SAH Blog

  • Finding the Landscape in Japan’s Sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution

    Sarah Rovang, 2017 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow
    Nov 6, 2018
    Rovang Blog Post 3

    Sarah Rovang is the 2017 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

    A Trip to Nagasaki’s Coal Mine Islands

    Occasionally, in South Africa, when a well-meaning AirBnB host would ask where I was headed, and I’d tell them that I was going to look at this mine or that old forestry town, I’d be met with the full force of South African bluntness, “Why would you want to go there?” Reactions to my insistence on touring Japan’s industrial heritage sites have been a bit more subdued. There’s the language barrier, of course, but then there’s also the unflagging politeness of Japanese verbal expression that prevents people from questioning your sanity when you insist that yes, you do want to take that hour-long bus ride to see that particular pile of cut stones in the middle of a rice paddy. So when the attendant at the Nagasaki port terminal raised her eyebrows and deliberately articulated, “Takashima?” with more than a hint of incredulity, I knew this was going to be an adventure.

    Takashima is an island near Nagasaki, and is home the remains of a 1869 coal mine called Hokkei Pit, one of twenty-three new sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2015 as part of an expansive group nomination entitled “Japan’s Sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution” (I’ve taken to abbreviating it as JMIR). Over the course of about three weeks in September and October I’ve had the opportunity to visit 17 out of 25 sites and sub-sites that are currently open to the public. (For more background information, I’ve written a short intro to the sites on my personal blog that provides basic data about the nomination and the organization of the sites themselves.).

    JMIR UNESCO sites I visited are marked in blue, those I did not visit are marked in grey, and other sites I visited with some relation to Japanese industrial heritage are marked in maroon.

    As an architectural historian, I have pretty well formed ideas about what constitutes industrial architecture, born out of a dissertation about rural electrification and two years of teaching in southeast Michigan, where the legacy of the auto industry still exerts a powerful influence on the urban landscape. Would these architectural preconceptions hold true in Japan, where industrialization took a very different course? To what extent is industrial architecture universal and rational versus local, contingent, and idiosyncratic? And as a public historian, I was curious to discover what kinds of stories are being told about these places. The UNESCO inscription that ties all 23 sites together proposes at least a somewhat contiguous narrative around shipbuilding, steel, and coal, but the sites themselves are geographically dispersed and range from ruinous foundations to well-preserved structures. How would the site by site interpretation address this disparity? This inscription is based upon the notion that when taken together, the whole of these 23 historic places is greater than the sum of its individual parts—would this hold true for the public history presented at the sites?



    Photographs and footage from the ferry ride to Takashima. Nagasaki is the headquarters of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd., which is evident from the number of corporate docks throughout Nagasaki Harbor. In addition to Takashima, all of the Nagasaki JMIR sites are also connected to Mitsubishi at one level or another.

    Today, Takashima is accessible from Nagasaki harbor via a short ferry ride. On the sunny Thursday afternoon when I made the trek, there were about a dozen other passengers on a boat that could comfortably seat several hundred. The island’s tourism website promised a gleaming white crescent of sand and crystal blue waters—a family-friendly swimming beach teeming with happy day trippers. “I am sure,” I reassured my spousal traveling companion, “That an island with a beach that good is going to have some decent lunch options.” When we arrived, there was nary a swimmer in sight. The beachfront shops were shuttered and the sand had collected a raft of plastic detritus. Lunch evidently wasn’t happening so we marched past the beach and onwards towards the coal mine.



    Following the perimeter road on Takashima, the only evidence of economic activity was a hot-house tomato farm; a lone tractor tilled the soil in preparation for the next round of crops. Behind the hot-houses’ skeletal ribs loomed the concrete tenements that at some point in the past housed coal mine workers. Today they appear almost entirely deserted.



    There was, perhaps surprisingly, signage urging us on down the road. The triangular, gradient-laden JMIR logo has become a most welcome and reassuring sight to me, whether I’m on a bus through the hinterlands around Kagoshima or stepping off a train in the ailing coal town of Omuta. The houses that lined the main road seemed kept up but also strangely vacant. Where were the people who live on this island? Finally, we arrived at the UNESCO site. There was the official JMIR plaque, a familiar presence from other sites I’ve visited—one of the very few standardized interpretive elements. And there was the coal mine—little more than a stack of bricks with a grate over it. The one other major notable feature at the site was the remnant of the recently excavated boiler house. The archaeological site has been covered over by a weather-proofed platform with a full-scale photograph of the boiler house foundations created during the excavation process. That’s all the remains of a whole sequence of support buildings that existed at the end of the nineteenth century.





    There are a few plaques (added in 2015) with historical information in Japanese, English, Korean, and Chinese, and a small selection of historic photographs. There’s even a 1/100 scale model showing the support buildings around the mine, though it’s hard to imagine this sequence of wooden buildings occupying what today seems like little more than a flat, grassy depression. Most of the JMIR sites I’ve encountered, even the remote and relatively obscure ones, have had a docent, a human presence I have come to appreciate despite any language barrier. The lack of any other human presence here feels particularly palpable.



    There’s a related historic site up the road—perched on a scenic outcropping looking back towards Nagasaki are the remains of a house once owned by Scottish mine manager Thomas Glover. Like the coal mine, however, this site proved to be more archaeologically fascinating than anything else. An interpretive sign pointed to the location of the toilet, which indeed, was the most evident built remnant. Glover’s primary residence and its gardens constitute yet another JMIR site, immaculately preserved in Nagasaki proper. Overrun with school groups and set against the sonic background of piped-in bagpipe music, Glover House and Gardens is a fully-developed open air architectural museum. (I’ll return to the colonial extravaganza of the Glover complex and how the JMIR sites engage Western architectural influence more generally in my next post.)



    Poking around for the lichen-encrusted remains of the original foundations, I had flashbacks to learning about the excavations of early Virginian post-hole houses as an undergraduate. There is also a bust of Thomas Glover, just in case there was any doubt that you’d come to the right place.

    Moving on, we rounded the tip of the island and continued on the winding perimeter road past more ramshackle concrete buildings. In the distance, the unmistakable shape of Hashima Island appeared, silhouetted on the sea in the mid-afternoon haze. Hashima, better known as “Gunkanjima” (or Battleship Island), is also a UNESCO JMIR site, and like Takashima, an island created largely of reclaimed land to support a lucrative coal-mining economy. However, unlike Takashima, Hashima has developed an iconic status and has evolved into a sought-after tourist attraction. During the remainder of my afternoon on Takashima, Hashima proved to be a constant and inescapable presence—there’s an elaborate scale model of the Battleship Island near the ferry station, and a special Hashima viewing area further on down the road. For all of its coal-mining credentials, Takashima has become little more than a glorified viewing platform for its purportedly more fascinating neighbor.




    The following Monday, I had booked the full Hashima experience: a boat ride out to the island, tickets to the Gunkanjima Digital Museum, and something called the “Hololens Experience.” The Digital Museum is not far from Glover Gardens and the Dutch Slope, a part of Nagasaki known for its historic Western architecture. Once we checked in, we had about an hour to explore the museum before the ferry departed. On the second and third floors are about a dozen digital exhibits—screens (large and small, flat and wraparound), VR headsets, and models with overhead projections abound. Gunkanjima, though it has been officially open to visitors since 2009, doesn’t actually allow tourists a lot of free rein around the island. Due to weather, only about 50% of tourism boats are able to make the landing. Once on the island, there are exactly three viewing points, strung together by a walkway on the southern part of the island. To compensate, and provide a fuller, more nuanced picture of the site, the Digital Museum evokes both the lived experience of the island during the twentieth century (up until Hashima coal mine was closed in 1974 and the island abandoned), and its current status as a fantastical concrete ruin.


    At the Digital Museum, I bounced between a number of the VR displays and immersive digital installations. There were a few compelling analog displays to supplement the digital festivities, including a recreation of a living room from one of the tenements where Hashima’s families lived, and a model of Building #30, Japan’s first reinforced concrete structure (1916).




