CONTESTED COLONIAL LEGACY – Memory Contested, Locality Transformed
Tutor: Wim Oers
Academic year 2020 – 2021, semester 1, Ghent
Over the past few decades there has been growing public controversy over contested colonial legacy on university campuses, museums, and in public spaces in towns and cities around the world.
The Rhodes Must Fall movement that began in South Africa, the controversy over statues of Robert E. Lee in the US State of Virginia and those of Captain Cook in the Australian state of New South Wales are but three examples.
In Belgium, monuments and places commemorating colonialism, such as the statues of King Leopold II, became subject to controversy. Leopold II was the second King of the Belgians from 1865 to 1909 and, through his own efforts, the founder, sole owner and absolute ruler of the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908.
With the profits generated from exploitation of the natural resources and the population of Congo, Leopold commissioned a great number of buildings, urban projects and public works in Belgium and abroad. These projects earned him the epithet of ‘Builder King’. Several statues have been erected to honour his legacy. Most of the statues date from the interwar period, the peak of colonial-patriotic propaganda. The monuments were supposed to help get rid of the scandal after international commotion about atrocities in the Congo Free State and to raise people’s enthusiasm for the colonialism in Belgian Congo (1908 – 1960).
Leopold’s controversial regime in the Congo Free State has motivated proposals for these statues to be removed. During the international George Floyd protest calling for racial justice (May & June, 2020), several statues of Leopold II were once more vandalised. Several petitions that called for the removal of some or all statues were signed by tens of thousands of Belgians. Other petitions, also signed by tens of thousands, called for the statues to remain. This kind of controversy reflects not only evolving ethics, demographics and worldviews, but also the growing empowerment of previously marginalised voices that are helping redefine our understanding of national identity as reflected in public spaces.
Responses to this kind of controversies are usually made in haste, occasionally in panic, in the face of public protests or social media campaigns. Virtually all are taken on an ad hoc basis, some in violation of local and/or national laws. These decisions can erase or alter memory of historical events and figures, essentially reweaving the texture of public memory and transforming the nature and perception of public spaces.
The subject of our study is the Brussels Throne Square. The square and its equestrian statue are listed as historical legacy since 1989. During the last two decades the statue has been vandalised a number of times and the square became contested because of its narrative.
The problems with these narratives are complex.
Firstly, narratives of colonial legacy largely communicate ideas about masculinity, power and racism. These issues not only date from the colonial and post-colonial periods, but they remain current today. Most countries have hardly taken action to transform colonial narratives; thereby maintaining a so-called status quo. This attitude is inevitably fueling conflict.
Secondly, current problems with ‘legacy’ are also linked to the concept of “Authorized Heritage Discourse” (AHD) which Laurajane Smith featured in her 2006 book Uses of Heritage. AHD is the dominant westernised and elitist discourse about legacy. This, she writes, is a creation of the heritage/legacy industry and excludes non-expert views, promoting a consensus view of history. In addition to creating artificial divides that fail to acknowledge the interconnectivity of legacy, it leads to dissonant, alternative heritages that challenge this discourse in what can be a highly politicised process. In this way the act of heritage/legacy becomes a cultural process through which social groups contest and try to expand their power.
Thirdly, (post-)immigrant activism impacts European cultural legacy and their cultural archive and memory complex, resulting in new ways of visually and textually representing the colonial past. Though the result will never be a final ideal decolonised situation, but it can evince de-essentialising processes in which intersectional perspectives are taken up. New interventions will inevitably coincide with other national and international protests and processes, making it part of a project or movement that produces decolonial counter-narratives to ethno-nationalist discourses. Such situations indicate how legacy is sought to be transformed by demanding greater visibility for injustices from the colonial past, for the resistances against these injustices, and for their implications for the present.
Public space as a place for reflection.
Public space lends itself very well to an ‘inclusive’ debate/discussion/reflection. (In museums only a select group would be reached.) Public spaces as ‘spatial realities’ offer opportunities to open paths to finding resolutions.
Contested histories in public space bring multiple perspectives to bear on historical narratives presented to the public. One needs to pay particular attention to how race and power are implicated in the creation and display of national narratives.
Today, colonial contested legacy is sought to be transformed by demanding greater visibility for injustices from the colonial past, for the resistances against these injustices, and for their implications for the present.
Contested colonial legacy in public space is an important theme for architects and urban designers because it goes to the heart of questions about the role of public space in contemporary society: whether they are merely safe spaces of escapism and places of refuge from contemporary and historic difficulties or whether they can be places of engagement with such difficulties.
Our objective is to produce a number of re-design projects for the Throne Square based on value-based principles that respond to contested historical issues in public spaces.
The aim is to promote design that is responsible and effective, that is perceived as fair, rational, and inclusive by the public, and that can be defended based on a set of transparent principles and processes that respond to contested colonial legacy in public spaces.
