday people read and appreciate the built environment. What I have found instead is that that work will require new creativity and innovation. I think I have identified some of the components that make might generate curiosity in urban environments, but I definitely haven’t discovered a magic formula. I am hopeful that reading this blog will stimulate your creative thoughts about reading buildings and creating engaging urban experiences. Maybe together we can unlock the secret. I would love to know what strategies you have seen and what you consider the best tools for urban engagement.
1 Zuzana Ragulová . “Czech Art Nouveau Architecture in the Cities of Prague, Brno, and Hradec Králové.” Delivered at the coup Defouet II International Art Nouveau conference, 2015, 2. http://coupdefouet.es/admin_ponencies/functions/upload/uploads/Ragulova_Zuzana_Paper.pdf
2 Jindřich Vibyral. “Friedrich Ohmann and Prague Architecture Around 1900,” Peter Burman (Ed.) Architecture 1900 (Shaftsebury, Dorset: Donhead, 1998),173.
3 Michael Kohout, Vladamir Šlapeta, & Stephan Templ (eds). Prague: 20th Century Architecture (Vienna: Springer-Verlag, 1999), 22; Zdenek Lukes. Prague Modern: Architectural City Guide 1850–2000 (Prague: Paeska Publishers, 2018).
4 Zdeněk Lukeš. Prague Modern: Architectural City Guide 1850–2000 (Prague: Paeska Publishers, 2018), 232–233.
5 Ibid., 32–33.
6 Lots of people have written about authenticity. I like Sharon Zukin’s discussion of it in Naked City.
7 If you would like more detail about this controversy, you can check out this blog post: https://historycampus.org/2015/erect-a-memorial-erase-the-past-the-memorial-to-the-victims-of-the-german-occupation-in-budapest-and-the-controversy-around-it/
Adil Mansure is the 2022 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.
So sea lion gave him sand.
Crow threw that sand around the world.
“Be World,” he told it. And it became the world.1
I write this report while in the Yukon, upon land that has been cared for and stewarded for thousands of years by the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. As I mentioned about in my previous H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship report, the act of writing about an oral history project continues to be an odd feeling. And the notion of orality of course bears special significance here as I am surrounded by several Indigenous peoples, who only recently—if at all—took to writing. Colonization has been tremendously brutal to them, having targeted where it hurt the most: killing the continuity of their language and their oral traditions, which were the primary means of propagating their knowledge and culture. I truly believe that world-building occurs primarily in and through language, and language is the site of my modeling Indigenous knowledge systems, which are wonderfully comprehensive, complex, and adaptive. This oral history project highlights the shape that orality itself gives to traditional (Indigenous) knowledge.
As I go about talking to members of various First Nations in the Yukon, I am repeatedly told that for what I want to do—conduct an oral history project where I talk to elders and knowledge-keepers of various Indigenous peoples to understand how thousands of years of (holistic and sustainable) architectural knowledge is embedded in their myths and stories—I am about 5–10 years too late. That the last generation of elders who lived purely off the land, relatively un-influenced by British and Canadian colonization, have recently passed on. Yet, in talking to various communities and hearing them recall memories of what they were told by their elders and knowledge-keepers, seeing them sustain a muscle-memory of sorts through their arts and other tactile practices, and in their efforts to preserve their knowledge through language regeneration, one cannot but be hopeful and aspire. Despite being still in a kind of post-trauma condition, where Canada is still making at-best feeble apologies to these peoples for various ill-doings, (especially sending their children to residential schools—which in some conversations I have had with Indigenous peoples have even been compared to Nazi concentration camps), the resilience of these peoples shows in the regeneration of their languages, practices, and their incredible spirit of adaptation and resilience. This is what makes learning about architecture here valuable; this spirit is what I will attempt to articulate in what follows.
I want to note first that any accounts I am sharing are deliberately being kept anonymous. This report is not the space to disclose personal stories or make "human subjects" out of the people who were kind enough to have conversations with me. I have made promises to not record or transcribe, but simply describe through abstract and third-person narratives, the attitudes and ideas that have struck me as most remarkable.
In the Yukon, I have been visiting the traditional territories of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation, the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, the Kwanlin Dün First Nation, Ta’an Kwachan First Nation, the Kluane First Nation, the Teslin Tlingit Council, and the White River First Nation. Some of the structures that I have come across that are common to many of these peoples and these lands, includes the injall (a Southern Tutchone word told to me orally, and that I have probably misspelled), the longhouse (for larger gatherings), the tipi, sod houses, and caches for storing food (most built on stilts to keep away from animals, but some buried in the ground with wooden logs atop). Some other artifacts built using similar methods and exhibiting similar tectonics include conical fish traps, boats, drums, and baskets. The point here is not to lay out a written taxonomy of these structures and artifacts, but rather to say a bit about what I learned about the cultures of habitations and migration that these buildings and artifacts afforded. And perhaps most importantly, to understand some of the attitudes associated with these lifestyles.
Let us begin with the latter, and with an anecdotal example. First, note that several of these lands I mentioned have witnessed record levels of condensation in the last 2 to 3 years, both from plenty of snow melt in the summer and also from record snowfall in the winter. It is noticeable how high waters are on lands that are not used to them, and how both the peoples and ecosystems are already adapting to them. (But this also means tree roots being over-watered and therefore trees dying out, insects that breed off still water increasing in numbers, and animal migration patterns being rapidly disrupted.) Even in Southern Yukon terrains of innumerable lakes, these recent changes are severe. In one particular example, an injall had got somewhat submerged, and the person who built it was wondering about how to navigate the waters and the situation. The instinct, however, was not to preserve the building or keep the water out using aggressive high-technological methods—which I have observed to be the case in places with cultures of owning and valuing property rather than stewarding both the lands and the waters—but rather this elder person’s instinct was to move, reassemble, salvage, and move on. There was an understanding and an appreciation of any kind of unpredictability with regard to not only land and water, but also other agents bringing uncertainty. And it was clear that these changes were not linear or reversible, in fact, each minor change would cause a complex series of un-forecast-able ripple effects. The elder’s approach wasn’t one to safeguard from change, but to move along with. What is key here are these attitudes toward mitigating change, and not specific techniques, technology, or methods of building. And arguably, land is not a given and is by no means static or permanent; as is also evident in the orally transmitted origin story of the Crow: it emerges from and can dissolve back into the water.
The buildings, building methods, and migratory lifestyle all made sense to me in a new light. The Southern Yukon First Nations always lived lives of migration which put first the health of the ecosystems they depended on. First, the seasonal migration: usually centered around picking berries and other plants in the summer, fish and bigger game in the Fall, and smaller game in the early Spring. But there are also longer-duration migrations involved. For example, moving away from certain areas so as not to deplete the growth of berries or not over-fish or over-hunt. Of course, weather-related incidents such as forest fires also led to migrations to nearby areas. The instinct was not to put them out (as is the case with many forestry departments today) but to understand them as natural and necessary, let them occur, and change one’s course accordingly. In Southern Yukon, forest fires are often followed by the growth of fireweed, a pink flower that can rapidly paint burned-out landscapes and flood them with color and life. The circle of life and death, and fire and water are wholly and simultaneously evident. Generally speaking, thinking of land as so precious so as to attempt to effectively remove it from the course of natural environmental change has not been the Yukon First Nations’ way, and their architecture follows this understanding.
Other migrations also occurred due to their tribal, community, and family structures. The primary factors are the moiety and the clan.2 The moiety structure (wolf and crow in most of the Yukon First Nations I mentioned), which was maternally passed on, ensured a diverse gene pool as marriages were only to be cross-moiety. A significant socio-cultural practice associated with the moiety structure, as pointed out to me by an elder, was that a young man would go spend some time (often a year or two) with his maternal uncles who might belong to different First Nations (but to the same moiety) to learn their ways. Such chosen cycles of migration also led to knowing large terrains well, and to building empathetic relationships with the species of flora and fauna that inhabited them. And this also ensured a cross-pollination of traditional knowledge associated not only with hunting, trapping, fishing, and reading the information-rich land and waters but, and especially in the last three to four centuries, understanding the complex relations owed to the growing trading networks. The phenotypical expressions, as it were, of these gene pools of the Southern Yukon First Nations were thus prone to continuous diversification and enrichment. And these expressions were well encapsulated in their traditional knowledge, myths, and stories all passed on through their oral traditions.
I have digressed… somewhat. Returning to the incident about the injall being submerged by the new pools of water formed, the elder’s attitude toward packing up and moving or dis- or re-placing made immense sense. My initial thoughts (having been over-exposed to Western and Enlightenment attitudes of the stasis of settlement and ownership, and always protecting the land from the water) harbored a sadness at the prospective architectural loss of the sun-silvered patina of the wooden injall, the falling apart of the roots that had wound around and between its various logs, and the falling away of the sod that inhabited its various joints. To these thoughts, the elder’s very different attitude taught plenty. For him, what was valuable was not that specific material or property, but the knowledge and ability to adapt, redo, remake, and live on—and the decision-making skills factoring in the longevity of relations between peoples, species, and spaces. The migrations and lifestyles discussed earlier ensured that such attitudes and skills permeated the connected tribes and formed their common ground. We might attribute some of these current changes like the record levels of condensation to recent climate change narratives, and think that our actions as architectural thinkers must move towards working with these changes; however, with the communities in Yukon I have spoken to, what was significant for them was not climate change, but change itself that always occurs over the longue durée of environmental history. And it is centuries of adapting to the latter that prepares them to deal with the changing climate or any other changes today. In the stories I have heard from members of various South Yukon First Nations, this much is clear: that in their relatively young geo-scape, the land is not what is permanent, but appears and disappears over the years amidst the changing courses of rivers and glaciers, formation and dissolution of peaks and valleys, and hence also of islands, lakes, and forests. The land appears amidst the water in both time and space; and the migratory lifestyle (both seasonal and generational) and architecture all reflect this deep understanding. And this is precisely what the creation story of the crow—which has been repeated since time immemorial—encapsulates. The trickster raven or crow may throw many a détournement our way, how do we stay afloat? Ultimately the emotion I remember from this community on the verge of one or another predicament related to the changing course of waters was not devastation (although there would be loss and pain) but laughing off the lack of luck, and even a curiosity about how to do it differently the next time—and anticipating that there probably would always be a next time.
Let us think through some of the traditional activities of the South Yukon First Nations and further understand how notions of space emerged from their know-how. As might be evident by now, these peoples’ lifestyles revolved around the various supplies of food, its responsible harvesting, while of course care-taking of the land and the waters. Hunting, trapping, fishing, and foraging still often form the baselines of conversations in the region. For thousands of years, the various techniques associated with these activities were currency in their trades and other exchanges that occurred between families and bands. In fact, in talking to various First Nations, while sharing their knowledge, they have often asked me to share techniques or methods from my culture(s) of how we processed wood, fish, hide, beads, etc.
Architecture, or rather spatiality, also first emerges out of their lifestyles and traditional activities. Primary conceptualizations of space are evident in the peoples’ relations with animals and their bodies. Unlike Western conceptions of neutral or homogenous space (or general theories of space derived from the proportions associated with the human figure in the ages of Humanism), the spaces that we are dealing with here are not understood in the abstract, but rather, quite directly and empathetically from the various animal organs out of which objects of daily use were made from.3 For example, the intestines of moose and caribou used as vessels to store in, and their stomachs used as vessels to boil and cook in.4 These organs and membranes have astonishing plasticity and variances, and these properties are evident in the peoples’ conceptualization of space. Furthermore, the geometry that they work with is astoundingly complex, dealing with topologies of both curvature and flexibility. The knowledge of how to work these surfaces is very much tactile—and even tacit—and propagated by being practiced communally. In being shown some traditional methods that make use of different parts of an animal, I have marveled at the sheer ingenuity of some of the chemical combinations, for example, the tanning of hides using moose brain. A deep understanding of the animal body, the various networks of arteries of fluids, and the relation of these to other parts of the body are all consonant to, and in some way mirrors to understanding their shifting terrains of land and water. What happens in the animal body is a reflection of what occurs outside, and vice versa. Space is thus conceptualized abstractly and through a holistic understanding of both species and spaces.
It must be noted first that the harvesting of the animal body was a sacred act of sorts. It had to be done in ways that paid full respect to the animal. The traps and snares usually ensured that the deaths of animals would be almost instant and least painful. This of course is another dimension of empathy. Generally speaking, only what was necessary should be taken from the land. There is a complete absence of the notion of waste in the traditional techniques I have observed. This is also perhaps where the ethos of the spiritual realm of respecting an animal align with the rather practical scarcity of materials in the sub-Arctic north. "No waste"—which is tacitly practiced—is perhaps the most astounding aspect of Indigeneity I have noticed, and a trigger for immense ingenuity, creativity, and the invention of clever instruments and artifacts. For example, the numerous uses of the skin of a caribou or moose.5 There are of course animal furs that are used as clothing. Skins are often tanned and these membranes (leather, effectively) have found many uses. Several skins stitched together provide large fabric surfaces which are used for tenting. Babiche is a kind of strong string produced by cutting up processed or tanned hide in a variety of desired widths, and is used in bows, snowshoes, and several other instruments and articles. Smaller skins yield a variety of artifacts such as hand drums, clothing, floor and wall layers (such as rugs), and so on. The inland Tlingit First Nations (in Teslin and Atlin, for example) produce the outer surfaces of canoes and kayaks using stitched-up hides, as these fine specimens made by Doug Smarch from Teslin show. (Fig 1 & 2) These are dried to produce both translucency and lightness, but also hardness and sturdiness that one might today associate with a material such as fiberglass. Incidentally, the drum and boat hide surfaces are similarly stretched out with numerous babiche strings, and the boat surfaces even acquire a tonality when stricken, and could probably be tuned like a drum by controlling the tension in the strings. This is what is perhaps captured by Copper Caribou (Montana Prysnuk and Delaney Prysnuk) in their artwork Vadzaih dhòh (Caribou Skin). (Fig 3) I can imagine even thinking about boats in terms of aurality, tonality, and pitches. But perhaps this is not too far to imagine; traditional knowledge emphasized listening to the sounds of nature, so perhaps boats were, even if not deliberately or explicitly, instruments involved in a wet aural ecosystem. "No waste" is evident in these examples, too. And not only is this empathetic (because of a deep understanding of the animal body), but the notion of space is itself empathetically produced, practically speaking, out of the understanding of working various membranes, organs, and geometries found in nature. And it is a holistic notion of space that encompasses not only visuality, but also touch, taste, and sound. A key idea in this all is, that innovation and the invention of simple yet highly sophisticated technology using various parts of the flora and fauna available were ultimately also ways of paying respect to the animal that the peoples believed had offered itself to them, which is indeed a significant dimension of empathy.
Fig 1 & 2: A kayak and canoe made by Doug Smarch from Teslin, exhibited at the Adäka Festival 2022 in Whitehorse, Yukon.
Fig 3: Vadzaih dhòh (Caribou Skin) by Copper Caribou (Montana Prysnuk and Delaney Prysnuk), exhibited at the Yukon Arts Center, Whitehorse
This empathy precedes the harvesting of an animal: many Indigenous peoples around the world believed that the hunting of animals involved complex human-animal relationships. Hunting did not simply imply the domination of all animal species by the human6; but as some scholars argue, human-animal relations can be construed in similar terms as human-human relationships, where notions of exchange, trade, and gift-giving, respect, and so on apply in all cases. The fact that numerous hunts could fail, that some animals appeared to allow themselves to be hunted, and other such factors have been vastly documented and interpreted as animals also having agency in the human-animal relationship.7 It is also claimed that some animals understand the ways that humans protect them; for example, keeping wolves and other predators away from herds of caribou and reindeer, and they reciprocate by offering few of their kin.8 It is evident that Indigenous peoples saw the relation between hunter and hunted as a courtship of sorts, where the gift of meat and other products was given by the animal to only those humans they perceived worthy. In such cases and anecdotes, the specificity of the context of each place, time, and human and non-human involved is significant, and much is lost if abstracted to any general theories. Indigenous notions of space are nuanced and information-rich, and only accessible when care and empathy are exercised from the beginning of any relationship.
As each animal is different, each tree is also different. As an elder pointed out to me, in traditional ways of boat building, logs were often floated out on the water to see how they would behave, float, turn, etc. Each log had a predisposition to become a certain kind of boat (or other artifact), and one had to pay special attention to what to do with each piece of material, as this was not predefined. An agency of sorts was thus given to each tree involved, too. Furthermore, boats and carvings were usually made from fallen trees; humans, animals, and inanimate beings were similarly and co-involved in the lifecycles of these artifacts. Harvesting material, both floral and faunal, was thus an act of a deep understanding of the complex ecosystem, its history, and the many actors involved. While philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead and even Bruno Latour offer conceptual frameworks to attribute similar tropes (actors and agents, in the case of Latour) to human, animal, and inanimate objects; with various Indigenous cosmologies, stories, and art forms, we can see this reified and occurring naturally and inevitably when empathy and care are involved in these peoples’ foraging, fishing, hunting, art-making, and building of buildings.
In the last few decades, much progress has been made in Canada in empowering Indigenous First Nations to return to self-governance and to return to practicing their traditions (hunting, fishing, etc.), which they have been denied for many decades. Much effort has also been made in attempting to regenerate their languages, which colonial powers had barred them from speaking, causing severe generational ruptures of knowledge transfer. Although most conversations today about becoming whole again and cultural regeneration in the Yukon inevitably begin with residential school experiences, there is also much hope, enthusiasm, and effort expressed in the regeneration of traditional activities, languages, and importantly, art. What the cosmology of the land amidst the water of the Southern Yukon First Nations also represents is their deep understanding of various cycles of disruption and regeneration in history, and thus also their abilities to adapt and regenerate. This is precisely what is evident in their continuing and augmenting their traditional activities, their reparation of the fabric of their languages by teaching and speaking them, and in their renewing their traditional art forms by reinvigorating lost methods and even integrating them with contemporary ones. While much of their knowledge is protected, and to be passed on only through the moieties and clans of the Yukon First Nations, much else is common and told repeatedly to regenerate a common ground of the region. An inductive research method such as mine opens one up to precisely this common conversational fabric. In this brief report, I hope I have not shared anything that wasn’t mine to share or that couldn’t be gleaned by someone present in the places I have been. I want to end with simply mentioning my immense gratitude to those who, through conversation, shaped a rendition of what Southern Yukon is and used to be.
1 From an origin story of the land, as told by Angela Sydney to Julie Cruikshank. See Julie Cruikshank, Life Lived like a Story: Life Stories of Three Yukon Native Elders (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002), p 42–44.