    Soon, it was time to board the (completely packed) boat that would take us out to Hashima. On our way, Takashima was briefly visible off the starboard bow. We didn’t stop however, and the island received only a fleeting mention in the English audio guide. During our approach to Hashima, the boat circled the island, venturing into an expanse of choppy water, allowing passengers to get that iconic shot of the “battleship” in all its glory. Once we docked, a tour guide led the group, narrating in Japanese while several assisants showed printed, laminated pictures of historical Hashima. The non-Japanese speakers huddled to one side, listening intently to our intermittently functioning radio audio guides.






    The strange capper to the day was back at the Digital Museum, where John and I participated in the “HoloLens” experience. To describe the full extent and goals of this surreal augmented reality game would be like trying to narrate a fever dream, but in short, players are tasked with “mining” the walls and exhibitions of the museum. As play progresses and players succeed in locating and “mining” these objects, their virtual mining implement is automatically upgraded, becoming more powerful and more efficient. In addition to coal, “mined objects” that come flying out of the walls include consumer appliances and animals. Whether this was intentional commentary on the relationship between Hashima’s coal mining, Japan’s postwar economic prosperity, and the environment, or just a bizarre palimpsest of cultural detritus was entirely unclear.

    Brochure for the HoloLens Experience at the Gunkanjima Digital Museum.

    The Takashima/Hashima Paradox

    The public history experiences of Takashima and Hashima both had redeeming elements, but at the end of the day, left me discomfited and more than a little unsatisfied. In large part, this sense of dissatisfaction stemmed from the fact that historically, the architectural remains on Takashima and Hashima are outcomes of the same larger story of Japan’s industrial modernization. To my mind, the relationship and contrast between these two sites creates a more relevant and useful public history narrative than either site taken individually. What might be learned by putting these two sites into dialogue with one another, and examining both their historical parallels as well as their contemporary divergences? Further, how might these sites be more effectively interpreted as part of even more encompassing architectural and technological trends across Japan during its period of intensive modernization, or even within the emerging world capitalist order more broadly?

    Geologically, culturally, and architecturally, the stories of Takashima and Hashima are very much intertwined. Both islands can be read as artifacts in themselves of Japan’s Industrial Age, formed largely out of reclaimed land from the coal slag dredged up from their mines.1 In terms of mining technologies, Takashima set a precedent for the logistically more complicated undersea mining that would later take place at Hashima—Hokkei Pit, after all, was the first coal mine in Japan to employ Western, industrial technology in the mining process.2 Indeed, the development of Hokkei Pit began as a collaboration between the local Saga Clan and Thomas Glover, the aforementioned Scotsman who had relocated to Nagasaki following the Meiji Restoration (1868). Glover and his collaborators used modern technologies developed in Europe, such as a steam drain pump and steam-powered winch. At its peak in the 1880s, the 43 meter-deep shaft was producing 300 tons of coal each day and was the most productive coal mine in Japan.3

    Eventually, however, as Takashima’s reserves dwindled, attention turned to the underseas coal deposits accessible from the nearby island of Hashima. Hashima’s coal mine was opened the same year as Takashima (1869), and by 1897, Hashima had outstripped the coal production of its neighbor as its mine was extended further down into the sea bed.4 By 1959, Hashima was home to over 5,000 residents, and had become one of the most densely populated places on earth. In the early twentieth century, a whole host of support structures sprung up, many using new construction technologies such as reinforced concrete to help the “Battleship Island” withstand fierce typhoons.5 More than a place of work, Hashima quickly grew into a true community, including schools, public baths, and rooftop gardens. All of those facilities were abandoned in 1974, almost overnight, after the mines were closed in response to both Hashima’s lagging coal supply and a new federal energy policy that favored oil over coal.

    Today, Hashima is an uninhabited ruin, whose fascination and attraction has been fueled by pop culture representations, including the inclusion of external shots of the island in the 2012 James Bond flick Skyfall. As bewitched by its modernist credentials as the odd Brooks Fellow might be, it thrives mainly on the current vogue for ruin porn and the schadenfreude of dark tourism (more on that next month). Takashima, by contrast, has thus far resisted the full out abandonment seen at Hashima. Its remaining population could materially benefit from a more developed tourist economy, to supplement that brought in by the beachfront in summer.

    Sites like Takashima are hard to engage, even for an architectural historian. Without substantive built remnants or sufficient interpretation to help the visitor envision what the site was like in the past, it is still challenging to really feel connected to the site. Interpretation that explicitly connected Takashima to Hashima, casting the former as a crucial technological/architectural precedent to the concrete menagerie of Gunkanjima, could do a lot to build interest in Hokkei Pit and the island’s other historic sites. Takashima, in other words, could be so much more than just a viewing platform for its more “glamorous” neighbor.

    Additionally, Takashima might follow the lead of Hashima’s storytelling apparatus in at least one regard—by providing interpretation that connects the site to broader national (or even global) themes with significant public interest. One of the most interesting and effective sections of the Gunkanjima Digital Museum was paradoxically also one of the least digital: the display about how Building 30, the first reinforced concrete structure in Japan, fits into the global development of architectural modernism. On one wall there is a detailed timeline that shows how Building 30 and the primary construction period of Gunkanjima aligns with other major events in the histories of architecture and building technology (Gottfried Semper, Auguste Perret, etc.). This was one of the very few attempts I’ve seen at the JMIR sites to situate the architecture of Japan’s industrial heritage within worldwide architectural trends. Judging by the number of local and international visitors clustered in this area of the museum on the day I visited, other architecture fans also found this argument to be unique and compelling.


    Above, a photo from the operational Hokkei Pit (circa late nineteenth century, photo from the Nixon University College of Art). Also visible is the short rail path adjacent to the shaft that was used to transport coal via handcarts down to Haedomari Coal Shipping Port on the north end of the island, where it was then shipped back to fuel the heavy industries growing up in Nagasaki harbor.

    Below, the pit as it stood in 1974 (photo from the historic plaque at the site).

    Even though the support buildings for Hokkei Pit on Takashima have not been preserved, they too participated in the development of industrial architecture. Takashima’s array of mostly wooden and stone support buildings from the 1860s through 1880s date to a period in Japanese industrial history when traditional Japanese craftsmanship was fused with functional Western materials and techniques, resulting in a hybrid industrial architecture distinct from that found in Europe or the United States. Well-preserved examples of this phenomenon can be seen throughout the JMIR sites (such as at Shuseikan in Kagoshima and the Imperial Steel Works in Kitakyushu), as well as at many non-JMIR industrial sites, including the Tomioka Silk Mill, the Sapporo Beer Factory, and Hakodate’s warehouse district. These stone, wood, and brick buildings from between roughly 1860 and 1910 are just as much a part of Japan’s industrial architectural history as the standardized, concrete high rises of Gunkanjima. Thinking back to that architectural timeline at the Digital Museum, I wonder now how it might be possible to incorporate Takashima into that evolutionary narrative, as an earlier but integral component of the larger architectural story surrounding Hashima.



    Different examples of architectural hybridity in early industrial Japan: Sapporo Beer Factory (1890), Hakodate Warehouses (1887-1909), and the Foreign Engineers’ House in Shuseikan (1867).

    Yet I want to resist the idea that a tighter interpretive relationship between these two coal islands would benefit Takashima exclusively. There’s also an extent to which incorporating Takashima might complicate the utopian narrative of Hashima currently perpetuated at the Digital Museum. Abandoned Hashima in some ways is less powerful as a symbol of de-industrializing Japan. For all of its picturesque concrete ruination, the total touristification of Hashima makes it surprisingly easy to forget what happened to all of the people who lost jobs when Japan’s energy policy pivoted from coal to oil. The Digital Museum does little to address the legacy of de-industrialization, wrapping the history of the island’s productive years in a surprisingly idealistic mythos. Even where organized labor struggles, health issues, chronic overcrowding, forced wartime labor, and natural disasters are acknowledged, they are packaged in the feel-good rhetoric of “but the islanders overcame these challenges with community spirit.”

