13 May 2009

Corrado Feroci's Museum in Bangkok

a home far away from home

by Tonkao Panin
Upon entering the Fine Arts University in Bangkok, one passes through small gardens and courtyards before one sees, hears and smells art productions of all kinds. Students walk in and out and sit at small courtyard cafes looking at exterior walls that are never left blank but always adorned with ever-changing images. Despite its many public art galleries welcoming visitors, this is only a tiny university occupying only half of a small street block in the heart of Bangkok’s old city. Its location is just opposite to the prime tourist spot, the Grand Palace, thus the university is at once a public arena and a small private universe, depending upon who you are and why you are there. At once tranquil and lively, it is a place one easily feels at home already on the first visit. A hundred years ago, this was not possible. Such a place simply did not exist.

Art education in an ‘old’ country such as Thailand is something surprisingly ‘new’. And the man who made it all possible was brought in from far away, Florence, Italy. In 1923, King Rama VI sent a request to the Italian government for a sculptor to train Thai craftsmen. The man who came for this temporary task but ended up staying in Thailand for the rest of his life was Corado Feroci, a sculptor from Florence who left his family behind for the task entrusted upon him. Feroci first served the Thai government as a sculptor under the Royal patronage, and was assigned to train Thai artisans of various trades. Shortly afterwards, his reputation as a unique art teacher was known, thus he was asked by the Thai government to establish a curriculum and textbooks for the formal training of artists, which never existed before in Thailand. Thus was the first art school in Thailand born in 1937 with Feroci as its first director, known as Silpakorn School of Fine Arts. In 1943, amidst the turmoil of World War II, the school became the first university of Fine Arts, with Feroci as the first dean. He continued working for Thai government, creating 18 famous monuments, and taught generations of Thai artists until he died in 1962 at the age of 70.

Throughout the 38 years Feroci lived in Thailand, he occupied a rather small studio inside the university. It is located near the school’s entrance, on the first floor, allowing him to observe dynamic changes throughout the day. As he was usually the first person to arrive and the last to leave, everyone would see him working, hear him repeatedly singing Santa Lucia which later became the school’s anthem. Feroci’s years in Thailand were dedicated to rigorous teaching as well as artistic productions. Generations of artists and art students regard him as the father of modern art in Thailand. On September 15th of each year, Thai artists and art students commemorate and pay homage to the man, his life and work that made others’ artistic lives and works possible.

Today Feroci’s working space has been transformed into a museum – its name, once Feroci’s studio and now Feroci’s museum, already suggests the past, something that is no longer current and active. Despite the fact that almost every object in the studio is still present, the place seems haunted without its active owner. When in use, everything was simply an integral constituent of the place, acted and reacted in concert with the man who conducted them. They occupied their logical and participatory locations, though not always composed and tidy. Thus the crucial question for the organisation of this museum is ‘how should all the objects be placed in relation to one another?’ If left in their original positions, the objects may emphasise the sense of missing spirit, so much so that they would simply become ghosts that linger in a place of nowhere. If orchestrated into a composed display, the objects may become just nameless antiques, far detached from the life they once lived. How could such a museum be organised to represent both the life it once housed, and the true sense of time and value the objects hold in the present?

The solution turns out to be quite simple. Helped in that it is less than a hundred square metres in size, everything is organised into two layers of story. While the first narrative deals with the past, the second is aimed at the present. Feroci’s actual and active occupation sets the spatial framework for the place. Pieces of furniture act as architectural elements determining the configuration of the place as a whole. One moves and turns within the small space the same way Corrado Feroci did decades ago. Yet, objects are deliberately ‘misplaced’, for while some are in their logical positions, many are not. A number of objects are set to become ‘active’ reminders of the past activities, but many are orchestrated into an overtly museum-like display. Together they create a strangely familiar place, at once real and unreal, given a sense of both being somewhere and nowhere. In other words, it becomes a place that the memory of Feroci both owns and disowns. As we walk into it, the structural configuration made me feel as if we are probing into someone else’s private life, yet looking closely at objects and art works we are suddenly brought back into our own life and time. It is a place that allows both kinds of experience to constantly fluctuate within the same visit.

A few years ago, Romano Viviani, Feroci’s only son came from Florence to visit the school and the museum. Even though the place his father described in the letters was certainly unfamiliar, he finally acknowledged that however small, it represents a dream, a determination, a sacrifice and a hope for Thai art students. This confirmed the presence of the person he remembered. Upon entering the ‘studio’ Viviani admitted he could no longer picture his father in the place, but somehow it was the smell and sound he used to imagine.

Panin, Tonkao. 'A Home Away from Home' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Tonkao Panin and On Site review

08 May 2009

Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park

When I am President
by Mike Summerton

In central Accra, in the same stately quarter as the grandiose and always empty Independence Square, past the road to Osu Castle where the president lives, and opposite the new national stadium, you should turn towards the Atlantic off 28th February Road before it becomes High Street and the city centre’s de facto main car park. There is a green garden with some strange shapes in it.
Outside top Accra hotels a tranquil, maintained green space with flowering palms, firs and mahogany is a big deal. The Ghanaian capital is aggressively welcoming, and chock-full of mothers and children, animals, footballers, boxers, businessmen, preachers, and taxis and minivans full of them all. Even the cemeteries are full of dancing, singing mourners or folks sleeping off work or malaria. Here, though, birds swoop and wheel on the winds coming off the unseen ocean. Senegal coucals and pied crows. Somewhere in the trees there are peacocks – you can hear them. This garden, empty of people in the late afternoon, must be somewhere special.
Rather than bowl straight in, I shout “Hello! How are you?” to wake up the big woman in the small ticket hut. These encounters are usually fun. We compare the books we are reading. Mine an existentialist novella about a crime of passion, hers a get-rich-quick-through-prayer manual published by a pastor in Richmond, Virginia. We enjoy acting nonplussed at one another until eventually she sells me a ticket and photo-pass for the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park.
At midnight on 6th March 1957, Kwame Nkrumah announced Ghana’s independence from colonial power, the first state in Africa to do so, and also created the country’s first public park. He chose the Old Polo Club in Accra, previously capital of the Gold Coast, to make his declaration that Ghana would ‘manage its own affairs’. The club had been the preserve of British colonials and closed to black people. The choice of location could not have had more resonance. My guide for the next hour or so was the museum’s manager, Stephen, whose commentary was nothing if not rigorous. He immediately challenged my capacity for the interesting facts that he would share until he felt assured that I could take it all in. ‘I can tell your brain is not a paw-paw’ he said.


In 1972 the young Ghanaian architect Don Arthur was in London, having travelled from Moscow where he was pursuing his doctorate degree. Nkrumah, in exile since a coup in 1966, died in hospital in Bucharest, Romania where he was receiving cancer treatment. His body was then buried in Guinea where, in sympathy for the Pan-Africanism he espoused, he had been appointed co-president. Meanwhile, in London, African students gathered to mourn. Many of them had been educated abroad as a direct result of Nkrumah’s education reforms. Together, the African Students Union in London, amongst them Don Arthur, wrote and sent a memo to Guinea asking that the body of the late president be brought to Ghana at such time that the military government would denounce the coup. Thus the project for the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park was born, but it would be twenty years (1992) and two more coups before President Jerry Rawlings decided to commit to honouring the country’s first leader with a permanent memorial. Nkrumah’s coffin was exhumed (it had since been moved from Guinea to his hometown in rural Ghana) and Don Arthur, himself now a Minister was appointed as lead architect and landscape designer.
Arthur re-read Nkrumah’s autobiography and focussed on four key facts: Nkrumah admired Gandhi and his non-violent philosophy; he was inspired by the French Revolution; and by the October Revolution in Russia; as an African he took pride in Egyptian civilisation, going so far as to marry an Egyptian, Fathia.
Arthur then looked to prominent architecture in these diverse cultures and realised that with the exception of the Great Wall of China they contained the ‘seven wonders of the world’. He developed design principles based on the Taj Mahal in India, the Eiffel Tower in France, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Alexander Tower and the Mausoleum for Lenin in Moscow. As events in his lifetime and surrounding his death had proved, Nkrumah, in the minds of his adherents at least, was a global figure deserving of a globally significant monument. The challenge was how to express this sense of monument in an architectural vocabulary that was fundamentally African.

On entering the park from the main gate, two reflective pools (a concept lifted from the Taj) lead you to a bronze statue of Nkrumah. These pools are fed by 2 rows of statues of kneeling pipers. These fountains were never actually on during any of the three visits I made researching this article: ‘Cutbacks’ said Stephen. ‘Broken’ said the ticket woman. Because the sound of the (hypothetical) water is carried by the south-west trade winds coming off the Atlantic, at the point at which you pass the last fountain the sound supposedly recedes and you are left in silence, intimate with Nkrumah’s statue in bronze. Some Ghanaians claim that he was so progressive in outlook that he lived 100 years ahead of his time. The distance from the main gate in to the grounds to Nkrumah’s statue, which is sited on the exact point that he made the announcement of independence, is measured at a hundred steps.
Moving beyond the statue, the strangest shape of all is a truncated swoop in grey marble that reaches up about five storeys. This is the mausoleum and its design, like everything here, is significant. It is designed to evoke a tree stump. The tree has roots and needs water. These are important and perennial concepts in Africa. The trunk is solid but the branches have been chopped down in their prime. Nkrumah’s project was unfulfilled, cut short by the coup d’etat in 1966.
One passes through the mausoleum, finished in kitsch Italian marble, containing the caskets of Nkrumah and Fathia, Nkrumah’s beloved wife. She was buried here just last year. ‘Chop. Chop. Chop’ Says Stephen (‘Eat. Eat. Eat’). ‘What can be said? Our women love to chop and they grow fat. Alas she died’.
Beyond, across a dainty drawbridge, the museum itself is a semi-subterranean single-storey room, faced with a stunning white Modernist-Egyptian frieze dedicated to Fathia. The frieze, my favourite thing in the whole park, has a weird, timeless quality as it appears Soviet on first glance, but depicts traditional Ashanti symbols such as ‘Sanko Fa’ (returning to one’s roots) and circumspection (an elderly woman holding an egg representing the fragility of political power in a cleft stick), all in rigid hieroglyphic elevation.
Inside the museum is a limited but stunning collection of black and white photos. They have the allure of snaps kept in a tin at the in-laws’, brought out to reminisce on family occasions. But these photos show Nkrumah with the pantheon of post-war political icons: standing stern-faced in a VW convertible on his release from Fort James prison in 1951; resplendent centre-frame in a white suit tabling the motion for independence in 1953; in the back of Kennedy’s limousine; at the UN with Krushchev; in tuxedo, quick-stepping with Queen Elizabeth; on a sofa with Fidel Castro; in three-piece tweed with Harold MacMillan; in Mao’s garden in traditional kente cloth; on the tarmac at Addis Ababa airport with the tiny, doll-like Selassie; sharing a joke with Nasser, who handpicked Fathia as Nkrumah’s wife.
However, Nkrumah is not one of those icons himself. I didn’t learn about him at secondary school. He wasn’t assassinated or killed in battle. He succumbed to prostate cancer in exile in 1972. However, he would hands down win the best supporting actor Oscar for post-war leaders. Nkrumah was the engine in developing a Pan-African consciousness and forging links between the developing world and the soviet bloc. I cannot think of any one other figure of the cold-war, post-colonial moment who achieved dialogue with such a range of world leaders.
His moment in the sun, when highlife music set the tempo for an ambitious programme of public works and nation-building, couldn’t last. Ghana stoutly refused to capitulate to the neo-colonial pressure of the US – he steered the country towards communism. This led to a populist coup in 1966 and Nkrumah’s flight to Guinea.
These days, a year on from the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of independence, there is in Ghana a warm nostalgia for Nkrumah, and I feel, having visited the museum, that he represents a lost era when politicians were creating a global consciousness based on alternative ideas and values and debate – things that technology now somehow flattens and stands in for. But what does the place mean for Ghanaians? Stephen tells me ‘this country’s reliance on aid and tourism is not what Nkrumah would have wanted. He wanted self-reliance for this country. He should be resting here after his hard life, but I think that he is not’. I’m sure that Stephen, an active member of the opposition NDC, is only half joking when he says ‘When I am President I will continue Nkrumah’s work – so that the branches can grow to their highest height’.
Summerton, Michael. 'Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Mike Summerton and On Site review

Mike Summerton, or sometimes Smoughton - they are pronounced the same way, was an urbanist and one-time member of the indie group Saloon, who divided his time between London and Toronto, and at the time of writing this article was living in Accra, Ghana. 
A terrible story, he and his wife, Sara Al-Bader, were moving back to London in November of 2010: Toronto hadn't been that forthcoming, Sara was finishing her PhD at University of Toronto, and they were driving to Montreal to catch their flight when they were killed in a car accident.  Two very promising people, engaged in research and projects in Africa, the UK and Canada, no longer with us. 
In Michael's honour and in remembrance of him, we present one of the funniest and most endearing essays we have ever been sent. 

06 May 2009

House of Reconciliation

the metamorphosis of Beirut City Centre Building
by Farid Noufaily
The signing of the Ta’if Agreement on 22 October 1989 marked the beginning of the end of the Lebanese Civil War that had raged since 1975. The war ended in March 1991, when the new Lebanese Parliament enacted the General Amnesty Law, which stated that there were to be no victors and no victims in the war (la ghalib le maghlub). Unfortunately, this law allowed the Lebanese people to turn a blind eye to the ugly truths of the war and ushered in an era of uneasy silence in Lebanon, where no word is uttered, no acknowledgement nor responsibility is taken by anyone surrounding the desperate events of the past 33 years. Today, as Lebanon’s political battle for independence and a unified national identity continues, the government still hasn’t supported the public in breaking the silence. I believe that this legislated lack of collective/public self-expression has rendered both the local and the diaspora populations incapable of reconciling with their traumatic past. Though public confessions, art, film and novels have begun to facilitate some discourse, architecture’s role will be to gather, catalyse, and give voice to the countless victims of the war. The rehabilitation of Beirut City Centre Building (CCB) is an architectural proposal to breach the silence.