Being from Teslin and from an inland Tlingit First Nation (influenced by the coastal Tlingit whose worlds were shaped by the oceans), the balance or shifting conditions between the lands and the waters were a significant part of their environment, and indeed their cosmology. Elders from different places have told this story with different characters, for example, the sea lion is replaced with a gull in the versions told by inland First Nations.
On a slightly separate note, it must also be mentioned that there are two important aspects that are the backdrop of this allegorical story (and many others of the Yukon First Nations): the ice ages and a great flood that the Yukon witnessed.
2 For detailed accounts and thorough explanations see Catharine McClellan, My Old People’s Stories: A Legacy for Yukon First Nations, vol. 1, 2 & 3 (Yukon Tourism and Culture, Cultural Services Branch, Occasional Papers in Yukon History, 2007), and; Catharine McClellan, Part of the Land, Part of the Water: A History of the Yukon Indians (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1987). The following has been summarized from conversations with various people and from reading McLellan’s work.
3 As I had pointed out in my previous Brooks fellowship report, the notion of empathy has been used in theories of German aesthetics (by H.F Mallgrave, Heinrich Wölfflin, August Schmarsow, etc.) to conceive of space using both, the abstract or general human figure and the spatial relations between an observer and an architectural body—or in other words, the identifying of an architectural body using tropes of understanding the human body. See Harry Francis Mallgrave and Eleftherios Ikonomou, eds., Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873–1893 (Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1994). I suggest that German Aesthetics and Indigenous notions of space share common ground, and I elaborate in what follows, how the latter can add several layers of complexity, nuance, and context to those of the former.
4 For detailed descriptions of many more traditional acts, skills, and methods, see McClellan, Part of the Land, Part of the Water: A History of the Yukon Indians.
5 This and the following practices or methods are common to several Yukon First Nations—common to the extent that they have been raised in numerous conversations I have had.
6 See the introduction of Tim Ingold, ed., What Is an Animal? (Routledge, 2016), and; Tim Ingold, “From Trust to Domination: An Alternative History of Human-Animal Relations,” in Animals and Human Society (Routledge, 2002), 13–34.
7 I am grateful to Norman Easton for clarifying this insight, and for pointing me to some very valuable literature. For reference, see Norman Alexander Easton, “‘It’s Hard Enough to Control Yourself; It’s Ridiculous to Think You Can Control Animals.’ Competing Views on ‘The Bush’ in Contemporary Yukon,” Northern Review, no. 29 (2008): 21–38; Paul Nadasdy, “The Gift in the Animal: The Ontology of Hunting and Human–Animal Sociality,” American Ethnologist 34, no. 1 (2007): and; Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (Routledge, 2002).
8 Bathsheba Demuth, “Reindeer at the End of the World,” Emergence Magazine, July 5, 2020, https://emergencemagazine.org/essay/reindeer-at-the-end-of-the-world/.
The first chapter of John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic, aptly named “Beginnings,” lays down some rules for observing the world in meaningful ways. The goal is to generate inquiry, to find questions rather than answers. The goal is wonder.1 The first one of Stilgoe’s rules is to slow down. The second is to put down all technology. I have been assigning this chapter to classes of high school and college students for more than twenty years, and yet I don’t often make the time to follow Stilgoe’s rules. Hold into this thought. I will get back to John Stilgoe in a minute.
One of the goals of my Brooks Fellowship is to explore the ways ordinary people make meaning of the built environment. This quest emerged from historic preservation struggles I have witnessed lately in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. In Cincinnati we have lost several buildings recently which, to my mind, were significant monuments to the city’s multi-layered history. The one I had the most to do with was Revelation Baptist Church, which was built as a synagogue in 1865 and, according to a notably non-scholarly website that tallies such things, would have been the tenth oldest purpose-built synagogue in the country at the time of its demolition in May 2020.2 It was also the church where Civil Rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth was pastor during the most successful period of his activism. The building was demolished by the owners of a new Major League Soccer stadium nearby. They thought they might someday build something on the now vacant site.
Figure 1: Revelation Baptist Church, formerly John Street Temple, built in 1865 in Cincinnati Ohio. Demolished in May 2020.
In addition to recent losses, Cincinnati is also struggling with the stewardship of the Terrace Plaza Hotel designed by SOM (Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie DuBlois) in 1948, which was recently denied landmarking by our planning commission. If you want to learn more about the amazing Terrace Plaza, check out the article about it in the February 3, 2021, Architectural Digest by Laura Itzkowitz (available online) or check out the excellent original black and white photos available on SOM’s website.
What I have witnessed in most of these cases is that few citizens and fewer people in power understand the value in these buildings. I believe (though this may be naïve) that if more people understood why these buildings matter, then more of them would be saved.
This brings me to thinking about how people understand the built world. How does the everyday passerby learn the value of a place? A building might have historical/cultural value and/or it might have artistic/architectural value. People probably need different ways to understand these two different measures. What I am thinking about on this trip is how people read buildings to understand or assess their value and what interventions or interpretive aids help build this skill. Buildings of artistic and architectural merit are probably easier to interpret because you can see that there is something special about them. The spark for this blog post came from a seemingly ordinary building, which led me to lots of questions, and then some answers, and then more questions. I hope you’ll enjoy the ride.
Returning to John Stilgoe, I left on this trip on May 25 and had been going non-stop ever since. We arrived in Paris and, after wrestling with some jetlag, hit the ground running. I feel like I have been moving ever since. I want to see everything, so I have been dashing around to take it all in. I have been taking lots of photos. I have even been relying on Google Maps to tell me where to go. What I haven’t been doing is slowing down and putting down my technology.
I am incredibly grateful to the fellowship committee, because I recognize that my application was a little unusual. I am a single mom, and there wasn’t really any way for me to do the Brooks Fellowship without bringing my eleven-year-old along. Bringing him with me also meant I would need a babysitter to care for him while I was looking at and thinking about architecture. The Brooks committee understood this and were willing to accept a proposal for all three of us to travel. We are staying with friends and family or in other low-cost lodging and using Eurail passes to stretch the budget. All of this is to say that I’ve got an eleven-year-old and an eighteen-year-old along on this trip—and oh-boy do they like technology. One night in Barcelona I returned to our humble and crowded hotel room, dead phone in hand, to find them watching Pirates of the Caribbean Three on the computer. It was loud and took up all the “space” in the room, so I went out for a walk. In my exile I found myself sitting in a small plaza near our hotel just looking at the seemingly ordinary building that happened to be directly in front of the bench I had chosen on Carrer De Las Ramelleres. As I felt the rush of the day drain out of me, completely liberated from my phone, now home on the charger, I gave myself over to “reading” the building.
I am going to briefly articulate the process I went through. For some readers this will probably seem overly simplified or a statement of the obvious. I am doing it because I think it is important for architectural historians to “show our work” and be clear on how we get from one idea to the next. If we want people who are not trained as architectural historians to appreciate buildings and help save them from demolition, it is important to make our processes and values transparent and user-friendly.
Figure 2: The door to Casa de Misericordia, Barcelona, Spain
I was drawn to the building by a mysterious incongruity between a historic door surround and a fresh plaster façade. The door gives the sense of a buried past popping out from a modern façade. The door has a triangular pediment topping an entablature held up by two simple engaged pilasters. On the slope of the pediment are stone orbs held up on little feet. All of this is beat up—pock marked, chipped, and discolored. The battered stone doorway has been left exposed, but the rest of building around it has all been plastered over, presumably to clean up a façade as down on its luck as the doorway (the building’s simple window lintels and surrounds were also left exposed). Today a sign on the modern glass door reads, “Casa de Misericordia.”
Once I took in the general shape of the doorway, I began to see the finer details. I noticed a faint shadow of something painted above the doorway. It reads “Casa D Infants Orfens.” Ah-ha! It was an orphanage!
Figure 3: Close up of ghost of painted sign above the door.
This squares with another detail—inside the triangle of the pediment is a carved Catalan crest. The crest leads me to believe that from the time the doorway was carved it appears to have been an official or institutional building. It was at some point used as an orphanage, but that could have been a later use, because the sign I read was painted onto the façade rather than being carved in. As I stand up and go closer, I see that there is more carving of the two sides. It says “I.S.” on one side and “78” on the other. It is as I turn away from the doorway that I notice the most amazing piece of the puzzle, but I am going to provide a little more of the building’s general layout and details before I reveal my big find.
The building is three stories high. The masonry façade is mostly solid, so there are big spaces between the relatively small window openings. It is nine bays wide, but the façade curves out slightly after the fourth bay. The door I’ve been describing is located at the second bay from the left which was (and is) clearly the formal entrance to the building. This entrance faces onto a public plaza (Placa de Vicenc Martorell) with benches and a playground. The building has doors at the street level in the first six bays, though the major entrance is the one I’ve described at the second bay. The others now sport roll-down gates covering shop windows at night. One is a great bookstore. Above these doors are small horizonal windows covered in a grid of heavy iron bars. I wonder who they wanted to keep in or out. Were the kids trying to escape from the orphanage? Or did they need protection? There is a rust-streaked carved plaque over another door, with a date of 1790, commemorating the construction of some part of the hospital (see figure 7).
Figure 4: View of the entire Carrer De Las Ramelleres Street façade of Casa de Misericordia
Figure 5: Building from a distance showing its location on a busy plaza and playground. Note the door surround pictured above and the small round opening at the door to the right of the main door.
I notice lots of other details, but I’ll spare you. Some pieces I can make sense of right away and others I will push to the side. I experience this process like dumping out the pieces of a new jigsaw puzzle. At first you’re not sure where your focus should go. Should you sort them by color? Should you find the faces? Here I just observe all the parts of the building and try to figure out how to make meaning of the puzzle.
Figure 6: Close up of the façade with details.
Figure 7: Dated plaque above a door in the third bay. Raquel Lacuesta Contreras’ article notes that this plaque has been moved from its original location on the ground floor to a perplexing location at the second story.
So now, back to my ah-ha moment at the door. As I turned away from the carving over the door, a round opening in the façade caught the corner of my eye. It was a round hole, maybe a foot in diameter, with a wooden frame and filled in with a slightly bowed board. Above it to the left is a small donation slot.
Figure 8: Round opening and donation slot
I knew instantly what this was, but only because I had some very specific knowledge acquired through my dissertation research. I wrote a chapter that highlighted the desperation of unwed and poor pregnant women in the time before sexual liberation and pasteurized milk. From this research I knew that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century orphanages in Paris and London had included windows (sometimes called foundling wheels) where desperate women could leave their babies anonymously in a wall of the orphanage. It had never occurred to me that a building with this baby port might still exist, but there it was, right in front of me. And I knew right away that’s what it was. As I looked around a little stunned by this discovery, I saw that there was, nearby, a graffiti-covered interpretive panel with information and photos about the little hole.
Figure 9: Text of the interpretive panel
Figure 10: Side view of the interpretive panel covered in graffiti
This panel had been put up to try to teach the public about the importance of this strange feature of the building’s façade. I read the panel and it confirmed that yes, this little porthole had been a baby abandonment drop-off station for desperate women. Suddenly this building transformed for me into a monument to the struggles and difficult choices of generations of women.
The English-language side of the panel says this was the “Provincial House of Maternity and Foundlings of Barcelona,” and explains that industrialization resulted in the arrival of many poor single women from the countryside who had come to Barcelona seeking work and that at the same time the rate of “illegitimate” births increased “exponentially.” The sign doesn’t make the connection between the powerlessness of these poor women and the rise in pregnancy in unmarried women, but clearly their poverty and lack of support networks put them in a position where they could be easily taken advantage of. The panel goes on to say that the social stigma of the day resulted in abandonment of many children to the care of charitable institutions. It then reads, “the foundling wheel in this wall, where newborn babies could be left, represents a host of dramas and injustices. On top of the stigma, mothers faced the pain of abandonment.” It goes on to note that, “most infants died before their first birthday,” and to explain that those who survived were transferred to another orphanage where boys would be trained “to be shopkeepers” and girls would be “trained for domestic service.” The panel also includes three photos, one of a room with both a bed and a crib, and another of rows of kneeling children in prayer.
What I learned in writing my dissertation is that as single women flooded into newly industrialized cities to find work, they often worked as live-in domestic servants. In this circumstance they were in constant and potentially close contact with their employer—a person with significant power over them. It would have been difficult to refuse physical contact. Alternately, these women might just have been lonely and in need of human connection. If, by these or any other circumstances, an unmarried women found herself with child, she was stuck. If the pregnancy became known, no one would marry her. If she tried to raise the child alone, it would be nearly impossible to find work. In an age before pasteurized milk, the only way to feed a baby was with breast milk. How could a mother work to earn money and nurse her new baby? She could not possibly afford a wetnurse.
I write this blog post just days after Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed women privacy to make their own reproductive decisions, has been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. I fear we are about to return to an era of very difficult choices for many women. A few weeks before I left for my fellowship trip, a draft of the Supreme Court decision was leaked, and I was interviewed about my dissertation chapter by Cincinnati’s local NPR station. My work was included in a story about what life was like for women in Cincinnati before legal abortion. You can read that story here. This building suddenly feels even more relevant as a document of the impossible choices unmarried pregnant women had to make.
The little baby port in the building has clearly survived many changes to the building. It remains today as a powerful document of this building’s role in the lives of hundreds or thousands of women and babies over possibly hundreds of years. The interpretive panel exists to explain this history to the public so they will appreciate this building’s past. Yet, as I looked around at the graffiti on the panel and even on the little wooden door itself, I watched hundreds of tourists stroll by without even a glance. Even this totally intact clue to this building’s history, clearly marked with an informational panel, even if a somewhat abused one, does not catch people’s notice or communicate its significance.
Figure 11: Graffiti on the foundling wheel
At one point I debated about going inside the government office to ask if they knew anything about the history of this building or if I could see the inside of the foundling wheel, but I decided I didn’t want to go into a building with a police officer stationed in the lobby to ask crazy questions in a foreign language. A few days later I did ask the cashier at the bookstore. She told me that she thought the building had been a convent and that there was a crypt underneath.
Here I should note that the bookstore (called La Central) also complicated my understanding of this building. When I entered the bookstore it was into a small room, but that small space opened into a larger one and then a series of small little cells, a coffee bar, and even a courtyard with a restaurant. There were at least three different ways out on three different streets. It was a bit of a maze and I have to admit I got turned around in there more than once.
With all these clues and questions, I turned to written resources I could find on the internet. There were several blog posts about the foundling wheel, but most useful was an article (a report really) published in 1992 in a Spanish-language publication called Espacio, Tiempo y Forma (Space, Time and Form) by Raquel Laquesta Contraras. The article is entitled “La Casa municipal de Misericordia de Barcelona. Historia de su evolución arquitectónica” or “The Municipal House of Mercy of Barcelona. History of its Architectural Evolution.” I don’t read Spanish, so I read the article by pasting it into a word document and using Google Translate. It wasn’t a perfect translation, but I could get the idea. The article is sixty-two pages long, so just to summarize I learned that this building was part of a larger complex occupying a significant portion of a large city block. It had been founded by a man named Diego Perez de Valdivia as a house of mercy for the poor in 1581. The first building bears a date of 1603, but most of the current buildings date to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The façade I have been exploring on Ramelleres Street was added to the complex in 1788, probably designed by Rafael de Llinas and P. Modolell. The House of Maternity and Foundlings was officially added to the complex in 1852, “occupying the east wing of the building, which overlooks the street of Ramelleres,” though the complex had been serving young women prior to this official designation.3 The complex held a diverse array of uses including a convent with chapels, courtyards, and orchards. The article makes one perplexing note that, “the [historical] documents mention the existence of some dungeons.” I hope the use of the word “dungeon” is just a translation error! The complex was bombed twice, first by the regent of Spain’s young queen in the 1840s and again in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War, which helps to explain the pock marks on the door. It has been subject to multiple renovations and reconstructions over 500 years. I was able to get some of this by observation, but it was comforting to have the written records confirm my hypotheses. But this step of moving from questions to the documents with comforting answers is something most people won’t be able to do. How does this impact their connection to historic architecture?
After writing most of this post, I stopped off in Florence for a day. I remembered that the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents)—paid for by Florence’s silk merchants and designed by Filippo Brunelleschi beginning in 1419—had once also included a baby portal, so I went there to check it out.
Figure 12: View of Ospedale degli Innocenti, designed by Brunelleschi, Florence, Italy. Note the foundling window to the far left at the top of the steps.
What I found was a window covered with thick metal bars at the top of a staircase on a main square. Here there was also an interpretive panel. It taught me that the bars allowed only very small newborns to be passed through and that they could be laid on a velvet pillow inside the window where a nun slept on a cot ready to care for any deposits. I am a little skeptical about this panel because I know for sure that my almost 9-pound baby would not have fit through those bars.
Figure 13: Close-up of the window
Figure 14: Interpretive text panel
As a side note, this building is also famous for the blue and white glazed terra cotta rondels sculpted by Andrea della Robbia and added to the building in 1487. Each rondel features a swaddled baby. In only one the baby’s bindings are falling away, illustrating the potential (and unfavorable odds) for babies at the hospital to be liberated. The opulence of this circumstance contrasted the austerity of the building in Barcelona, but the heartbreaking reality that women had to abandon their babies remained the same. I’m not sure the buildings themselves (even with interpretive panels) are doing such a great job of communicating this reality.
Just across the square from the hospital was a much more urgent and effective monument to a different kind of human suffering. This makeshift monument to murdered transgender people used in-your-face placement and bright colors to draw attention to itself. There is an urgency to this hand-written raggedy memorial drenched in the symbolism of locks and fuchsia fabric. Centuries old buildings and formal institutional text panels don’t have the same power, but I wonder if there isn’t something we could learn from this powerful and well-placed memorial.
Figure 15: Transgender memorial in the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata in Florence in front of the Hospitale degli Innocenti
Figure 16: Text panel on the transgender memorial
I have just been reading Vince Michael’s “Diversity in Preservation: Rethinking Standards and Practices” in the spring 2014 issue of Preservation Forum. He quotes Raymond Rast saying that “for most people, buildings don’t ‘speak’ very coherently,” and that “the average person does not have the experience to ‘read’ a building or judge its integrity or even know whether it was built in 1830, or 1930 or 2009.” My experience with the Casa d’ Infant Orfens both proves and disproves this statement. I believe that the deep observation I did of the building is something anyone could have done. It generated a few answers (this was an orphanage at some point) but mostly questions. I think most people can use their eyes to look at buildings and generate questions. According to Michaels, Rast might say that I believe this because I am trained to read buildings and that I can’t not read them—just like once you know how to read you can no longer see words as just a string of shapes. My brain automatically gives meaning to the clues I see and starts to build a story from those clues. I disagree with this to some extent. I believe that people without my training can read buildings, and my years of teaching Stilgoe to students absolutely confirms this. Anyone can find the puzzle pieces if they look. But putting the puzzle pieces together is harder.