    Based on what I’ve seen in my industrial heritage tour of Japan, the experience of Takashima is by far the more common one—post-industrial cities and towns struggling to find new avenues of economic development; cheaply built post-war architecture now in a state of disrepair. This is a side of Japan that you don’t see in Lonely Planet or on Most tourists who confine themselves to the Tokyo-Kyoto corridor can avoid this kind of architectural landscape. The one reliable source for industrial decrepitude, population decline, and urban decay I’ve come across is a site a historian friend recommended called Spike Japan. This blog, which explores Japan’s de-industrializing built environment through the lens of economics has become my cynical, snarky decoder ring for the baffling, sometimes disconcerting landscapes I’ve encountered here. Underneath Japan’s outward projection of technological prowess and economic prosperity there’s another story to be told. And outside of bustling Tokyo neighborhoods and tranquil Kyoto shrines there are plenty of communities akin to Takashima—places that one can potentially gloss over. Hashima allows twentieth-century energy technologies and architecture to live quarantined in the past. Takashima forces its visitors to reckon with the very real aftermath of Japan’s rapid industrialization.

    Interpreting Japan’s Industrial Sites as Landscape

    For me, the current disconnect between the visitor experience of Takashima and Hashima is indicative of a larger challenge presented by this still very new and unprecedented UNESCO inscription. Although in terms of their protected status, these sites are technically equals, the lived experience for an industrial heritage tourist could not be more different. Certainly not every JMIR site is created equal; some have legitimately more interesting and better preserved built remains, and some are based out of existing visitor attractions with well-developed visitor infrastructure. But navigating this collection of sites, even as a postdoctoral architectural historian, often proved flummoxing. With a little bit of distance, and having visited a good cross-section of other sites at this point in my travel year, I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of this has to do with the way that the JMIR sites are presented and interpreted in relationship to one another (or not, as the case may be).

    On the way to Japan, I spent a three day “relaxing” layover in Singapore. I hadn’t planned on doing a lot of architectural history sight-seeing during my time there, but history found me anyway. Singapore is chock-full of heritage trails, ranging from neighborhood walking routes to city-wide paths requiring public transportation.6 While many buildings had plaques explaining their unique characteristics, there seemed to be a push in most of the signage I encountered to understand each structure in relationship to other buildings and to the broader urban landscape. For example, Singapore’s popular hawker centers are surprisingly well-interpreted, particularly for an architectural typology that emerged largely out of civic zoning regulations, and to which no famous architect names are attached. As I ate my way through Singapore, I kept stumbling upon signage that allowed me to build up a coherent but complex historical narrative about the emergence of the hawker center as an architectural type. By the time I departed, I had pieced together an understanding of the ways in which the physical structure of the hawker centers materialized many deeper historical narratives, such as the British colonial regime’s desire to rationalize Singapore’s streetscape, and food safety regulations that were driven both by concern for public health and xenophobic anxieties about immigrant street vendors.


    Above, a sign at a historic bridge site for one of Singapore’s many heritage trails. Below, one of the hawker centers in Singapore’s downtown business district.

    Japan, from what I’ve seen, prefers lists of independent and ostensibly equal sites to trails, routes, or landscapes when it comes to heritage interpretation. This is a country, after all, that maintains a list of its most scenic waterfalls and most picturesque streets. Here, visiting heritage sites has felt more like collecting stamps, a feeling which is magnified by the JMIR smartphone app. This GPS-connected app turns industrial heritage into a game, in which everything from watching a video or reading an article wins the user a certain number of “points” (interacting with media off-site scores about 500 points, e.g.). Visiting a site, however, is where the big points are at. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit the thrill of pride I felt on receiving the 30,000 points at Takashima that elevated me to this month’s reigning champion on the app’s live ranking of “players.” On site, the app makes use of augmented reality, tapping into the smartphone’s camera to show the site tagged with clickable banners and exclusive on-site material. It’s been a diverting, if not vital aspect of my public history experience. At Shuseikan, where I used the app extensively, John seemed concerned that I was going to trip and fall while walking with my phone in front of my face. (Although at that site, the app did save me from missing another built component that was not part of the main complex). When I visited Gunkanjima, time on the island was so limited that I forgot to use the app altogether. And there were some sites that had their own augmented or virtual reality features, separate from the main JMIR app.



    The digital experience of the smartphone app was echoed in what I witnessed as a visitor on the ground as well. At the vast majority of sites, there was no information about how to access other related sites (if related sites were mentioned at all). The entire basis of this UNESCO nomination, which highlights sites of “shipbuilding, coal, and steel,” rests on the integral relationships between these sites (i.e. without steel and coal there were no ships), many of which would not pass muster as individual UNESCO sites and only have historical integrity or meaning when understood within the context of all the other inscribed sites. The close connection between Takashima and Hashima was just one of many compelling relationships between other JMIR sites, which together constitute complex networks of technical expertise, natural resources, and architectural knowledge.

    In teaching and writing about architecture, I’ve grown accustomed and even reliant on the concept of “landscape,” a term that has become increasingly ubiquitous across scholarship in architectural history and adjacent disciplines, particularly concerning industrialization and urbanization. Landscape as a concept plugs into so many other current ways of understanding how planet earth has been shaped and altered by human intervention. Network theory, the Anthropocene, world systems analysis, etc. all can work within the same paradigm of underlying relational assumptions contained within the term “landscape.”

    In elucidating the unique relationship between industrialization and landscape, I always come back to Lewis Mumford’s remarkably prescient writing in Technics and Civilization (1934) on the Paleotechnic Era. Mumford perceived that some of the hallmark technological “advances” of the early nineteenth century in Western Europe, the United States, and then elsewhere in the world (an “elsewhere” that I’ve been immersed in for the past three months), fundamentally reordered the way that humanity harnessed energy and then expended that energy. Rather than relying on the geographically-contingent “eotechnics” of sunlight, wind, and water, Paleotechnic humanity could mine coal, transport it, and use its energy at a remote location. Industrialization, to my mind, is all about relational networks between sites, whether those networks are formed by the transfer of tangible products (raw materials or finished goods), the travel of human laborers, the conveyance of energy through railways bearing coal or wires carrying electricity, or the movement of abstracted capital investment. This is palpably true at so many of the clusters of JMIR sites. Near modern day Kagoshima, charcoal fired at the Terayama Charcoal Kiln and water channeled from the Sekiyoshi Sluice Gate of Yoshino Leat provided the heat and power to forge cannons and warship plating at the Shuseikan site. The coal mined at the Miike pits was transported to the Misumi West Port, and later to Miike Port, where it was then shipped to other Japanese industrial sites.


    Whether or not the word “landscape” was used specifically, the Singaporean approach to public architectural history engaged this methodological lens effectively and consistently. Perhaps it was going immediately from Singapore to Japan that, for me, rendered the lack of any equivalent acknowledgement at the JMIR sites of the “industrial landscape” even more glaring. Expanding and explaining the relationships between the sites through public history storytelling would give crucial context that could help give meaning and purpose to (and perhaps generate more tourism for) the sites like Takashima with less obvious touristic appeal.

    The Potential of Japan’s Industrial Heritage as Landscape

    But what would the implementation of a public history narrative rooted in the idea of landscape look like at the JMIR sites, practically speaking?

    • More interpretation of the architecture/material remnants of the sites. Maybe it’s disciplinary bias, but I was honestly surprised that more of the JMIR site interpretation didn’t explicitly address the built components from an architectural perspective. There were certainly some striking counter-examples, but the lack of architectural interpretation overall was thrown into sharp relief when I visited the Tomioka Silk Mill (another Japanese, industrial UNESCO site, inscribed 2014, that isn’t part of the JMIR complex). Here, the audio guide explicitly started with the built framework of the site and helped the visitor interpret the architectural components in terms of what they meant for late nineteenth-century sericulture. The guide addressed, for instance, the organization of the site to provide maximum ventilation for the two cocoon houses (first image below), and the introduction of a truss roof construction in the silk-reeling plant to provide for a greater horizontal span (second image below). Addressing the practical architectural elements and the functional relationships between the diverse buildings on the site also gave the visitor significant insight into the kinds of technological challenges and cultural assumptions that the Japanese-French collaborators who designed this modern factory were confronting.

