This edited collection of essays and image-driven pieces by anthropologists, archaeologists, architects, and historians examines the legacies of African architecture from around the time of independence through examples from different countries. Drawing on ethnography, archival research, and careful observation of buildings, remains, and people, the case studies seek to connect the colonial and postcolonial origins of modernist architecture, the historical processes they underwent, and their present use and habitation, adaptation, and decay.
Deriving from a workshop in connection with the 2015 exhibition “Forms of Freedom” at the National Museum in Oslo and the Venice Biennale, the volume combines recent developments in architectural history, the anthropology of modernism and of material culture, and contemporary archaeology to move beyond the admiration or preservation of prized architectural “heritage” and to complicate the contemplation—or critique—of “ruins” and “ruination.”
We have recently established a new research centre, based at the Liverpool School of Architecture called Architecture, Heritage, and Urbanism, in West Africa (AHUWA): https://ahuwa.org/ We’re hosting a launch event and would be honoured if you could join us on Tuesday 13th December, 3-5pm at the Arts Library, 19-23 Abercromby Square, Liverpool University for tea and cake.
Friends and colleagues from all of the North-West’s major collections, repositories, and archives with material on West Africa have been invited, and we’re excited to share ideas and build up new networks across the region and beyond.
If you could register here we’d appreciate it, and look forward to seeing you on the 13th. We’ll have an informal presentation at 3:30pm – please do come along and stay as long as you’re able. We’ll be on Zoom too from 3:30-4:00pm if you’d like to join us virtually for the presentation.
The latest issue of Planning Perspectives investigates the role international organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the Red Cross played in the architecture discourse and the rise of ‘global experts’. The collection of articles, co-edited by Filippo De Dominicis and Ines Tolic, explores development plans and housing schemes, but also events related to dissemination or training implemented especially, but not exclusively, during the decolonisation phase in the 1950s and 1960s and the so called ‘development decades’.
In an article published in open access which I co-authored with Axel Fisher, Foreign aid for rural development: village design and planning in post-independence Morocco, we asked ourselves to what degree the work of architects and urban planners was influenced by the shifting and competing development agendas of the United Nations’ technical assistance, the FAO – Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Bank. We start from the analysis of architects’ involvement in three rather diverse rural development projects implemented in Morocco after the 1956 independence in which community development and infrastructure-driven approaches overlapped. In doing so, we question the architects’ capacity to translate the strategic objectives in functional programmes, and to make ‘spatialized politics’ most vividly palpable.
An annotated diary of my visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo: a brief stop in Kinshasa before flying to Kisangani and then, following the Congo River, a preliminary exploration of one the regions where the Huileries du Congo Belge – HCB had established its oil palm plantations.
This trip would have not been possible without the help of >>Istituto per la Bioeconomia – CNR and Forets (Formation et Recherche dans le Tshopo) – >>Cifor (Centre for International Forestry Research).
Kinshasa — Me and Ottaviano landed in Kinshasa on a Monday morning. I had never crossed the Equator before.
Papa Victor is waiting for us outside on a white Toyota jeep with a EU flag on the door and dents and scratches on all sides. A description that would fit most of the vehicles I travelled in during this trip and, as I came to discover, a stereotype for Westerners in this country. Victor is a tall, pleasant man who talk and laugh quietly even when we plunge into the suffocating traffic of Kinshasa. The 25 kilometers between the airport and my hotel in Gombe are an endless sequence of taxis, yellow Wokswagen vans running with the doors open to bring some air to the passengers squeezed inside, a multitude of weva moto-taxis, and trucks covered in sticky black dust.
The two days in Kinshasa are chaotic. We meet with some people and don’t see much. I watch street scenes, buildings, and billboards passing by from the window of Victor’s car.
During the last night in the city, I meet my old friends and former colleagues Raphael, Paul, and Pietro – who became a real Kinois in the meanwhile. From the hall of my overpriced hotel Raphael, tells me with his usually sharp irony: “Il faut que tu sors de cette Leopoldville”. And so we drive away, leaving Gombe behind us. Paul, who has a thing for infrastructures, gives us a lecture from behind the wheel of his car while we cross the city. Boulevard du 30 Juin, which originally connected the two Stanley’s times settlements of Kintambo Ngaliema and Nshasha, and later became the first of the large avenues of the colonial capital [>>Kinshasa Then and Now]. Avenue des Huileries, pointing to the area formerly occupied by the Huileries du Congo Belge, now hosting its successor Marsavco.. And then, Matonge, the neighborhooud that everyone here calls the musical capital of the DRC. After having lived for years few hundred meters from Matonge (Brussels) – a product of Congolese diaspora in Belgium – I finally get to see its original counterpart.