Making sense of the foundling wheel is something I could do because I had very specific background knowledge which most people wouldn’t have, although the interpretive panel on the site also made some of that information available to passersby if they take the time to read it. I also see that understanding the foundling wheel and the desperate circumstances of the unwed mothers made the building more meaningful to me. This context makes preserving this building more urgent in my mind. If the idea of preservation is that buildings educate us all about our shared past (rather than just those of us with specialized training or extra information), will it work if people lack the ability to read the story the building tells? How do we make sure the built world is legible to non-experts? How can we present information in meaningful ways to help the everyday viewer value buildings? This trip is all about that question, and I am already generating some answers, but you will need to wait for my next blog post to find out more about what I’m thinking.
1 If you haven’t read the first chapter of Outside Lies Magic, I cannot recommend it highly enough. You should read it. The book is sadly out of print, but there are plenty of used copies on the internet.
3 Raquel Laquesta Contraras, “La Casa municipal de Misericordia de Barcelona. Historia de su evolución arquitectónica” Espacio, Tiempo y Forma Serie V il, Hist. del Arte, t. V, 1992, 97-158. Note I used a Google Translate version of the Spanish text.
Fig 1 & 2: Found objects in Icelandic history, photographed at the The Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavík
Speaking to people in Iceland—to micro-historians, architects, anthropologists, folklorists, Medieval literary scholars, and artists—it became clear that beginning here offered me an opportunity to explore and unpack the nuances of what has been often proposed as the (unfair) binary of orality vs. writing or literacy. I don’t quite see a clear separation, nor do I wish to. It is in a fogginess that language, culture, architectural and other knowledge, and world-building are at their richest. Yet terms such as oral, written, etc., offer useful dialectical tools to think and self-debate. As I write this on my way to the Yukon, driving across the vast expanse of Canada, and in preparation for what I believe will be more about the oral dimensions of language and architectural knowledge, I mull over that placeholder binary of ‘oral vs. written’; not only about how it has been generally discussed in literature, but also how they intersect in the unique case of Iceland.
Fig 3 & 4: Reconstructed turf house complex, highlighting the kitchen (fig 4). Transported to and exhibited at the Skógar Museum
Fig 5 & 6: Turf house complex renovated by Hannes Lárusson at Austur-Meðalholt in South-Iceland
There are several dimensions of orality that I learnt about in making oral histories. Let us walk through a few. For one, the recitals of Medieval manuscripts and poetry, which were often communal activities performed as ways to get by the long winters of the land, when many folks had much time to pass. One can imagine the oratory resonances of stories told in the cozy interiors of the turf-house and long-house compounds that the early Icelanders were known to have inhabited. The transcription of poetry and copying of manuscripts is also known to have occurred during these long winters.2 Speaking to Icelanders of a certain age (now in their 60s and beyond, and many of who were raised in turf houses), I have also heard common recollections of entire families weaving, spinning, carving, and so on in the main common space (usually at the back of turf houses) during which times much storytelling also took place. These stories could be recreational, but could also be tales that inform, tell, and remind of significant aspects of the land, its people, and their history. Legends were often recited when family or others visited, or when larger numbers of a family were gathered together under the same roof. The oral dimensions of rhythms, pitches, and rhymes were especially important in recitation, as these could be powerful means to spread information. That is, oral language can often foreground not the content, but the means of propagation, especially at some events. This ‘aurality’ is also significant in recitations that had a significant role in dealing with grief, expressing joy, and so on. Such aspects can sometimes complement, but at other times also overwhelm what is exactly written and ‘meant.’ In my conversations, what has been most striking to me in this aspect of orality or the reciting of literature are the domestic spaces and cultural life that the descriptions of recital practices have invoked and portrayed. Even though I did not explicitly seek to research Icelandic traditional architecture, the spaces of the turf house emerged as an important aspect of the oral history making of the island.
Fig 7, 8 & 9: Hut for drying cod fish in the turf house complex renovated by Hannes Lárusson, Austur-Meðalholt
Fig 10 & 11: Interior of the main/living room at the turf house complex renovated by Hannes Lárusson, Austur-Meðalholt
While turf houses were the dominant dwelling building type before the twentieth century, they declined suddenly during the middle of the twentieth century as Icelanders took to contemporary urban and sub-urban dwellings of the kind built across Scandinavia. Larger family and kinship structures also gave way to nuclear families. Today, many turf houses are found abandoned across Iceland, consumed and inhabited by moss, algae, and insects. Yet, these houses are very much alive in the collective memories of the generations who were raised in them. These are predominantly fond memories, I am told. Recently, there have been several efforts to restore turf houses, build new ones, and for a few, take to turf-house living again. There are turf house museums, of houses both ancient (for example, the reconstructed Viking dwelling at Ströng) and recent (for example, Hannes Lárusson’s turf house and museum near Selfoss, and others that teams led by him are renovating). Much of the ‘contents’ of the houses, the kinds of domestic spaces they afforded, and the techniques used to build them are chiefly inspired by the collection of oral histories that artists—and implicitly oral historians—such as Lárusson have embarked upon. As per Lárusson’s recollections of these oral history makings, it is after talking through many matters of everyday life, hearing about the significant events (births, deaths, holidays, etc.) that transpired in peoples’ lives, and talking through many clichés and their collective memories that some elders have been able to point to not only specific aspects of living in turf houses, but also the techniques and activities that encompassed that life centered around building them.3 It is through these oral histories that Lárusson collected that he was able to learn about the variety of building elements, materials, and techniques that building turf houses entailed. Different parts of the island also inspired different kinds of stories, as there were also significant cultural differences between, say, sheep herders upon the highlands and fishermen by the coast. In the case of the tools used to build the houses and the various techniques used, aspects of orality and oral histories here include being conduits through to tacit knowledge in ways that writing would not permit. Not to mention the colloquialism of an oral history interview that even permits significant bits of architectural information to emerge almost by accident in the telling of stories that may not have been explicitly about architecture. These are also tropes that I noticed in my own oral-history-making.
Fig 12: Abandoned turf house at Vik
Fig 13 & 14: Abandoned turf house at Drangurinn í Drangshlíð
Another aspect of the oral epistemological format (pertaining to the divulging of information about architecture and the landscape) is the fact that stories often aided navigation. This was important in the history of Iceland, since many people seasonally moved, for example, from the highlands to the coast and back to switch between fishing, cattle raising, house-building, and so on. These stories might mean little in writing—that by its nature can exclude important cultural context—but could mean very much when told and remembered along the way. Even folklore and stories that featured creatures such as ogres, trolls, and other huldufólk (or hidden folk) contained important tips about wayfaring, times of the day and season to navigate certain landscapes, and other do’s and don’ts. These stories were effectively mnemonic devices. And given their oral format, they could be adapted to the relatively dynamic geo-scape of Iceland that still features active volcanoes, changing rock formations, flooding and shifting courses of rivers and surface water, varying places and levels of activities of hot springs, and so on. The different kinds of huldufólk in Icelandic mythology are associated with various kinds of landscape formations, for example, ogres with caves in the mountains, dwarves with big boulders, and elves and smaller creatures with cliffs and hedges. Thus, these stories and their protagonists become a record and an archive of various phases of landscape and environmental history itself. An example is the rock formation at Reynisfjara; the story is one of trolls who strode across the landscape by night (as they were usually believed to), but running late, met the light of day and was then petrified or turned into rocks. Recently, successful one-to-one comparative studies have also been undertaken showing correlations between geology and other records of environmental history with mythology or stories about the land.4
Fig 15: Basalt rock formations at Reynisfjara
Incidentally, folklore and myths continue to have an importance in wayfaring, even in current times. For example, many stories exist about recent road constructions being plagued, especially by construction equipment breaking, when the planning of roads did not factor in that the construction might be disrupting huldufólk dwellings5 (for example, the believed-to-be elven dwelling behind rock-cuts in Reykjavik. See fig 16.) I have been told about accounts of people even negotiating with huldufólk about how and where they might build. Attitudes toward such myths, legends, and stories range from disbelief and condemnation to staunch belief in seeing and communicating with these other-than-human species. Many harbor an agnostic attitude, that is, they don’t choose either extreme, yet, many are content to go a little out of their way so as to align with the appeasers of these folk. In Icelandic orally narrated stories and even in common-speak, I am told that these beliefs find surprising penetration and agency. For me, what is important is not whether these folk exist or not, but how the existence of these beliefs shape patterns of human behavior and imagination, which ultimately significantly impact the occupation and making of spaces and landscapes.
Fig 16: A rock in Reykjavik, which is believed to have halted construction activity6
Fig 17: Basalt rock formations at Reynisfjara, mirrored in the Hallgrímskirkja (fig 18) and the National Theater of Iceland (fig 19) buildings in Reykjavik.
A theme I want to highlight in these stories is that of animism. Not only are supernatural occurrences recorded by shaping protagonists in stories that correspond to them (the various huldufólk) but geological, natural, and environmental history are themselves understood by way of oratory practice and recital. As I have discerned also from knowledge-keepers of various First Nations in North-Western Canada, tall creatures of the forests who inhabit dual realms—physical and metaphysical or spiritual, human/animal and non-human/animal—have been claimed to have been witnessed by many of the peoples along the latitudes I am traversing. Perhaps this is a circumpolar theme wherein some similarities of landscape and climate are captured in stories in similar ways?
Iceland is a geologically young landscape, parts of it (south and east) younger than others (west). Driving through, one is immediately struck by how dynamic the floodplains of rivers are, changing locations of hot ground water eruption, the overwhelming of hardscapes by seasonal bursts of lichen and algae, and so on. In Iceland various place-names reify the existence of stories of the land, even if they are used and repeated in modes of low-attention or in passing references. Examples of place-names include: Egilsstaðir, referring to Egill, the first farmer of the land, as per one of the Sagas; and Barnafossar, a waterfall translating to ‘children fall,’ referring to where children (have) fallen. (I am sure that much is lost here in my understanding being a non-speaker of Icelandic!) There is a nature that emerges somewhere between these physical environmental phenomena and their understanding and representation through stories. Neither can be seen exclusively.
Animism literally carries through in architecture, too: in illustrating the techniques of building the turf house, Lárusson mentioned how blocks of earth were dried and then used akin to bricks (interspersed between blocks and layers of stone). Eventually, the roots of grass would grow through the earth/turf blocks, forming a homogenous but ‘alive’ building mass. And animism persists in the mainstream histories of architecture, too, implicitly rather than directly. For example, theories dealing with the notion of ‘empathy,’ which are well evident in the collection of essays edited by Mallgrave and Ikonomou.7 These address how we (humans) perceive architectural and other objects by projecting upon them human-centric tropes and properties. Wölfflin’s essay in this volume has become a seminal piece foregrounding the importance of ‘proportion’ in architectural history; what has been less appreciated, however, is that Wölfflin has conceived of the process of apportioning proportion in an ‘empathetic’ manner.8 A question that arises here is: why has empathy understood in this way excluded the notion of ‘care’ in (German) aesthetics, and generally in Western histories and theories of architecture? If we can see tropes of ‘human’ in buildings and other objects, how could we not extend them with human notions of care? Such are precisely the questions that I find Icelanders and the other Indigenous peoples I am talking to, to be implicitly asking. What is most significant about animism then is not only that certain cultures perceive inanimate objects to be animated or ‘spirited,’ but that there reemerges the potential to rethink our historical lineages in architecture, use the design methods and processes currently in use, but now twist them toward cultures of care.
Fig 20–22: In-progress portions of the turf house complex being renovated by Hannes Lárusson at Austur-Meðalholt
What I have shared are recollections of words, ideas, and experiences that emerged in dialogs with several people, all muddled in my mind and re-composed along my slow journey from Eastern to Western Canada. My conversations in Iceland were not interviews, and neither were they trying to extract exact information. I have thoroughly enjoyed the casuality, colloquialism, and the incredible leeway for conversations to seamlessly drift. After all, is this not one of the wonders of orality: that one can seamlessly shift between thoughts and sentences, topics, intensities and emotions? Broken and grammatically incomplete sentences often seem not only fitting but at times even more informative. And these are often not closures or completed understandings of matters but rather questions and openings in knowledge that only probe further and deeper than one might have previously imagined.
As for credit in an oral history endeavor, I could not be any more grateful to everyone I spoke to and everyone who helped me find connections in Iceland.9 I have felt incredibly welcome and simply overwhelmed with their more than gracious engagement. Their love of their land and their generosity of sharing it with me have been absolutely heartwarming. So what must I credit with to these lovely people—everything!
1 Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, Wasteland with Words: A Social History of Iceland (Reaktion books, 2012).
Magnusson uses the term ‘barefoot historian’ to refer to many common folk—fisherman, hunters, builders and so on, who wrote about their lives in their leisure—folk who, in other cultures in the 18th, 19th and even 20th century elsewhere in the world might not have been literate or in the habit of writing for leisure. See also by Magnússon; Sigurdur Gylfi Magnússon and David Olafsson, Minor Knowledge and Microhistory: Manuscript Culture in the Nineteenth Century (Routledge, 2016) and;
Sigurður G Magnússon, “The Continuity of Everyday Life: Popular Culture in Iceland, 1850-1940,” n.d.
2 Magnússon, Wasteland with Words: A Social History of Iceland.
3 I am very grateful to Lárusson for sharing his detailed thoughts and experiences of his oral history-making project in conversation with me, as well as ‘showing’ the rather tactile skills and knowledge involved in actually building turf houses (cutting and preparing turf, the design of tools, laying, curing, and so on.) This conversation was in some way, an oral history about other oral histories.
4 I am grateful to Rósa Þorsteinsdóttir and Emily Lethbridge for sharing these insights and details about their (individual) works.
See Emily Lethbridge, “Digital Mapping and the Narrative Stratigraphy of Iceland,” in Historical Geography, GIScience and Textual Analysis (Springer, 2020), 19–32 and;
Emily Lethbridge and Steven Hartman, “Inscribing Environmental Memory in the Icelandic Sagas and the Icelandic Saga Map,” PMLA 131, no. 2 (2016): 381–91.
5 Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir graciously shared these stories with me in conversation. For written accounts and description of various examples, see Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir and Svala Ragnarsdóttir, Krossgötur. Álfatrú, Álfabyggðir Og Bannhelgi á Íslandi, n.d. and;
Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir, “The Politics of Sacrosanctity and Elf Belief in Iceland,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Encounters of Humans and Hidden Powers in Sacrosanct Places, n.d., https://gjia.georgetown.edu/2020/07/30/encounters-of-humans-and-hidden-powers-in-sacrosanct-places-part-i-the-politics-of-sacrosanctity-and-elf-belief-in-iceland/ and;
Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir, “The Urgent Environmental Implications of Traditional Icelandic Elf Beliefs,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Encounters of Humans and Hidden Powers in Sacrosanct Places, n.d., https://gjia.georgetown.edu/2020/08/06/encounters-of-humans-and-hidden-powers-in-sacrosanct-places-part-ii-the-urgent-environmental-implications-of-traditional-icelandic-elf-beliefs/.
6 Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir showed this rock to me in person and has also written about it in her previously mentioned book Krossgötur. Álfatrú, Álfabyggðir Og Bannhelgi á Íslandi
7 Harry Francis Mallgrave and Eleftherios Ikonomou, eds., Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873–1893 (Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1994).
8 Heinrich Wolfflin, “Prolegomena to a Psychology of Architecture,” in Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873–1893 (Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1994).
9 I am extremely grateful to Hildigunnur Sverrisdottir, Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir, Rósa Þorsteinsdóttir, Emily Lethbridge, and Hannes Lárusson.
As I sit in my Sarajevo rental and reflect on how the Bosnian War, thirty years ago, made this place the way it is, the view of the green hills unfolds before me, dotted with colorful gabled houses that ascend the mountain until their red-tiled roofs touch the blue sky. A magpie stands on the utility line that drops down to a neighboring house. Sarajevo is a city shaped by nature. Its growth followed along the Milijacka River in the valley of Bosnia. The urban history of Sarajevo, defined by the Ottomans, the Astro-Hungarians, and socialist Yugoslavia flows along this east-west axis so that the architecture of each period lines up distinguishably next to one another. Looking up, I thought about how these same picturesque mountains that surround Sarajevo and its residents lent a convenient position for shelling and bombing the city for three-and-a-half bloody years during the Siege of Sarajevo in 1992–1995. The war claimed the lives of 11,540 people.
Figure 1. View of Sarajevo from my window
Figure 2. View of Sarajevo from the Yellow Bastion
Figure 3. Sarajevo Cable Car has been transporting passengers from the old city to the mountain Trebevic since 1959.
Figure 4. Red line shows the territory controlled by the Bosnian Serbs during the Siege of Sarajevo. Image from the Tunnel Museum.
“It was not a civil war. It was an invasion.” These words by our tour guide stayed with me. He drove me and three other people around Sarajevo recounting the history of the Siege and his own personal experience fighting against the Bosnian Serb forces that surrounded his city. He was sixteen when he joined the Bosnian Army. His older brother was killed fighting the Serbs. When we arrived at the Tunnel Museum, the location of the 800-meter-long tunnel that was dug in 1993 to connect two Bosnian-held territories, encircled by the Serbian forces, our tour guide pointed out his brother’s name on a wall that listed the soldiers who died during the war. Our tour guide was a kind and humorous person, even when he was describing painful memories from his past after losing his brother or the long years he was in the hospital recovering from a war injury. But he still laments how the international community waited so long to intervene in Bosnia. He said the only reason the West didn’t try to stop the bloodshed sooner was because the majority of the people getting murdered were Muslims. The Western world just didn’t care for Muslim lives.
Figure 5–8. Tunnel Museum in Sarajevo. A “Sarajevo Rose” is seen on the ground at the entrance.
