All Preservation is Local, Except…: Reflections on Conducting Preservation Coursework Abroad by Jeffrey M. Chusid, Cornell University
Chusid: Appetizers will be served shortly after the … Many students want to travel internationally as part of their professional education, and preservation students are rarely an exception. If all preservation is local, what does that imply for the validity or authenticity of course work that places students abroad in a learning that typically has culturally distinct and unfamiliar resources and clients?
I would venture that study abroad is a negotiation between a program that seeks to provide valuable skills and knowledge to its students and client, whether an individual organization or community that has certain goals and expectations of the process. One key to the success of such a venture then is managing expectations on all sides, students, faculty, the academy and local stakeholders.
While looking briefly at four examples of preservation work with students abroad, I’ll touch on the perhaps expected questions of appropriate preparation, project selection and balance between cultural exposure and professional practice. A few caveats. These examples are essentially one off experiences with unique origins. Programs with a long term commitment to a single community or region have different opportunities and challenges.
Second, in all these examples the majority of the students were undergraduates and non-preservation majors. Finally, many of these types of programs inspire to come under the rubric of service learning. However, while the students may wish to do good, especially Americans, those types of programs carry additional expectations and cultural baggage that can be problematic in many international contexts.
There’s a question of what was the most valuable lesson learned from these experiences. I would answer the things I didn’t expect or plan for. To me, that is also the principal reason for throwing ourselves in some place new and different. I suspect each student would answer that question in his her own way. Here are four stories about places, projects and surprises.
Levuka, Fiji, a town of roughly two thousand inhabitants, is the original colonial capitol of the country dating from the mid-nineteenth century, when this group of islands unified and gave themselves to Great Britain in an attempt to escape the depredations of American whalers and others. I became involved because a colleague, Jerry Takano, a preservation architect from Hawaii, had been hired as the Heritage Advisor for Levuka.
After making a preliminary trip in January, 1995 to help Jerry out, I decided to bring a group of USC architecture students back with me that summer. The political situation in Fiji was delicate. It was a quiet period in between coups, and in fact Takano had been put under house arrest upon his arrival until it was clarified that he would only be working with buildings and sites associated with American and European settlement.
Levuka is a self-proclaimed sister city to Lahaina, Maui and had become an important whaling port and then trading site by the early twentieth century, even after Fiji’s capitol had moved to Suva. Levuka was a designated national resource, the only site in the country that was so recognized for its historic character. The others were all natural sites. It was protected under the Burra charter, which regulations were enforced strictly. This is where I lived and that’s what it looked like in the nineteenth century as the British Lieutenant Governor General’s house.
Levuka claims many firsts, including the oldest hotel, Masonic lodge and public school in the South Pacific. All are still functioning. It also has a wonderful collection of religious structures associated with the Catholic, Methodist, Hindu and Muslim faiths.
The eight students I took with me for a two-month stint in Levuka included several who had taken my Preservation Studio. Most had not, however. Our first stop, therefore, was Hawaii, where we joined Bill Chapman and his students at the University of Hawaii for a week on Oahu and Maui, beginning to become familiar with island culture on a Pacific archipelago with imported populations and a sugar cane culture, features Hawaii had in common with Fiji. We also participated in a survey of the township on Maui, an activity we then repeated in Levuka with Jerry Takano.
Besides documentation, we took on two design projects. One was a potential new use for an old cannery on the waterfront. The other was how to accommodate increased growth in the shop keeping families living along the historic main street. The problem was the result of a confluence of several factors, not all of them palatable. First, the buildings were designated, and therefore rigorously protected. They were also occupied by primarily Hindu and Muslim families, descendants of works imported by the British from India in the nineteenth century, and to a lesser extent by East Asians and a few Europeans.