It’s early in the morning when we leave again for the airport but the city is well awake.
Congo River — After landing in Kisangani we are brought directly to the dock on the Tshopo river. The beach, as docks are locally called borrowing the word from English, is just a sandy stretch where dugout canoes and boats come ashore. We get on board of the canot rapide that Cifor made available for us and, following the Tshopo and Lindi rivers, we finally reach the Congo. Few kilometres upriver, the Wagenia/Boyoma falls, a one-hundred kilometres long sequence of cataracts, make the river impossible to navigate. After the falls, the Congo begins its ‘quiet’ descent of the 1,700 navigable kilometers dividing the place where we are navigating now from Kinshasa’s Pool Malebo before rushing again, through impressive rapids, up to Matadi and to the Ocean.
From this moment on, this broad, magnificient river, with its banks covered in thick vegetation, becomes the silent protagonist of the travel.
Moving along the river coast, the canot go past busy docks where pirogues – simple boats built by carving a single tree trunk and manouvred by one or two rowers – carry large, white sacks of coal to sell. Apart from our boat and the infrequent barges, the river is populated by these small crafts and by the noisy baleinières (‘whaler’), a wooden boat used for goods transport. Besides being painfully slow, the two half-sunken relics I could spot along the way, testify the scarce reliabilty of these bizarrely named boats.
From the canot, on the right bank, flanked by colonial villas, I spot the prominent facade of the Yakusu hospital, a now run-down gem of the Baptist Missionary Society in the Belgian Congo and an important institution for the educational and medical history of the country [Nancy Rose Hunt,>>Colonial lexicon: of birth ritual, medicalization, and mobility in the Congo].
Further down the river, the Belgika, a private island owned by the heirs of a high-rank military chief under Mobutu dictatorship. Our boat speeds close to the coast; the waves agitate the fishermen’s pirogues moving under the branches of leaning trees. The shape of old buildings with porches facing the river vanishes rapidly behind the vegetation. >>During the colonial time, the island was a coffee and rubber plantation owned by the Comptoir Colonial Belgika. The company realised barracks for the workers and villas for the European technicians and now, half a century after it abrupty left the island, those buildings are occupied by the few hundred people still living on the island or are left in disrepair.
Yanonge — 50 kilometers downriver to Kisangani, we disembark in Yanonge, a small town built around a river dock and its market; a commercial gate to the river for the backland Opala territory and the Turumbu people. Up from the dock, over the steep river banks, I can read dates and names of European firms inscribed on the front of wharehouses now surrounded by the wooden stands of the weekly market. Along the riverfront, the traders’ villas and shops are almost untouched. Guélor, who shows me the place, lives in one of them with his family of five. The rest of the town is made of single-floor brick houses – the construction material coming from the local furnaces – and by simple clay, wood and straw houses. Outside the busy market area and the two main roads, people walk calmly in the shade of the many acacia and palm trees.
Since few years, Cifor established one of its bases in the town and carries our reforestation, agricultural and local development projects. Silvia, among the many other things, coordinates the construction of a small sawmill. A solar drying kiln is close to completion and an oddly sorted team of Congolese and Italians welds metal, cuts wood boards, make electrical and hydraulic connections, rushing to complete it before our departure. (My contribution to the works is barely symbolic). The aim is to prepare the way for a locally managed, and economically sustainable activity which, allowing to meet the quality standards required for exporting wood, would eventually offer a credible alternative to illegal logging [>>Forets]
During our days in Yanonge we stay at the local Catholic mission. Outside cities, missions often offers one of the few reasonably comfortable accommodations and in Yanonge, the Comboni community also gives the occasion for some peculiar encounters. Our early equatorial evenings are filled by the accounts of Father Vittorio, a truly remarkable character who spent 50 years in the Congolese rainforest, has unlimited energies, and a passion for >>improbable projects. When sitting in front of the usual plate of rice, pondu and tilapia, he starts talking and so I put my recorder on the table. I collect hours and hours of his improvised local history monologues in which he mixes personal memories with the accounts of the people among whom he have lived. “There weren’t many books in the places I have lived – he keeps saying, not without theatricality – but people love to talk to good listeners.”