I am thinking of Lebbeus Woods again because his contentious theory of postwar reconstruction, portrayed in his infamous provocative drawings where ruins from the war are preserved and integrated in new construction, as a reminder of the war experience, were specifically proposed for the reconstruction of Sarajevo after the Bosnian War. Woods’ theory was problematic for a lot of academics, architects, and residents of war-torn societies who saw that people might not necessarily want to be reminded of the traumatic experience of war on a daily basis. Maybe Woods’ proposal was impractical in its architectural form and implementation but its theoretical basis, that the experience of war must be marked and remembered, is not so different from how Sarajevo memorializes the war in its urban landscape. It is not possible to walk anywhere in the city without being confronted with the wounds of the siege. It is like the city has become a museum to the atrocities of the Bosnian War expressed in different forms and scales of memorialization.
First, there are the symbolic structures that were built to commemorate the victims of war, which often lists their names and ages, like the Memorial to Children Killed during the Siege of Sarajevo in Veliki Park across from the BBI center. In the same park, there is the sculpture, “Nermine Dodi,” that recalls the Srebrenica genocide through the story of Ramo who was calling for his son, Nermine, to come out of hiding. Both father and son were executed by the Serbs after they were reunited. The walls of Kovaci Sarajevo Memorial are assembled from bricks that carry the names of the soldiers in the Bosnian Army who were killed while fighting the Serbian aggressors. Second, there are the large number of graveyards and cemeteries that stretch all over Sarajevo and recall a time when a lot of urban parks and even playgrounds were turned into burial sites to accommodate the increased number of bodies that fell every day for nearly four years. In the vistas of green covered hills and red roofs of Sarajevo, patches of white tombstones distinctly render the city’s landscapes. Lastly, there are the physical scars from the destruction and violence that constitute so much of the spatial experience of Sarajevo, seen in the bullet holes that decorate many of the city’s buildings or in the pavements, etched by the “Sarajevo Rose,” where explosions from mortar shells were filled with red resin to mark the locations where three or more people died. It’s hard to walk in Sarajevo without remembering the war, because eventually you’ll step on a “red rose” or walk by a bullet-scarred wall.
Figure 9. Lebbeus Woods’ speculative drawings on reconstructing a typical apartment block in Sarajevo. Images from: https://lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com
Figure 10. Statue “Nermine Dodi” in Veliki Park, Sarajevo
Figure 11. Names of the children who died during the Siege of Sarajevo in Veliki Park
Figure 12–13. Walls of the Sarajevo Kovaci Memorial carry the names of the soldiers in the Bosnian Army who were killed during the war
Figure 14–15. The Martyrs’ Memorial Kovaci Cemetery for soldiers in the Bosnian Army who were killed during the war
Figure 16–17. “Sarajevo Roses,” sites where mortars exploded killing three or more people, are painted red and are seen all over the city
Figure 18–27. Bullet-scarred buildings from the war 30 years ago are a typical sight in Sarajevo.
When the Bosnian War ended in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Accords, 65% of Sarajevo buildings were damaged and 80% of its utility infrastructure was devastated.1 The most drastic change, however, was the city’s demographics. Under the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the “Jerusalem of Europe,” as Sarajevo was called for its ethnic diversity, consisted of 44% Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), 32% Orthodox Serbs, and 17% Catholic Croats.2 Ethnic tensions and political divisions existed in Yugoslavia but were kept under control by Josip Broz Tito’s government, but following his death in 1980, a period of economic decline resulted in the rise of ethnic strife. In 1991, Slovenia and Croatia were the first two countries of the former Yugoslavia to secede. When the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina passed a referendum for independence, the Bosnian Serbs didn’t vote and boycotted its outcome. After Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence in 1992, Bosnian Serbs, supported by the Yugoslav People’s Army and the Serbian government, encircled Sarajevo and began shelling the city in what became the longest siege in history. The Croats, who first were on the side of Bosniaks, also began fighting against them. After the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, Bosnia and Herzegovina was divided by the Inter-Entity Boundary Line (IEBL) into two major entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina where Bosniaks are a majority and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska. The third territory is the small city of Brcko, which falls under both entities but is governed independently. Following the split of BiH, a mass exodus of Bosniaks and Bosnian Serbs took place across the IEBL, which runs through the Dobrinja neighborhood in Sarajevo and essentially creates two cities, Federation Sarajevo and East Sarajevo of Republika Srpska. Hence, Sarajevo emerged from the war divided, no longer the multi-ethnic city it once was and with a Bosniak majority that made up 87% of its population.
After a traumatic period of violence and destruction of the urban environment, the case of Sarajevo proves that post-war reconstruction becomes more than the physical restoration of services and repair of buildings. It is a process of bringing a city back to normalcy, to resurrect its pre-war spirit, which was the result of diverse groups of people living and interacting with the spaces of the city and each other. Sarajevo, however, was a different city after the war. How it was rebuilt and what was rebuilt reflected a new and more ethnically homogenous society, which in turn cemented those divisions in the urban form. In addition to the proliferation of war memorials and graveyards all over Sarajevo, there was a rise in the construction of mosques and churches in both Sarajevo and East Sarajevo, respectively. Esther Charlesworth concludes in her book, Architects Without Frontiers: War, Reconstruction and Design Responsibility, that postwar reconstruction in a divided city has the potential to either resolve conflict or lead to more conflict.3
Figure 28. Old Town of Sarajevo
Figure 29. The Academy of Fine Arts is housed in the only evangelist church built during the Astro-Hungarian period. It was destroyed in 1992 and reconstructed after.
Figure 30–31. Mevlevijska tekija, built in 1492, was demolished for the second time in 1957. It was rebuilt in 2011 with the financial help of the Turkish municipality of Selçuk and through the Turkish Agency for International Cooperation and Development (TIKA).
Figure 32–33. Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, the oldest mosque of its size from the Ottoman period in BiH
Figure 34–35. Gazi Husrev-beg Library was rebuilt after the war by funds from Qatar
The flow of international capital into Sarajevo to aid in the reconstruction process also followed along political and ethnic lines and shaped Sarajevo according to the interests of these foreign countries. There were a lot of investments from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Malaysia to construct religious structures such as mosques and Islamic education centers.4 I was surprised by how many mosques there are in Sarajevo for such a small city and especially one that was under a communist government for a long time. Walking towards the reconstructed Ottoman mosque, Gazi Husrev-Beg, I passed by the Gazi Husrev-Beg Library. In front of the entrance, a marble plaque reminds the passersby that the library is a gift donated by the state of Qatar. The same international governments also led and funded the construction of office and commercial developments that dominate Sarajevo’s skyline such as the BBI Centar, the SCC, and numerous other shopping malls. These additions to Sarajevo’s cityscape were often built in a generic and globalist style that ignored the architectural context and local character of the city. The flux of foreign funds into Sarajevo, welcomed by corrupt local administrations, dictated how the city developed and they continue to shape Sarajevo’s identity even today.5 I didn’t expect that the moment I’d walk into the Sarajevo Airport, I’d be welcomed by an enormous billboard in Arabic of the Kuwaiti Injazat Real Estate Development Company. I see similar billboards hanging on some of the derelict buildings by the river, anticipating its future as a residential or commercial development, reading in English, coming soon. East Sarajevo was also shaped by investments from the Serbian government to build new churches and residential blocks, which can be seen in the Dobrinja neighborhood across IEBL.
Figure 36. BBI Centar, a shopping mall, 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 37–39. Sarajevo City Center
Figure 40. UNITIC Twin Towers were heavily damaged during the Bosnian War but remained standing.
Sometimes a city is destroyed in the process of warfare, as cities often are the battlefields, and sometimes the purpose of destruction is the city itself for what it embodies of the cultural and social values of a place. The term “urbicide,” violence directed at a city, came into popular usage to describe the destruction of cultural heritage of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War.6 While the Bosnian Serbs who encircled and shelled Sarajevo from the hills increasingly targeted its Ottoman heritage like the destruction of Sarajevo’s biggest mosque, Gazi Husrev-beg, the bullets fell indiscriminately all over the city, with an emphasis on cultural sites.7
One of the most symbolic images from the Bosnian War was the burning of the Sarajevo City Hall, the celebrated neo-Moorish structure built during the Astro-Hungarian period in 1891 to house the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The library held 2 million volumes including rare manuscripts and national archives. Other than a small number of books saved by heroic librarians braving sniper bullets, almost everything was reduced to ashes in the three days the library burned.8 There is an iconic photo of the Bosnian musician Vedran Smailovic playing his cello among the ruins of the city hall that captures the psychological trauma of violence directed at erasing places of shared cultural and national identity. Today, the entrance to the city hall is inscribed with these words: “on this place Serbian criminals in the night of 25-26. August.1992 set on fire National and University’s Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Over 2 million of books, periodicals, and documents vanished in the flame. Do not forget. Remember and warn.”
Figure 41–43. Sarajevo City Hall
The Oriental Institute met a similar fate when the Army of Republika Srpska shelled the building, burning one of the richest collections of Islamic and Jewish manuscripts and Ottoman documents in the region.9 The Olympic Museum, which is a symbol of one of Sarajevo’s most celebrated periods, the 1984 Winter Olympic Games, was one of the first to be bombed during the siege after it was hit with projectiles. The museum reopened in 2020, almost three decades after the war. The Bosnian Serb forces were so determined to dismantle Sarajevo’s cultural institutions that, once these buildings started to burn, sniper fire followed to prevent people or fire fighters from possibly saving the structures or their contents.10 It is like the Serbs wanted to cleanse Sarajevo of anything that they perceived to be historical evidence of non-Serbian existence and past.
Figure 44. The Olympic Museum
Figure 45. National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Foreign financial aid shaped Sarajevo’s postwar urban identity as urban programs and priorities of reconstruction were determined by external actors and organizations. International intervention in the restructuring of Bosnia and Herzegovina began with the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian War in 1995 and continued through the appointment of a Higher Representative of BiH that was granted substantial powers to make laws and lead the political and economic transition of the former socialist country into a democratic and free-market state. International aid organizations, notably, the World Bank, European Union and United States Agency for International Development (USAID), to name a few, led the recovery response in Sarajevo during and after the war.11 While the recovery plans were successful in restoring infrastructural functions in a short time, the early stages of reconstruction neglected the value in reviving destroyed cultural heritage and their importance for restoring a sense of normalcy for residents that allows them to reconnect with their city, especially when the cultural symbols of Sarajevo were precisely under fire from the Bosnian Serbs.
Figure 46–48. The Old Jewish Cemetery is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe and was on the front line during the Bosnian War. It was shelled and heavily mined by Bosnian Serbs.
Figure 49–50. The abandoned restaurant Osmice was a sniper position for Bosnian Serbs overlooking central Sarajevo
The postwar plans also lacked a holistic urban vision or a masterplan for the development of Sarajevo. The flow of foreign aid went to fund local cantons and municipalities but the lack of coordination between donor funds and local programs created redundancy and corruption, which was exploited by political elites to issue illegal construction permits that eventually led to the neglect of cultural institutions and destruction of public space in the city.12 The example of Sarajevo illustrates the significance of the symbolic dimension of postwar reconstruction: the cultural and public spaces of the city where diverse groups of people and ideas co-exist define a city’s identity, and when reconstruction fails to understand the meaning in reviving spaces of cultural memory and co-existence, it risks deepening divisions and delaying the healing process.
Figure 51. Dilapidated building in Sarajevo awaiting its new future. SCC peaking in the background
Figure 52. Abandoned building overgrown by trees in Sarajevo
My memories in Sarajevo will always be defined by its natural landscape, even though those mountains also carry the scars of war, being the positions from where the city was shelled under the siege, and some still have unexploded landmines. But it is still the thing I found Bosnians to be most proud of. I understand, when your country becomes associated with war, it becomes the only thing people know. When I took a taxi to visit the Skakavac Waterfall, one of the tallest waterfalls in the Balkans, my taxi driver and I chatted about nature and inevitably the war. He told me he was 17 when he fought in the Bosnian army. He was shot by a sniper bullet as he was dragging the dead body of his friend to a safe shelter so he could give him a proper burial. A little later he was proudly showing me photos of his time in the mountains and recommending me places to hike in Bosnia. My tour guide, who lost his brother in the war, told me to “tell people about Bosnia.” So I am telling everyone who reads this to visit this beautiful country.
Figures 53–55. Hiking to Lukomir Village
Figures 56–57. On route to Skakavac Waterfall
1 Gruia Bădescu, “Dwelling in the Post-War City Urban Reconstruction and Home-Making in Sarajevo,” Revue d’Études Comparatives Est-Ouest N° 46, no. 4 (January 2015): pp. 35-60, https://doi.org/10.3917/receo.464.0035.
2 Kotzen, Bronwyn. “LSE Cities Reconstructing Sarajevo: Negotiating Socio-Political Complexity.” LSE Cities Program, 2014.
3 Esther Ruth Charlesworth, Architects without Frontiers: War, Reconstruction and Design Responsibility (London: Routledge, 2006).
4 Gruia Bădescu, “Dwelling in the Post-War City Urban Reconstruction and Home-Making in Sarajevo,” Revue d’Études Comparatives Est-Ouest N° 46, no. 4 (January 2015): pp. 35-60, https://doi.org/10.3917/receo.464.0035.
5 Hadzimuhamedovic, Amra. “Culture-Based Urban Resilience: Post-War Recovery of Sarajevo.” UNESCO, World Heritage Center Web Page, 2018.
6 Robert Bevan, The Destruction of Memory: Architectural and Cultural Warfare (London: Reaktion Books, 2004).
7 Hadzimuhamedovic, Amra. “Culture-Based Urban Resilience: Post-War Recovery of Sarajevo.” UNESCO, World Heritage Center Web Page, 2018.
8 Riedlmayer, András. “Erasing the Past: The Destruction of Libraries and Archives in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Middle East Studies Association Bulletin 29, no. 1 (1995): 7–11. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23061201.
11 Hadzimuhamedovic, Amra. “Culture-Based Urban Resilience: Post-War Recovery of Sarajevo.” UNESCO, World Heritage Center Web Page, 2018.
Manuel "Saga" Sánchez García is a PhD candidate at Politecnico di Torino and Universidad de Granada, and an appointed 2022–2023 Junior Fellow on Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. He lives between Italy and Spain (although that is about to change) and has been a member of SAH since 2019.
Can you tell us about your career path?
I started my studies in architecture at Universidad de Granada, under the shadow of the Alhambra. There I met my mentor Juan Calatrava, director of Granada’s architecture school at the time, who had just coordinated the facsimile reedition of Le poeme de l’angle droit by Le Corbusier (1955). That book blew my mind and encouraged me to explore a career in writing, publishing my first digital book in 2009 thanks to an EU Euroeditions grant, and participating in national conferences with small independent works before acquiring the architect license in 2013. Right after that, I moved to Bogotá, Colombia, where I pursued a two-year master’s in architecture and worked first as a research assistant and later as a lecturer, researcher, and consultant until 2018. Those were lovely years full of exciting projects, including my graduate thesis ”Granada Des-Granada” published in 2018 by Universidad de los Andes. I also worked with the team in charge of creating a new school of art, acting, architecture, and design in Bogotá named ”Facultad de Creación” and led by the architect Juan Pablo Aschner. Supporting the birth of a new higher education institution is a fantastic adventure.
Finally, I moved to Turin (Italy) in 2018 as a PhD fellow in the program “Architettura: Storia e Progetto,” under the supervision of Professor Sergio Pace. Eventually, we achieved a co-tutelle agreement with the PhD program on Art History at Universidad de Granada under the supervision of Prof. Juan Calatrava. It could be said that we closed the circle in some way. I started participating more often during the pandemic in SAH activities and with EAHN, the European Architectural History Network. In January 2021, I became the Editorial Assistant of Architectural Histories, the Journal of the EAHN, working closely with its Editor-in-chief, Samantha L. Martin.
Today I am just weeks ahead of my PhD defense. It’s an exciting moment. After that is finished (fingers crossed), I will be moving to Washington, DC, for a research stay at Dumbarton Oaks. It is one of the most important academic achievements I have ever earned, and I feel immensely thankful. They also happen to be welcoming and kind people. I got to meet a sizable group of Dumbarton Oaks current and former scholars in Pittsburgh during the SAH Annual International Conference, and I must tell you: They are really great.
What interests you most about architectural history?
My research topics are kind of split into two big sides. Two faces of the same medal. My main line of work deals with medieval and early modern urban history, including Christian/Andalusian cities in Spain, colonial urbanism in the Spanish Archipelagos and Latin America (mainly in Colombia), 16th-century atlases, etc. As it happens with most Granadan architectural historians, my work is also connected to Nasrid architecture and the Alhambra, which largely impacted later Christian buildings in the region and their romanticist reimaginations during the 19th century, as well as many 20th-century and contemporary architects across the world. In 2020 I developed a GAHTC module of six lectures on these topics with Juan Calatrava and Eva Amate. It is freely available on GAHTC’s website.
Parallelly, I am very interested in the intersection between the fields of architectural history and game studies. The area of game studies was born in the early 2000s to delve into the impacts of video games on our society. Even though plenty of architecture-related topics are being discussed at game studies conferences, not many specialized architectural historians are participating in them. Even fewer game-studies-related topics are dealt with in international meetings such as SAH’s or EAHN’s. However, this trend is changing as we speak. The call for papers for the 76th SAH Annual International Conference features two digital sessions dealing with software and “playfulness” in architecture, while one of the in-person sessions explicitly mentions their interest in the presence of Islamic architectural reimaginations in video games. The same is happening in other disciplines such as art history, sociology, and political studies, as it happened before with media like television, radio, magazines, and films when they were considered ‘emergent.’
What projects are you currently working on?
My projects are divided in the same way. My main endeavor right now is my PhD thesis titled “Siblings Overseas.” It deals with notarial documents and foundational registers of cities following the famous Spanish grid, which has been traditionally seen just as a morphological model without not so much regard for the political and legal nuances behind it. For example, I studied the foundational records of four new towns created in Andalusia in 1539 through the same principles as the colonial capitals settled in America in the same decade. I delve into the confrontations between a diversity of agents in favor and against the foundation of these new towns, which I analyzed in a comparative fashion with similar complaints and judicial processes that occurred in America between founders, settlers, native leaders, encomenderos, priests, and other groups. It is an amazing but difficult topic since these records are scattered in different archives and conserved through copies of copies made across five hundred years, often manuscripts in complex handwriting styles that are not easy to read for scholars not specialized in paleography.
My upcoming project for Dumbarton Oaks is a continuation of this line of research under the title “Uncovering colonial Lawscape.” In it, I will work further on the concept of Lawscape,1which refers to the times and spaces where the complex relationship between law and landscape is clearly visible. Of course, the landscape of actions and procedures leading to the foundational moment of a city are good example of lawscapes. I will focus on a selection of early colonial documents held at Dumbarton Oaks’ Rare Book Collection that present other lawscapes featuring native and mestizo leaders, comparing them with the manuscripts I have already studied in other countries.
