Paul Oliver Obituary by Elain Harwood
Only 1% of houses around the world were designed by architects. Paul Oliver, who has died aged 90, devoted himself to studying the remainder, architecture that was of the people rather than built for them. His books on vernacular architecture ranged from Dunroamin: The Suburban Semi and Its Enemies (1981, with Ian Davis and Ian Bentley) to a three-volume Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World (1997), produced with 780 contributors from 80 countries.
An artist by training who became a distinctive commentator on both architectural history and music, especially the blues, he considered himself a generalist, though writing from an architectural background; when pressed, in 1998, he accepted the term “architectural anthropologist”.
His opportunity to develop this perspective came from taking a part-time job as drawing master at the Architectural Association (AA) in London in 1960. When the leading academics Robert Furneaux Jordanand Sir John Summerson both quit, he was left as the principal lecturer in architectural history.
Oliver’s inspiring teaching took two strands. One was the study of modernism, with its emphasis on simplicity, quality and economy. The other was vernacular architecture.
His interest had been aroused when his parents moved to Symondsbury, near Bridport in Dorset, a village with a strong music tradition, a mummer’s play and a close-knit cottage community. Then six articles in the Architectural Review by EA Gutkind, a planner, in 1953 revealed the diversity of traditional building around the world.
The study of vernacular traditions offered ideas on honest construction and functionalism attractive to modern architects, while also contributing to Britain’s emerging conservation movement. An international dimension took hold when in 1964 Oliver was invited to teach at the School of Architecture in Kumasi, Ghana, where his AA colleague John Lloyd was principal. Oliver and his students studied the ways of managing a humid climate and restricted resources, patterns of use and the buildings’ cultural values. His eyes were opened by the housing of the Gurunsi people, compounds with “the formal beauty and logic of pottery”, as he later wrote, which were being swept away for a reservoir and replaced by rows of prefab dwellings that paid no respect to Gurunsi traditions.
The Ghana trip coincided with Bernard Rudofsky’s exhibition Architecture Without Architects at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Although it was important in popularising vernacular architecture as a subject, Oliver was enraged by its emphasis on the buildings as art objects, which he considered patronising. Working with colleagues from the AA, including students from its small department of tropical architecture, he offered a broader cultural perspective in his book Shelter and Society (1969). Further books on Africa, Greece and symbolism in buildings followed.
His greatest love was perhaps sub-Saharan Africa where, under Islamic and Christian influences, architecture predominates among the visual arts. His contributors were architects and anthropologists, but the disciplines seemed entirely separate; only archaeologists took a holistic view, and Oliver considered their approach to be as valid for the present as the past.
He advised on conservation issues in French towns and villages for the Patrimoine Historique et Artistique de la France. The British Council supported research and teaching in East Africa and India, and he worked for the Overseas Development Administration in Turkey, the Balkans, Central America and Mexico. Some projects focused on the vulnerability of vernacular buildings to earthquakes and floods, and the failures of post-disaster housing that had not taken account of the lessons of older cultures.
Oliver became head of the AA’s graduate school in 1971, but left two years later to lead the art and design department at Dartington College of Arts, at Dartington Hall, Devon. He became an associate head of the architecture school at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University) in 1978 and founder of the Shelter and Settlements Unit there. His greatest concern was to safeguard traditions in the face of technological change. He believed that the wisdom, skills and satisfaction of human needs embodied in traditional buildings were fundamental to the housing of millions in the 21st century.
In 1987 Oliver took early retirement, though he continued as a visiting professor, so he could devote himself to his research, stimulated by the suggestion of Alyn Shipton, reference editor at the publisher Blackwell, that he produce an encyclopedia of world architecture. His three-volume study was organised by cultures rather than countries, with the first volume explaining general traits, environments, materials and services. Oliver was particularly proud of sections like that for Ethiopia, which was entirely written by local scholars, while gamely taking on himself areas in which no research existed.
Born in Nottingham, Paul grew up in Pinner, north-west London, the son of W Norman Oliver, an architect, and his wife, the former Dorothy Edmunds. His father was keen that Paul should follow him into the profession, but he lacked any talent for mathematics and turned instead to painting.
At the age of 16, Paul entered Harrow Art School, where he met his future wife, Valerie Coxon (they married in 1950), and began a lifelong interest in African-American music. He trained as an art teacher at Goldsmith’s College, London, and in 1949 returned to his old school, the Harrow county school for boys, as art master. There he established a department teaching crafts as well as art, acted as client for a new building, and introduced an African-American music society after the headmaster refused to allow a jazz club. When he left this post for the AA, the drop in his income forced him to write more music reviews.
