I Owe It All to SAH: Final Report

May 21, 2018 by ‘Deyemi Akande, 2016 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow

They say be careful what you wish for, for you may just get it! Well, ‘get it’ I did, and it was an extraordinary journey and experience all the way. There is no better way to capture my fellowship year experience than this: deeply refining. The year was magical and exhilarating in more ways than I could have ever imagined. I thought I was going around Western Europe and Egypt to see architecture but far more than I bargained, I went 'round and saw life.

The experience has fundamentally helped me to professionally rediscover myself. It guided my reconstruction of what architecture is and the role it plays in our cultural or religious identity. I saw the fire of history in a totally different perspective as it fiercely burns in the furnace of architecture. In this last year, my goal of learning new things was well achieved, even surpassed. However, I think a more valuable achievement was my unlearning of several stereotypes that I carried on over the years. I have often heard that it is much easier to learn a new thing than to unlearn a former—I can confirm to you now, without a doubt whatsoever, that this is true.

Fig 1
Fig. 1: In one of the long train rides across Europe: from Rome to the town of Pisa. My journey all through the fellowship year was extraordinary.

Fig 2
Fig. 2: Here I am next to the slightly larger-than-life statue of Pope John Paul on the grounds of Notre Dame, Paris.

Fig 3
Fig. 3: At the park near the Notre dame du Paris.

Fig 4
Fig. 4: In Rome, I sat for about 7 minutes while a street artist created a caricature of me. It was a hilarious and lovely experience. The artist is Michael. See his final work in Fig. 30.

Fig 5
Fig. 5: My travel companions: My Nikon camera, travel ID, and books.

Fig 6
Fig. 6: Scarecrow historian. In front of Notre Dame in Paris. The yard around the cathedral has become a sort of cultural melting pot with people from several nations brought together in the same spot for no other reason but to see architecture.

With the deepest sense of responsibility, I wish to express my sincere gratitude to the Society of Architectural Historians and the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship Committee for deeming me worthy of the prestigious fellowship. The award meant a lot more to me than can be imagined. I, being the first male and first non-American to be awarded the fellowship, count myself privileged to be mentioned amongst such stellar former recipients, all of whom I hold in very high regards. In light of this, I took every day very seriously and with such pride that captures the prestige of the award.

I first became aware of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship when I happened upon a short video that featured Amber Wiley, the inaugural recipient of the travel fellowship. In it, I was awe struck by Dr. Wiley’s confidence and fine words about how the fellowship had helped her truly appreciate architecture through the magic of physical contact. From that point on, I was hooked. My excitement was contained, however, when I went to the official H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship page on the SAH website—I remember telling myself, “Nah! This is too good to be true.” I just did not think a ‘far away’ individual like me could win the award. It would take two more years and having attended the Chicago 68th Annual International Conference of SAH in 2015 before I gathered myself to finally apply. The rest, they say, is history. The day I received the email announcing that I had won the fellowship, I was filled with such joy. Well, that was not the reality of the matter. I was not filled with such joy—I was a total wreck! My initial email reply to the executive director was a mess—mumbled words and such. Thankfully, she was so understanding—such a remarkable lady. It took an appreciable amount of time before I could bring myself back to normalcy.  

I owe the successful completion of this fellowship to many quarters. Firstly, to the excellent team from SAH with their unwavering support and understanding every step of the way. To my family who endured the grueling one year away from home having to make do with WhatsApp video calls only. To the cheering friends, students, and the very many blog readers who made the nightly reading, searching, and writing all worth it. And also, to the inspiration and guidance of the past Brooks fellows. Before I started my fellowship travels, I took the time to read through every single article posted by the Brooks fellows before me, and this gave me good insight on what to expect, what to focus on, how to approach my subject and very importantly, how to enjoy the trip. Amber Wiley drew words from deep within her. She gave meaning to simple things and brought even the most ordinary structures to academic importance and approval. I will not forget her emotive photographs of the male dungeons of Cape Coast castle in Ghana, particularly the pitch black shot where she records that the guide switched off the lights to give them a sense of the real conditions under which the slaves were kept. Amber Wiley is simply brilliant. 2014 recipient Patricia Blessing’s work and posts were extremely vital to me and critical to my trip as she had visited some of the countries I was about to visit. Her email to me with advice on transportation and moving around Europe was priceless. Then there is Danielle Willkens—an incredibly perceptive storyteller and a most brilliant photographer. One who sees Danielle’s photographs sees an excellent example of the articulation of visual realism. I was so anxious when it dawned on me that Danielle’s photographs will unconsciously present a standard for Brooks fellows moving forward—forward being me as it was my turn, right after her. At some point I wondered how on God’s earth could I match her expertise. I barely coped but thankfully I managed to survive. Her visual oration and crisp photos served me as a constant reminder of quality all through my fellowship year.

