Sundowners Ep. 1: Conversation at a Party

Over the last five days, I’ve seen a lot of things – on Tuesday was a tour of Soweto, and then a guided walk through the financial district in Jozi; Wednesday included a visit to the Apartheid Museum and Gold Reef City; Thursday we were in Pretoria where we saw Union Buildings and the Voortrekker Monument; Friday featured a trip to Cullinan Mine; and today a walking tour of the Fashion District. There’s been a lot to process and unpack. You can read about some of that in my previous blog post, but I thought I’d also share another project that John and I are cooking up.

Last Sunday, we released our first episode of our podcast, Sundowners, a show about architecture, place, and global travel. You can access it here, or if you’d prefer, an edited and abridged transcript is below.

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S. The sun is setting on another day in beautiful sunny Santa Fe. It’s time to kick back with a margarita and a big place of enchiladas. I’m Sarah Rovang.

J. I’m John Golden. And you’re listening to Sundowners—conversations about place, architecture, and global travel. Hi Sarah.

S. Hi John. This is the inaugural episode of Sundowners, and our first ever podcast to boot. I’m excited and a bit nervous!

J: Me too. We all know the first episode of any podcast isn’t that great, so set your expectations low, listeners!

S: So, for those among our listeners who may not know, what exactly is a “sundowner”?

J. A Sundowner is a traditional end to the day on an African safari, where the guide provides a drink and a snack such as biltong (jerky) to be enjoyed outside. The Sundowner is a time of gathering, celebration, and reflection.

S. In future episodes we’ll be focusing on the experience of a particular place, but for this pilot episode we wanted to do something a little different. We wanted to share with you exactly how we came to be producing a podcast about global travel. During the past couple of months I’ve been having roughly the same conversation in many contexts, trying to explain what I’m studying and how John and I came to be traveling abroad for the rest of 2018. Many thanks to Dean Rovang for the guest voice acting. Let’s go now to our conversation at a party…

D. Hey Sarah, I heard you won a thing and are doing some traveling this year. Congrats.

S. Thanks, yeah, I think it will be pretty cool.

D. What is this thing you won?

S. It’s called the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. It’s awarded by the Society of Architectural Historians, which is the professional association I belong to. It gives a postdoctoral scholar in the field of architectural history the opportunity to travel for a year following a completely self-determined itinerary.

D. When do you leave?

S. I’m leaving the country on July 16 of this year.

D. Where are you going first?

S. Johannesburg, South Africa.

D. Where all else will you be going?

S. After South Africa, I’m going to Japan, Chile, and Europe, in that order.

D. How long will you be staying in each place?

S. About 50 days each in the first three countries, and then about 6 months in Europe.

D. Are you traveling continuously or will you come back to the US at some point?

S. I’ll be making a quick stop in New Mexico over the holidays to visit family and exchange my summer clothes for my winter gear.

D. Is your husband coming with you?

S. Yes, John will be with me for at least the first leg of the journey (South Africa, Japan, Chile). Besides being an excellent traveling companion, John has gotten very good at driving on the left side of the road, which means that we’ll be able to explore a bit further afield in South Africa in a rental car.

D. How does John have time to do that? Isn’t he a physics postdoc or something?

J. I’ll get this one. I used to be a physics postdoc, but my postdoc ended and now I’m spending some time figuring out what I’m doing with the rest of my life.

D. That’s quite a selection of places! How did you pick those particular locations?

S. I’m working on the public history of industrial heritage; basically, how sites of industrialization from the nineteenth century to the present such as mines, factories, mills, worker housing, etc. are being used and interpreted for a variety of audiences today.

D. Okay, couldn’t you hypothetically study industrialization pretty much anywhere in the world?

S. I knew I wanted to visit some parts of the world I’d never been before, and I also wanted a mix of industrial sites that had been very well developed for tourism and those that are currently undeveloped or in the very early stages of preservation and interpretation. Europe (particularly the western and northern regions, plus the UK) has many, many interpreted industrial sites, and lots of sites that are being adaptively reused in clever and sustainable ways. There’s this website called the European Route of Industrial Heritage that maps thousands of sites across the continent.