Parallelly (always parallelly), I continue growing my research on architecture and game studies. A couple of years ago, I edited a special collection on this theme, published in Culture & History digital journal. In 2021 I co-supervised a fantastic group of students at Universidad de Granada in collaboration with Prof. Rafael de Lacour. They focused their undergraduate capstone project on games such as Assassin’s Creed, GRIS, and Calvino Noir. Their designs were included in the exhibition Gaming Through Architectural Drawing, which I curated myself, also including materials from other students and collaborators with whom I have been working since 2014. This exhibition was hosted by Meetaverse, a cultural center located and built in the metaverse, 100% virtual. It was an exhibition on video game buildings that was, quite literally, built inside a video game. I also continue writing on the topic, and right now I have a couple of manuscripts that will be published soon.
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?
I think I always had some sort of connection with architecture. When I was a child, I used to play at Plaza Nueva and Plaza de Mariana Pineda, two of the most vibrant squares in Granada’s city center. There I met with other children to play together. We often walked uphill to the Alhambra and played at Plaza de los Algibes, an unpaved open space built over the water reservoirs of the royal medina between the Islamic castle and Charles V Palace. Playing there was natural for us as there were not as many tourists as today. There was even a small kiosk, designed in the 1950s and still standing today, where we bought ice cream in the summer.
Later on I decided to be a writer, so I considered studying journalism even though it was considered a “lesser” career in Spain. A relative of mine who works as a journalist said to me, “If you want to write, you will write. Focus your studies on what you want to write about.” I wanted to write about my city, so I ended up studying architecture. Almost 18 years have passed from that moment, and here I am, once more, writing stuff about Granada and its architecture. My relative’s prediction was incredibly accurate.
Who has influenced your work or career?
Many people, of course! As it is usually said, I stand on the shoulders of giants. I was fortunate to find professors Juan Calatrava and Rafael de Lacour early in my undergraduate studies. While Prof. De Lacour has always been very supportive and involved me in all kinds of activities, Prof. Calatrava is the most central mentor in my career as an architectural historian. They maintained contact after I moved to Colombia, so the Granadan connection never disappeared. That made it possible to “close the circle” in the PhD stage, as I mentioned before.
At Bogotá, I worked under the wing of Prof. Cristina Albornoz Rugeles, a Colombian architect who always pushed me to fly higher. During the last years, I have been a close collaborator of Prof. Sergio Pace, my Italian PhD supervisor, taking his courses on historiography and assisting his lectures on history of the material culture. He was a student of Profs. Carlo Olmo at Turin and Paolo Portoghesi at Rome so, through him, I feel kind of connected with the Italian “line” of baroque architectural history. Finally, I have been incredibly gifted by the opportunity of collaborating with Prof. Samantha L. Martin and the Editorial Board of Architectural Histories. They are not only an incredibly group to work with, the kind of conversations and debates at the journal's core have brought my intellectual horizon to a whole new level.
Finally, if I may mention two influences I never met personally, I would like to name the Swiss art historian Titus Burckhardt and the Polish architectural historian Joseph Rykwert. Their writings introduced me to the kind of symbolic, political, and ritual connections I seek in the architectures I study, may they be built materially or digitally. It is true that today we approach research and writing in a totally different fashion, but I always keep in mind the level of clarity of their arguments and the kind of seduction they inspire through their narrative.
After almost a decade of changing countries/continents, I would say my biggest challenge right now is to find a more stable position in academia without renouncing good job conditions or to the fantastic international experiences I get to live right now. A symptom of this longing is that my library is scattered in boxes (many boxes) stored in different places. Putting it together for the first time is something I look forward to.
When and how did you become involved with SAH?
I knew about SAH when I was in Bogotá, mainly because of JSAH. When I moved to Italy in 2018, I became more involved in academic associations, including SAH, EAHN, and RSA. Near that point, I also became a member of national associations like AhAU in Spain, AISU and AISTARCH in Italy, RedCHU and SCA in Colombia. Then something special happened: I got to attend the 2019 GAHTC Member’s Conference in Miami, where I met a lot of the people that make SAH and EAHN what they are. Amazing experience. That trip moved me to a closer engagement with SAH activities.
How has SAH enriched your experience in architectural history?
So, after that experience in Miami, I told myself, “Manuel, here there is a long and interesting path to be walked. You just need to take the first step.” That year I applied to SAH Annual International Conference (including the graduate students fellowship) and GAHTC’s targeted acquisition grants. I had been rejected several times before in US-based competitions, but this time was my time, and I got both of them!
Even though the 2020 in-person conference was transformed into a digital one, the chair of my session, Prof. Jeffrey Klee, made the change smooth and productive. It served as an academic engine, boosting digital relationships with people like former SAH President Victoria Young, my fellow Spaniard Macarena de la Vega, and colleagues from Colombia like Ingrid Quintana, among others I got to meet in person for the very first time at Pittsburgh’s conference. For me, SAH operates as the center of a triangle connecting my research interests in the Mediterranean basin, Latin America, and North America. Being continuously exposed to its influence forces me to connect the local aspects of my research and my cultural roots to the global debate on architectural history, diversity, and social justice.
I appreciate very much the work SAH does for all of us. It is one of the most caring and participative communities I know, and I am in no position to say or decide how it should be in the future. This being said, I feel that while SAH presents itself as an international network and many of its programs are effectively geared towards supporting international projects and emergent scholars, most of the debates at its core are heavily framed by the North American academic context, only extensible at some points to the rest of the English-speaking world.
At the SAH IDEAS Committee Listening Session in Pittsburgh I argued that, while I understand the necessity of these debates and connections between scholars based in the US and Canada, there should be room for more horizontal discussions where it is assumed that all scholars come from different contexts with diverse systems, hierarchies, and rules. The issues affecting research funding, career development, survey teaching, and unions, among others, are totally different from what we experience in other places. Those coming from outside force ourselves to learn about the problems you care most about so we are able to participate, which is very enriching but eventually extenuating. When I get back home (wherever that may be) after some nice and intense days with SAH, I often find myself trying to explain to my colleagues the ideas and values that were in discussion. Their conclusion is usually the same: “That would never happen here” or “We live in a different world.” In my opinion, we are not.
If SAH, while being led from the US, aims to represent the global community of architectural history, it needs to incorporate these other international issues and support the connection with national institutions outside of the English-speaking world. That is the vision I would propose.
Let me approach this question as the early millennial that I am:
THREE THINGS YOU SHOULD HAVE IN MIND TO ENTER THE FIELD OF ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY:
1 As defined by Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos: Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, Andreas. “Lawscape.” In International Lexicon of Aesthetics, Vol. 3. Milano: Mimesis, 2020. https://dx.doi.org/10.7413/18258630100.
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.
It is fitting that the Triumph of Death painting is displayed in one of Palermo’s many palazzis, the Palazzo Abatellis, where Antonello de Messina’s Annunciation is exhibited awkwardly in the middle of a room. It is unknown who painted the Triumph of Death, a large fresco extending the two-stories height of the Regional Gallery of Palazzo Abatellis. Having been engrossed recently in the bloody and grotesque history of the Mafia wars in Palermo, at their height between 1978 and 1993, this 15th-century painting seemed to speak of a grim recent past when hundreds of dead bodies populated the streets of Palermo. It wasn’t long ago that I stood in front of another Triumph of Death painting, the one by Bruegel in the Prado museum in Madrid, painted a century later, and influenced by the Italian version hanging then in Palazzo Sclafani in Palermo. Confronted with Bruegel’s Triumph of Death, I was unsettled by the bleak brown and black landscape that dominates the painting, but the army of skeletons pouring into the realm of the living, some wearing hats or bandanas, with stiff dramatic gestures, felt almost humorous.
There is nothing comical about the Triumph of Death in Palermo. Death is a lone figure, mounted on his skeletal shrieking horse, who jumps out of the center of the painting. The horse is also dead but retains its fleshy mouth and tongue to express its suffering. The well-dressed, beautiful kings and queens suffer calmly as their bodies are pierced with Death’s arrows, nothing like Bruegel’s horror-stricken gesticulating figures running for their lives. The poor and devout either await their turn or have escaped Death’s march, for now. In the eighties and early nineties, the Mafia, like Death on his screaming horse, had triumphed in Palermo.
Figure 1. Triumph of Death, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo. Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/
Figure 2. Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Museo del Prado in Madrid. Image from https://www.museodelprado.es/
The Mafia wasn’t an outlawed organized crime group working on the fringes of Sicily. They unofficially ruled Sicily and were allowed and supported to amass political and economic control of the island, because of their usefulness to different groups from aristocratic landowners, politicians in the Italian state whose elections depended on votes from Sicily and the American government in its fight against communism. Because of Mussolini’s repression of the Mafia, it made them look naturally anti-fascist to the Americans who, after the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, appointed Mafia bosses and made men into administrative and local government positions in Sicily, perhaps not intentionally.1 Nonetheless, this move was crucial in resurrecting the Mafia and allowing it to become an unstoppable system of power that controlled everything and everyone.
Cosa Nostra’s newly gained political power in Palermo allowed their control of the construction industry and led the rapid destruction of Palermo’s green belt to make room for the acres of concrete that constitute the cheap and grim high-rise apartment buildings outside of Palermo’s historic center. Besides being a way to launder drug money, construction and real estate development also gained Cosa Nostra the trust of the aristocratic class that owned the land around Palermo and were eager to reap the benefits of the Mafia-controlled rapid urbanization of the Conca d’Oro, traditionally agricultural land.2 Additionally, within the context of cold war politics, the Mafia was backed by some connections in the Italian and American governments for their effort in targeting socialist and communist organizers and trade union activists that were gaining popularity among laborers and workers in Sicily for the issue of land reforms that was a direct threat to the Mafia business model that was predicated on feudalism.
I arrived in Palermo at night, and I got a taxi right away. Except for the orange lights of the highway, the darkness hung over everything. I forgot I just landed on an island and was absent-mindedly gazing out of the window until my eyes made out the silhouette of Mount Pellegrino, which took me by surprise. The next morning, I had two simple goals in mind: find some food and go for a walk around the city to get an idea of the place that I’ll be living in for the next month. I stopped at a restaurant near the port and had the pasta alla norma, a classic Sicilian pasta dish made with eggplant and ricotta cheese. I was ready to start exploring.
Palermo’s old city center is close to the waterfront. The harbor was strategically important for the Italian and German air bases and was bombed by five different air forces by the end of the war: French, British, American, Italian and German. The historic center suffered a great loss. Walking by the waterfront, I saw some buildings that still look damaged and yet have merged in their ruined state with subsequent shoddy additions that sit on top of the rubble or to the sides. One of the buildings overlooking La Cala port caught my attention on that first day. Its south wall was covered by a mural of two men conferring and laughing with each other. I wondered who they were but soon forgot about it.
Figure 3. Dilapidated buildings near the port in Palermo’s historic center
Figure 4. The Gothic-Catalan loggia of the Santa Maria della Catena near the Cala Port
Figure 5–7. Foro Italico, a pedestrian path and park in Palermo. Rubble from the destroyed buildings in WWII were dumped into the sea adjacent to Foro Italico creating an artificial beach.
I would later find out that the two men on the wall of the Gioeni Trabia Nautical School building were Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two famous Sicilians. They were the prosecutors who investigated the Sicilian Mafia in the 1980s and whose work led to the Maxitrial, the biggest effort in Italy's history to bring the members of the Cosa Nostra to justice. It was also the first time the Italian state acknowledged the Sicilian Mafia’s existence as a criminal organization who was responsible for countless murders in the years after the war. Falcone and Borsellino were both brutally murdered a few months apart in 1992 by the Mafia.3 Palermo is full of these opposites: the city of Mafia and anti-Mafia, derelict structures on one block, exuberant Arab-Norman and Gothic-Catalan buildings on another, Mafia-built concrete blocks and monuments to the victims that fought them.
Figure 8. Mural of Falcone and Borsellino on the Gioeni Trabia Nautical School, Palermo.
Figure 9. Piazza della Memoria in front of the Justice building in Palermo named after the victims of the Mafia whose names are displayed on the steps of the staircase. Eleven steel-marble-brass columns represent the magistrates killed by the Mafia.
Palermo was heavily targeted during the Allied bombing of Sicily between 1941 and 1943. It was the second-most bombed city in Italy after Naples in World War II. Other than Baghdad, which I consider to still be in a state of war, Palermo was the first city in my travels where many ruined buildings from the war eighty years ago still stand. On my way to the Vucciria market, I passed by the crumbling graffiti-covered buildings in and around Piazza Garraffello where a 16th-century fountain, Fontana del Garraffello, somehow survived the bombs that gutted the surrounding structures. In 2014, one of those damaged buildings collapsed even further after heavy rain. Graffiti covers the exposed internal wall of a demolished building and depicts the Fontana del Garraffello with the year 1943 inscribed in the middle of it. Walking a bit further, at the intersection of Via Maqueda and Via Vittorio Emanuelle, known as the Quattro Canti, is a splendid, monumental 16th-century fountain, Fontana Pretoria. Once again, the eye is confounded by beauty and dilapidation. Across from the mayor's office of Palermo and one of the four corner buildings is the abandoned 16th-century Palazzo Chiaramonte Bordonaro, whose restoration began in the 1990s but has been halted since. In Midnight in Sicily, Peter Robb describes the unusual sight of the ruins in the historic center of Palermo on his visit in the 1990s. Thirty years after his writing, some parts of Palermo still display the open wounds of war:
“Other cities have been bombed in the forties, and many worse than Palermo. What was unique to Palermo was that the ruins of the old city were still ruins, thirty years, fifty years on. Staircases still led nowhere, sky shone out of the windows, clumps of weed lodged in the walls, wooden roof beams jutted toward the sky like ribs rotting carcasses. Slowly, even the parts that had survived were crumbling into rubble.”4
Figure 10–16. Damaged buildings around the historic center of Palermo
Figure 17–19. Decrepit buildings in Piazza Magione
Figure 20–21. Fontana Pretoria, Palermo
Figure 22–24. Abandoned Palazzo Chiaramonte Bordonaro across from Fontana Pretoria
What is also unique to Palermo among cities destroyed during World War II is the story of its postwar development, led and controlled by the Sicilian Mafia that irreversibly altered the urban and natural character of the city as well as its immediate surroundings. So destructive was the postwar period between 1950s until mid-1980s for the city that it is referred to as the Sack of Palermo: a story of an elaborate and corrupt alliance of local, national, and international political actors whose interests aligned with Cosa Nostra’s criminal and financial hegemony at the cost of permanently damaging the identity of the city and impoverishing its population. Not long after the war, Palermo was another battlefield. The historic center experienced the most damage during the war to its rich architectural heritage and was completely neglected and left to decay while resources and attention were given to unregulated, Mafia-controlled construction of cheap, low-quality apartment blocks on the city’s outskirts such as Nuovo Borgo, Zen and CEP.5 The green hinterlands of Palermo, known as the Conca d’Oro (the Golden Shell), the citrus plains that surrounded the city and populated with 19th- and early 20th-century Art Nouveau and Liberty Style villas, were largely destroyed to accommodate the Mafia flats. Thus, a large part of Palermo’s natural landscape was lost and with it the livelihoods of the farmers and laborers who cultivated the land and looked after the estates.
One of the main tourist attractions in Palermo are three bustling outdoor markets: Ballaro, Vucciria, and Capo, that are frequented by both tourists and locals. Smells, textures, colors, and the loud noises of vendors and customers overwhelm the first time as one learns to navigate this social scene while wading through stalls of fruits, vegetables, grilled seafood, raw chunks of tuna, shiny swordfish, pane and panelle, and the Sicilian sfincione. The markets are unique not only because they hold on to a tradition that goes back to the Arabs that ruled Sicily, but also because they are the last remaining examples of the local enterprises that encompassed social and economic lives in Palermo’s historic neighborhoods before the war. The poor population that worked and socialized in the historic center were forced into the Mafia housing blocks as their neighborhoods lay in ruins and their livelihoods terminated. Wealthier residents were moved to the slightly better apartment buildings along Via della Liberta.6 The breakdown of socio-economic ties in the city facilitated the domination of the Mafia as more people needed jobs and housing. The bosses were the ones that decided who deserved them. Therefore, the Mafia’s grip of Palermo became stronger as the poorer population began to see the Mafia-built flats a sign of progress and modernization that was badly needed and Cosa Nostra as the main employer in the city.7
“When you walked into the new parts of Palermo it was like walking into the mafia mind. The sightless concrete blocks had multiplied like cancer cells. The mafia mind was totalitarian and even on a summer day it chilled you.”8
Figure 25. Mafia-built housing blocks on the outskirts of Palermo. Images from google earth
Figure 26. People lined up to enter the Palatine Chapel within the Norman Palace complex.
Figure 27–28. Byzantine mosaics in the Palatine Chapel dating to the 1140s.
Figure 29. Muqranas wood ceiling in the Palatine Chapel.
Figure 30. Example of the opus sectile mosaics decorating the walls and floors of Palatine Chapel.
Examples of this multi-layered architecture from the Arab-Norman period are seen all over Palermo. One of my favorite buildings is the church of San Cataldo with its three distinguished red domes, combining a rectilinear church layout on the inside with Islamic domes and arches on the outside. It is not until I arrived in Sicily and visited the Palatine Chapel, Monreale Cathedral, and Cefalu Cathedral that I’ve seen such complete, well-preserved and elegant Byzantine mosaics, juxtaposed with opus sectile decorated floors and walls, arranged in star-shaped polygons typical of Islamic ornamentation.
Figure 31. Cefalu, Sicily.
Figure 32. Cefalu Cathedral dating back to the 12th century.
Figure 33. Entry portal of the Cefalu Cathedral.
Figure 34–35. View towards the mosaic-covered apse portraying Chirst Pantokrator.
Figure 36-37. Byzantine mosaics in Monreale Cathedral, Palermo.
Figure 38–39. Benedictine Cloister at Monreale Cathedral from 1200. Pointed arches display diaper work and sit on marble columns decorated with mosaics.