    Images from Tomioka Silk Mill (established 1872). Above, Tomioka East Cocoon House; below the Silk Reeling Plant.

    • Tighter interpretive networks between the JMIR Sites. The JMIR UNESCO nomination categorizes the sites according to geographic area and time period, but there’s surprisingly little interpretation about how the sites would have interacted from a functional, industrial standpoint. Where, for example, was the coal mined at Takashima and Hashima shipped? Did the destination and purpose of the exported coal change over time? Or, consider the three different reverberatory furnaces included in the JMIR sites—what was the architectural progression of their design? Was there any interaction between the designers and engineers who developed these furnaces? The new municipal museum at Hagi (home to one of the three furnaces) at least references the furnace at Shuseikan in Kagoshima, but this relationship could be unpacked and explored further.

    Hagi Reverberatory Furnace (1856)

    • Better connections between JMIR sites and existing/developed historical sites and museum institutions. The principal map document for the JMIR sites does include related historical institutions and heritage sites, but it would be helpful to expand this and give visitors a fuller sense of how these other experiences might relate to or enhance the JMIR experience. Additionally, acknowledging sites and experiences that address a longer historic arc (i.e. outside the fifty years of Japan’s most intensive modernization) would help give context to the JMIR sites. The need to for more capacious historical context was something I was reminded of at the Kitakyushu Eco Museum’s Radiorama (that’s audio + diorama, seen in the first image below), which recounts the environmental history of the town of Yamata, with particular emphasis on the 1960s and ‘70s. The Radiorama told the story of grassroots activism in a town known for having industrial exhaust in “all colors of the rainbow” (and later for the ensuing respiratory illness). Thanks to the research and advocacy of a coalition of local women work, the surrounding area of Yamata has been rehabilitated and today is home to a number of excellent museums, that coexist with the cleaned-up industry still present in the area. When I saw this display, I just had walked from the JMIR site of the Imperial Steelworks (1902, second image below). To me, the early development of steel foundries in Yamata cannot be untangled from the environmental outcomes of the 1960s. The JMIR sites have the potential to engage with a range of current issues, including those around climate change, pollution, and public health—it’s just a matter of setting up an interpretive infrastructure that allows for those broader stories to come through. This would involve a great deal of coordination at the municipal, prefectural, and national level. Some municipalities on the JMIR trail, especially smaller ones such as Hagi and Omuta, have started to engage this mode by promoting their JMIR sites at local history museums.

    • Inclusion of Japan’s less developed or distant industrial heritage sites. With the understanding of Japan’s modernization as something that contributed to the country’s new formulation as a modern nation state, it also seems critical to recognize how the JMIR sites participated in a story that extended geographically beyond the cluster of sites in Kyushu and southern Honshu. When I visited Hokkaido, for instance, modernization and the industrialization of agriculture, were frequent topics addressed at sites including the Sapporo Beer Factory, Hokkaido Historic Village (see the barn built from an American pattern in the first image below), and the Shimizusawa Power Plant (second image below). These sites, while lacking a UNESCO inscription, are still essential to the story of Japan’s emergence as a modern, imperial power.

    • Addressing the tensions between local identity and national identity. A number of the cities proximate to JMIR sites have adopted and promoted these new UNESCO properties with a fierce civic pride. Each city is eager to lay claim to a unique part of the story or an outstanding contribution: Hagi as the intellectual cradle of modernization (see Shokasonjuku Academy in Hagi, 1857, below), Nagasaki as the birthplace of modern shipbuilding, and Kitakyushu as the home of the modern steel industry. This is often tied back to whatever clan led the initial modernization charge in that city—it’s hard to avoid mention of the Satsuma Clan in Kagoshima, or the Hagi Clan in Hagi. At the same time though, in narratives at the individual sites and through the various media (pamphlets, apps, websites) meant to tie the sites together, the focus has largely been on what these individual sites contributed to Japan’s national industrialization and modernization more broadly. The conception of Japan as a modern nation state came out of the modernizing reforms of the Meiji Restoration, a political transformation that effectively ended the clan system of shogunate Japan. Through the lens of landscape, the tension between local and national identities might be put into a productive dialogue, acknowledging that these conceptions of modern self-hood did not always coexist easily.
    • Moving from “Great Man” history to a more inclusive narrative of modernization. Adding interpretation addressing the flow of resources, architectural/engineering technologies, and labor, to complement that which already exists would add nuance and enable alternative readings of the sites. Many of the JMIR sites’ existing interpretation emphasizes the role of elite actors—principally the leaders of clans, Meiji government officials, and Western engineers (below, in an epic JMIR crossover on a sign in Hagi, Kagoshima’s local hero, Saigo Takamori, meets Hagi’s own Yoshida Shoin). By focusing on the experiences of predominantly wealthy male actors, a whole range of other experiences are currently being neglected.
    • The development of thematic itineraries for visitors. Currently, many of the JMIR sites are quite difficult to access, and it’s unclear based on the publications available why visitors would want to.7 The central JMIR site and map presents separate driving and public transportation directions. What is lacking is some kind of integral itinerary that links together related sites. The only place where I saw any attempt to help visitors see sites in sequence was in the town of Omuta, where the municipal tourism center hands out a map with biking directions between its three JMIR sites (see below). There’s been really no effort to provide a hierarchy or suggestions for how to prioritize sites on a limited visit. For instance, in Kagoshima, the factory complex at Shuseikan is undoubtedly the hub of JMIR activity, and the charcoal kiln and sluice gate a few miles away are “satellites”. In Nagasaki, the Glover Garden and the Gunkanjima Digital Museum are the most visitor-friendly sites, but a visit to the Mitsubishi Pattern Factory (which currently requires a phone call in Japanese), would provide an interesting link between the two. More transparency with this information would go a long way to making these sites more accessible, particularly to international visitors and those who don’t read Japanese.


    In this post, I’ve touched briefly on some of the “darker” aspects of industrial tourism, i.e. the complicity of early industrial sites in pollution and climate change. In the next post, I’ll address the connection between industrial tourism and “dark” tourism at greater length, turning the focus specifically to the often problematic ways in which the JMIR sites’ interpretation confront Japanese imperial expansion, Westerners’ contributions, and forced labor.

    1. Originally three separate islands, the Takashima of today was formed by coal-slack land reclamation, which was completed by 1935. UNESCO Doc 129 ↩︎
    2. When the pit first began producing coal in 1869, it represented a transitional moment in Japan, both technologically and politically. Much of Japan’s early industrialization (1850s-1860s) was fueled by the demand for warships, spurred largely by the landing of Commodore Matthew Perry’s fleet of smoke-spewing steamships in 1853 and again in 1854. In these early years, the development of warships was spearheaded by several of the powerful clans of Kyushu and southern Honshu, including Saga, Hagi, and Satsuma (who ruled the area around what is today Kagoshima). In order to forge the necessary iron to build a modern, Western-style warship, the clans required (among other resources) vast amounts of coal. The clans engineered whole infrastructural networks to serve the ship-building enterprise, forming a constellation of interlinked protoindustrial sites across Kyushu and southern Honshu. More about the technological/political development of Japan’s industry can be found at ↩︎
    3. Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Kyushu-Yamaguchi and Related Areas, World Heritage Nomination, (Japan, 2014): 121. The Meiji Restoration that unified Japan under imperial rule also led to the abolishment of the domain system in 1871 and the effective disbandment of the clans. Clan control gave way to centralized government control, and then in many cases, to corporate ownership. Even though Hokkei Pit was exhausted by 1876, mining on Takashima continued to be profitable. Mitsubishi took over the Takashima mines in 1881 and hired Glover as a manager. The story of all of the Nagasaki JMIR sites, Takashima and Hashima included, is the story also of Mitsubishi’s rise as a heavy industries leader in Japan. ↩︎
    4. Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution, 130. ↩︎
    5. See former Brooks Fellow Danielle S. Willken’s excellent 2017 report Reclaimed: Sites of Conflict, Industry and Population Change in Japan concerning Hashima for more about the history and development of the island. ↩︎
    6. Read more about my public history experience in Singapore on my personal blog. ↩︎
    7. For a more detailed account of what it’s like to travel to one of the more obscure JMIR sites, see my personal blog entry “In the Land of the Forest Docents.” ↩︎
    Go comment!
  • ”Seed Crystal” or Cathedral in the Square? Urban Industrial Adaptive Reuse in Contemporary South Africa