D. Sure, but what about the other places you’re going?

S. I got interested in Japan’s industrial heritage because of an archipelago of sites that were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2015 dating from the Meiji period. This addition has sparked some controversy around questions of if and how the role of foreign, forced labor will be included in public interpretations. In Chile, I’m going to visit a series of ghost towns in the country’s northern desert, which stand as testament to the boom-and-bust of nitrate mining in the region. While listed as UNESCO sites, these lack the same interpretive infrastructure as some of the more established industrial sites in Europe. South Africa has a long and complicated colonial past, and has seen the rise and fall of many industries, such as forestry, diamond and gold mining, fishing, sea trade, and agriculture. After the abolishment of apartheid in 1994, South Africa began pivoting its economy towards tourism, developing former farmlands as wildlife preserves and converting some of its mines into tourist attractions. One of the things that I’m fascinated by in South Africa, Chile, and Japan is how the relationship between industrialization and imperialism played out in the built environment. These countries are united by having an architectural tradition with strong European influences, dating from different historical periods and taking shape in very divergent ways.

D. Why did you pick this industrial heritage topic?

S. I know a fair amount about the history of industrialization in the context of the United States, and how that history intersects with the built environment. In fact, I wrote my dissertation on the architecture and landscapes of the Rural Electrification Administration (or REA), a New Deal program that brought electricity to rural populations. Between 1936 and 1943, REA not only built thousands of miles of electric line in agrarian areas, it also created an architectural infrastructure to serve the needs of its users. This network of buildings included power plants, substations, and cooperative offices, sometimes combining multiple functions into a single structure. REA was very concerned about the communicative power of its buildings and strove to convey the modernizing, uplifting potential of electricity through the strategic deployment of modern architectural tropes. However, while power plants and offices buildings are formally compelling and definitely an overlooked chapter in American modernism, what really captured my attention was how the agency told stories about its architecture to rural publics through print, photography, graphics, models, and community organizing.

D. So it was less about the architecture itself and more about the way this organization was creating a narrative about the architecture?

S. Exactly. And on top of that, when I started investigating whether these REA buildings still existed, I discovered that only a handful (out of about 100 buildings) were still intact. REA was so successful that most of its cooperatives needed new, bigger buildings at some point in the last 75 years. The historical and architectural value of the original buildings—examples of International Style modernism in the United States at a remarkably early date—went largely unremarked. I think this is an issue that plagues many industrial heritage sites here in the United States and elsewhere. Many industrial sites are not attractive in a conventional sense. They may be associated with economic systems that are at best outdated and at worst morally abhorrent. I think industrial sites are hard to deal with because often times they expose uncomfortable truths about human history—that the advancement of one group of people has often come through the exploitation of another, or that the systematic and unsustainable harvest of natural resources can produce great wealth and enhance human welfare (at least in the short term). The preservation, interpretation, and calculated reuse of industrial sites forces us to examine these truths at a critical time in global history.

D. How do you think your view of industrialization might be different from that of other scholars working on this topic?

S. I would say that background has given me a slightly different outlook on industrialization from other scholars that work on related topics. When we think of industrialization, most of us think about urbanization as well. We might envision people moving off farms, crowding into polluted, Dickensian cities to seek more stable wages at factory jobs. However, the history of industry has always been inextricably linked to the rural landscape. As urban areas grew, burgeoning city populations relied increasingly on the efficient production of agricultural products in ex-urban agrarian regions. Beyond agriculture, mines, forests, and other sources of critical raw materials frequently existed far from cities. Thus, in addition to concentrating populations in urban areas, industrialization also brought the countryside and the city into closer contact, creating an infrastructure of trains, roads, telephone lines, etc. that in many ways shortened the distance (metaphorically and literally) between center and periphery. During my travels, I will be looking beyond individual sites to understand the networks and relationships between multiple sites. In the context of South Africa, how were the gold mines of Johannesburg dependent on the forestry industry of the northeast? How did the wine regions near Cape Town draw power and economic prestige from their proximity to a major global port? These are particularly timely questions. Since World War II, global industry is becoming increasingly decentralized. Massive distribution centers and the interstate highway trucking system in this country make it possible for many corporations to disperse their goods without having to use an existing city as a node. I am really interested in how industry, as a phenomenon of both peripheries and centers, rural and urban, plays out on a global scale.

D. How about the human element of industrialization? What role does human labor play in all of this?

S. In the last year I’ve become an active member in the Lecturers’ Employee Organization at the University of Michigan. This labor union, which represents non-tenure-track faculty (called adjuncts at some institutions), has spent the past year bargaining for a better contract. Through activism in the union, I’ve learned a lot about labor issues and advocacy. Labor history and industrial history are deeply intertwined — it’s really difficult to address one without the other.

D. How did you find out about the sites you’re going to in each country?

S. Finding the sites I’m traveling to has been one of the most challenging and enjoyable aspects of the planning experience. Most of the planning I’ve done so far has really focused on South Africa, Chile, and Japan. I’ve had to use a multi-pronged approach for locating sites. Typically, I’ve started my searches on the UNESCO World Heritage list, looking for sites specifically tied to industry. As one might expect, the bulk of industrial UNESCO sites are currently clustered in Europe. Fortunately, UNESCO also maintains a list of tentative sites—sites listed by states as possible heritage sites for later nomination. The tentative list provides insight into current trends concerning the types of sites that are seen by state actors to have historical merit and warrant preservation efforts. It has only really been in the last several decades that countries in every continent have started to nominate industrial sites for UNESCO status.

D. So you start with UNESCO—what comes next?

S. Usually my next step is to check with other tourist-oriented lists and sites. I’ve relied quite heavily on Atlas Obscura, which includes abandoned industrial sites among its taxonomy of strange and uncanny places. I’ve also used conventional guide books a surprising amount—Lonely Planet and Fodor’s are pretty decent about including historical sites and factory tours. Between UNESCO and these guides, I can typically get a good sense of place—what various regions of a country are like in terms of geography, industry, and culture. From there, I start doing a slightly deeper dive—exploring the national historic places lists maintained by individual countries and starting to pull articles off JStor that might give more insight. Pulling all of this research together. Once I’m on the ground in each country I expect I’ll also get recommendations from locals and AirBnB hosts about other places off-the-beaten track.

D. Are you going to be writing a book or something?

S. That’s a great question. Most postdoctoral fellowships in the humanities are usually oriented towards the development of a book manuscript. The Brooks is a rather unique fellowship in that the goal is intentionally not to produce a typical academic research project. The only “deliverables” required as part of the fellowship conditions are a monthly blog post and uploading 500 photographs to the Society of Architectural Historians image database (SAHARA). The idea is to give an emerging scholar time to observe and reflect on architecture, rather than having some preset scholarly goal. Rather than spending all day, everyday in an archive or library, the intention is to develop a substantial connection to place. Previous fellows have reported that it’s nice to spend a bit of time in local libraries and archives—you can find historical photographs, architectural drawings, and other original materials related to the things you are seeing in the environment around you. But on a day to day basis, the goal is to be out exploring and experiencing architecture—soaking in a new place and letting it shape and change you.

D. Surely you’ll be writing and producing more than just those monthly blog post?

S. Sure. I’ll be writing a personal blog, for instance, in which I’ll talk a bit more about the daily experience and minutiae of travel (packing, gear, transportation, lodging, etc.). I am also planning to produce some posts about historical storytelling for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Saving Places blog.

D. Besides writing, how do you think you’ll record your experiences on the road?

S. Of course I’ll be taking loads of photographs and sketching as I go. And I’m going to try my hand at audio production. Plus John and I are producing this podcast called Sundowners.

D. What inspired you to explore audio as an aspect of industrial heritage?

S. There was this amazing piece I experienced at MASS MOCA a few years ago by sound artist Stephen Vitiello. It was called “All Those Vanished Engines” installed in an old grain silo or manufacturing facility on site at the museum. (You can hear my friend Cathy Byrd doing a wonderful interview with Vitiello here). The piece was an eerie evocation of the industrial noises from the past use-life of that space. There was something haunting and evocative about those disembodied sounds clanging and echoing against rusted sheet metal. I’ve never been a particular auditory person—I think most of my intelligence is visual, I’m trained to quickly identify art and buildings at a glance. I was never that good of singer or a musician though I spent many years trying. However, I am very sensitive to ambient sound. Living next to a busy street for three years has taught me how pernicious and unrelenting environmental sound can be. So on my travels, I’ll be doing ambient sound recording at each of my stops. What does a South African gold mine sound like? What are the sonic characteristics of a Meiji-era dock on the coast of Japan? What do footsteps sound like in the halls of worker housing in England? All of this has to do with my enduring interest in architecture as something that is lived—spaces occupied by bodies performing different roles and tasks. It is not a purely visual medium, however much Instagram might try to convince us otherwise. Rather, architecture is a complete sensory experience.