Fig 7
Fig. 7: Me with some of the other SAH-Getty International Program fellows at the 2015 annual conference in Chicago. Back row left to right: My very dear friend Nelly Liz. Klee, Prof. Ranee Vedamuthu. Front row left to right: Cristina Lodi, my very good friend Oksana Chabanyuk and Arc. Anvi Gor.

Fig 8
Fig. 8: At the SAH Conference in Chicago, 2015. That’s me on stage delivering my presentation to the SAH Board.

Fig 9
Fig. 9: With Dr. Danielle Willkens in Glasgow, UK, at the SAH 70th annual conference.

Fig 10
Fig. 10: On my way to Dresden, Germany. Long train rides afforded quality time to contemplate on many matters. Do not mind my serious look here, I was holding the phone camera and pretending like the shot was captured without my knowing.

Fig 11
Fig. 11: My stack of train tickets.

The Art and Balance of Being Alone

In the purpose statement of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship, we see a part that says, "Professor Brooks intended the recipient to study by travel and contemplation while observing, reading, writing, or sketching." All of these I did to the fullest but one other thing the fellowship predisposes you to is being alone. I spent many hours in the hotel rooms and book stores—particularly in France and the UK—alone reading, planning my trip, and just thinking. The alone time is probably one of the most valuable thing this research year has afforded me, a time to truly look inward and meditate about the things that matter professionally and otherwise—just as Professor Brooks intended.

One thing Professor Brooks did not consider is that when you are alone, one does really strange things. Things like standing at the window for protracted periods staring into space (or the hotel street as the case may be). Things like pretending in front of the bathroom mirror that I am a guest speaker being interviewed on CNN, History Channel, or National Geographic because of some wonderful discovery I luckily uncovered during my Brooks year. And when I come back to myself as the shower curtain, towels, and toilet bowl reappear behind me in the mirror, I am filled with half portion of embarrassment and the other of bewilderment at what I find myself doing. Standing and staring into space or feigning a high profile TV interview did not worry me as much as the other me I met during the travels: the selfie-loving me. I will naturally define myself as a non-selfie person but alas, I was wrong. I found myself taking selfie shots at every opportunity I got—mostly in the confines of my hotel rooms. This peculiar act really surprised me about myself and I owe this strangeness to nothing but alone time. In my analysis, alone time can be as productive as it can be delusional, particularly for active minds.

Fig 12
Fig. 12: I am still not able to explain what came upon me. I find myself in several occasions taking a selfie. For me, this is strange behavior. Here in the hotel in Milan.

Fig 13
Fig. 13: Messing around taking a selfie in the famous Dizzy Gillespie big cheeks pose. Here in the hotel in Dresden.

Fig 14
Fig. 14: Between reading and taking a selfie. Here in the hotel in Frankfurt.

Fig 15
Fig. 15: Same hotel as in fig. 14, different night.

Fig 16
Fig. 16: Putting my alone time to good use. Reading about ornamentation and architecture was something I thoroughly enjoyed during my fellowship year.

Fig 17
Fig. 17: I also took some time to broaden my knowledge on a host of topics other than ornamentation—race and intellect being a particularly interesting one for me. I was stunned and concerned about what I learned. 

Fig 18
Fig. 18: Cathedral brochures are an excellent reading material to pass time. I made it a point to get one whenever it was available.