In 2003 Oliver was appointed MBE. His archive and photographs of vernacular architecture from around the world are held by Oxford Brookes University. In 2015, photographs demonstrating the inclusive and cross-cultural approach that he championed were exhibited in Oxford as Architecture for All.
Valerie died in 2002.
originally published in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/aug/31/paul-oliver-obituary
Ola Uduku and colleagues at Edinburgh University hosted an excellent workshop this week on West African Modernism, combining some of the sessions with Docomomo Africa. The result was a very rich series of encounters, exchanges and discussions.
Ilze Wolff gave a very poignant paper on Rex Truform, the clothing factory in Cape Town designed by Max Policansky in 1937. Ilze’s investigation goes beyond the built fabric and stylistic qualities of the structure – it considers the workers’ stories and what it was like to be a part of the everyday life of this significant building in the city. Ilze is also publishing her findings and interventions through a series of booklets: see Open House Architecture for more details.
Shantanu Subramaniam presented his recent fieldwork on the community centres and libraries of Ghana. In addition to architectural surveying and cataloguing Shantanu is also considering the environment performance of these structures and testing their ability to modify climate and interior temperatures.
Joe Osae-Addo joined us via Skype and shared his film on modern architecture in Accra. The film presented an autobiographical account of Accra and its modern architecture, as seen and experienced by Joe from his childhood onwards. It is a compelling piece that will deliver far more impact in changing ‘hearts and minds’ than reports and conservation legislation.
You can watch the film here: https://stream.liv.ac.uk/s/hav96uun
We also discussed the DOCOMOMO presence in Africa and whether there should be regional groups [such as West Africa, Southern Africa and so on], to generate a more critical mass and greater influence. The reliance on the fiche methodology was also questioned – or at least its limits acknowledged – and we considered the use of ‘narrative’ and social history as a means of generating meaning, significance and connection to these structures beyond the fetishisation of the physical attributes, and tangible qualities.
On the final day we were treated to a site visit to the new town of Cumbernauld, and Stirling University.
New Film: Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
In 1960 Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities sent shockwaves through the architecture and planning worlds, with its exploration of the consequences of modern planners’ and architects’ reconfiguration of cities. Jacobs was also an activist, who was involved in fights in mid-century New York to stop ‘master builder’ Robert Moses from running roughshod over the city. This film retraces the battles for the city as personified by Jacobs and Moses, as urbanization moves to the very front of the global agenda. Many of the clues for formulating solutions to the dizzying array of urban issues can be found in Jacobs’ prescient text, and a close second look at her thinking and writing about cities is very much in order. This film sets out to examine the city of today though the lens of one of its greatest champions.
In the face of developers and the overzealous parks commissioner Robert Moses, who, in
the 1950s, wanted to run a four-lane highway through the middle of the park, Jacobs and
other Greenwich Village residents and activists organized a formal opposition to the city’s plans.
Through community-driven support, a large neighborhood coalition, a series of public protests, and a years-long letter-writing campaign to officials at every level of city government, Jacobs and her compatriots eventually triumphed and Moses’s park-destroying plan was shelved.
It was a battle much like the one Sanders’s campaign has framed today: a grassroots coalition of regular people fed up with the top-down impositions of the powers that be running roughshod over regular citizens.
Jacobs, whose centenary will be celebrated on May 4, is something of a spiritual soul mate to Sanders. The parallels between their underlying ideologies are striking. And as
Sanders’s popularity and fame continues to skyrocket, it’s time to give his fellow New
Yorker, Jacobs, her due. Jacobs’s fight for Washington Square Park—and for the people’s right to the city—is a story I tell in Citizen Jane (which is produced by one of New
York’s newer grassroots activists, High Line co-founder Robert Hammond).
Like the modern-day opposition to the role of big banks and the political influence of the wealthiest one percent, Jane Jacobs and the Greenwich Village community members were fighting against a power structure that valued its own perseverance over the public it was ostensibly serving. She, more than anyone else of her era, deserves credit for unmasking this unseemly cabal.
A BATTLE FOUGHT IN THE STREETS
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is a story about our global urban future, in which nearly three-fourths of the world’s population will live in cities by the end of this century. It’s also a story about America’s recent urban past, in which bureaucratic, “top down” approaches to building cities have dramatically clashed with grassroots, “bottom up” approaches. The film brings us back mid-century, on the eve of the battles for the heart and soul of American cities, about to be routed by cataclysmically destructive Urban Renewal and highway projects.
The film details the revolutionary thinking of Jane Jacobs, and the origins of her magisterial 1961 treatise The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she single-handedly undercuts her era’s orthodox model of city planning, exemplified by the massive Urban Renewal projects of New York’s “Master Builder,” Robert Moses. Jacobs and Moses figure centrally in our story as archetypes of the “bottom up” and the “top down” vision for cities. They also figure as two larger-than-life personalities: Jacobs—a journalist with provincial origins, no formal training in city planning, and scarce institutional authority—seems at first glance to share little in common with Robert Moses, the upper class, high prince of government and urban theory fully ensconced in New York’s halls of power and privilege.