Here, the buildings have stories to tell too. The religious mission was established in the early days of the Belgian Congo and abandoned for decades after the brutal incursion in the convent by the Simba rebels in 1964. The concrete lintel mounted on rounded jambs – a motive that many times I saw in Brussels – at the entrance of what was the mission’s carpentry school is marked with the date ‘1944’. Behind the art-deco facade, a large room covered with an overly complex wooden trusses system. The three wings with porches on both sides form a courtyard and are in ruin. Part of the high-pitched roofs – a large ventilated chamber was originally left on top of classrooms to protect them from the heat – had been replaced; the rest had crumbled. Kids are everywhere, playing among the teetering walls. Our not so credible recommendations to stay away from the crumbling structures are (quite understandably) ignored. The mostly disappeared wood worshop is now a favourite spot for discreet nocturnal encounters and Paolo says that the large wood cutting machine built in Belgium in the 1940s was still bolted to the floor until not so long ago.
Next to this complex, the church and the old convent – now used as a school. The convent has a familiar shape that I had never had the chance to look closely before. A single-floor building – despite what the view from the outside may suggest – with a central corridor cutting longitudinally, facade-to-facade, through the building and rooms on both sides. Seen in cross-section, the corridor with openings placed at the ceiling level was meant to extract the hot air through natural ventilation. Next to this group of buildings and most probably coeval, a structure carrying a sign MATERNITE’ and two groups of identical brick houses which once hosted the school’s teachers.
The few days I planned on staying in this small town became more than a week as I’m stuck in bed, ill. “The full tropical experience” Iain writes me from Liverpool. I missed the boat for my next destination and I look for an alternative.
Yangambi — Sitting on the backseat of a motorbike running on a rutted dirt road, the lacking comfort is compensated by the view of riverine villages plunged in the luxuriant vegetation and by the glimpses of open horizon on the Congo river. When approaching the Yangambi reserve, the red brick walls of large villas appears on the side of the road, half concealed by the foliage of large ferns. The 250 villas built between 1933 and 1960 scattered across the reserve once housed the scientists and technicians of what was one of the largest ecological, biological, and agricultural research hubs in Africa, the >>Institut National pour les Etudes Agronomiques du Congo Belge – INEAC, later renamed INERA. The derelict storage tanks and the broken windows of the two large buildings facing the river port are the first visible signs of the now partly lost thriving life of this centre. But some sections of the research hub are >>still active.
During the few days I spend in Yangambi, Dorcas drive me from one section to the other of the reserve The library, inside the recently restored administrative building, has a large collection of magazines and publications dating back both to the colonial and Mobuto’s regimes as well as reports and correspondence documenting the exchanges that the institution had established with private companies such as the Huileries du Congo Belge and Lever Brothers. Even today, the centre carries out agronomic research and provide the germinated seeds of oil palm trees to smaller and larger >> Elaeis plantations in the country. The number of houses, communal facilites, and buildings dedicated to the different research sectors that I could brielfy see from the car or from the photographic albums stored in the library would definetely deserve to be explored with more attention but I’ve run out of time. The boat is waiting.
Kisangani — I’m already on the way back to Kinshasa when, during a two days stop in Kisangani that allows for a quick visit to the city, I find a piece of wax print fabric depicting the destination of my next trip to the DRC. In a small shop, one of the last selling locally produced Congolese wax fabric, among the most bizarelly decorated pieces of cloths, one is dedicated to the >>Plantation et Huileries du Congo, the company owning three of the former HCB plantation. Over a green background, the same palm tree and red oil palm bunch is repeated over and over. At the bottom, a sketched and colourful representation of the Congo River and its green banks along with some particularly >>optimistic mottoes of the company.
I greet the country carrying with me this small trace of the persisting signs of British-Belgian colonial capitalism in Congo. Lokutu (Elisabetha), Bumba (Alberta), and Lusanga (Leverville), three of the five company towns built by the Huileries du Congo Belge will be the subject of my next fieldwork in the coming months.