Fig 19
Fig. 19: The face of an unrepentant selfie convert: climbing up the stairs in the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Fig 20
Fig. 20: I battled with the bitter cold almost all through my travels. Being from the tropics it was really hard coping with sub temperatures, particularly during the “Beast from the East” chills. Here in Florence, Italy.

Fig 21
Fig. 21: In front of a hotel mirror taking a creative selfie.

Fig 22
Fig. 22: Enjoying a slice of Pizza in Pisa, Italy.

Fig 23
Fig. 23: I find myself standing in front of the window for long periods staring and contemplating. In this photo (Paris) I set the camera on timer to record this moment.

Fig 24
Fig. 24: A view from my hotel window in Paris, an energetic city with many varied characters.


On Architecture as a Template for History

In my first article, I asked the question: to what purpose do we study the history of architecture? It is a question I had hoped to answer as I travelled around Western Europe to see some of the world’s greatest cathedrals. I cannot categorically say I now have a straight answer to the above question, but I will venture a response here. Perhaps we study the history of architecture only for the purpose of knowing beauty. For beauty was all I saw in the structures I encountered, as they stood vivaciously with the stateliness and intricate allure of figural and floral ornamentation on them like a cloak of honor.

In this last year, I learned that ornamentation is beauty and proof of the fullness of life. While it is tough to take defined positions in this matter and certainly I will require a more formal paper to argue my points on the issue, I strongly posit that ornamentation is a cultural and religious expression of identity and a testament of a collective past, the past that bore a common instinct which uncontrollably drives us to create figural art, usually in our image or a mimicry of the same. Perhaps it is the same instinct that the Father possesses that enabled the creation of man in the first place—where it was said, ‘Let us make (create) man in our own image.’ The functional words there being ‘create’ and ‘image.’ Therefore, wrong are those who saw it as desecration of architecture at some point in our history, however evocative their arguments were in context of the reality of their time. The manner and measure with which we engage ornamentation in architecture must remain a subject of debate, but to propose an instance where it is completely obliterated from our everyday architectural vocabulary based on what I can now almost confidently call a time-related philosophy is quite unacceptable. I also posit, that in seeing beauty, we may know life and in knowing life, we may live it. In living life then, we may further create beauty, but the day we admit to fully defining it, perhaps that day we finally cease to exist. So I conclude that understanding the communication of beauty through ornamentation must remain a wisdom built on continuous refinement. The type of wisdom that can only be understood through a process and not a finite end in itself.

Fig 25
Fig. 25: I secretly took this selfie inside the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. Though we were repeatedly asked not to take photos of the works, I just could not imagine (or resist) I had come all the way to see this enigmatic work not to record myself in context of the masterpiece. A guard caught me taking this photo and gave me a mean look. I at once pretended to be texting, but I know he didn’t buy it. "No photos!" he yelled in his silky Italian accent!

Fig 26
Fig. 26: With one of the giant murals inside the Vatican in Rome.

Fig 27
Fig. 27: Nightfall in Milan. A silhouette of me with the Milan Duomo as backdrop.

Fig 28
Fig. 28: Breakfast in some hotels is on-the-go. Here is the ration in the hotel in Bath, UK.

fig 29
Fig. 29: Standard look for my work table. Checking the weather is something we don’t worry too much about in Africa but I found it to be very important when travelling around Europe. 

Fig 30
Fig. 30: Posing with the street artist, Michael, in Rome. He shows his caricature work of me.


On a Final Note

There is an African maxim that says, "He who returns from a journey is not the same as he who left." This turned out to be true in my case. If one truly went on a significant journey, the many novel things one encounters will often have an impact on one’s worldview. My mind and thinking have been renewed and recalibrated. As I return to university teaching, I am poised to create a new kind of beauty: the beauty of the mind, particularly the mind of the next generation.

Again, my sincere gratitude to all those who made this possible. To the faculty of the architecture department at the University of Lagos, I am grateful for their unending support and cheering. I am very proud to be a part of that team. I cannot end this without mentioning Pauline Saliga, Christopher Kirbabas, Beth Eifrig, and Helena Dean (all of SAH)—I have known no better team. Thank you!

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