This is typical of towns in Fiji. Essentially all the land outside these urban settlements is held by Melanesian tribes, the people identified by themselves and many others as Fijians, who also live in these rural areas. The only place for the roughly half of Fiji’s population that is non-Melanesian to live is in the geographically circumscribed towns. This is an example of a Melanesian tribal settlement outside the town. If the town doesn’t permit alterations to the existing fabric, then there is a problem.
Our solution was to essentially suggest ways to build up in the middle of the block so that there was no visual change to the streetscapes, but the larger lesson was the overwhelming impact of politics and the influences such choices made by a society had on our options and our own ethics and morality. Fortunately, Levuka was also a rare example in which relations between the various races and cultures was relatively amicable, so the students were able to make friends across all communities.
In 1998, I and a small group of architecture and archaeology students from the University of Texas at Austin joined faculty and preservation students from Columbia and Penn working with UT classical archaeologist Joseph Carter on a major Hellenic site on the Black Sea, Chersonesos, a town in Chora dating from the fourth century BC at the western tip of the Crimean Peninsula in what was then Ukraine and is now Russia. While Carter’s excavations have been going on for some time, a preservation component was relatively recent.
Some of the surrounding landscape. The city of Sevastopol, which is adjacent to the Chora. The area is dominated by the town of Sevastopol, which was founded by Catherine the Great in the 1780s as the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Sevastopol, a city of three hundred and fifty thousand, was destroyed twice, once during the Crimean War and once during World War II when it was besieged for two hundred and fifty days with only four buildings standing by the time the Nazis finally overran the city. In appreciation for tying up the German Army for so long, Stalin allowed the city to rebuild essentially as it had been before, at least in outward appearance.
The strategic importance of the area was long recognized and despite the wars, the long use of the area by Russia’s military kept the Greek ruins surprisingly intact and free from spoilage, as well as providing a ready supply of cadets to help Russia’s archaeologists with their initial explorations. Besides roads, walls, farm buildings, granaries, wineries, irrigation structures and facilities for oil production and storage, there are even vines and olive trees that can be traced back to the original settlements. This is some of the military structures on the site. These are the original Greek buildings, some dating as far back as the fourth century.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the area and its inhabitants were plunged into desperate straits. A city of almost four hundred thousand had lost its main source of income and also the existing Socialist networks for education, health care, and most critically food. The result was near-starvation and large scale usurpation of the archaeological preserve adjoining the city for agricultural land. Here you see [inaudible 09:34] beginning to be set up. The ancient Greek buildings, walls and roadbeds became the building materials for these [inaudible 09:47] and other agricultural structures.
In fact, one of the site’s directors tried to intervene to stop this. When she did, an Admiral had to race to her rescue before her car was overturned with her in it by the starving sailors and their families. Income is produced by people selling the goods that they produce in their farms in the markets in town and this is a celebration of the Black Sea Fleet Naval parade in the harbor.
The preservation students, led by Professors Norman Weiss and Pamela Jerome, were there to document and conserve the architecture that Carter’s group uncovered. Besides assisting them, I worked with another student on developing a schematic for a cultural landscape report for the site. The conservation effort was meant literally to cement in place the stones uncovered and then assembled using anastilosis into the floors and walls of the Hellenic farmhouses. These partial reconstructions were then used as the basis for a series of reconstruction drawings that depicted the structures with their missing wood and plaster upper floors and roofs.
The conservation work on the buildings described in an article in the APT Bulletin included developing a technologically sophisticated new mortar. It, in turn, depended on ready access to basic cement making supplies such as sand. Unfortunately, the only reliable source of anything was the Mafia, which had stepped in to provide basic services to the area as well as to exploit the chaos after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
After trying every legal channel for almost two months to get necessary materials and with time running out the conservators finally made a phone call to local Mafia and the next day what was needed was delivered to the site.
