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Voyaging Vapors: Plant Histories of Plantation Architectures


Persone esterne

Davis William



From historical formation to contemporary moment, the plantation in tropical Southeast Asia is a symbolic example of resource extraction and asymmetric labor conditions. Architectural spaces mediated and scripted this formation in distinctive ways. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the rise of steam powered ocean-going liners marked a new era of resource extraction and trade in the Malay Archipelago. By the late-nineteenth century, tobacco drying barns and planters’ houses; packing facilities in entrepôt port cities; shops, teahouses, and advertising in colonial metropoles, were all fixtures in the architectural pantheon of a globalized plantation culture. Occupying a relatively minor role in this story were Swiss planters who, unlike those of other European nations, were not beholden to vast territorial possessions or the maintenance of a local militia to uphold them in the name of a “civilizing mission.” Eliding dominant nationalist tropes while negotiating “colonialism without colonies” (Purtschert et al. 2016), the Swiss model of plantation capitalism sat at the nexus of planters, their local indigenous counterparts, and an emerging internationalization of plantation culture architecture. Planting tobacco in Southeast Asia was considered an art form due to its capricious nature as a transplant from the Americas, while drying barns utilized Batak traditional construction methods with coconut and nipa palm. Plants were simultaneously crops, cargo, and building materials, giving them an unusual centrality to this process, and presenting an underexplored architectural archive.

This research proposes to investigate the architectures of plantation culture, beginning with Swiss tobacco planting in Sumatra in the 1870s, following the routes of plant species as a methodological framework across geographies. The multi-sited project will be carried out in tropical Southeast Asia, Switzerland, and wider Europe, following the route that tobacco and other cash crops took, from the Malacca Straits, through the Suez Canal, and on into Europe. The historical scope of the project will accommodate nineteenth- and twentieth-century transformations in the architecture of the plantation and its role in environmental change as forerunners to twentieth-century monocrop agribusiness. More broadly, the project takes its cue from studies that engage multiple temporal and geographical frameworks as a creative way to manage histories of the Anthropocene and climate catastrophe.

Architecture, as a material, scientific, and cultural practice, offers a distinctive lens through which to understand the history of plantation systems. Architecture’s material residue—timber, stone, plant materials, masonry, human labor—are intrinsically related to their geographical setting and form the empirical evidence for this project. Re-examining the colonial plantation through the tobacco plant as traveling subject reveals an entangled set of architectural case studies. The project asks the following questions:

• How were plantation cultures and indigenous lifeways in the tropics entangled with architecture in the metropole, conceptually, stylistically, and intrinsically?

• Why was the self-conception and visual culture of Swiss planters and their architectures distinctive?

• As an ethnobotanical-centric architectural history, how did plantation labor and lifeways make their way back to, and become entangled with metropolitan life in European places?

Informazioni aggiuntive

Data d'inizio
Data di fine
48 Mesi
Enti finanziatori
In corso
Swiss National Science Foundation / Ambizione