    Sarah Rovang, 2017 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow
    Oct 4, 2018
    Rovang Blog 2 Sarah Rovang is the 2017 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

    When my husband and I disembarked the double-decker city sight-seeing bus at the Newtown stop in downtown Johannesburg, we were the only bus riders to do so. While most other stops we visited on the unmistakable red bus had focused on a single building or experience (Constitution Hill, the Apartheid Museum, the tallest building in Africa), Newtown is a whole “Cultural Precinct” unto itself. On Google Maps, Newtown looks like just museums, theaters, and one or two office buildings. Perhaps implicitly, I was anticipating something like the National Mall—cultural institutions and open space and not much else. But as soon as I stepped onto the pavement and the bus roared off to yet another attraction, I found myself suddenly in the thick of things. Whatever I had been expecting, it wasn’t this. It was an unseasonably warm Saturday in July, and business was booming on the sidewalks of Newtown, a vibrant economy of street vendors hawking their wares to an audience of locals. A few sellers had racks from which to hang purses and bags, but most just spread blankets on the sidewalk. This informal market is a spillover of a larger, and more established clothing retail center further up Diagonal Street, where Helmut Jahn’s monolithic and reflective “Diamond Building” looms large overhead.

    Helmut Jahn’s 1984 “Diamond Building” (11 Diagonal Street) quite literally reflects the urban diversity of Johannesburg’s historic core. One of the first major examples of corporate reinvestment in the city center, the building is an unmistakable backdrop to the one and two-story retail structures, such as A. Moosa Blankets seen here, which primarily serve the local population.

    As I ventured further, heading down to Mary Fitzgerald Square, I found myself in a very small minority of people who were in Newtown to see the Cultural Precinct. Minus a group of good-natured teenagers who were stress-testing the interactives in the photography exhibit, the Museum Africa was virtually empty. The Worker’s Museum was likewise deserted. There were a few cars in the SciBono Center lot, but thinking that museum had no industrial heritage connection, I opted to skip it. Water bottle running perilously low, I wandered somewhat aimlessly into the SAB (South African Breweries) World of Beer with the thought that I could solve the thirst problem and see some public history simultaneously. The entrance fee dissuaded me, but apparently not a slew of other visitors who emerged from the exhibit hall to collect their complimentary brews on the way out. Ah, this was where the tourists were. With a prominent mention in the New York Times recently updated 36 Hours in Johannesburg, the World of Beer has become the star attraction of the Newtown area, at least for most tourists willing to venture beyond Johannesburg’s more conventional tourism loop.


    A quiet day at Museum Africa. The redevelopment of the 1913 Market Hall into Museum Africa (a project conceptualized in 1974 and finally realized in 1994) was one of the first major reuse projects in Newtown.

    This whole constellation of museums and theaters represents a decades-long plan to redevelop Newtown following a period of obsolescence and urban decay. Like so many other neighborhoods of Johannesburg, the economic landscape of Newtown was irreparably changed by the institution of apartheid. Formerly a locus of municipal electricity generation, the decline and abandonment of the buildings in Newtown left a major rift in the city’s fabric. Nearby were other struggling areas such as Brickfields (an early “location” for non-whites living in Jo’burg) and Hillbrow (a “gray” area during apartheid that sheltered many mixed race families and was later cut off from municipal services). Newtown, with its existing open spaces and well-preserved industrial building stock, seemed ripe for transformation and renewal that could then spread to surrounding neighborhoods and districts. From the World of Beer lobby, I looked out over the massive project that was meant to be the lynchpin in the new urban plan for Newtown: the former Jeppe Street Power Station. Renovated in 2003 following the design of Guy Steenekamp and Barry van Wyk at TPSP Architects, this award-winning mix of new and old today houses event space, office space, and the AngloGold Ashanti headquarters, and was intended to be a critical and trendsetting piece in Newtown’s renovation.1

    A quick snap of the renovated boiler house from across the street. I had been warned to avoid walking around with my DSLR prominently displayed in downtown Jo’burg, and so I ended up with relatively few photographs of my afternoon in Newtown.

    Looking back on my time in South Africa, and considering the ways in which deindustrializing, post-apartheid cities are adapting and planning for the future, I have been reflecting on the outsized role that reinvented industrial structures play, both in terms of community function and as signifiers of larger urban renewal. The idea that a single, major industrial adaptive reuse project can meaningfully spark significant commercial and cultural regeneration underpins two major twenty-first century projects in urban South Africa—here, at the former Jeppe Street Power Station in Johannesburg, and more recently, at Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA) in Cape Town. Despite hopes that the installation of the AngloGold Ashanti headquarters in the former power station complex might induce a larger commercial reinvestment in Newtown, today it performs a largely symbolic role in its surroundings, exerting a kind of stabilizing influence. Zeitz MOCAA, which opened in September 2017, claims a larger role as a cultural institution in the Waterfront area of Cape Town, aspiring to become the “cathedral in the square” for the newly coined “Silo District” it anchors. While it remains to see how Zeitz MOCAA’s role will evolve in the community, given the project’s siting, as well as its program and current function, there are some conceivable doubts about how it might act as an “urban cathedral.”

    For Johannesburg, like many cities, the period of its most intensive industrialization was also one of centralization, solving the economic and logistic problems of creating infrastructure to serve a growing population by clustering related services and utilities into dense districts at the urban core. Here, the organization of municipal systems and the labor required to build and maintain them was based heavily on existing systems developed in the mining industry for managing labor. In the early days, Johannesburg’s many mines largely generated their own power—power enough to carry out private mining operations but not enough to supply a growing municipality. The city constructed a series of power stations in Newtown beginning in 1892, designing the buildings and their equipment in consultation with British experts. All of this city infrastructure was heavily centralized—Newtown was where the equipment for power generation was located, where the machinery needed to repair existing equipment could be found, and where the skilled and unskilled labor for the power industry were housed (the compound that is now the Worker’s Museum). The electric hub of the city was conveniently adjacent to its main market as well. The sprawling 1913 market hall (now the Museum Africa) and the square in front of it (formerly Market Square, now Mary Fitzgerald Square after the famed woman union activist) were key economic hubs for the city, facilitating efficient trade. Both areas were served by the railroad, which brought in goods and coal to fire the power plants.2



    The first power station was primarily intended to supply electricity to the city’s street lamps, but was quickly replaced with a new station (which has been partially reused in the SciBono Center) to serve the demands of the new electric tram system (the tram yard was located in the World of Beer’s present site).3 As demand continued to outstrip supply and the city government of Johannesburg resisted buying power from expensive private companies that supplied power to the mines, it became clear that a third, much larger plant would be necessary to keep the city running. As a result, the city contracted to buy land across the street from the Sanitary & Cleansing Department. This purchase also included a worker compound, that had been constructed to house black sanitation workers in 1913 (what is today the Worker’s Museum). This compound, like the power stations that surrounded it, showed Johannesburg’s continuing reliance on structural and economic models pioneered in South Africa’s mines, that were then adapted to meet urbanistic demands. In this sense, Johannesburg might be considered a city that is uniquely industrial, in a unique and idiosyncratic way. Image sources: (top) Aerial photographs collection at the Architectural Archives, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; (middle and bottom) scans from Lael Bethlehem, Sue Krige, and Sarah Beswick, Turbine Square: A Heritage of Power (AngloGold and Tiber Group, Johannesburg: 2005).