This article examines recent attempts to create specifically African forms of modernist political architecture that draw on ‘traditional’ or ‘pre-colonial’ aesthetic forms and ideas. Taking examples of three prestigious structures – the presidential palace in Ghana, the parliament in Malawi and the Northern Cape regional parliament in South Africa – the article shows how vernacular ideas have been incorporated into state-of-the-art political architecture, producing new or explicitly ‘African’ forms of modernism. It explores how such buildings, which draw on ‘invented traditions’, are used alongside conventional, monolithic representations of the state to produce ‘invented modernisms’ that both uphold and question the African state as a project of modernity.
Arriving in the dead of the night there was not much to see at Lilongwe Airport. The trip to the city was a long, quiet drive on a single lane road with not much to indicate what the city would deliver. Hotel check in suggested this might be a ghost destination in a ghost town with large edifices and pretensions of grandeur.
Later on at 7am in the morninig however, the city began its reveal. My hotel room at the Umodzi-President hotel set in the grounds of the lush green Umodzi Park gave the perfect vantage point of the modernist icon the Malawi Reserve Bank building (c. 1964 but who designed it? – apparently an exact copy of a building in South Africa), and also a view out to the Mausoleum to Malawi’s first president Kamuzu Hastings Banda.
The Malawi parliament Complex also got a detailed view from my Umodzi vantage point. More curious was the conference complex which forms part of the Umodzi Hotel – Park setting, and I suspect this might have been or is the setting for presidential and other political rallying in days gone by. Post-covid it seemed an empty stage set for a drama yet to unfold.
The field research trip that brought me to the city began in earnest later on that morning, not before a after a hotel room battle with climate and media control as both remote devices had only Chinese ideographic character instructions to follow. The Umodzi Hotel Park and facilities had been built through a Chinese arrangement…
So the trip began in earnest, a visit to the first point of call meant a drive past the Malawi National stadium complex, a gift of the Chinese Government, certainly worthy of international architectural merit. Close by a gated community also developed during the stadium’s construction and now a high-end housing estate.
Lilongwe owes its masterplan to the dark days of apartheid and its layout is credited to South African planners who projected the segregation of residence by race and buffer zones to what had become Malawi’s capital city. The hard trace of this layout very much structures 21st century Lilongwe. Poorer Malawian and increasingly trans-African communities live the farthest out to the city centre whilst former European only (now mainly elite African) residents and Asian communities live the closest to the city centre.
Local housing in Lilongwe despite sharing distance issues from the CBD, is certainly different from West Africa. ‘Formal’ housing uses much more burnt clay brick than in West Africa, locally made bricks are used for the majority of housing with ‘crittal hope’-style windows predominating glazing options. Corrugated Iron, and formed aluminium roofing as in West Africa predominate with an absence of asbestos or other cement fibre sheeting types. Building crafts and trades also seem particularly well established on the ground, might this be because as a landlocked country all importation is expensive and local labour is more valued. The other thought might be that the ‘grip’ of South Africa’s emphasis on non academic ‘technical/service’ education for non-whites has led to a better skilled and trained local technical workforce.
Transportation-wise also sustainable transport gurus might be in seventh heaven, the humble bicycle seemed the main form of transportation in many neighbourhoods with a locally welded handlebar for passengers to use. A range of second-hand imports also could be seen gracing the streets. Faster and more efficient than cars and cheaper than motorbikes given the exhorbitant cost of fuel.
Great efforts were being made by Lilongwe local government and at national level to deliver services to all communities. Sanitation and water projects abounded. Contracts had interestingly been given to several international contractors including in a case we came across a water hydrant project for poorer neighbourhoods, run by a Chinese contracting firm.
This seems to be in keeping with the Chinese involvement in the development of the Lilongwe highways projects and future interchange. Not to be outdone there has also been investment by the Japanese in the Lilongwe International Airport upgrading and expansion project, with some interesting architectural results.
Viewing Lilongwe in a day was going to be a hard call, let’s say that it is certainly a green city and one that seemed genuinely peaceful and friendly. Its key problems seem to stem on a poor transportation system, predicated on the apartheid zoned settlement city which means that there remains very little interconnectivity to neighbourhoods and a non-existent prioritised public transport system to the city centre where unsurprisingly all the jobs remain located.