Integral to the project is the inclusion of civil society advocates who are seeking to effect change within their communities by fostering awareness of what statues, names of streets and buildings, monuments and other physical manifestations of historical figures and events represent today. Only through examination of current and past controversies by stakeholders on all sides of the issues can frameworks for value-based principles be derived, and only through an open, inclusive, and full understanding of historical context can contested narratives be resolved.
Briefly: we aim for a collective memory in reconciliation based on a shared historical narrative.
Our approach of ‘shared narratives’ intends to counter historical myths in communities that are divided by competing historical narratives, in order to foster mutual understanding and respect. This approach is relevant in nurturing social cohesion in places where existing conflicts have been ‘imported’.
Our discourse on legacy shall be about which changes it can generate rather than seeing legacy as a subject of change (Gisèle Gantois, 2019).
Many ethnic and nationalist conflicts today are rooted in unresolved or unaddressed historical disputes and injustices. These events are frequently misinterpreted or manipulated to serve partisan political ends, often aggravating prejudice, hatred and destructive nationalist sentiments. They can also contribute to tensions and discord in multicultural societies both at the national and community level. We believe that in confronting and overcoming these distortions of historical reality, reconciliation, tolerance and understanding of “the other” can contribute toward laying the groundwork for stable peace.
We believe that addressing contentious or disputed historical legacies can promote understanding, tolerance and reconciliation in divided societies and contribute toward peacebuilding processes.
We point at the opportunities that exist for architects, urban planners and artists to effect change.
They can add new layers of meaning, leading to sustainable interventions and dialogues.
Design research is central to our agenda. The focus lies on experimental, critical and curiosity-driven research that deals with a wide variety of challenges ranging from the conceptualisation of architecture and its virtual modelling and physical fabrication, to the human experience of its material manifestation.
The research section entails:
1 – the design-oriented exploration of a ‘multi-perspective understanding of the past’. We shall dive into the ‘multiple pasts’ with a fresh contemporary attitude (in contrast to the current dominant westernised elitist attitude) to harvest material for the future.
2 – the design-oriented assimilation of ‘visions’ of respected scholars, public-opinion leaders, decisionmakers, and other stakeholders from diverse sides of a conflict to be able to work on multi-layered projects designed to address contentious historical issues in a meaningful and impactful manner.
3 – the design-oriented use of ‘existing guidelines’ to deal with contested legacy (such as those recently formulated by the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation).
4 – the design-oriented exploration of ‘multiple responses’ to complex legacies related to historic injustices, benefaction from colonialism or slavery, and other sources considered controversial by today’s ethical standards.
The output will be a number of design projects (one per group of 3 to 5 students) and thematised publications.
Studio Master: Wim Oers, Dipl. Architect (HAISLG), MSc Arch in AAS (UCLondon), MSc Arch. Cons (KU Leuven)
Literature (chronological – descending)
Tuuli Lähdesmäki, Luisa Passerini, Sigird Kaasik-Kogerus, Iris van Huis (Eds.), Dissonant Heritages and Memories in Contemporary Europe. London: Palgrave: 2019.
Helaine Silverman, Emma Waterton, Steve Watson (Eds.), Heritage in Action – Making the Past in the Present. New York Dordrecht Heidelberg London: Springer, 2017.
Peter F. Biehl, Douglas Comer, Christopher Prescott, Hilary A. Soderland (Eds.), Identity and Heritage – Contemporary Challenges in a Globalized World. New York Dordrecht Heidelberg London: Springer, 2015.
Constantine Sandis (Ed.), Cultural Heritage Ethics: Between Theory and Practice. England, Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2014.
Helaine Silverman (Ed.), Contested Cultural Heritage – Religion, Nationalism, Erasure, and Exclusion in a Global World. New York Dordrecht Heidelberg London: Springer, 2011.
Helaine Silverman, D. Fairchild Ruggles (Eds.), Cultural Heritage and Human Rights. New York Dordrecht Heidelberg London: Springer, 2007.
 The Brussels Throne Square (Place du Trône / Troonplein) is situated along the Brussels Pentagon in the immediate vicinity of the Royal Palace, the Royal Stables, the Brussels Park, and the Central Station. Opposite the square stands the renowned Marnix Building, the former headquarters of the Bank Brussels Lambert designed by the New York architect Gordon Bunshaft (1909 – 1990), a partner in the American architectural firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM). Initially, the 1812 lay-out of the square and its adjacent avenues was by Charles Vander Straeten, the principal architect of King William I of the Netherlands. In 1868 the square was re-designed by Leopold II’s principal architect Alphonse Balat. The equestrian statue of King Leopold II was added in 1926 during the reign of Leopold’s successor King Albert I. The bronze statue was made by the renowned Belgian sculptor and medallist Thomas Vinçotte.