A failed attempt at modernism...
A sinister sniper point along the infamous Green Line...
An impromptu brothel during the civil war...
A failed retrofit by the Ministry of Finance in 1992...
A venue for illegal raves in the mid 1990s...
Slated for demolition in 2003...
These are but a few of the many different incarnations of the former Beirut CCB which stands just south of Place des Martyrs and is the only remaining ruin in the centre of Solidère’s newly-restored Beirut Central District. Referred to by locals as the bubble, the soap, the blob or, most often, the egg, the ovoid CCB was cursed by the misfortune of being at the exact geographic centre of the civil war, and has been blackened by neglect ever since the war ended. Even in ruins, the 6,000 m2 building remains a remarkable surviving icon from Beirut’s golden age of Modernist architecture.

Lebanese architect Joseph Philippe Karam designed the CCB in 1965. The urban complex was planned as three blocks: Block 1 would contain five underground floors (total 22,500 m2) for car parking and a taxi service station; Block 2 would be three floors with 144 retail shops, a 1000 m2 supermarket, a 900-seat cinema, a restaurant and a snack bar; and Block 3 was to be three mixed-use towers with eight, twelve, and 21 floors respectively — a wide range of commercial services under one roof.
Karam’s vision was never completed; only part of his original proposal had been built when the war broke out in 1975 — two floors of the base in Block 2, the cinema and one tower. The CCB’s adjacency to the Place des Martyrs, as well as its unique shape, made it a prime target for heavy shelling during the war. After 17 years and many failed renovation proposals, today’s CCB sits vacant, guarded and inaccessible.

CCB promised, as did all modernist architecture, a rational future of increasing peace, prosperity and social justice. History betrayed this promise, and the CCB instead became a powerful symbol of the impotence of modernisation when confronted with unresolved social and ethnic conflicts from the past. The New CCB, proposed here, can be a symbol of national unity through the rebuilding and re-appropriation of what was once a potent symbol of a rational future. The surviving elements of the ruin will be incorporated into the new building. The plan makes use of the remains of the original, housing the many program elements required to address new roles for the building: archive space, both digital and material, indoor and outdoor exhibition space as well as artist residences and state-of-the-art meeting and research spaces. All of these surround the most important space of all, the space of the voice, where citizens are invited to share their account, experiences and opinions of the civil war. The New CCB will stand as a beacon – a place for reconciliation of the past and discussions for the future. The new program begins at the datum of the city street (the present), descends through the strata of the city’s layers to the space of dialogue, memory, and recollection (the past) and finally rises to the commanding contemplative view of the city (the future).

the present: the living monument
By implementing a non monumental program that is part of the everyday life of the city, the New CCB will become a living monument that not only commemorates the history of the civil war, but also celebrates the present. Visitors are free to wander onto the premises of the New CCB directly from the redesigned Place des Martyrs. The various pavilions provide access to the restored theatre (the egg), a café, residential and commercial floors above, and a nightclub. A bus and taxi station south of the CCB will again centralise the transportation network that once ran so actively through Place des Martyrs.

the past: the descent to reconciliation
Below the level of the city lies the ruins and origins of Lebanon. Descending into this void brings one closer to not only the original level of the historic city, but to something sacred. The archives containing the collective memories and voices of the citizens, both patriot and expatriate, are located in the lowest levels, where they are protected from the current unstable and uncertain present. This imagery is not unlike our own escape to the chthonic origins of our hearts, depicted in our escape to the safety of the underground in times of war. Here, the archives frame the Space of the Voice. It is in this space, where whispers echo, that the voices of all Lebanese – regardless of nationality and sect – are heard. Here, the three shared languages – Arabic, French, and English – resonate in the space, and blend, as if one dialogue.

the future: truth and reconciliation archive centre (TRAC)
The archive itself, though effective at storing and encouraging dialogue, is only one step in mastering the past and imagining a bright future for the Lebanese people. The ascent from the sacred darkness is equally important. An elevator links the Space of the Voice (at the archive level) with the privileged Research Level. Perched high above the city, researchers, builders and planners of the future city can cast their gaze from the mountains to the horizon, and to the city in between.

The New CCB will not only become the Space of the Voice amidst a landscape of silence, but a hub for conducting research and promoting art. By gathering, in a single place, a wide range of works and research dealing with the civil war in many media, Lebanon can begin to articulate a unified voice. Rebuilding the CCB will be more than simply revitalising part of Lebanon’s dark past. As its ruins reflect the mindset of a people long ago, its new form will allow for the re-imagination of a unified people and a unified Lebanon.

Noufaily, Farid. 'House of Reconciliation' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Farid Noufaily and On Site review