Foreign investment in the infrastructure and buildings in Lilongwe is truly international it is quite clear to see. If this was a former British colonial city, the trappings thereof are rapidly disappearing. Aid seems to come in many forms and many directions, the ‘Global East’ certainly being emergent. This investment seems now to be getting ‘grounded’ in infrastructure projects including a housing estate for the Chinese in Lilongwe close to the Presidential palace and the Chinese Embassy, a symbol of Sino-African friendship.
But to end as I began, my last stop was again to view the Malawian investment bank, a night time shot didn’t fail to impress. 1970s African modernism at its best.
Call for Papers for Modern Heritage in the Anthropocene Symposium
Modern Heritage in the Anthropocene is part of the MoHoA global collaborative and builds on the Modern Heritage of Africa symposium hosted by the University of Cape Town in September 2021. Coordinated by The Bartlett’s Professor Edward Denison and Head of the University of Liverpool’s School of Architecture, Professor Ola Uduku, along with partners at the University of Cape Town, the Africa World Heritage Fund and around the world, this upcoming hybrid symposium responds to an age of planetary crisis in which a precarious present reflects an inequitable past and a perilous future.
Modern heritage in all its forms and from around the world is the subject of this multidisciplinary symposium, presenting the paradox of being of modernity and yet threatened by its consequences. MoHoA was originally conceived within an African context to interrogate this paradox because the continent encapsulates the historical inequities that characterise the modern and its associated notions of development and progress while also facing the highest rates of urbanisation over the next 30 years, demanding new approaches to the past and present that achieve equitable and sustainable futures on a planetary scale. The outcomes of the two symposia will synthesise in the recognition of the Cape Town Document on Modern Heritage.
Call for papers
Submissions are invited from researchers, academics, and practitioners. The organisers are seeking papers or equivalent submissions that critically engage with reframing, re-evaluating, decentring, and decolonising recent, hidden or marginalised pasts in pursuit of achieving more equitable, just, and sustainable futures. Participants will contribute to the completion of the Cape Town Document on Modern Heritage, supporting policy change at a global level through our partner UNESCO.
Topics can include, but are not limited to:
Practices of coloniality, decentring and decolonising history and historiography
Considerations and conceptualisations of multiple modernities
Modern heritage and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Planetary futures and the Anthropocene
Infrastructure and (post)-industrial heritage
Combining culture and nature, and the role of natural heritage in society
Public space and memory: memorialisation, commemoration and remembering
Modern heritage and the World Heritage Convention
How to submit
Submissions should be in English or French and should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org by 31 May 2022.
Notification of acceptance will be provided by 30 June. Abstracts should be a maximum of 300 words or equivalent format (e.g. film shorts, blog, or Instagram story) for other types of digital submissions.
Selected papers or presentations will be published as part of the MoHoA Book Series after the conference and selected extended papers will appear in a special edition of the journal ‘Curator’.
Research Title and Summary:From One Slum to Another : A Journey of Understanding and Redefining Informal Districts in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
At a time where Saudi Arabia undergoes many mega development plans, Jeddah, located in the western region of Saudi Arabia, continuously aims to adjust the urban development strategies in an attempt to accommodate the future vision of the country. However, it suffers from the increasing numbers of informal districts where it currently adds up to sixty-six documented informal districts. This built environment has been vulnerable to socio-cultural implications and considerable complications. The community in these areas suffer from lack of proper housing, amenities, water supply, safety, and basic accessible healthcare. Living in closed clusters depending on and not limited to ethnicity and affordability. Saudi and non-Saudi people have inhabited informal districts for generations. For many years, policy makers along with governmental officials have put in action strategies to infiltrate these zones and prevent the spread of this architecture scar. Consequently, a bird eye view of the situation with no consideration to the communities needs and struggles have led to two types of people: landowners who refused to move and low-income communities who relocated to other informal low-income areas.
Previous research investigated the informal districts crises, the root cause, the history and possible solutions. However, this historical crisis still reoccurs today. The oil boom, the mega projects, the rise in population and cost of living all have aided in the process of replacing, reproducing these slums. This research will shed the light on previous reasons of the crisis, However, it aims to investigate the mechanism of the informal districts and characteristics influenced by the behavior of different sociocultural aspects and to identify the variables that define these areas in Jeddah.