Another dramatic and perhaps ominous example of reliance on the Mafia, however, came out of the conflicted history of the site. After the Greeks, Chersonesos was occupied by Romans and then the Holy Roman Empire before falling to the Tatars around 1300. In 988, Vladimir the Great, the king of Kyivan Rus, conquered Chersonesos and then converted to Christianity in order to wed the sister of the Roman Byzantine Emperor Basil. This event brought Christianity to the Slavs and at the end of Communism the Russian Orthodox Church sought to celebrate the site of the event.
Orthodox priests from Moscow, however, were met with resistance from the site’s curators, who were both more committed to the classical history and maintained that the actual baptism site was unclear. In addition, at the time the Moscow Patriarchate was seen as a bit of an interloper since the area was technically in the purview of the Kyivan Church. This is the nineteenth century church that was built to celebrate Christianity at that site.
One night a black painted helicopter flew over the site and lowered a small metal shrine onto this location, where it was bolted into place. The site curators were then informed that if the shrine disappeared, so would all the site’s pagan history; in other words, everything before Vladimir the Great. Today the site is clearly celebratory of the baptism.
The Bosnia Studio I conducted at UT Austin had a combination of upper class undergraduate architecture students and grade students in architecture and historic preservation. It was intended to feed into an ongoing ten-year long effort launched in 2004 which was begun by a Bosnian architect, Amir Passage, after the 1994 destruction of the historic bridge in Mostaf built by the Ottomans in the sixteenth century, at the time of its destruction still the longest single span stone arch in the world.
Mostaf is a city of about a hundred and ten thousand people located on the border between Muslim Bosniak and Catholic Herzegovina parts of the country. It was the front line in the civil war for years, first under attack from Serbs and then from Croats. The death and destruction was staggering. One of the most challenging aspects to reconstruction was that most of the original population of this city fled in the early stages of the war, many to Norway and other communities far from the Balkans. The population today is largely made up of people who in turn fled to Mostaf from other parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Each summer Passage hosted an international two-week long workshop with up to eighty students and faculty from around the world participating. These were initially held in Istanbul until the civil war ended and it was safe to hold them in Mostaf. Our class was going to participate in the sixth workshop in the summer of 2000.
During the prior spring semester, I assigned my students three design project. The first two were a replacement bridge, an exercise meant to familiarize them with the urban form of the city and the role of the river and its bridges, and a new home for a Muslim family, which was meant to explore the nature of the traditional mahalas, the European for of Islam practice there, and questions of identity and self-expression after the war. The third project was the adaptive re-use of a large nineteenth century school building.
Along with the Studio, I organized a lecture series with talks by architects, preservationists and historians from the US and the Middle East, including John Kaleem, Pamela Jerome, Rick Harrington, Sammy Unguwy, Buland Bulawanga. I also arranged for an exhibition of drawings and photographic documentation of historic Mecca.
Almost all of the students made the trip to Mostaf, which was preceded by a tour of Zagreb, Split and Dubrovnik and followed by a week long visit to the three Ottoman capitols of Ederna, Bursa and Istanbul. On arriving in Mostaf, we found the workshop frustrating because it became clear after a while that it was meant primarily to keep the world’s attention on Mostaf and its pressing needs for reconstruction and secondarily to give students the opportunity to experience and confront the realities of conflict and its consequences on communities and places. What it wasn’t was the kind of professional service that many had arrived expecting to do.
The most effective part of the trip then occurred during the second week when the students were set free to make up their own projects based on what they had seen and what they each felt they needed to address. This was in truth field work as therapy, but also reflected the reality of a ten-year effort running a bit out of steam midway through. Many students just walked on to sites of destruction rebuilding and asked to help. Others spent days talking to local families about the war and its impacts. Few were able to maintain professional distance or use their design skills.
The Diggi project was the result of a desire to visit India by members of an undergraduate student organization at Cornell, MILO, or the Minority Student Organization in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. I had been conducting research on modern architecture in India for several years, Michael Tamran on traditional architecture there for even longer, and so we were approached about leading the trip.