    The first portion of Jeppe Street Power Station came online in 1927, and further additions were made in 1934 and 1939 to meet the city’s ever-increasing demands.4 Its construction came on the threshold of an important change in Johannesburg’s approach to urban planning. As the city expanded, and as South Africa as a whole started to pursue more rigid segregationist policies (ones that would directly set the stage for apartheid), it began to reverse the policies that had previously brought core services (and the people who worked in and maintained those utilities) into the center of the city. Starting in the late 1930s and increasingly following the election of the National Party in 1948, city planners started to encourage decentralization, for instance, building the famous Orlando Power Plant outside of Johannesburg in Soweto (the Southwestern Townships). Townships, as I discussed in my previous post, were the housing areas created to provide a separate, ex-urban living space for black workers. Urban living became the province of the rarefied white elite. (As a side note, planners in Cape Town, and likely other South African cities as well, were influenced in much of their segregationist planning by the writings of Le Corbusier and CIAM during the 1930s and on. The modernist doctrine of separating urban functions, to apartheid’s architects, seemed to dovetail nicely with an ideology that advocated the separation of people according to artificial categories of racial identity.5)

    The Orlando station cooling towers, as seen from the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto. Known best in recent years for the artwork decorating their exteriors, the towers are now unfortunately covered in advertising.

    Jeppe Street Power Station, like its predecessors in the Newtown Precinct, had been erected expeditiously and by the 1950s it began to show its wear. In 1958, the original wooden cooling tours were demolished and in 1961 the plant was decommissioned. The rest of the complex was given a reprieve and a second life when in 1966 and 1967, Rolls Royce jet engines were installed to create a backup energy supply for the city. But by the late 1980s, the plant was officially offline once again. In 1985, despite outcry from preservationists and heritage advocates, the cooling towers were demolished. By 2000, it was estimated that there were 300 squatters living in the building. 6

    Part of the new architectural fabric of the AngloGold Ashanti building, which replaced the North Boiler House. The sculpture of miners in the second picture is sequestered behind a fence on the company’s private property.

    In terms of scale and mass, the power station complex dwarfs the buildings around it—it is the clear visual anchor for the district. On the Saturday I visited Newtown, the buildings were quiet, entirely closed off. I wandered around the perimeter of the building, hoping to get a glimpse inside. In the process of circumnavigating the structures, John and I clearly crossed the line into an urban zone that was not meant for tourists. Unlike the clothing hawkers on Miriam Makeba Street, who were content to ignore me, the gaze on rounding the building was one of the very few places in Johannesburg where I sensed any overt hostility. After a man aggressively begging for money followed us for half a block, we retreated to the patio of the World of Beer on the north side of the complex. From this vantage point, the relationship between the new construction and old industrial structures becomes clearer. On one side is the South Boiler House, which was saved and converted into office space. At the center of the complex is the old Turbine Building, which is currently a venue for hire owned by the Forum Company. To the northern side of the site is a completely new structure built on the site of the former North Boiler House, which contains the AngloGold Ashanti headquarters.7 Tracing the money trail of who owns what real estate within the complex today is an exercise in late capitalism frustration. The industrial heritage of the site has been largely commodified, transformed into a spectacle of “space to empower, grow and enlighten your brand.”8

    A collage of the transformed event space of the Turbine Building I compiled from a Google Image search, layered over a historic image of the building from its early days. It seems that the Turbine Building has become a popular place to get married in Johannesburg. Historic image sourced from Lael Bethlehem, Sue Krige, and Sarah Beswick, Turbine Square: A Heritage of Power.

    With a little more forethought, I probably could have contacted an AngloGold Ashanti or Forum Company PR person for a weekday tour. But in some ways, my unscripted encounter with the building on a Saturday was even more informative. I was experiencing the building like anyone else out on the street, and to me, the converted power station felt distinctly unwelcoming and fundamentally disconnected from the rest of the urban activity, whether local or touristic, taking place nearby. At the same time, the building complex seems to exert a kind of equilibrating influence on the street condition. Far from the archival images of the building from twenty years ago, which show obvious material degradation and broken windows, the South Boiler House and Turbine Building are today in immaculate condition, the end result of a significant public/private investment. I’d argue that the stable presence of the power station even provides a certain kind of reassurance to perspective tourists considering a stop at the World of Beer or the SciBono Center or even the Worker’s Museum.

    Even in the 1980s, as apartheid was in its death throes and much of South Africa was in a “state of emergency,” Johannesburg’s city planners and developers were beginning to think about how to revitalize areas like Newtown. With the construction of the “Diamond Building” in 1984, and the subsequent tenancy of AngloAmerican, there seemed to be hope for corporate reinvestment in the city center. However, even after the transition to South Africa’s first democratically-elected government in 1994, squabbles over ownership of the building and funding issues prevented any substantive work from moving forward. By 2003 there had been 30 different schemes for the Turbine building and surrounding area.9

    When, finally, plans to move forward with the AngloGold Ashanti project were complete, there seems to have been some conflicting ideas of what the new corporate headquarters would mean for the Newtown precinct. At some points in the planning, it seemed that the developers hoped that the construction of the new building and renovation of the two remaining original structures would spur enough economic activity to drive other corporate investment in Newtown. Other goals seemed less grandiose, aiming, for instance, just to make the white collar employees of AngloGold Ashanti feel “safe” in this formerly troubled urban zone.10


    The above collage shows the Turbine Building, which has been converted into event space. Below, the renovated South Boiler House (back, left) and the newly constructed AngloGold Ashanti Headquarters comprise the office space in the complex. Scanned image sourced from Lael Bethlehem, Sue Krige, and Sarah Beswick, Turbine Square: A Heritage of Power.

    Even standing across the street at the Worker’s Museum, one can partially grasp how much capital the developers poured into this complex. In this sense, it lives up to one of the original wishes of the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), which was established coinciding roughly with the start of with South Africa’s democratic era. The JDA was tasked with revitalizing downtown Johannesburg to make it more attractive to new development. This included providing public funding for current and future cultural institutions, and upgrading overall infrastructure. The agency remarked in 2000 that the power station’s “development will be an important symbol of the progressive realization of the Newtown vision.” 11

    But to expect one sequence of conjoined buildings, however large and lavishly refurbished, to functionally reverse the direction of a whole urban precinct, seems a little far fetched, a fact which project architect Guy Steenekamp freely admits, stating that “one site cannot be responsible for all aspects of urban renewal—that it could be a ‘seed crystal’ was something of an idealistic overstatement.”12 Sue Krige of the University of Witwatersrand, who has researched the power station extensively and taught on-site in the Newtown precinct, notes that the relationship between individual structures and the district as whole is often complicated and fraught:

    The integration of heritage places and spaces with urban renewal is an uneven process. There is much debate about how an area in which heritage significance resides in the whole (the precinct) as well as the parts (the buildings), may be conserved and re-used sensitively by a set of separate developers.13

    And though the power station didn’t spark a wave of commercial activity in Newtown, there’s no guarantee that that more investment would necessarily serve the best interests of the local community. A few miles away in the district of Braamfontein, the popular, vibey Neighborgoods Market caters to a class of trendy millennials and foreign visitors. Another instance of adaptive reuse, in this case a former office building, Neighborgoods has become a kind of magnet for the hipster elite. Change is happening in Braamfontein, which has attracted more retail and restaurants in recent years, but much of this seems more connected to the influence of Wits University and the demands of an active academic community. Neighborgoods seems to be the one stop in Braamfontein for many out-of-town visitors—Uber in, Instagram, Uber out. Into Newtown’s commercial void, by contrast, the sidewalk clothing trade has evolved to serve the people who actually live near the precinct. Like the nearby Fashion District, where a population of Ethiopian immigrants has repopulated and transformed a white collar office district into a bustling maze of multi-story malls and cafés, the Newtown economy doesn’t cater to riders of the red bus or other tourist interlopers. From all that I could see on a Saturday, it felt like there exists a kind of urban détente between the folks who use the street, and the corporate megalith of the former Jeppe Street Power Station. Paradoxically, though the adaptive reuse of the building complex did not become a “seed crystal,” it also avoided the trap of trying to do too much. Whatever (admittedly warranted) criticism might be lobbed at this corporate fortress and pricey event space for perpetuating racial and socioeconomic divisions, this is not a building with a Messiah complex. That fence that keeps the folks on the street out also keeps the gentrification in, creating space for this lively street economy to exist unimpeded by an onslaught of coffee shops and boutiques.