Aims and Objectives:
This research aims to reveal the actual characteristics of Jeddah’s informal districts highlighting the different building and spatial dimensions. It aims to layer the social, economic and space relations to highlight the consistent power of such districts and the growth of this particular economy and space.
The architecture of these zones in Jeddah can be abstracted into many indicators that differ from one district to another despite the close distance they are from each other. Considerably, the urban fabric and socio-cultural characteristics also differ from one zone to another. This is an understanding on how housing conditions and living challenges implicate the socio-culture nature of inhabitants. The research is an empirical analysis of the factors influencing the social and cultural patterns affected by the built environment that aid in the occurrence and recurrence of informal districts.
Many descriptions have been mentioned in research and media talking about the problem of slums. The root cause, the history and possible solutions. However, a historical issue still reoccurs today. The oil boom, the mega projects, the rise in population and cost of living all have aided in the process of replacing and reproducing these slums. This research does aim to extensively explore previous reasons of the crisis. It aims to investigate the mechanism of the informal districts and characteristics. The aims are as following:
To research the history of the urban fabric and the development of the built environment of Jeddah.
To research the history of the existence and recurrence of informal districts in Jeddah.
To investigate the different types of informal districts in Jeddah.
To examine the current situation and analyze the relationship between the city and informal districts.
To examine the inhibitors socio-cultural background and economic status.
To define the characteristics of the informal districts’ built environment where they differ in terms of culture, architecture, and economy.
To set new indicators that categorizes the districts based on physical and social differences according to the previous definition.
To propose recommendations for new strategies to enhance the built environment to accommodate inhabitants needs
Why did you pursue a PhD, and what made you choose University of Liverpool?
Honestly, I have never thought I would. In 2013 I finished my master’s degree in Sustainable Architecture from the Catholic University of America. I was very eager to start working in the field. I went back to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and worked at Dar Al-Hekma University as a lecturer, alongside I founded with my husband Vertix Design Studio where I worked as an Architect and Interior Designer. In 2017 I moved to teach at Jeddah University. I taught various subjects during my years at both universities such as design studios, sustainability, and computer aided design. Teaching was a very enriching experience and as a result I have been very enthusiastic about research and exploring new methods of developing the built environment. During COVID-19 lockdown, a worldwide crisis affecting humanity, I realized that the aftermath of this would lay within us for a very long periods of time. I started to research with my colleague Dr. Sherin Sameh, a former chair of the School of Architecture at Dar Al-Hekma University, about pandemic lockdowns and space layout in houses in Jeddah according to new resident’s needs. Research revealed how this pandemic affected the more vulnerable low-income society and how houses and neighborhoods were not equipped to deal with such events.
After exploring many prominent universities, I have chosen University of Liverpool because the School of Architecture is one of the excellent schools across the United Kingdom, and the areas of research I am interested in are compatible with the vision of the wonderful staff. Liverpool is one of the most beautiful cities I have visited in the UK, the very welcoming atmosphere and the beautiful architecture has made the decision much easier.
What have you found the most fun part of the PhD, and the most challenging?
Exploring my city and meeting people from different backgrounds has been the most rewarding part of the PhD so far. Although I have lived most of my life in Jeddah, I had the chance of visiting areas for the first time. Seeing the city from a different point of view has been an eye-opening experience.
The most challenging part has been starting my PhD online during the COVID-19 lockdown. Although e-learning has proved to be a revolutionary mechanism managing to bring people together in one room despite the physical distance, it has been challenging to build actual work/study relationships. As a new student, it takes time to be familiar with the new system and new instructors, nevertheless having to do it online made it challenging as there is limited time during online meetings and the importance of using that limited time effectively. However, I have been very fortunate that my supervisors have been very encouraging and supporting throughout time and I have been very motivated to work hard after each online meeting.
Post-Phd? Any ideas of what you’d like to do next?
Although teaching has been a huge part of my career, I look forward to research further solutions for the constant rise in informal settlements in Saudi Arabia. I would like to effectively implement strategies that deal with such zones with consideration of the society living there. Finding sustainable solutions to eliminate such occurrences in the future for a more resilient country. I aim to influence and implement polices that would help mitigate this situation.
Any advice for others interested in doing a PhD?