My Airbnb host left me many tourist pamphlets for what to see and do in Palermo and it is precisely this prosperous period of the island’s history under the Normans that is emphasized the most. But between the end of the Norman rule and Italy’s unification in 1870, Sicily experienced more foreign invasions, ending with the Spanish Bourbons who exploited the rich agricultural lands around Palermo and invested their returns in extensive building of Baroque buildings in the city center after destroying much of its medieval architecture.9 Greek, Roman, and Baroque architecture permeates Sicily but it is its Norman legacy that is the most romanticized and connected to a Sicilian national identity. Starting in early 19th century, restoration of buildings in Sicily focused on returning buildings to their Norman image by removing later additions to reveal the “true” Norman form and sometimes reconstructing elements that had long been gone. 10
Figure 40–45. Church of San Cataldo in Palermo, a unique example of Arab-Norman architecture from 12th-century Sicily.
Before World War II, theories guiding the historic preservation of buildings and monuments in Europe began to form in the 1930s as were determined in the Athens Conference of 1931. The principles of preservation that were discussed and promoted for adaptation during the conference were based on minimal alteration of historic buildings and where modifications were required, a conservative and scientific approach informed by data analysis of existing elements were to be implemented. Additions were to be stylistically differentiated from the original.11 The massive damage to cities that was made possible by the evolution of aerial warfare technology during World War II posed unprecedented challenges to the previously accepted theories of historic preservation. In Italy, like the rest of Europe, the strict and conservative preservation rules that were established before the war were thwarted for the sake of saving national heritage. Post-war restoration of historic buildings in Palermo continued the pre-war approach of freeing Arab-Norman buildings of their unwanted pasts.12 The destruction caused by the bombs cleared what stood in the way to further disencumber the authentic heritage of the city. When war destroys a city's history, reconstruction has the potential to re-write it.
1 Peter Robb, Midnight in Sicily (New York: Picador, 2007).
2 Vincenzo Scalia, “The Production of the Mafioso Space. A Spatial Analysis of the Sack of Palermo,” Trends in Organized Crime 24, no. 2 (2020): pp. 189–208, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12117-020-09395-7.
3 Peter Robb, Midnight in Sicily (New York: Picador, 2007).
4 Ibid, p.9.
5 Vincenzo Scalia, “The Production of the Mafioso Space. A Spatial Analysis of the Sack of Palermo,” Trends in Organized Crime 24, no. 2 (2020): pp. 189–208, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12117-020-09395-7.
7 Jane Schneider and Peter T. Schneider, Reversible Destiny Mafia, Antimafia, and the Struggle for Palermo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
8 Peter Robb, Midnight in Sicily (New York: Picador, 2007), p.13.
9 Jane Schneider and Peter T. Schneider, Reversible Destiny Mafia, Antimafia, and the Struggle for Palermo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
10 Giuseppe Scaturro, Danni Di Guerra e Restauro Dei Monumenti. Palermo 1943–1955 (Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, 2006).
Barcelona has been punished throughout history for being the capital of the autonomous Catalan community. Even the city’s urban form reflects a historical Catalan struggle for independence. After the end of the War of Spanish Succession (1701–1714), a neighborhood in Barcelona was flattened in retaliation for resisting the Franco-Spanish forces. Architecture is often used as an instrument of power, and especially during war, to showcase territorial control or mark a political shift. But the story of Barcelona’s urban transformation is not limited to a history of political and social subjugation. On the contrary, Barcelona’s development shows a city that has always been resilient and intentionally planned. I was searching for the traces of the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona, but I found myself as interested in earlier conflicts whose effects contributed to how the city developed across centuries.
Only a small part of the medieval working-class district of La Ribera exists today in Barcelona. The district was razed after the defeat and capture of Catalonia by the Bourbons in the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714. The destruction of the district was not a casualty of war. The residential neighborhood was devoid of any military defensive structures. The demolition was ordered by Philip V after the war ended to punish the city and to clear a space for the construction of a new Ciutadella (citadel). The fortress stood at the current location of Parc de la Ciutadella for more than a century before it was demolished. However, lost parts of the Ribera district can be seen in Barcelona today. In 2013, archeological ruins from the medieval Ribera neighborhood were discovered during excavations beneath a 19th-century cast iron market, Mercat del Born. The excavations were part of a project to build the Provisional Library of Barcelona inside the market. After the discovery, the library project was relocated and the market was transformed to a cultural center to preserve and display an important recovered piece of the Catalan’s past.
Figure 1–4, El Born Culture and Memory Center (CCM), Barcelona
Figure 5–6, Plans of the destroyed Ribera district and the citadel that replaced it. Image from CCM, Barcelona.
Not far from Mercat del Born, stands one of Barcelona’s main attractions, Parc de la Ciutadella, with its monumental fountain, Font de la Cascada. The park is a microcosm of Barcelona’s urban history since the 18th century. This was the site of the great citadel ordered by Philip V after the demolition of the Ribera neighborhood. The fortress, which was the largest in Europe in its time, was constructed to ensure greater control of Barcelona should a rebellion arise against the King. With the exception of Barceloneta, an area that developed outside the medieval city walls to compensate for the need for housing caused by the demolition of La Ribera neighborhood, Barcelona’s growth was limited inside these walls.1 For over a century, the Ciutadella stood as a symbol of control and subjugation of the Catalan city by the Spanish absolutist government and was thus hated by its residents.
Figure 7, Font de la Cascaada, Parc de la Ciutadella, Barcelona
Figure 8–10, Parc de la Ciutadella, Barcelona
The fortress was destroyed in the mid-19th century and the rest was turned over to the city council. The site was transformed to a public city park as part of the first comprehensive urban reform in Barcelona, the “Extension” plan by IIdefons Cerda in 1859. The development of the park was further incorporated in the urban transformation of Barcelona when it was selected to host the 1888 Universal Exposition.2 From a symbol of Spanish control and subjugation, the site of the former Ciutadella became the soil for a flowering of Catalan industrial and architectural innovation and expression. One of the most prominent buildings of the Exposition, still in the park today, the Castle of Three Dragons, designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, is an example of Modernisme, a sort of Catalan Art Nouveau, whose most famous practitioner was Antoni Gaudi. Not all the buildings within the old Ciutadella were lost. The current Catalan Parliament sits inside an 18th-century arsenal building that belonged to the citadel, in the place where arms were kept to defend against a Catalan rebellion.
Figure 11–12, The Castle of Three Dragons, Parc de la Ciutadella, Barcelona
Figure 13, The Catalan Parliament Building, Parc de la Ciutadella, Barcelona
When I arrived at my Barcelona rental, one of the first recommendations I received from my landlord was to check out the Carmel Bunkers at the Turo de la Rovira nearby. It has one of the best views of the city, she said. The hill was a strategic location for an anti-aircraft battery structure that went up in 1937, a time where a lot of bunkers were built quickly in Barcelona to shelter residents from the aerial bombs dropped by Franco’s Fascist allies during the Spanish Civil War. I had only been a few hours in Barcelona and someone actually mentioned the Spanish Civil War. I could already begin to see the difference in how the cultural memory of the war is dealt with in Barcelona compared to my experience in Madrid. In general, I found Barcelona’s cultural institutions such as Montjuic Castle, el Born Culture, and Memory Center or the Carmel bunkers, to better confront the memory of the war.
Confronting the legacy of the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona might be less controversial than in Madrid. Barcelona is not the capital and was not on the front line during the war. After Franco’s victory, Madrid, especially, was to communicate, through its urban form and architectural language, the image of New Spain and its Falangist principles. Franco’s takeover of Madrid, a city that has resisted a two and half year siege against his forces so that it became an icon of anti-Fascism, was ideologically important. During the Francoist era, Barcelona was neglected. Franco’s totalitarian regime suppressed Catalan culture and nationalism in Barcelona. The Catalan language was forbidden in government institutions and in the media. Autonomous Catalan institutions were abolished. After Franco’s death and Spain’s transition into a democracy, Barcelona was able to begin restoring its Catalan identity, which meant an automatic denunciation of the policies and decisions made during the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship.
Figure 14–22, The Carmel Bunkers, Barcelona
From below, I could see the Carmel bunkers sticking out, covered in graffiti. The spot is popular among locals and tourists as a place to hang out or have a picnic and enjoy the expansive views of the city. After the war, a large number of informal settlements emerged in Barcelona due to the lack of housing and the disused anti-aircraft battery became the home of Els Canons shanty town until 1990. From 2011, Museu D’historia De Barcelona (Barcelona History Museum) has transformed the structure into a heritage site with indoor and outdoor exhibition spaces that walk through the history of the bunkers.
After a week in Barcelona, I went on a Spanish Civil War tour led by a British historian named Nick Lloyd. The tour walks through sites in the Gothic Quarter, Placa de Catalunya, and the Rambla, where significant events and fighting took place during the years 1936–1939. When Nick asked us why we were interested in such a tour, few people had a similar reaction, that they have been in Spain for a while or multiple times and they haven’t heard Spaniards discuss the Spanish Civil War much. The beginning of the tour addressed the revolutionary and anarchist beginnings of the war in Barcelona and buildings that had become iconic during the conflict, like the Telephone Exchange building, where the clashes of the May Events started.
The May Events or the May Days refer to the five days in May 1937, where deadly clashes took place between the different parties and militias of the Republican side in the streets of Barcelona. The confrontation started when the Assault Guards, sent by the Republican government to take over the Telephone Exchange building that was controlled by the working-class anarchist CNT group. In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell, who came to Barcelona in 1936 to fight in the Spanish Civil War against Fascism and was on guard in one of the POUM-controlled buildings during the May Days, describes this bloody and complicated confrontation. His account shows how the city was transformed into a battleground and its streets and buildings were divided among the different political factions:
“What the devil was happening, who was fighting whom and who was winning, was at first very difficult to discover. The people of Barcelona are so used to street fighting and so familiar with the local geography that they knew by a kind of instinct which political party will hold which streets and which buildings. A foreigner is at a hopeless disadvantage. Looking out from the observatory, I could grasp that the Ramblas, which is one of the principal streets of the town, formed a dividing line. To the right of the Ramblas the working class quarters were solidly Anarchist; to the left a confused fight was going on among the tortuous by-streets, but on that side the PSUC and the Assault Guards were more or less in control. Up at our end of the Ramblas, round the Palaza de Cataluna, the position was so complicated that it would have been quite unintelligible if every building hadn’t flown a party flag.”3
Towards the end of the tour, we stopped at the church of Sant Felip Neri. The façade of the church carries the scars of the war. Attached to the church is a convent where children sheltered from the bombardment by Franco’s air force on January 30, 1938. On that date, bombs fell on the square, damaging the whole building and killing 42 people, most of them children. During the Franco dictatorship, a different story was told about the events that took place in Sant Felip Neri square. According to Francoist propaganda, the marks on the façade were caused by bullets from anarchist executions of church priests. Today, next to the scarred façade, a black plaque reads: “In memory of the victims of the bombing of Sant Felip Neri. 42 people died here - most of them children due to the action of Franco's air force on January 30, 1938.”
Figure 23–26, Church of Sant Felip Neri, Barcelona
Barcelona’s urban development was stunted under Franco, with the exception of one prominent project, the opening of the Avinguda de la Catedral (Cathedral Avenue) in front of the Barcelona Cathedral. In the map of Barcelona, it is one of the wide avenues that carves through the historical urban fabric, right next to the Gothic quarter. The project wasn’t envisioned by Franco’s government. The opening of the Cathedral Avenue was first proposed in Cerida’s renowned urban plan for Barcelona in 1859. Since then, it had been proposed and approved in multiple urban reforms. In each plan, the objectives were sanitation, improved circulation, and better views of the Cathedral. Critics of this urban intervention feared the loss of centuries-old residential and mercantile buildings and the network of narrow streets that gave the area a unique historical character. The bombs dropped by Franco’s air force during the Spanish Civil War flattened a lot of buildings that stood in the way of opening up the Cathedral Avenue.4 So when the war was over, the project resumed as planned. Franco’s interest in the project grew bigger for its economic potential and ideological implications for his regime when Roman ruins, discovered in the early 20th century, took a central importance.
Figure 27, Cathedral of Barcelona
Figure 28–30, Views of the Cathedral Avenue, Barcelona
In front of the Gothic Cathedral of Barcelona stood the Roman city wall that marked the northwestern edge of Barcino (Barcelona’s ancient name). In the early 20th century, sections of the walls that ran along Tapineria Street were discovered and their restoration and disclosure were completed in 1953.5 Although the area’s architectural legacy encompasses many historical periods, its Roman one was highlighted and selected for restoration by the new government. The revelation of Barcelona’s Roman past was a fitting message for the regime’s Falangist identity that liked to align itself with the Roman and Hapsburg Empires. The excavations continued following the path of the Roman wall adjacent to the Cathedral towards Placa Nova where two Roman towers mark the city’s gate. Further destruction of the old houses in between the towers revealed an ancient military belt, which formed the northwestern edge of the Roman settlement.6 Not only did the project destroy whatever stood in its way to expose the Roman ruins, a non-surviving arch that was part of the aqueduct that carried water to Barcino was recreated next to one of the towers.
Figures 31–33, Barcino’s Roman walls and the two towers that formed the city’s gate
Figure 34, A reconstruction of a section of the aqueduct that carried water to the old city of Barcino
1Maclean, Robert. “Barcelona: A Case of Urban Palingenesis” In La Città Nuova: Proceedings of the 1999 ACSA International Conference, 29 May-2 June 1999, Rome, edited by Katrina Deines and Kay Bea Jones. Washington, DC: ACSA Press, 1999.
3 Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia, 117. London: Penguin, 1989.
4 Muñoz-Rojas Oscarsson, Olivia. “Archaeology, Nostalgia, and Tourism in Post–Civil War Barcelona (1939-1959).” Journal of Urban History 39, no. 3 (2012): 478–94. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144212443709.
On this traveling fellowship I have enjoyed the ability to access a host of masterpieces, pictures I’ve seen only in art history books or on a screen. Every time I stood in front of one of these works of art, I reminded myself of how lucky I am
to be on this journey. Likewise, when I altered my travel itinerary for the fifth or sixth time to go to Spain to look at the effects of the Spanish Civil War, I was excited by the prospect of seeing artworks by prominent Spanish artists like Velazquez,
Goya, and Picasso.
Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is perhaps the most well-known artwork about the tragedy of war. When I entered the room where Guernica is displayed in the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, I was agape by the size of the painting. A collage
in grey tones depicts a jumble of contorted shapes resembling figures and animals screaming in pain and sprawled on a canvas that measures 25 ft, 6in across and 11 ft, 5 in tall. The painting represents the bombing of Guernica in the Basque region
by Nazi forces in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, but it could be describing the trauma of any war.
Figure 1. Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937. Image from: www.museoreinasofia.es
The power of Picasso’s anti-war message in Guernica involves an embarrassing and symbolic incident at the UN where a tapestry reproduction of the painting is displayed. In February 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell headed to the
UN to plead his case for the war on Iraq while Picasso’s Guernica hung behind him. His staff noticed the irony of Guernica’s anti-war screaming faces and asked to cover the painting while Colin Powell gave a speech about
why they should invade Iraq.
The New Yorker’s cover from March 17th, 2003, (three days before the Iraq invasion) captured this moment in history showing Picasso’s Guernica draped in red curtains.
Figure 2. New Yorker cover from March 17, 2003. Image from: www.newyorker.com
During the Spanish Civil War, Madrid became a symbol of anti-fascist resistance, enduring a two-and-a-half-year siege, fighting against the rebel forces led by Francisco Franco. Madrid was the first major city in history to experience aerial bombardments
of its residential neighborhoods and civilians, which was ordered by Franco as punishment and aided by German and Italian aircraft to extinguish the Republican resistance.1 For a city that was bombed
and attacked for such a long time, it was surprising to find out when I got there that the traces of the Spanish Civil War in Madrid, a city that has become a symbol of resistance against fascism, were hidden and undetectable. During the Franco dictatorship,
post-war reconstruction was a means to bury any evidence of Spanish resistance against Franco and his Nationalist army. By rebuilding destroyed residential neighborhoods like Arguelles, which was heavily bombed during the siege of Madrid, patching
up ruined iconic buildings, and sometimes removing a building altogether as if it never existed, as in the case of the barracks of La Montana de Principe Pio, later generations would grow up unaware of the historical events that shaped their city.
The inability to read the effects of the Spanish Civil War in Madrid was not only the product of Franco’s censorship and controlled rhetoric but a characteristic of the amnesty law that was agreed on as Spain was transitioning into a parliamentary
government following Franco’s death in 1975. For the purpose of national reconciliation, political parties on the left and right agreed to create the Pact of Forgetting, a law that prevented invoking the legacy of Franco and the Spanish Civil
War, as well as not prosecuting war crimes committed during the war and the Francoist period. The consequences of this law permeate every aspect of Spanish material culture, including its post-Civil War architecture and monuments such as the controversial
Valley of the Fallen in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, built by the dictator himself.
My search for the traces of the Spanish Civil War in Madrid was proving difficult, but I was aided by a book that I’ve come across by two architects and professors at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, Madrid Bombardeada: Cartografia de la Destruccion 1936–1939 (Madrid Bombed: Mapping of the Destruction 1936–1939). The
book recounts the difficulties the two authors faced in their extensive research to piece together and map the damage inflicted on Madrid during the Civil War. It is supplemented by a large map of Madrid where instances of impact by bombs or artillery
are registered in red, resembling blood stains. With a glance at the map, one is able to have a sense about the areas that were damaged most during the civil war. So, with map in hand, I walked around Madrid trying to distinguish what was destroyed
and rebuilt and what was untouched during the war. For example, the Arguelles neighborhood, north of the Royal Palace, sustained a lot of damage during the battle of Madrid from being so close to the attacks that were launched from Casa de Campo Park.
Figure 3. Map illustrating the location and extent of the damage in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. Image from the book Madrid Bombardeada: Cartografia de la Destruccion 1936–1939.
To understand the effects of the Spanish Civil War on the urban environment, I decided to look more closely into two iconic sites in and around Madrid: La Montana de Principe Pio, where the Egyptian Templo de Debod stands, and the Alcazar de Toledo, some
45 miles outside of Madrid.
La Montana de Principe Pio is a hill in Madrid where La Cuartel de la Montana, a 19th-century military barracks used to stand until its demolition after the Spanish Civil War. The site of the barracks holds a symbolic significance for Madrid
as the place where Spanish fighters in the Spanish War of Independence were executed by Napoleon’s soldiers in 1808, as it was famously depicted in Francisco de Goya’s painting, The 3rd of May 1808. The military
barracks were built in 1860 following the Carlist Wars close to the Royal Palace.2 In 1936, the barracks were the site of yet another iconic uprising that propelled the Spanish Civil War in Madrid.