    A trendy crowd enjoys live music on the rooftop terrace of Neighborgoods Market in Braamfontein. Only a block or two away, the streets are quiet.


    Exploring the Fashion District with Professor Hannah Le Roux, who teaches studio architecture courses at Wits University that engage this part of Johannesburg. Former office buildings and medical complexes have been innovatively reconfigured to meet the demands of Jo’burg’s large population of immigrants from Ethiopia and other parts of Africa.14

    At least in the realm of press releases and self-promotion, Zeitz MOCAA, South Africa’s most recent and celebrated example of industrial adaptive reuse, claims to play a more active role in transforming its surrounding urban area. I visited Zeitz MOCAA on a Thursday afternoon, having walked from downtown Cape Town to the Victoria & Albert Waterfront. Quite suddenly, upon crossing the pedestrian bridge over Nelson Mandela Boulevard, the Victorian, art deco, and brutalist building stock of downtown gave way to a wash of new construction. Corporate headquarters and luxury condominums sprouted along decadently landscaped canals in which floated touristy gondolas (and in the nearby harbor, a whole flotilla of private yachts). I strolled past a gleaming office building belonging to British American Tobacco and a Porsche dealership. On the opposite bank of the canal, construction workers were busy with what looked like yet another new, mixed use development. Among all this new construction, however, were scattered built remnants of Cape Town’s old port. The vast majority of this land is owned by a conglomerate called the Victoria & Albert Waterfront, which was “established in 1988 as a private company by Growthpoint Properties and the Government Employees Pension Fund to manage and operate over 100 hectares of prime waterfront land.”15 It is this corporation that also provided the funding for the construction of Zeitz MOCAA.



    Real estate development and rapid gentrification in action on Cape Town’s Waterfront.

    With the advent of containerization in the 1970s, Cape Town’s port, like many ports worldwide, found itself unable to adapt to the infrastructural demands of larger shipping barges and the adoption of shipping containers.16 No longer able to serve its previous role, Cape Town’s waterfront has been forced to reinvent itself. The former brick power station, built in the early 1880s to house Cape Town’s first dynamos, has been reinvisioned as the “V&A Food Hall,” a phantasmagoria of smoothie bowls and kombucha. Nearby, a warehouse branded as the “Water Shed” has been converted into boutique shop space for local artisans and day-lit co-working spaces. The original crane has been preserved as a visually impressive reminder of the building’s industrial past. The so-called “Jubilee Exhibition Hall” fits nicely with the V&A Waterfront’s larger theme of what might be described as “consumer-centric neo-colonialism lite” (all of the cultural appropriation, none of the calories). The latest and most prominent addition to the retinue of reused industrial spaces in this high-investment waterfront district is Zeitz MOCAA.



    The former brick power station that supplied energy to Cape Town’s nineteenth century street lights has been converted into a trendy food hall; an ironically self-aware hipster hotspot.



    The Water Shed, a former dockside warehouse, now offers boutique shopping, event space, and co-working opportunities for Cape Town’s entrepreneurs.

    Like the Turbine Building looming over Newtown, a fenced and lonely citadel, Zeitz MOCAA stands out in the waterfront district of Cape Town by virtue of its sheer monumental physicality. Visible from almost anywhere along the docks, the museum’s faceted pillow windows sparkle during the day—a lighthouse with many glistening beacons. The glittering windows create a striking contrast to the original concrete of the silos from which they protrude. To paraphrase the project architect, Thomas Heatherwick, “When something is infrastructure, people just don’t look.”17 There is indeed a certain invisibility to infrastructure in the built environment. We become acclimated to it and eventually tune it out as a kind of visual noise. I didn’t start seeing all of the power lines in my quaint Providence neighborhood in grad school until I started writing my dissertation on rural electrification. Heatherwick’s design intends to elevate the original silo, to transform the mundane into something extraordinary. The effect upon approaching the museum is nearly ecclesiastical—the tubular silos have the thrust and verticality of a Gothic cathedral. That initial impression was, I later learned on the building’s audio tour, fully intentional. The master plan for the “Silo District,” the portion of the waterfront closest to the museum, intentionally casts Zeitz MOCAA as the “cathedral in the square.”18 As I walked the building’s entire perimeter, I was impressed at how much breathing room the building has been given—its mass and monumentality could be fully grasped in its urban surroundings.



    Zeitz MOCAA stands as a discrete object in the new Silo District of the Waterfront. In the bottom image, note the loading area, which is contiguous with the rest of the building.

    As historian David Worth has documented in his thesis on the building, the silo was originally constructed in the 1920s as a way to provide employment for poor whites, part of an economic development scheme to industrialize South Africa’s agricultural production.19 Like so many development programs in twentieth-century South Africa, the construction of the silo building is shaded by racially-tinged policy planning. In this way, the new use of the building also becomes a kind of restorative justice—by providing a venue for the works of contemporary African artists (many of them black), the building’s original, racially-exclusionary purpose is undermined and provides some modicum of restitution, even if mostly symbolic. Or at least that’s the hope—the museum is named, after all, for the German collector whose long term loan forms the basis of the permanent collection on display.20

    A historic aerial photograph of Cape Town, likely dating to the 1950s or 1960s (the grain elevator and silo circled in red). Image source: Aerial photographs collection of the Architectural Archives at Wits University, Johannesburg.

    Despite its ample plaza, the silo building is imposing and monolithic nonetheless and a great deal has been done design-wise to make the entrance more human scale and approachable. A shaded patio extends from the elevator building, using an industrial vernacular that seems at home with the rest of the structure. The steel lattice hovers over the remains of recovered industrial machinery. Chairs with conical bases create a kind of silly, haptic play space, contributing along with the patio structure to an effective public, interstitial space between the urban space of the silo district and the interior condition of the museum. On the day I visited, museum visitors and passers-by lolled and rolled on the chairs.


    The industrial-inspired patio of Zeitz MOCAA, which creates an interstitial condition and softens the entrance to the building. On the lefthand side (facing the building) is also the lobby of the luxury hotel that hides stealthily in the upper part of the grain elevator building.

    I entered and dropped my bag off in a locker room where the original elevator shafts hung from the ceiling. Like the foyer and entry sequence of a cathedral, the building reveals slowly and sequentially the extent and dramatic magnitude of the structure’s inner height. Past the gift shop and locker rooms, the full expanse of the building’s core is finally revealed. The sacred feeling of the core space was further elevated by an operatic sound installation that took full advantage of the silo tubes’ ringing acoustics. I wandered over to the visitor center and picked up an audio tour device. This is the first art museum I can recall visiting whose main audio tour is devoted to the architecture rather than the art.


    Entering near the gift shop, the cathedral-like heights of the interior are revealed gradually as the visitor processes into the lobby.

    Elevators of Zeitz MOCAA from Sarah Rovang on Vimeo.

    From the audio tour, I learned that the museum incorporates three original historic structures—the grain elevator, the silo building, and the dust house. In order to make this space usable as an art museum and structurally sound, the architects needed to replace much of the older, heavy concrete with newer, lighter aggregates. Much of the construction process was in fact one of “excavation,” carving out as much as 80% of the original concrete. The heart of the building itself is an area where the architects extracted a cavity in the shape of a corn kernel enlarged to macroscopic scale. The original concrete is distinguished throughout the building by its lighter hue—the contrast between the new insertions and the remaining material is a sort of visual register of the construction process itself.



    Concrete, in all of its finishes and manifestations, is the real star of the museum. The finely polished bottom of the atrium contrasts with the original, rough concrete left in place in the tunnels nearby. The contrast between the new (darker) concrete and older (lighter) concrete creates visual drama and recalls the construction/excavation process.