The dilemma I had in the past was constantly asking myself why do I want to do a PhD? Every time I thought about applying, I asked myself that, and only when I was able to answer I knew I was ready with a purpose. Don’t be afraid to be curious – the more you are – the better researcher you become. I have always seen myself since I started as more of an investigator researching for answers in the field. Choose a topic that you feel passionate about and do not be discouraged when you reach dead end, it just means there is an alternative road you need to take. Enjoy the journey.
Name: Heather Lynn McGrath Alcock PhD Research Title: Beyond the Village: The Global Value of Port Sunlight
Dissertation Supervisors: Professor Iain Jackson, Dr Ataa Alsalloum and Dr Cheryl Hudson
Research Question: Does Port Sunlight village express Outstanding Universal Value and if so, what material and intangible aspects of the site express its influential, unique, and exemplary character?
Aim: The aim of my research is to define the heritage values of Port Sunlight village in a comparative global context.
Figure 1: Mapping global planned worker villages. Sites are mapped by latitude and longitude and key characteristics are recorded for each site, including dates for development, designer, industry, and heritage site management indicators such as statutory protections.
Identify, map, and analyse the transmission of ideas and images for Port Sunlight village and two similar sites Bournville and New Earswick from 1889-1939.
Complete desk-based research to identify, map and briefly describe global planned worker settlements, garden suburbs, and Garden Cities.
Compare transmission of ideas and images research against the development of planned worker settlements, garden suburbs and Garden Cities research to identify and describe possible connections and influences.
Undertake case studies for more in-depth comparative analysis, including archival research, field work and interviews with stakeholders.
Analyse findings to determine if there is a correlation between the transmission of images and ideas and the development of planned worker villages. If so, would it be possible to identify the primary influence? Were direct or indirect forms of transmission most prevalent? What methods were most effective or enduring? Lastly, is it possible to directly trace Port Sunlight’s influence?
Define Port Sunlight’s heritage values within UNESCO’s framework for world heritage site inscription.
Figure 2: The model worker village at Port Sunlight was both a highly local and ‘tied’ manufacturing community and a global phenomenon. Foreign visitors toured the site regularly and Lever Brothers had a global business operation by 1900. This 1901 quote from the Crown Prince of Siam featured in the opening pages of the 1905 “Souvenir of Port Sunlight” by Lever Brothers Limited. (Held by Port Sunlight Museum, Collection Reference S13 1905)
Background to Port Sunlight
Port Sunlight is a planned worker village created by industrialist William Lever (1851-1925) for the workers in his soap manufacturing company Lever Brothers, which later became global manufacturing corporation Unilever, plc. Port Sunlight holds a unique place in the history of British town and country planning, where two significant traditions meet: picturesque town and country planning and improved housing and amenities for working class people”.1
Construction of the Lever Brothers’ works started in 1888 and the first houses were occupied by 1889. By 1891, Lever Brothers had built their first community facility, Gladstone Hall and they were publishing visitor ‘guidebooks’ to promote the works and village.
By the start of the first world war, the village had a wide range of facilities, including two schools, cottage hospital, an open-air swimming bath, 3000-seat auditorium, gymnasium, library, savings bank, social clubs, shops, church, tennis and bowling lawns, football pitch and pub. The houses and facilities were set in a generous landscape with passive green spaces, designed landscapes and allotments.
Figure 3: Plan of Port Sunlight as it was in 1938 by historian Michael Shippobottom in consultation with Edward Hubbard. The plan, reproduced in Hubbard and Shippobottom’s A Guide to Port Sunlight Village (3rd Edition, Page 34, Figure 32) illustrates the village at its first Jubilee.
Port Sunlight village became a conservation area in 1978 and includes over 900 Grade II-listed buildings within 130 acres of parkland and gardens.
Port Sunlight faces many challenges, articulated in a suite of evidence-based strategic documents developed from 2018-2021 by Port Sunlight Village Trust (PSVT), the independent charity charged with the care and promotion of the village.2 PSVT, working in partnership with key stakeholders, plans to undertake significant projects and to advance key business objectives to address these challenges and to ensure the long-term sustainability, accessibility and inclusivity of the site.3 The research will support PSVT, village stakeholders, academics and practitioners to better understand the global value and significance of the site and to make more informed decisions about its future.