The students wanted to include a service learning component, in part because it gave them access to some more funding. They had to raise the forty thousand dollars required for twelve students to travel to India and then spend three weeks exploring. Through some of my own connections I came up with a project that seemed reasonable for a diverse group of undergraduates that included architects, planners, artists, and even people from the School of Industrial Labor Relations, surveying documentation from a small historic town that could be used for the development of a comprehensive plan for the community.
Diggi is a town in rural Rajasthan of roughly seven thousand inhabitants that host up to a half a million pilgrims during an annual pilgrimage in the monsoon season with an apparently eleventh century temple as the destination. The walled town also has a fort complex with structures from the seventeenth century and later as well as step wells and many other interesting structures.
Two Indian architects were critical to the effort. One was a former student who had accompanied me to Crimea and although now based in New York fortunately was in India at the same time as we were. The other was the local architect from Delhi whose client was the king of the town, Ravi Kamal of Kamal, Trotagy, and Associates. Kamal had not only identified the project for us, but also had prepared base documents for the project.
Despite several lectures given before we left and claims amongst the students of travel experience, these students were really not prepared for India, especially as it happened a bitterly cold north India in wintertime. As the MILO president admitted to me when arriving at this small, poor, dusty town that was to be the focus of our efforts, I was kind of expecting the south of France but with saris.
In the town students divided up to document the community both by geographical area and by topology. They took photographs, made drawings and conducted interviews with the assistance of translators whose English itself often required translation. Invaluable in all this was the king, who had arranged for a fee housing and food for us as well as who also spent time along with son walking the town with the students and telling them about the family history. A map we prepared and some of the other documentation and then a presentation that we made at the end of our week work.
The immediate results of the trip included an exhibition at Cornell by the students. A followup seminar led to the production of material that needed heavy editing and additional research before a ninety-page report was issued last year. It was a highly top down process with an educated professional architect working with local king to develop the project and receive the results.
The report had several goals, all of which were apparently met. First, the team sought to use its outsider lens and naivety to see and comment on things in a way that might reinforce and broaden the sense of what was valuable and worth celebrating and preserving.
Next, the team sought to bring a multi-disciplinary perspective to understanding Diggi in a way that its limited history of recent poor interventions suggests it had been lacking. We looked at everything from jobs to health care to bird life to traditional architecture to transportation to infrastructure.
Third, we wanted to provide an attractive document that celebrated the town which could be used for fundraising and to secure political advantage at the state or national level. In other words, while I was trying to teach some basic preservation planning concepts to the students and fulfill a service learning requirement in a way that advanced their intellectual and professional development, I was also cognizant of needing to provide a piece of political ammunition to a local dignitary operating in a very different social and cultural milieu from any of us. Hopefully, Mr. Singh received from the exchange something equal to the remarkable experiences and lasting memories I and my students gained from the trip. Thank you.
Many students want to travel internationally as part of their education, and preservation students are rarely an exception. But if “all preservation is local,” what does that imply for the validity or “authenticity” of coursework that places students abroad, in a learning environment that typically has culturally distinct (and unfamiliar) resources and clients? What kind of preparation is required before a trip, and what level of direction should happen on site? And what expectations should there be for the results?
I have conducted preservation studios or workshops in Fiji, India, Ukraine, and Bosnia (as well as in Texas, California, Louisiana, and New York), beginning before I truly understood the implications of what I was doing and continuing for several decades during which time my sense of what foreign travel means and who benefits has evolved. Discussing several of these trips briefly, I will explore how the already well-known challenges and opportunities of service learning are magnified in an international setting, and suggest how the lessons students learn abroad can be applied at home. Of course, an additional wrinkle is the growing percentage of students in US preservation programs who are doing this in reverse: for them, studying preservation abroad means coming here. Traveling with multi-national teams adds more interesting perspectives to the questions raised above. Some of the specific issues I will touch upon include identifying stakeholders abroad, leaving a meaningful product, negotiating local politics, and crafting the educational experience for the students.