A group of rebel Nationalist officers opposed to the Republican government sieged the barracks with a plan to march out, but their coup d’état ended after a bloody confrontation with Republican militias.
Figure 4. The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid, or “The Executions,” Francisco de Goya, 1814. Image from:
As the barracks lay in ruins, both the Republican government during the war and the Franco regime after the war targeted the site for ambitious and representative projects that sought to communicate their interpretation of the events of July 1936 and
post-war Madrid. For the Republicans, the barracks were the site of heroic Madrilenian resistance against fascism and for the Nationalists, it was the place of the first dissenting voices. The government of the Spanish Republic had set up a reconstruction
committee for the planning of post-war Madrid and the plan included a new parliament building on the site of the barracks.
After Franco won the war, a new architectural style and planning were required to mark the ideological and political shift in Spain. Similar to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, the architectural style advanced by the Falangist Party were the grand and
monumental architecture of 17th-century Madrid that aligned a New Spain with the imperial Hapsburg dynasty. The planning scheme included a proposal to build the headquarters of the Falange party on top of the former barracks. In the end,
the grand reconstruction project never materialized. According to Olivia Munoz-Rojas, Franco wanted to distance himself from the fascist governments of Hitler and Mussolini who expressed their ideologies through monumental architectural projects.
In addition, Spain was struggling economically after the Civil War, which led to the abandonment of these grand plans. The site eventually became a public space and the chosen location to exhibit the Templo de Debod, a gift from the Egyptian government
in 1968. The site joins Parque del Oeste to the north, where the frontline during the Spanish Civil War passed through.
Figure 5–7. Templo de Debod and surrounding park in Madrid.
Strolling in the park today, it’s difficult to imagine that one of the bloodiest confrontations of the war in Madrid took place there. The only physical traces that are seen in the northern side of the park are derelict remains of bunkers, nestled
between the trees, with no sign or plaque explaining what they are or the charged historical legacy of this site. In Madrid, the legacy of the Spanish Civil War is well buried and curated by years of Franco’s dictatorship.
Figures 8–15. Bunkers from the Spanish Civil War in Parque del Oeste.
Figure 16–17. Bullet holes on a statue of Federico Rubio in Parque del Oeste.
From Madrid, I took the train to Toledo, about 35 minutes. Toledo is a popular tourist destination for its preserved medieval layout and rich architectural legacy that includes a Gothic cathedral, a mosque from the 10th century, synagogues
and the towering fortress, the Alcazar of Toledo, where the Toledo Army Museum is located. During the Spanish Civil War, the Alcazar of Toledo became another symbolic site in an ideological war. Between July and September 1936, Nationalists and right-wing
groups and their families occupied the fortress and fought against the Republican forces as they bombed and destroyed most of the building. The battle to win the Alcazar was driven by its charged symbolic value rather than the need for territorial
control. The fortress that dominates Toledo’s views was the royal residence of Spanish kings for centuries after they re-captured the town from the Moors in 1085.3 Before the 1936 siege, the fortress housed the Military Academy in Toledo. For the Nationalists, the Alcazar of Toledo is an icon of Spanish imperial history that cannot be lost to the Republicans. The extensive
damage to the fortress can be seen in one of the Army Museum’s small rooms where a miniature model shows the Alcazar in its original state (plexiglass) and ruined state after the siege of Alcazar.
Figure 18–21. Views of the Alcazar of Toledo and its surroundings
The post-war story of the Alcazar of Toledo shows how architecture can be utilized to control the narrative of a place or the retelling of its history by those in power. After Franco won the war, the fortress was left in ruins and its image was disseminated
and used in propaganda material as a memorial to the Nationalist victory.4 The restoration of the building started in 1950, many years after the war ended. Franco paid special attention to the reconstruction
of the fortress establishing it as a tourist destination that celebrated Spanish victories, most importantly of which is the patriotic display of courage by the Nationalist rebels during the Siege of Alcazar.5 By turning the Alcazar to a commemorative space for his own conquest of Toledo, Franco aligned himself with Spain’s imperial rulers, strengthening his image as protector of Spain and further legitimizing the dictatorship.
Figure 22–26. Views from inside the Alcazar of Toledo.
Inside the Army Museum at the Alcazar of Toledo, I walked through many rooms that displayed weapons, apparel, miniature models of battles, and objects that celebrated the greatness of the Spanish Empire and its colonial reach. At some point, I was confronted
with a crypt that contains the remains of Nationalist soldiers that died during the Siege of Alcazar, but I couldn’t find an exhibit that discussed the iconic event that led to the total destruction of the fortress during one of the most contentious
episodes of the Spanish Civil War. I was surprised to find that critical history of the building was confined to one small room on the periphery of the museum floor under the name "The History of the Alcazar." When the Army Museum announced it would
move from Madrid to the Alcazar of Toledo in 2003, it caused controversy that the collection would be housed in a famously Francoist icon.
Figures 27–32. Model shows the damaged Alcazar of Toledo after the siege of the building during the Spanish Civil War. The glass containing the ruins represents the original building before destruction. Photos were taken at the Army Museum housed in the Alcazar of Toledo.
Figures 33–36. Representations and photographs from newspapers reporting on the damage of the Alcazar of Toledo. Photos were taken at the Army Museum housed in the Alcazar of Toledo.
Traveling to the Alcazar of Toledo cemented my understanding that the historical memory of the Spanish Civil War is still fighting to break from the controlled rhetoric molded by years of the Franco dictatorship. Spain is still unsure of how to treat
its historical monuments that were built after the war and until Franco’s death or re-tell the story of Spanish Civil War from a different point of view in fear of opening past wounds, which means a lot of scars that were inflicted by the
winning side remain hidden and unaddressed. My experience in Madrid re-contextualized my view of Berlin and its incessant struggle to understand and come to terms with its memorials and architectural legacy from the Nazi era and World War II. What
is Spain going to do to face its past?
1 Bordes, Enrique, and Sobrón Luis de. Madrid Bombardeado: Cartografía De La destrucción, 1936-1939. Cátedra, 2021.
2 Muñoz-Rojas Olivia. Ashes and Granite: Destruction and Reconstruction in the Spanish Civil War and Its Aftermath. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2011.
3 Raychaudhuri, Anindya. The Spanish Civil War: Exhuming a Buried Past. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2013.
4 Aronsson, Peter, and Gabriella Elgenius. National Museums and Nation-Building in Europe, 1750-2010: Mobilization and Legitimacy, Continuity and Change. London: Routledge, 2017.
Seeing the need for continued conversation extending from last year’s successful Method Acts series, the organizers of the 2021–2022 workshop series aimed to continue to explore the constellation of issues framing this call for expansive attention to architectural methodologies. Issues of power, agency, and authorship framed this year’s series while continuing the much-needed conversation on bias, exclusion, and accessibility brought forward by last year's workshops. This year’s events were organized by our 2022 Graduate Student Advisory Committee consisting of Leslie Lodwick, Charlette Caldwell, Katerina Bong, Antonio Pacheco, and Aslıhan Günhan.
We wondered how this generation of scholars would learn to navigate shifting global frameworks as well as how shifting guidelines on health and safety would affect practical and logistical concerns around conducting research. This lack of sure-footedness seemed to highlight questions about the fundamental nature of knowledge itself and how these are made and known in architectural history, while on seemingly perpetually shifting global platforms. Additionally, we asked what lessons were learned from the last two years of the global pandemic and how we might apply questions gleaned from our contemporary sphere to our own work.
The early career scholars’ research clarified, challenged, and extended these questions in exciting and, at times, unexpected ways through the Method Acts Workshops. The workshops were thematically organized around questions of fieldwork and archives. In the first workshop, fieldwork, Javairia Shahid presented her work on the history of the Calcutta Emigration Camp in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries constructed via field-related documents; Mingqian Liu addressed phenomenological methods of preservation research in a residential neighborhood, Dongsi, in Beijing; and Abhishek Bhutoria highlighted experimental methods needed to write the history of domestic architecture in Barpak, a Nepali Himalayan village destroyed by the 2015 earthquake. In addition to exemplifying the creativity of architectural methods, these researchers also employed art, stories, imagining, remembering, and song to weave narratives and accounts of the built environment.
In the second workshop organized around questions of the archive, Matthew Allen discussed technologies of architectural software and how they might be understood as frameworks for rethinking periodization; Burcu Köken’s research on the archives of Turkish architectural journal Mimarlık prodded temporal linearity in architectural histories, and Chelsea Spencer proposed a qualitative reading of numbers in construction archives toward reconsidering histories of architectural speculation in defining modernity. All three presenters’ research methodology came together to ask broader questions about assembling fragmented and abstruse information while making it accessible and legible for the general readers. Numbers, software codes, and non-English archives (Turkish) also sparked discussions of translation and interpretation that directly impacted how scholars interacted with these forms of language. Challenging the conventions of archival methodology through Method Acts provided a fruitful discussion and platform for further exploration.
Each presenter shared texts and images central to their work prior to engaging with a direct conversation with workshop participants. Challenging the conventions of methodology through Method Acts provided a fruitful discussion and platform for further exploration of architectural history in the changing global dynamics. While the Covid-19 related lockdown initiated the Method Acts in 2020, we are hoping to continue our conversations on architectural history in an ongoing and global context.
Sundus Al-Bayati is the 2019 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.
“So, what do you think of Baghdad?” is a question I was asked by family and friends in the month I was “home,” visiting for the first time in 10 years. It was the first destination in my fellowship travel that I was in a place where the nuances of culture and language were accessible to me. I wasn’t a tourist this time. When I envisioned my itinerary for this fellowship, I didn’t include Baghdad because the city is still in a state of war but also it is because of Baghdad that I went on this journey to see what can be learned from the long-term consequences of war on how cities develop. But when does war end and reconstruction begin? What do these long years of recovery look like? Berlin and Warsaw allowed me to observe established models of post-war reconstruction and their effects across a long span of time. Baghdad, however, is still undergoing sporadic conflict and political instability and offers a look at those intermediate years of struggle and recovery where consequential decisions about the urban environment are made.
Growing up during wartime becomes normal. After leaving Iraq and having the perspective of a normal life, I was able to start to process my experience and realize how unusual our lives were. I was born three months before the first Gulf War and the beginning of the thirteen year-long sanctions by the United States Security Council on Iraq as punishment for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. I was thirteen years old when the US invaded Iraq under false pretenses. I was twenty when I left for the US. My sister was born two years after the Iran-Iraq war; my brother two years before its end. My mom and dad lived through the end of the British-instilled Iraqi monarchy, the establishment of the Baath Party, the rising of Saddam Hussein to power and his wars. War creates its own timeline through which we measure our lives. It permeates our everyday language. Significant life events are situated in relation to their proximity or distance from war, “so and so graduated three years after the war; so and so left five years before the war.” Sometimes it’s the “war with Iran,” sometimes it’s the “war with Kuwait,” but when it is just “war,” it refers to the most recent one, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
So how does Baghdad look? Ruined. It is safer now than it was before I left. The bombings that used to disrupt our daily lives and keep us confined to our homes have subsided and public life is thriving again with new cafes, restaurants, and more recently, malls. However, unfettered corruption in governmental and public institutions and non-existent regulations are accelerating the decline of Baghdadi neighborhoods. They are destroying any historical character left in this city.
I arrived in Baghdad from Istanbul at 3 am. The Baghdad International Airport is unlike any in the world. People aren’t allowed to show up to the airport to pick you up for security reasons. There are shuttles that take you to a public square where your family or special taxis can pick you up. However, a friend who has connections in airport security managed to get my brother on a vetted list of people who can enter the airport within the specific time window of my landing there. So there was my brother, taller than I remember, and now with a beard, waiting for me. We hadn’t seen each other for 10 years.
On the drive from the airport, I looked out the window to see what had changed. There are the quintessential palm trees still, albeit diminished in numbers. Concrete blast barriers and security checkpoints are still lining up the streets, the outcome of years of suicide bombs (Figure 1). When I arrived to the Harithiya neighborhood, where my mother and brother live, it was too dark to discern yet how this once quiet and old neighborhood had dramatically changed. I used to come to this neighborhood once a week, to my grandparents’ house where all my aunts, uncles and their kids would convene every Friday. Now my grandparents’ house, which used to have a huge garden where we’d played soccer as kids, had been demolished. Five new houses sprung up in its place, inhabited by different households, including my brother’s. The houses are tightly packed next to one another to utilize every centimeter of highly valuable land. Where is the garden?
The fate that my grandparents’ house met is part of an uncontrolled and chaotic construction trend that is changing the shape and urban quality of many Baghdadi neighborhoods. Older houses with gardens and an architecture that worked with the hot climate of Baghdad are being scrapped to accommodate multiple houses that cover the whole lot, and often the sidewalks. The streets that I used to roam and play in with my cousins are no longer walkable. Cars, escaping the traffic on major streets, crowd the inner neighborhood streets and with no sidewalks, eradicate any sense of pedestrian life.
A consequence of the 2003 War is the spread of corruption at all levels of governmental institutions, not excluding the municipality regulating construction practices in Iraq. Violations of building regulations are routinely permitted through bribes. This is why public sidewalks are disappearing or multi-family apartment buildings are popping up next to single family houses. Corruption, a long lasting consequence of the war, is destroying what’s left of Baghdad’s identity. The old ways of building that mitigated the harsh summer heat are replaced with overbuilt concrete lots that lack any open space for shade or ventilation. As new houses are getting narrower to fit as many as possible on the lot, they are growing taller, violating height regulations and transforming the scale of traditional neighborhoods. Along with an egregious mishmash of façade materials and styles that are often meant to communicate socio-economic status, Baghdadi neighborhoods are breaking with historical and architectural continuity.
I sat through many amusing conversations listening to my mom’s friend telling of her treacherous experience navigating government bureaucracies to have permission to demolish her old house and build three apartments in its place. With every step of the process that has been ongoing for a few months already, she was turned away for trivial things such as not having enough photocopies of a certain document or a mysterious old unpaid electricity bill totaling two dollars. Every obstacle would set her back a few extra weeks, unless, of course she reached for her purse and dispersed some “red ones,” referring to the 25,000 Iraqi Dinar bill. My mom’s friend’s quandary is exacerbated by the fact that she was inexperienced in smoothly handing out bribes. It was both comical and unsettling to watch her friends teach her how to be a smooth operator, otherwise, they said “you’d still be in the same place next year.”
A lot has changed in the 10 years I’ve been away from home. New types of architectural projects have appeared as both a symptom of the current dysfunctional state of government and as an escape from a present that is lacking in basic needs. I was struck by the sight of the gated residential developments going up all around Baghdad (Figure 2–3). Baghdad has traditionally been a low-rise sprawling city, so the sprouting of these towers significantly alters its shape and scale. These new self-sufficient neighborhoods consist of apartment buildings, hospitals, pharmacies, schools, etc. They become cities of their own, possessing an alternate reality shaped by real estate developers and independent of the one run by the government outside its gates. That’s not the only thing rising up in Baghdad’s skies. Baghdad is experiencing an increased popularity and proliferation of shopping malls. From my mother’s house, I can see the electronic billboards of Baghdad Mall (Figure 4). People in Baghdad kept telling me that the only new things that get built these days are restaurants and malls because “what else is there to do than eat and shop?”
The rise in the number of shopping malls going up around Baghdad can be explained further by this paragraph from Omar Sirri on the connection between the political situation in Iraq and shopping malls:
“The popularity of Baghdad’s new shopping malls does not mean the city’s residents have acquiesced to this order of things. Nor do they believe shopping centres are the most ideal places of pleasure and entertainment. Rather, during years of physical insecurity in Baghdad, the secured shopping malls—with their metal detectors, watch towers, and armed private security contractors—became safe places in which residents could ‘breathe’. Insecurity in the city helps facilitate new shopping malls as sites of social pleasure that are vital to everyday survival; they are frequented in part because nothing else is on offer.”1
I was one year old when the U.S Air Force dropped two “smart bombs” on the air-raid shelter of Al-Amiriya in Baghdad. The attack resulted in the death of approximately 400 women and children. The numbers vary as the book that documented the number of civilians sheltering in the building was incinerated inside. The first bomb made a hole in the three-meter-thick reinforced concrete. The second one entered through the opening and exploded, incinerating everyone inside.2
The shelter is not too far from my maternal grandparent’s home in the Amiriya neighborhood. I went to see the building with my mother and aunt on the way to my uncle’s house, which used to be my grandparents'. As I was approaching the shelter, it became clear that it is not open to the public nor is it a memorial space as it was suggested online. The building looked deserted and closed. Piles of trash stand inside of its fenced walls and broken glass is everywhere. My aunt asked a guy on the street if the shelter is open. He told her to go over to the gate and knock and a security officer should be there to answer her question. So we went over and knocked on the gate and waited. A minute later, a security officer showed up. We asked him if the shelter is open and if we can take a look inside. He asked if we were journalists; he is not allowed to let in journalists. I told him that I am an architect writing about war and destruction. He seemed hesitant. He said he usually lets people in who want to say prayers for the souls that were lost on that miserable night in 1991. He said he often had visitors who lost their loved ones inside the shelter.
The kind security officer opened the gate for us. Before we entered the shelter, we stopped to look at the memorial commemorating the victims of the shelter (Figure 5–6). The officer said he is tired of chasing after kids who would break in and destroy the gravestones. He didn’t understand those kids. He asked us if we are okay to go inside the shelter on our own or if we need him to come with us. He warned that it is completely dark inside and there might be stray dogs. We all voted that he should guide us through the building. We didn’t understand at the beginning that this building was abandoned. There was no light or electricity. It was open to the elements. We turned our phone flashlights on as we entered. I held my mom’s hands, worried she’d trip over the debris and broken pieces of glass, concrete, and wires. Through the main entrance, black and white photocopies on cheap paper that display the victims’ portraits are taped to the walls. We entered through the heavy steel door of the shelter, which after it was subjected to the intense heat from the missile, melted and sealed shut, trapped everyone inside. Then it was dark. We walked slowly and carefully until there it was, frozen in time and unchanged, the hole in the ceiling from the missile 30 years ago, illuminating the darkness below. War is cruel.
There have been a lot of bombings in Baghdad since 2003, but the memory of some lingers with Iraqis more than others for their unprecedented brutality and terror, like the Karrada explosion in 2016. A suicide truck bomb exploded in the Shia’ neighborhood of Karrada next to the popular shopping center Al-Hadi during the holy month of Ramadan. The explosion killed 340 civilians and injured hundreds. I wasn’t living in Baghdad by that time. When I was in Baghdad, my mother and her friend took me to the Karrada neighborhood to take a look at the site under construction.