Yet both reveal themselves to be master tacticians who, in the middle of the 20th century, became locked in an epic struggle over the fate of the city. In three suspenseful acts,
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City gives audiences a front row seat to this battle, and shows how two opposing visions of urban greatness continue to ripple across the world stage, with unexpectedly high stakes, made even higher and more unexpectedly urgent in the suddenly shifting national political landscape of 2017, in which the newly inaugurated U.S. President is a real estate developer, who is calling for a new era Urban Renewal, echoing the traumatic period in which this film takes place. In perilous times for the city and for civil rights, Citizen Jane offers a playbook, courtesy of Jane Jacobs, for organizing communities and speaking the truth to entrenched and seemingly insurmountable powers.
The 6th Conference on Infrastructure Development in Africa, has just concluded with a particular focus this year on ‘Building Resilience through African Urban Culture’. Held at KNUST in Kumasi, Ghana the conference welcomed speakers from Nigeria, South Africa and UK, as well as a host of research papers presented from scholars based in Ghana.
Key note speakers (including Prof. Chike Oduoza, Dr Obuks Ejohwomu and Prof. Mugendi M’Rithaa) lucidly presented the varied and many challenges facing African cities today – with particular focus on energy use, digital infrastructure and the internet of every/things.
Prof. M’Rithaa’s presentation included some very striking map visuals, including the image below that shows the true size of Africa relative to other countries – something that Mercator projection of the world fails to reveal. You can just make out on the poor quality photo below the outlines of USA and India. He also spoke very eloquently on how our solutions must be people centred, rather than imposed solutions. Dr Ejohwomu also challenged us with many provocative questions and themes – including a cartoon showing an emaciated cow and a worker abandoning it in pursuit of an obese cattle. His challenge was that we can’t simply walk away from the problem and that Africa needs us to focus on its problems rather than attempting to flee them in the ‘global north’. This message also reinforced by Prof. David Edwards and Dr. Erica Parn in their presentation.
I gave a presentation on the rich modern architectural history of Ghana, and the infrastructure of culture that exists here. I focused on a series of building types including education, community centres, and libraries, as well as the town planning and historical development of Kumasi.
Nearly 50 papers followed on a vast array of topics as well as a striking art installation on the plight of the African Giant Snail’s ecosystem. A new journal was launched ‘Journal of Built Environment (ISSN: 2026-5409) and next year the conference will migrate to Lagos – we look forward to hearing more from this important gathering.
The two-day Urban Heritage Activism conference will focus on heritage ‘from below’–urban history as it is lived, represented and transformed by local communities in diverse geographies and cultural contexts. Speakers from grassroots movements, academic and cultural institutions will address political ramifications and power struggles related to heritage and introduce the failures and solutions of various activism projects, especially in postcolonial contexts. Contributors will debate contemporary tensions and future strategies for interventions through a roundtable discussion at the end of each day.
In addition to the stimulating conference programme, the Simulizi Mijini / Urban Narratives exhibition Juxtaposing Narratives: Dar es Salaam and Berlin will open at 8pm on Friday 17 March with a cooking performance, live music and a DJ. Walking tours and film screenings will round off the programme of events.
Speakers and moderators: Erica Abreu, Jully Acuna, Yaşar Adanali, Awami Art Collective, Comfort Badaru, Diane Barbé, Shraddha Bhatawadekar, Vittoria Capresi, Jerome Chou , Rebecca Corey, Gabi Dolff-Bonekämper, Matthias Einhoff, Anne-Katrin Fenk, Zinovia Foka, Susanne Förster, Benjamin Häger, Maj Horn, Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi, Sehr Jalil, Leila Javanmardi, Claudia Jürgens, Georg Krajewsky, Rachel Lee, Farah Makki, Sarita Mamseri, Srdjan Mandić, Mansion, Avehi Menon, Philipp Misselwitz, Monika Motylinska, Rishika Mukhopadhyay, Laura Murray, Marcelo Murta, Naira Mushtaq, Cord Pagenstecher, Luise Rellensmann, Ana Luisa Ribeiro, Juliane Richter, Gözde Şarlak, Jona Schwerer, Annika Seifert, Gülsah Stapel, Samaila Suleiman and Mike Terry
Artists: Rehema Chachage, Cloud Chatanda, Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, KUNSTrePUBLIK and Jan van Esch, Umesh Maddanahalli, Michelle Monareng, Patrick Mudekereza, Paul Ndunguru, Nadin Reschke, and Alex Römer