My work will be informed by extensive archival research, case studies and oral histories, and my professional experience and understanding of heritage values (including current dialogue challenging the processes for identification and management of heritage sites), but it will also engage with the theoretical, contextual and historiographic approaches of others who have studied the design, development, transformation and impact of planned worker villages from multiple disciplines.
Figure 4: Bridge Street and Park Road terraces houses in Port Sunlight by Douglas and Fordham, 1893. Digital version from the Drawn Together collection under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND. Original drawing held by Unilever, plc.
What did I do before the PhD Research?
As a British-American citizen and a mature student, I enjoyed twenty years in built heritage practice in the USA and UK. My academic degrees in Cultural Anthropology and Historic Preservation from the University of Pennsylvania led to private heritage consultancy in New York City. There I worked for Building Conservation Associates, Inc. on many aspects of built heritage practice across the country. In New York, I developed a practical approach for the creative adaptation and conservation of listed buildings for tax credit projects, which resulted in the regeneration of at-risk heritage sites. Research underpinned my practice, including heritage policies for the United Nations Headquarters in New York and a serial listing for the New Canaan Moderns.
Before starting my PhD at Liverpool, I served as the Heritage Conservation Officer for PSVT, where I had the opportunity to draft one of England’s first Local Listed Building Consent Orders, to design and implement a conditions and integrity survey of the 923 listed houses in the village, co-authored the Conservation Management Plan (2018) and managed Drawn Together, a Lottery-funded partnership project to digitise original drawings for Port Sunlight. It was through my work for PSVT and direct engagement with village residents that I developed an appreciation for my research site and its stakeholders.
Why did you pursue a PhD and what made you choose the University of Liverpool?
Since immigrating to the UK in 2009, I had felt the pull towards further education, particularly in a British context. I found time during the disrupted life of the pandemic to apply for both a PhD and research funding. The Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain (SAHGB) awarded me their Graham Child Scholarship, so the question of funding was very happily and gratefully resolved. My choice of university was straight forward. I was well-acquainted with the School of Architecture, the excellent reputation of its researchers, its facilities, and resources. Both the Architecture and Planning departments had ties to Port Sunlight and the archives hold significant collections for the transmission of ideas research. I had met both Ataa and Iain through my work at Port Sunlight and felt they would make an ideal team to supervise my cross-disciplinary dissertation. Everything fell into place!
What are your first impressions of life as a PhD researcher and what do you think you will do after you have finished?
I am perhaps one of the most grateful and fortunate people in Wirral as I am being paid to learn, think, and write about Port Sunlight. Working with Ataa and Iain has been incredibly rewarding as their global expertise and experiences in architecture, history and heritage connect and complement my own experiences and practice. Our differences make for lively and enjoyable discussions, and I always go away feeling a bit daunted but inspired.
However, there is no denying the dramatic change of pace and the different daily rhythms I experienced when I became a PhD researcher. In my professional life, there were meetings, colleagues, volunteers, emails, public engagement, and strategic considerations. In short, there were people. Now, my world is quiet and contemplative (when my children are at school). My ‘to do’ list is long and exciting, but undeniably solo. I rather like working with a team and know that once my dissertation is finished, I will welcome back the noisy collaborative world of heritage practice and possibly the even noisier world of teaching.
This congress calls for papers that will examine the movement of people and things around and across the Indian Ocean Rim and reveal instances or patterns of transfer that may complicate assumed centre-periphery dynamics, or correspond more closely to the idea of South-South cooperation. It looks to engage new political framings like the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) or the Group of 77 (G77) and the resulting New International Economic Order (NIEO) that would reconfigure the transfer of construction materials and labour, and consequently architectural knowledge, across this region. But it also hopes to discuss the potentialities for greater solidarity that emerged from broader philosophical notions of ‘neutralism’ ‘human dignity’ and ‘justice’ and how these have affected the ethics of construction in the Global South. Finally, it is expected that all these considerations will find a place in the discussion of migrant populations and their negotiations with these constructed political and cultural categories, living across and beyond them in a constant state of liminality.
Abstracts (300 words) for proposed papers are invited to be submitted to email@example.com by 20th June 2021. Congress will meet on 7th-9th November 2021.
Please see the attached Call for Papers for further details: