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.

Freedom of Movement

Speeding through Soweto in the back of a tuk’tuk earlier this week, the realities of how apartheid played out on the ground suddenly became tangible. As our wise, charismatic guide remarked, “The story is always in the houses, especially in Soweto.” This experience, perhaps more so than any other I’ve had yet in South Africa, has made real the lived experience of the past, and the raw, yet unsealed scars of a democracy recently forged from the ruins of relentless oppression.

Parts of the South African constitution are fashioned after models such as the U.S. Bill of Rights, although additional and specific freedoms have been enshrined in the S.A. Constitution, responding to the particular traumas of the country’s past. One of these is the Freedom of Movement. Chapter 2, Section 21 of the Constitution promises that:

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement.

(2) Everyone has the right to leave the Republic.

(3) Every citizen has the right to enter, to remain in and to reside anywhere in, the Republic.

(4) Every citizen has the right to a passport

This particular passage has weighed heavy on my mind over the past few days, as we explored Constitution Hill, the Worker’s Museum, the Apartheid Museum, the Fashion District of Jo’Burg, and Soweto (more on Soweto in a separate post; this post has already grown to unmanageable lengths and there’s a lot to process with Soweto!). Like other economic systems, such as the plantation system of the slave-owning American South, the early days of industrialization in South Africa relied heavily on the bodily control of a human workforce. As diamond and gold mines became major generators of capital, workers were recruited to work in those mines. Managing how, where, and when those workers moved between their spaces of living, work, and recreation was at the root of industrialized mining. In this post, I want to share a bit of what I’ve learned from each of the aforementioned sites pertaining to the relationship between spatial control, industry, the eventual rise and fall of apartheid, and how things have changed post-apartheid. Inevitably, I’m also responding to the narrative apparatus of these places as well, and commenting on the efficacy of various kinds of public history storytelling.

Worker’s Museum

Located in Newtown, a transitional zone in southwestern Johannesburg, the Worker’s Museum is a lesser-known but tremendously worthwhile museum experience that gets overshadowed by the nearby SciBono Center and the SAB World of Beer. This museum intelligently deploys textual interpretation and reproductions of original textual documents in a space where history hangs heavy on the walls. This complex of buildings dating to the early twentieth century includes lodging for black and white workers in the electric utility industry of early Jo’Burg (more on that in a later post). The black workers were packed into crowded dormitories, while the white counterparts lived in relative dignity in separate houses nearby in the same compound. Recreational spaces for the black workers were incidental rather than part of the design – the yard could also be used for chatting, games, or the “gumboot” dancing developed by miners as a pastime. By contrast, disciplinary spaces occupied an outsize position in the complex, standing ready to make an example of “misbehaving” workers.

The museum’s core is a timeline that charts the progress of African workers in colonial and independent South Africa. It effectively casts the story of apartheid as one of migrant workers. Coercive tax laws were imposed in order to “encourage” (cough cough coerce) rural African men to abandon their farms and villages in search of a “better life” working in the urban mines of places like Johannesburg. These itinerant workers were all housed in compounds like the one that constitutes the Worker’s Museum, where they were policed, surveilled, and isolated. Apartheid developed out of this existing system of segregation. On a tour of the financial district on Tuesday, our guide, Jo, explained that to her, apartheid had existed since the first colonists arrived in Southern Africa. The roots for the system were already in place long before this became the law of the land. The Worker’s Museum was a particularly moving experience, however, because it provided a direct insight into the extensive built infrastructure that was necessary in order to enforce segregation, and eventually, apartheid.

Constitution Hill

At the height of apartheid, the Nationalist government routinely jailed both outspoken dissenters and everyday people who committed such “infractions” as not carrying the correct papers when entering the city of Johannesburg. Constitution Hill, which today is the site of Constitutional Court, also houses the ruins of the notorious Old Fort Prison. Again, on the scale of the prison community, the injustices of apartheid played out in spatial and architectural terms. While white prisoners were housed in relative comfort in the “old fort” (an actual fort dating back to the Anglo-Boer Wars), black prisoners were held in the notorious No. 4 prison nearby.

Isolation cells for black prisoners of No. 4, Constitution Hill, Johannesburg. Photo by JG.

Both Gandhi and Mandela did stints in this prison, which is composed of appalling shared cells and terrifying isolation cells. The built amenities afforded to the respective groups of prisoners were reflected in every other aspect of their treatment, from the amount of bedding they were given to the food they consumed each day (one warder, or guard, compared the white prisoner food to restaurant food). The Constitution Hill Museum balances a manageable amount of interpretive text with the horrors of the built environment itself. The buildings have been left to tell the stories for themselves and while the filth of actual prison times has been scrubbed away, the barbed wire and peeling walls remain as poignant reminders of human suffering. Testimonies of former prisoners play in videos throughout the complex, adding human faces to experience. If the mechanisms of segregation had originally developed as a means of labor coercion in the industrial mining sector, by the time of apartheid, the repression of black Africans had taken on an industrial character in its own right. As part of the process of dehumanizing and degrading black subjects, engineers of apartheid devised equally streamlined and efficient systems to manage mass-incarceration, just as assembly lines and new machines accomplished mass-production.

The Apartheid Museum

This a museum that calls attention to the museological apparatus as a mediator between historical narrative and public. Light on artifact and heavy on text, the museum seems very deeply concerned (understandably) with telling a fair and objective story that captures maximal nuance. The result is a visitor experience that is spatially claustrophobic and heavy on reading, sacrificing narrative legibility for comprehensiveness.

The architectural flow of the museum starts strong, leading the visitor through a “segregated” entrance where visitors follow the “White” or “Non-white” designations randomly assigned to them on entry. I drew “Non-white” and John drew “White,” which meant that we spent the first part of our experience separated by wire mesh walls—an evocation of the families separated by arbitrary racial categorization (in cases where children were “sorted” into a different category than their parents, they were deemed “orphans” and housed in orphanages). Visitors then follow a ramp up to a rooftop with an impressive panoramic view of Johannesburg in the distance. Along the way, artistic installations allude to Africa’s rich pre-history. Rich in texture and color, this first sequence feels expansive and provocative. The interpretation provided at various stops along the ramp up are concise and easy to grasp.

Entrance sequence at the Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg. Photo by SR. 

Much of this experience stands in stark constraint with the permanent exhibit itself, which is a maze of dark corridors and niches. Perhaps the intent is to convey the claustrophobia and psychological pain of apartheid. But for a museum that takes about 2-3 hours to explore in depth, it’s a lot of time to jostle between exhibits. We went relatively close to opening time on a Wednesday in the low season, and parts of the museum still felt crowded even though in reality there were not that many people present. The exhibits themselves rely mostly on reading, the artifacts felt incidental and at most illustrative rather than integral; supplements to the textual narratives that did not receive additional interpretation. It was left to the visitor to figure out how the objects reflected the ideas being discussed in the nearby text panels. This was made even more complicated by the addition of contemporary artworks through the exhibition hall. While these were often beautiful and effective additions, they received no labels explaining the intention of the artist or how the work connects to the surrounding historical material.

Obviously, with a difficult subject like apartheid, it’s understandably inadvisable (and even offensive) to try to create some kind of master narrative. The most effective sequences were those that introduced historical specificity and had a concrete sub-story with defining characteristics. At about the midway point through the museum is an interlude featuring the photography of Ernest Cole, a black photojournalist whose book, House of Bondage, documented the horrors of apartheid. The corridor of Cole’s work tells the story of apartheid through the lens of one man’s extraordinary work. Both the visual cohesiveness of the presentation and the coherence of the story made this really stand out. Another instance was a theater that played (often gruesome) documentary footage of the “state of emergency” of the 1980s. Scenes of marching and rioting in Soweto were particularly meaningful after witnessing the calm, friendly atmosphere of Orlando West earlier in the week. These moments in the museum cast light on the lived experience of apartheid, and illustrated how the restriction of movement through the country was a key aspect of white minority rule and the suppression of the black majority and other ethnic groups.

Whatever its ups and downs, the Apartheid Museum is a living institution. This is a work in progress, which dissects a history still very much part of the present. The current conclusion of the museum is a video exhibit on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, convened to try human-rights violators from the days of apartheid and decide whether they should be pardoned or imprisoned for their crimes. This Commission generated thousands of hours of testimony and a corresponding amount of paperwork. If anything, the nature of the Apartheid Museum makes it clear how much South Africa has yet to unpack from its recent past. This will be an ongoing project, not something that can be nicely wrapped up in a single feat of public history. The restorative public history work of the museum will only be accomplished over time. For now, in my opinion, it’s best to think of the Apartheid Museum not as the single definitive visitor introduction to the recent history of South Africa, but as part of a constellation of sites (including those discussed above) that together reveal diverse facets of this multi-vocal and unfolding story.

Fashion District

How have South Africans used their (relatively recent) constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of movement? For many, the landscape of post-apartheid has seen the demographic shifting and transformation of neighborhoods and whole city districts. No longer restricted to whites and black workers holding city “passes,” the center of Jo’Burg has become significantly more diverse.

Earlier today, we toured the “Fashion District” of Johannesburg, a district of former offices and some light industrial work (primarily textile production). Today, this area is home to a vibrant immigrant community from other African nations, predominantly Ethiopia. Despite the systemic problems of unemployment in Jo’Burg, the city is still viewed by many other Africans as a center of economic potential. Retailers serving that community (and also selling wholesale to other retailers to sell in the townships) are currently operating out of these old office buildings. Malls of four or more floors operate on the margins of legality and according to our tour guide, Professor Hannah Le Roux, are subject to frequent police raids that confiscate legal and illegal (counterfeit) goods. Even though apartheid has officially ended, vulnerable populations are still not protected from policing and systemic violence.

Ethiopian cultural store, housed in a 1930s African Art Deco building that was previously a suite of doctor’s offices. Photo by SR. 

The Fashion District is not a part of the officially sanctioned tourist landscape of Jo’Burg—without a guide this experience would have been daunting to say the least. This is a shame (as a side note, “shame!” is a favorite South African filler word), because it is very much emblematic in some ways of the city’s present— a global metropolis plugged into a worldwide network of trade, comprised largely of goods from China, but also of locally-produced goods, and serving very specific local communities. It has also been the subject of substantial investment, including a zone where old industrial building stock has been razed and new storefronts raised in the hope of supporting local clothing designers. But the community in the area seems to recognize a carefully-engineered master plan when they see one, and this “gentrified” area was markedly vacant even as crowds swarmed the tiny stores hawking shoes, curtains, bags, and blankets just across the street. After decades of apartheid, when most of Jo’Burg’s population was forced to live in certain areas and in certain kinds of dwellings, the right to self-determination in the built environment seems like a freedom that many residents, whether born here or newly arrived, are ready to express fully.

There’s been so much more that we’ve seen in the last few days. This post has only scratched the surface, but there are more posts and podcasts in the works. Stay tuned.

Urban Geography: Gold Rift

With a greater metropolitan area of about 8 million people, Johannesburg is the largest city in Africa, and the largest cities in the world not built next to a major body of water. The sprawling, low-density fabric of the city has been woven rapidly and oftentimes without a well-developed urban plan. Less than 150 years old, Johannesburg is literally and metaphorically pock-marked by its intertwined history of gold mining and racial inequality. Reminders of both surface throughout the city, in the form of abandoned gold-mining shafts and the still evident racial divides that characterize many neighborhoods. Over the last two days—during which time I’ve been in the archives looking at historic photographs and urban plans for Jozi, and out exploring the city on the ground—both of these aspects have come repeatedly to the forefront. I’ll cover the gold-mining landscape in this post, and return to the issue of human geography in my next installment.

Gold mining headgear preserved downtown. During our bus tour, we saw headgear all over the city – as heritage object, abandoned in situ on old mining sites, and recycled as tourist attraction. Photo by SR.

In its early days as a rough, frontier mining town in the Transvaal (the independent state ruled by the Dutch-descended Boers in the late nineteenth century), Johannesburg developed largely in response to the continual process of excavating gold from the massive reef beneath the city. Due to reasons that geologists still do not entirely agree on, the reef below Jozi slopes downward at an angle, meaning that some areas have gold very close to the surface while other locations require the construction of very deep shafts. As the mining camps expanded to access the deeper mines, the city shifted in response. The wealthy “Rand lords” who owned the mines moved north, building extravagant mansions in the hills looking out over the mine town. Worker housing for white workers and carefully controlled compounds for black workers ballooned as further deposits were discovered and exploited. Today, the mining belt is still visually evident in the landscape, as massive ridges formed by slag heaps. Although gold mining as an industry has declined over all, there are active mining sites through the city (as indicated on the map below). Additionally, the chemical processes for extracting gold from “banket” (the conglomerate rock that contains trace amounts of gold) have improved over the past century, and today some of the previous sites are back in operation as old slag heaps are processed to remove the remaining gold.

Slag heaps, currently being reprocessed to extract additional gold. Photo by JG.
Diagram of gold mining areas in and around the Gauteng province of South Africa. Based on map from The JoBurg Book (see references below). Created by SR in Concepts.

On the whole, however, Johannesburg is now a mostly post-industrial metropolis (I’ll discuss the exceptions in a later post). The transition process from an industrial to a post-industrial economy has been consciously a part of the city’s urban planning considerations since at least the 1950s. On Friday, at the archives of the architectural library of Witwatersrand University, I was able to view several urban planning documents dating to the 1950s and 1960s, which dealt explicitly with the transformation of Johannesburg. This is the same time frame in which apartheid was being fully developed as a strategy of urban spatial coercion, and it was fascinating (and frankly, rather horrifying) to see the ways in which racial segregation was covertly bound up in the rhetoric of urban economic redevelopment. During the era of apartheid, the gold belt became an even more explicit dividing line, separating the black townships to the south and the white suburbs to the north.

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Based on a  “Structural Diagram for Greater Johannesburg” featured in a 1962 city planning document. On the original document, there is no reference to race, only economic zones, but in the textual descriptions accompanying, the implications of the new city plan are clear. Thanks to the archives at the University of Witswatersrand for providing access to their collections.

Yesterday, John and I went into full tourist mode and undertook a hop-on-hop-off bus tour of Johannesburg. Our tour took us on a loop through a wide swath of the center city, revealing how the imagined boundaries and divides from those earlier urban plans actually played out on the ground. We also took a trip to the “Roof of Africa” – the fiftieth floor observation deck in Carlton Tower, Africa’s tallest building. From there, the scale of the post-industrial landscape was even more evident. The dune-like heaps to the south looked not entirely dissimilar from those that appear of the fringes of the 1960s aerial photography I had seen the previous day. Looking back on a recent visit to another historic mining town, Colorado Springs, I was struck by the extent to which mining in Jo’burg has remained such a palpable part of the lived experience of the city. In CO Springs, by contrast, the city’s gold mining past manifests largely as place names. The marks on the built environment and landscape have been largely covered over, except for the few nostalgic tourist attractions where visitors can still pan for alluvial gold.

View from the “Roof of Africa” towards the Southwest, showing transitional gold mining areas.
An aerial view to the Southwest, undated (likely late 1950s or 1960s). Archives of the University of Witwatersrand.

What does it mean that Jo’burg’s industrial past is still so viscerally present in the city? As part of South Africa’s journey to democracy, many places that embody the injustice of apartheid have been carefully preserved to correspondingly preserve the human histories they house. I would argue that even though many of these industrial sites are not being intentionally preserved as heritage sites, their presence in the city serves a similar mnemonic function. It is hard not to gaze up at one of these towering mounds of yellow slag dirt without imagining the people and machines that created them.

In my next post, I’ll explore how the industrial landscape explicitly connects to racial politics through case studies at Constitution Hill and the Worker’s Museum, and why “freedom of movement” plays such an important role in South Africa’s constitution.

References

Brodie, Nechama, ed. The JoBurg Book. Northlands, South Africa: PanMacmillan South Africa, 2014.

Leggo, V.R. “The Elements of a Plan for the Witwatersrand Metropolitan Area.” Report submitted as part of the requirements for the 1962 Final Examination of the Town Planning Institute.

Artifact Vomit

Johannesburg, Day 1

After sleeping 11 hours, John and I woke up to the busy morning sounds of Saxonwold, the tree-lined suburb where we are staying in Johannesburg. After a languorous coffee with our AirBnB host, we walked to the nearby South African Museum of Military History. The museum, ensconced in a stanchioned concrete barrier, does not feel out of place among the fortress-like walls and electric fences in this residential neighborhood where each house feels like a secluded compound. Occasionally, glimpses of follie roofs or flower gardens peak tantalizingly above a roll of razor wire or through a gate. Cameras and guard dogs are ubiquitous, and full-time security guards are not infrequent. During daylight hours, the streets are relatively devoid of pedestrians, besides the occasional jogger or household staff member commuting to or from a job.

Dutch-inspired rooflines above an electric fence. Photo by SR. 

The Museum of Military History is situated next the Johannesburg Zoo and a World War I memorial designed by Edwin Lutyens (blog post on British colonial architects coming soon!). Inaugurated in 1947, the original building is long and warehouse-like, punctuated by three square towers. The structure feels overtly and purposefully militaristic, as if the tropes of army engineering (watchtowers, fences, etc.) have been co-opted into the standard corporate architecture of the period (buff brick, well-proportioned casement windows). Beyond the original building sprawls a variety of newer structures—partial sheds to cover the outdoor artifacts and industrial-sized exhibition halls with trussed metal roofs. As we browsed outside, the participants in a conference on corrosion milled about on the lawn, eating their sandwiches amidst a dozen WWII tanks.

Main building, Museum of Military History. Photo by SR.

And the exhibits themselves? This museum suffers from what John astutely termed “artifact vomit.” This is an affliction that many history museums suffer from, but especially those focusing on periods after the industrial revolution. A few years ago, I attended a talk by a curator from an agricultural history museum discussing the particular challenges of managing an institution where everyone wants to give you their grandfather’s tractor. But each mass-produced tractor doesn’t have the same “aura” (paraphrasing Walter Benjamin) as a single, original artifact such as an oil painting. And unlike other reproducible objects (think prints and photographs), things like tractors take up a lot of space. The curator has to make the charged decision if one tractor reveals something more than another, or whether twenty tractors tell a better story than one tractor. The sheer burden of stuff starts to overwhelm the narrative – as each artifact is asked to speak for itself without interpretive context. The weight and size of the items renders it difficult to easily reconfigure the exhibition space to accommodate new narratives, so artifacts are frequently clustered by type, or sometimes with little taxonomic justification at all. And although true aficionado of tractors (or in this case, tanks) might find iterations of nearly identical artifacts fascinating, an observer without previous expertise quickly experiences fatigue.

John ponders a long line of artillery. Photo by SR.

The few moments of genuine interest among innumerable machine guns, regiments of costumed mannequins, and glittering fields of field medals were those that honed in on a unique, immediately graspable story. For instance, there was a small exhibit of art produced by Italian POWs held in South Africa, who were given art supplies to keep them busy (though I have to wonder what happened to the POW who made an oversized bust of Mussolini). And, despite being told with an overwhelming amount of text, a few captivating panels revealed the history of South African anti-war activists, many of whom were motivated more by hatred of the British than by ideological pacifism? These are both stories that relied on text and carefully curated object groupings, rather than arrays of nearly identical artifacts. Critically, these were also stories that conveyed a sense of place, capturing the unique experience of South Africa and its people, rather than lumping it in with Britain and the rest of WWI or WWII.

All of that said, this is a museum that has existed since 1947, since which time history museums and their curatorial standards have changed radically. Managing a growing collection of massive artifacts while incorporating stories of more recent conflict (and ways of telling those stories) is undoubtedly an ongoing challenge. And fortunately, there are now examples that prove the possibility of curating mass-produced military goods in a meaningful way, by using those artifacts to illuminate and vivify human stories. As a first visit to a museum in South Africa, this experience raised many provocative questions about curatorial storytelling in a post-colonial, post-industrial context that I look forward to exploring here over the next six weeks.

7 Days and 35 Hours to Jozi

Welcome to the Rovang Eye.

Welcome to the Rovang Eye, the personal blog for my upcoming year of travel as the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow. For the next 12 months, I’ll be traveling approximately 2.5 times the equivalent of Earth’s diameter to explore the public history of world industrial heritage. As an architectural historian and Americanist specializing in the early- and mid-twentieth century, I’ve spent the last several years steeped in the industrial context of the United States. I’m thrilled and honored by the opportunity to put this knowledge into a global context and investigate a broad range of sites and typologies across four continents.

The Rovang Eye will feature meditations on the built environment written for a general audience. My ultimate goal here, though, is to convey a sense of place, of which architecture is just one facet. So in addition to buildings and urban planning, this blog will touch on food, music, fashion, art, and global politics.

Beyond this blog, I will also be writing more scholarly articles for the Society of Architectural Historians and the National Trust for Historic Preservation (both of which will be up by the end of August). My husband/traveling companion, John, and I will also be producing a podcast called “Sundowners” featuring conversation and sound from our travel experience together.

All of this content can be easily accessed from my website. And please sign up for the Rovang Eye Newsletter, which will be distributed weekly (or whenever I have internet access!).

In one week, I will commence my travel year with an epic 35-hour flight pattern from Albuquerque to Johannesburg. Stay tuned for more from Chicago, Brussels, or Cairo.

Photo credit: Lisa Golden
Photo credit: Lisa Golden