D. What are you most looking forward to?

S. One of the aspects I’m most looking forward to of the Brooks Fellowship is having time to write and sketch without a deadline or agenda. I’ve been teaching full time for the past two years, and most of my time and energy has gone into course development. And I haven’t kept up a sketching practice since I was an undergraduate in architecture school, although I always really enjoyed that aspect of the work. Also, flying business class from Cape Town to Tokyo and Tokyo to Santiago.

D. Wait wait—how are you affording business class?

S. John has gotten really savvy about using credit cards to get frequent flyer miles. That will definitely be a topic of a future blog post.

D. What are you most nervous about?

S. Leaving my dog for a full year! I will miss her furry face! But in all seriousness, in terms of my own experience and travels, I’m definitely a bit nervous to travel in places where English is not spoken universally. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten out of the English-speaking world. My last major international trips have been to New Zealand and the U.K., which are culturally and linguistically not that different from the United States. I’m not sure what it’s going to be like living in southern Japan or northern Chile for weeks at a time, away from big metropolitan areas. But that’s all part of the adventure.

D. What do you think a typical day is going to be like?

S. We have already been thinking a lot about that! Last year, John and I took a lovely trip to Amsterdam to visit his parents who were living in the city on an academic sabbatical. Everyday, we would wake up, eat breakfast as a family, and then work quietly until about 11 am. Once everyone was starting to get hungry for lunch, we would all bail out and head into town for an afternoon of museums. After the museums closed, we’d find a homey bar with good music to chat about what we’d just seen and read for a few hours before dinner. The whole pace just felt so right for actually appreciating what we’d seen that I am hoping to recreate something similar on this trip. John and I are also creating a series of exercise routines that can be done in the small spaces or local parks to start the day.

D. Where will you be staying?

S. Mostly in AirBnBs. We’ve found that AirBnB is a great way to make local connections, score recommendations, and get a better sense of a place than staying in a chain hotel. It also tends to be cheaper, depending on where you’re going. However, some towns in more rural areas don’t have quite the well-developed AirBnB communities common in bigger cities. In those cases, we’ll stay in some local hotels and guesthouses. I’ve found good deals on a variety of sites, such as Hotwire, Agoda, Hotels.com, and Booking.com to supplement our AirBnB stays. I’ve even found some great places on Hostelworld, which now has some more upmarket offerings. The one kind of lodging I don’t see us using frequently are traditional bed-and-breakfasts. Being forced to make small talk first thing in the morning over a heavy meal of eggs and meats is not really our thing.

D. What kind of gear are you taking?

S. I’m trying to keep my gear kit relatively minimal, though traveling continuously for months at a time does require a certain amount of forethought. As far as technology goes, I’m opting for an iPad Pro instead of a full laptop. For a camera, I’m bringing a Nikon DSLR with a wide angle lens and telephoto lens. I also have a ZoomH4 recorder that I’ll be using for sound mapping and doing this podcast. John and I will do a full “what’s in your bag” blog post at some point before we leave.

D. Are you carrying on or will you be checking bags?

S. We will be fitting all of our gear into carry-ons. We have really been impressed by the Tortuga Outbreaker backpack, which is more like a suitcase mounted onto a backpack than it is a rugged, outdoor backpacking type bag. All of our stuff will fit into two Outbreakers, including smaller bags for daily use once we get settled in a new location.

D. Well this sounds like a great opportunity. How can I follow your travels?

S. All of the blogs and materials I’ll be creating will be linked from my website, sarahrovang.com. I’m also on Instagram as @sarahmoderne. And you know, I think I’m going to go freshen my drink, but it was great chatting with you.