    As I followed the audio tour’s directions, I was led in and out of various galleries, up and down the corkscrew staircase and the tubular, science-fiction-y elevator. One of the largest challenges the architects faced was creating a space where the architecture would not upstage the art. After all, this institution is also the first museum in Africa dedicated to contemporary African art. The solution the architects chose was to create two “separate architectural worlds”—the architectural heart of the building and the art galleries.21 There are a few instances, such as the dust house, where the original industrial, reinforced-concrete interiors of the space have been preserved for site-specific installations. But, for the most part, the galleries follow a standard white cube model. The presence of capital-A Architecture suddenly and intentionally recedes to the background. After the audio tour concluded, I explored the space on my own and found in addition to the obvious visual and spatial differences between “Art world” and “Architecture world,” there were also less perceptible differences that registered in air quality and acoustics. I created the experimental sound piece linked below as a kind of subjective register of that experience. In it, I try to capture the feeling of exploring the galleries, and the refrain of returning to the main cathedral-like core. I also highlight my own complicity in and contribution to the soundscape of this environment, emphasizing camera clicks and footsteps. The source of the sounds is intentionally vague—some come from other video or sound installations, some are HVAC noise, and some are other visitors and docents.





    A variety of the interior spaces whose auditory memories are included in the sound piece linked below.

    Since Zeitz MOCAA has been open for less than two years, it’s still early to evaluate how the building functions as an urbanistic gesture—how the “cathedral in the square” interfaces in practice with the rest of Cape Town. After I finished my own exploration of the building, I attended a lecture (“Women Making Cities, Cities Making Women”) in the function space on the ground floor. The assistant curator who introduced the program expressed gratification that events like this lecture were bringing in members of the Cape Town community to talk about something other than the architectural space of Zeitz MOCAA. Based on the content of the press hype around this museum, and the architectural audio tour, and this isolated comment, I do get the sense that the architecture has thus far rather overshadowed the curatorial program of the museum. As with the coverage of Turbine Square in Newtown, the majority of commentary about Zeitz MOCAA has focused on the ingenuity of the lead project architects and the boldness of the developers in undertaking such a capital-intensive and financially risky project. A quick browse through the big architectural magazines online reveals lots of interviews with British architect Thomas Heatherwick, but very little mention of the substantial contribution and input from the African architecture firms, engineers, and contractors who were tasked with translating Heatherwick’s cathedral dream into concrete reality. While a sizable plaque in the museum’s core near the lobby lists the names of all of the workers who contributed to the building’s construction, references to the actual human power and skill of the workers who physically built Zeitz MOCAA are notably absent from most mainstream press coverage. As Tomà Berlanda notes in Architectural Review:

    At the peak of construction, which lasted 36 months, and 5.3 million man-hours, almost 1,200 workers operated on site. Whereas the official overall budget of 500 million Rands has been quoted as not being much to operate with in other parts of the world for a building and programme of this magnitude, it was ‘a lot of money in the context of Africa’. Credits for the South African local architects and site managers, not to mention the hourly rates to which the budget divided by man-hour equates to, are not easy to find in the official press release, raising the issue of what needs to be done to recognise the African, read black, labour, that allowed the museum to exist. 22

    And then there’s the broader question of who the museum serves and how. Throughout my time in South Africa, I was heartened to see community museums and individual entrepreneurs pioneering their own grassroots approaches to public history. Institutions like the South End Museum in Port Elizabeth and the District 6 Museum in Cape Town are actively engaging their communities through art and oral history projects to recover and preserve individuals’ experiences of apartheid and discrimination, and in doing so, are helping to stitch neighborhoods back together across the historic and artificial dividing lines of race. Businesses such as Msanzi Restaurant in Langa, one of Cape Town’s oldest townships, are breaking down the stigma around township living, in the case of Msanzi, by attracting international visitors with the promise of home-cooked African food.

    Overlooking the harbor of Port Elizabeth from the South End Museum. The large tree in the foreground is one of the only remnants of a vibrant, multiracial community that was razed under apartheid. The South End Museum now serves as a vehicle of restorative justice and memory within the community.


    The District 6 Museum in Cape Town is also an active community organization serves the needs of families displaced during apartheid. Community artists, activists, and historians are engaged in sharing and preserving these memories.

    Mzansi Restaurant’s chef and owner Nomonde Siyaka shares her story after a delicious dinner of Xhosa food. Located in the township of Langa outside Cape Town, Mzansi has grown from a single-story, three-room home into a two-story house and restaurant that can accommodate dozens of guests and a live band. Siyaka’s storytelling is part of the experience, bringing visitors into this space and helping to break down the stigma that still exists around South African townships.

    As exciting as it is to see a historic industrial building given new life as a cultural institution, Zeitz MOCAA does serve to further the aggregation of wealth and power in the already prosperous and gentrified Waterfront area. Geographically and culturally, the Waterfront is about as far as you can get in Cape Town from the townships, which are sequestered outside of visitors’ views on the other side of Table Mountain. The Waterfront, ultimately, does not need a “Bilbao effect.” This part of Cape Town is doing just fine. In some ways, Newtown and the area around the power station seemed more diverse and inclusive than the “Silo District” around Zeitz MOCAA. While in Newtown, the additional commercial investment that developers hoped would follow on the heels of AngloGold Ashanti never materialized, local people have claimed the streets as their own, and forged an informal retail economy outside the purview of large-scale real estate development. The urban space of Newtown felt lively, occupied by people across the socioeconomic spectrum. Even if Turbine Square hasn’t proven to be a “seed crystal,” it has become a kind of solid anchor for the neighborhood—if Newtown is not regenerating in the way that developers and urban planners had hoped, it’s certainly not regressing either. For the most part, the Newtown cultural precinct seems safe and stable, which is certainly not something that could have been said in the 1980s or early 1990s. In order to have a substantive effect on the wider community and urban condition of Cape Town, Zeitz MOCAA needs to channel its notoriety and expand beyond the concrete hull of its flagship building—it needs to be an institution of outreach and connection.

    1. Lael Bethlehem, Sue Krige, and Sarah Beswick, Turbine Square: A Heritage of Power (AngloGold and Tiber Group, Johannesburg: 2005). This book is one of the preeminent resources on the redesign and redevelopment of the Jeppe Street Power Station, though due to its writing date it does not contain the latest information on ownership and usage of the building. ↩︎
    2. Ibid. Also, see my SAH blog post from the previous month for more about the Worker’s Museum and the public history function that it serves. ↩︎
    3. Ibid. ↩︎
    4. Ibid. ↩︎
    5. Information from the District 6 Museum in Cape Town. ↩︎
    6. Bethlehem, Krige, and Beswick, Turbine Square. ↩︎
    7. Ibid. The demolition of the North Boiler House was not without controversy and sparked significant pushback from the preservation community. ↩︎
    8. Jade MacCallum, “Turbine Hall Johannesburg, An iconic heritage building for clients who want to create an innovative event experience,” The Forum Company, 20 September 2017,, accessed 30 September 2018. ↩︎
    9. Bethlehem, Krige, and Beswick, Turbine Square. ↩︎
    10. Ibid. ↩︎
    11. Ibid, 47. ↩︎
    12. Ibid, 135. ↩︎
    13. Sue Krige, “‘The power of power’: power stations as industrial heritage and their place in history and heritage education,” Yesterday and Today no. 5, January 2010, online version accessed June 2018. ↩︎
    14. It was Professor Le Roux who very kindly got me access to the archives at Wits University, where I sourced much of the background research for this post. Many thanks! ↩︎
    15. Tomà Berlanda, “Zeitz geist: Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town, South Africa by Heatherwick Studio,” The Architectural Review, 8 January 2018, Online version accessed 26 September 2018. ↩︎
    16. From the Zeitz MOCAA architectural audio tour, September 2018. ↩︎
    17. Zeitz MOCAA architecture audio tour. ↩︎
    18. Ibid. ↩︎
    19. Ibid. ↩︎
    20. Berlanda, “Zeitz Geist.” ↩︎
    21. Zeitz MOCAA architectural audio tour. ↩︎
    22. Berlanda, “Zeitz Geitz.” ↩︎
    Go comment!

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