I grew up knowing Baghdad from the car while being driven around by my parents, the school bus, and other adults. I remember being able to play outside in my neighborhood and ride my bike with my neighbor until one day it wasn’t acceptable. I had crossed the threshold from kid to girl. Hereafter, I mostly experienced the city in the car as I was going to and from school or from one house to another. The public realm of the city wasn’t accessible to me. It was the domain of men and boys. With time, it became uncomfortable walking outside and being subjected to unwanted looks and advances. The war and unsafe conditions on the streets only pushed us girls and women more inside the house. The first time I experienced the joy of walking on my own and exploring the city was when I lived in Damascus for a year when I was 19.
But things are different in Baghdad now. The city is safer for everyone but it is still a gendered space. My mode of exploration for the past four months of this fellowship involved a lot of walking around, even during the cold winter of Poland. But here in Baghdad, especially in some of the historical areas, I felt uncomfortable as a woman walking around with a DSLR camera. I felt myself walking fast and not stopping too long to get a good picture. Quickly, I learned to explore in a different way in Baghdad, not by myself, but in the company of other women. My mother, her friends, and my own friends were more than happy to take me around Baghdad and to accompany me to site visits. My favorite moments were when they told me that I showed them a new part of Baghdad they’ve never seen.
The sad thing about the destruction of architecture in Iraq is that it hasn’t only been the result of direct fighting during the war or from suicide bombs, but mainly from the failure of the government and municipalities to protect architectural heritage and enact regulation that would prevent the ceaseless destruction of historical neighborhoods. It is a manifestation of the long-lasting effects of war in crippling a country’s soul for years to come. The crumbling buildings of Al-Rasheed Street are not the product of bombs but of a broken system in a war-torn country that is still struggling to form a stable nation-state and suffers political and social instability. As Iraq is still struggling to address basic economic and social needs of its society, its architecture is reflecting the corruption and dysfunction of its institutions.
I don’t think I’ve ever been to Al-Rasheed Street before this visit even though I’ve read and written about it before. It was the first boulevard built by the Ottomans in 1916 and is one of the most important cultural and political spaces in Baghdad (Figure 17–26). Most recently, the 2019 demonstrations that stunned the country in the biggest form of civil unrest since 2003 also manifested in Al-Rasheed Street, despite endangering its already collapsing historical structures. The state of Al-Rasheed Street now almost brought me to tears. I’ve seen images of it in its heyday with its beautiful colonnades shading pedestrians from the summer heat. Now its colonnades and balconies are tilting and collapsing. The life around it, so accustomed to loss and destruction, keeps on going, almost oblivious to its slow death. I started my walk at Maidan Square and walked through Al-Rasheed Street until I arrived to the most famous and beloved street in Baghdad, Al-Mutanabbi Street (Figure 27–31). Named after the Abbasid poet from the 10th century, Al-Mutanabbi, this whole pedestrian-only street is dedicated to one thing: selling books. Established bookstores and small book stalls line up both its sides while pedestrians walk in the middle browsing new releases or used old books. This peaceful avenue wasn’t spared the violence either. In 2007, a suicide bomb exploded there and killed around 100 people. The street has just celebrated a major renovation right when I arrived in Baghdad in December.
Baghdad was established as the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate in 762 A.D. There are few remnants of Abbasid architecture in the city, although neglected and in desperate need of repairs. One wonders how long before they, too, disappear from the urban fabric and the public’s consciousness. While I was out with my newly acquired friend, Zina, in a café near Al-Mutanabbi called Al-Mdalaal, the owner approached us with a flier. He told us about an upcoming trip he is organizing to visit Al-Ukhaider Fortress, the Abbasid structure south of Karbala, Iraq. I was delighted. I’ve been trying to find a way to go to Al-Ukhaider and this opportunity just fell from the sky. I took the flier. I went with my mother, her friend, and Zina on a day-long trip (Figure 32–49). The structure seemed to be in a good shape on the outside, probably due to its isolated location in the desert of Karbalaa. It is not protected nor maintained, as evident by the graffiti and trash left by visitors. After exploring it on the inside for a while, it was clear that this historical building is falling apart as well. It was built in 778 by Isa ibn Musa, the nephew of Abbasid Caliph As-Saffah. The massive structure encompasses courtyards, residences, and a mosque. The building displays the early architectural innovation of the Abbasid period, such as the use of the pointed and transverse arches, which became characteristic of Islamic architecture. It is one of the earliest examples of Abbasid palaces that exists till this day.3 However, it has been on the Tentative List of UNESCO World Heritage sites since 2000.
My favorite piece of architecture during this visit in Baghdad has to be the Zumurrud Khatun Mausoleum (Figure 50–59). It’s another gem from the Abbasid period, which displays the unique nine-layered, conical muqarnas dome rising over tombs of important Imams or political figures (Figure 51). But this was built by sitt Zubayada, the mother and wife of Abbasid Caliphs. She commissioned the building of the mausoleum while she was still alive.4 The mausoleum is situated in Sheikh Marouf Cemetery in the Karkh side of Baghdad (Figure 58). The tomb is enclosed in an octagonal structure that supports the base of the conical dome. The muqarnas dome is pierced with openings letting daylight to the inside of the tomb space creating a mesmerizing play of light and shadow. On the outside, the walls of the enclosure are covered with geometric patterns and pointed arches. When we arrived at the tomb, we were met by a poor family that lived in or near the cemetery. They offered to guide us for a little tip. The man told us that all his family is buried next to the mausoleum and that’s where he will be, too. He guided me up the narrow and claustrophobic staircase from inside the room of the mausoleum to the top of the base where I had a good look at the cemetery and Baghdad at large. I was able to take a closer look at the muqarnas dome on the outside (Figure 54–56). I saw it is cracking and splitting and noticed the steel cables trying to hold it together. I worried about this beautiful and forgotten spot and its eventual loss if the Iraqi state continues to neglect its monuments.
On the way back from Al-Ukhaider, which is some 100 miles from Baghdad, my mom and others suggested to the Midalaal crew to organize a tour of historic sites in Baghdad. They welcomed the idea and planned one right away. So on a nice sunny day in the mild winter of Baghdad, we went to the Midalaal café, had our Arabic coffees, and set out to walk around. We arrived at the Abbasid Palace, and while others went to look at another historical building nearby, I beat the crowd to the palace to take some photos. I entered the quiet courtyard of the palace through a monumental iwan, ornate with geometric and vegetal designs characteristic of Islamic architecture (Figure 60–66). Historians are not sure if this structure was actually used as a palace or if it was a madrasa (school). Its design is very similar to Al-Madrasa Al-Mustansyria in Baghdad. Opposite to the entrance and on the other side of the courtyard, stands another elaborately ornate iwan, which is flanked by the most striking design element of this two-story palace, muqarnas-decorated arcades. It was the first time I saw anything like it.
1 Sirri, Omar. “Seeing the Political in Baghdad's Shopping Malls.” LSE Middle East Centre, July 2, 2020. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mec/2020/01/09/seeing-the-political-in-baghdads-shopping-malls/.
2 Barbarani, Sofia. “Amiriyah Bombing 30 Years on: 'No One Remembers' the Victims.” Conflict | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, February 17, 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2021/2/13/amiriyah-bombing-30-years-on-no-one-remembers-the-victims.
3 Bassem, Wassem. “Stepping Back 1,300 Years into Iraq's Ukhaidir Palace.” Al-Moniter, December 3, 2015. https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2015/12/iraq-karbala-ukhaidir-palace-neglect-history.html.
4 Al-Hadithi, Atta, and Hana' Abdul Khaliq. “The Conical Domes in Iraq.” Baghdad: Ministry of Information, Directorale General of Antiquities, 1974.
Bridget Maley is the owner of architecture + history (a + h), an architectural history and historic preservation consulting firm. She lives in San Francisco, California, and has been a member of SAH since 1995.
Can you tell us about your career path?
I started my career in historical archaeology at Old Salem, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina then at Monticello and Poplar Forest, both sites affiliated with Thomas Jefferson in Virginia. I received a master’s degree in Architectural History from the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia (UVa). I benefited from an incredible network of academic and professional mentors while at UVa and after! I moved to San Francisco, California, and began working for an architectural firm specializing in historic preservation, Architectural Resources Group (ARG), as their first in-house architectural historian. I helped ARG grow a historic resources and architectural history studio, at one point managing seven architectural historians in two offices. My time at ARG taught me that you can manage a business while doing the work that you love. I started my own practice ten years ago and I love the flexibility of working for myself!
I think it’s the stories that buildings and sites tell us; they provide a tangible, visible reminder of our past. I particularly enjoy the research component…finding that one piece of information that completes the puzzle and really informs how we interpret a particular historic place.
The past three years, I’ve had a significant focus on National Park Service (NPS) projects. I’ve participated in several Historic Structure Reports (HSR) on Mission 66-era NPS Visitor Centers in California and Alaska. I’m working on a project in Mount Rainier National Park looking at historic resources from both the NPS Rustic Architecture period and the Mission 66 era at Ohanapechosh Campground. I also have a project at Tule Lake, a component of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, documenting several of the only remaining built resources from the Tule Lake Segregation Center. I’m participating in an HSR for two employee cabins at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Lastly, I’ve contributed recently to a Maintenance Plan for the Glacier Bay Lodge in Alaska, one of the few Mission 66-era lodges built in the National Park system and am documenting 1960s Pan Abode-constructed (kit) cabins in Alaska’s Katmai National Park, that are threatened by some very large bears who like to gnaw and scratch on their wood components!
Additionally, I’ve had several projects at the University of California, Santa Cruz, one of the most significant collections of modern campus buildings in California. Lastly, I am currently leading a team of historians writing a National Register of Historic Places Historic District Nomination for St. Francis Wood, a designed residence park with over 550 homes in San Francisco, laid out by the Olmsted Brothers. On a more personal level, I’ve been researching the California architect, John Carl Warnecke, with the intent to publish something…at some point…in my free time!!
As an undergraduate, I attended Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The college is set within Old Salem, a preserved historic Moravian village set in a surrounding urban environment. Old Salem is a collection of historic sites, gardens, and buildings open to the public with extensive interpretive programs, including working trades people demonstrating various craft practices. Within my first year of college, I began to understand the importance of place and history through experiences at Old Salem. The summer after my sophomore year I participated in an archaeological excavation of the tannery site in Salem. This opened my eyes to how historical research and informed field investigations intersect to shape the stories we tell at historic sites.
There have been several key individuals who served as wonderful mentors throughout my career. First, Michael Hammond, my undergraduate Anthropology / Archaeology professor and the Archaeologist for Old Salem. William Kelso, historical archaeologist, who I worked with at both of Thomas Jefferson’s homes, Monticello and Poplar Forest. Drake Patten, who managed the archaeological laboratory at Poplar Forest. Richard Guy Wilson and Barbara Burlison Mooney, who I studied with at UVa. J. Murray Howard, the former Architect for Historic Buildings and Grounds at UVa, who I had the great fortune to work with for a summer. Bruce Judd and Stephen Farneth, founding Principals of Architectural Resources Group (ARG); Nina Pascale, Marketing Director at ARG; and really all the amazing colleagues I worked with over 16 years at ARG. Lastly, San Francisco Architectural Historian, Anne Bloomfield, who died way too young, and who took me under her wing when I first moved to San Francisco.
Time management!! As a sole practitioner you do the field work, conduct historical research, write reports, correspond with clients, generate invoices, pay incoming invoices, manage subconsultants, and solve IT problems. Whew!! I don’t have time for time management!!
I joined SAH as a graduate student at the University of Virginia where the Thomas Jefferson Chapter was founded and continues to be very active. I served as president of the chapter for the 1992–93 academic year. When I moved to San Francisco I joined the Northern California Chapter of SAH and wrote and produced the newsletter for a few years and also served as chapter president for a period. My first SAH conference was Seattle (1995) where I gave a “Work in Progress” talk in a focused session for graduate students and emerging scholars. I served as the national SAH Chapter Liaison from 2004 to 2011. I’ve stayed active in SAH helping organize the Pasadena conference in 2009, participating on a book award committee one year, and most recently serving on the SAH CONNECTS Advisory Committee.
It has been very rewarding to see SAH embrace the digital humanities, encourage a more diverse membership through targeted outreach, and actively engage a broader audience. These initiatives indicate a leadership and membership committed to staying relevant in a changing academic, research, and publication landscape. I think if SAH continues to evolve within an academic and scholar-focused environment the organization will be poised to remain a leader in the humanities.
Network, network, network. This is a small field and it's critical to meet others with similar interests and career paths. Most of us are more than happy to mentor a younger generation because we benefited from interaction with excellent mentors ourselves.
As has been the case for many scholars, my dissertation research was fundamentally changed by Covid-19. While it quickly became clear that my ability to travel and access certain archives would be postponed, what I wasn’t able to anticipate were the ways in which research in the pandemic age would push me to develop new analytical methods in order to work with the materials that I did have access to. My research traces a settler colonial history of the U.S. Land Grant college program, including federally funded schools for Native American and African American students in that legacy and foregrounding the relationship between the land dispossession and exploitative labor practices that determined campus designs and the racially segregated industrial curricula that took place there.
While I had planned to spend extensive time on-site at my case study schools, Covid meant pivoting to email exchanges with incredibly helpful and accommodating archivists, often supplementing those primary archives with materials at other institutions with the resources to make materials available digitally. Ultimately, it has shifted my emphasis on small-scale student work and issues of representation within these schools’ curricula in addition to spatial analysis of campus buildings and often difficult-to-access and digitize drawing sets. I am grateful for the support of SAH's Gill Family Foundation Dissertation Research Fellowship for the ability to have such materials digitized for closer study at home.
In part, this pandemic-mandated shift has also pushed me to consider how architecture figured into those schools’ curricula beyond design and building programs—that is to say, not only through labor but through ideology. These connections often took place obliquely, thanks to pedagogical theories of correlation, as instructors referenced architectural typologies and building materials in the teaching of say, essay-writing, world geography, or geometric proofs. The racialized thinking of Progressive era pedagogues went that such concrete, material examples were helpful for students unaccustomed to or racially incapable of abstract thinking. Building on the work of other historians on nineteenth-century race-science and architectural style, my research helps us understand how architecture was used as a metric of civilization in these schools (and, therefore, deculturalization and assimilation).
The following two drawings, from the Minnie Linton collection of materials from Indian Schools at the Autry Museum of the American West, help to illustrate my point. They are taken from essays completed in 1899 by two Indigenous eighth-grade students at the Sherman Institute, an off-reservation boarding school in Riverside, CA. While they don’t ultimately figure directly into my dissertation, which focuses on older students at a series of different case studies, they have proven integral to shaping the way that I think about architecture’s role as a knowledge system in practices of cultural genocide and attuning myself to the subtle forms of resistance to or refusal of that settler colonial project that we can find in the colonial archive.
It seems that the students were asked to write something reflecting on traditional and modern forms of housing and their relationship to civilization, to their culture, and to the future development or improvement of both their land and their race. These are all reasonably common tropes for Indian education in the late nineteenth century, but it’s unusual to see them worked out so materially, referencing built structures in a way that both is and is not metaphorical. The resulting drawings and short essays address the development of housing amongst the Pima people and the Navajo or Diné, both historically and in the present time.
The two students take the assignment in quite different directions, one emphasizing transformation of architectural typologies and the other arguing for the appropriateness of their housing type to their lifeway and culture. The first, by Joseph Lewis Wellington, starts with a wickiup, a brushwood round house typical of numerous nomadic peoples across the southwest, but labeled as “primitive.” We then see a literal trajectory of development traced, first to a simple, single-room structure, which looks like it could be a mixture of sod or rammed earth with timber, and finally to a timber framed, multi-room structure with a pitched roof, a fully westernized home. He closes with “one more step to go…” It’s illustrating a process of transformation, or what was often called improvement, visually. Architecture as a visible index of racial development—both biologically and in reference to Native peoples’ acceptance of the single-family home and allotment homestead in rejection of communal living arrangements, on traditional homelands or reservations. In some ways, this first drawing is an illustration of the ideal outcome of such an assignment, then.
The second drawing from the Linton collection opens up a different direction, however: the possibility of refusal, however subtle, of this narrative of racial improvement and civilization by eighth-grade student George Bancroft. To find this counternarrative to the official government curriculum, we must carefully read between the drawing and its accompanying text. It depicts a naturalistic rather than schematic representation of a hogan (hooghan), a dwelling and ceremonial building type commonly built by the Navajo people from the fifteenth to the early twentieth century. The dome-shaped structure, an interlocking core of Ponderosa pine or cedar plastered with mud and bark, isn’t depicted as an isolated specimen as in Wellington’s drawing, but rather is integrated into a scene that emphasizes its everyday use, as well as the visual resonance between the dwelling and the geological forms of the monadnocks beyond, sacred sites for the Navajo on the Colorado plateau.
Bancroft’s text argues for, rather than against the Hogan, explaining its role amongst many different forms of dwelling, living, and sustenance within his family: “The reason why we live in this kind of hut is because if we stay in one place our flocks and herds will have nothing to eat. So we wander over the desert land roaming from place to place with our flocks and herds in the summer and seeking shelter sometimes in the foothills but often high up on the mountainsides in the winter, where we can secure fuel for our rudely constructed Hogan which we call our home.”
Apparently, the hogan could even explain well-behaved children, as his description of the housing typology was followed immediately by an explanation of his experience of life within it: “As a rule, in my tribe each man rules his home by kindness with no abuse or scolding. The children are hardly ever punished for the reason that we never disobey. We are always dutiful, respectful, and obedient to our parents and they are always considerate, kind, and thoughtful of us.”
It is only a throwaway line at the end of the essay that (alongside its acquisition and filing alongside Wellington’s essay and other student work) makes it clear that the assignment was intended to address the relationship between housing and civilization: “Since the last several years we are realizing about civilization, so we have begun to seek for civilization of the future.” Assignment accomplished, but not really. The total picture depicts a eulogy to a lifeway quickly being eroded on multiple fronts: both the disappearance of Indigenous building typologies based on new federal guidelines that restricted funding for home loans and other housing programs to standardized government plans, and the alienation of children from their parents and communities based on their removal to faraway boarding schools like Sherman. It was no small thing for an eighth-grade student to acknowledge these losses in his interaction with authority figures, however obliquely. Student works like Bancroft’s open up a window for architectural historians into the complex entanglement of architecture’s politics and participation in these settler colonial cultural and political histories.