Itohan Osayimwese

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Itohan Osayimwese

Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture

Mike Cohea/Brown University
Germany, the crucible of modern architecture, had a short but significant turn as a colonial power. Itohan Osayimwese is finding strong African roots in the modernist aesthetic of back-to-basics, form-follows-function, less-is-more architecture.

Itohan Osayimwese has, she says, her own experience of the African diaspora. Born and raised in West Africa, with one parent from Nigeria and one from the Caribbean, she moved with her family to Austria when she was 14 years old. She grew up in an international community associated with the United Nations there, learned some French, became fluent in German — “I was a teenager; I needed German to get around” — and traveled with her family in the Caribbean, the United States, Europe, and Africa.

She also had an uncle who was an architect and developed an early interest in architecture that has remained with her.

“I was also very interested in literature, writing, and humanities, and those two interests — the science of architecture and the arts — competed, although later I discovered that science merges with arts very well in architecture,” she said. “At Bryn Mawr I majored in the growth and structure of cities, a unique program there. I chose architecture as my track within that program.”

A Master of Architecture followed at Rice, then a master’s and Ph.D. at Michigan in the history of architecture. She comes to Brown from the faculty of Ithaca College as assistant professor of the history of art and architecture.

Among her current research interests are the emerging roots of modern architecture and the German colonial experience in Africa. “Germany is unique in one respect: It was a colonial power only for a short period of time — unlike, say, Britain,” Osayimwese said. “They started in 1884 and then lost the colonies after the First World War — barely 30 years. But if you go to Namibia today, you will find very strong physical evidence” of the German presence.

The Germany of the late 19th century was industrializing rapidly, Osayimwese said. There was social dislocation and unrest; colonization in Namibia, which was thought to have a climate more conducive to European settlement than elsewhere in Africa, seemed to be a promising strategy. “The actual colonial project was an elite undertaking with the intention of sending masses of lower-class Germans there as an outlet for families who were not satisfied with their lot,” she said.

Despite the experience of other, older European colonial powers that the wholesale importation of European culture, architecture, and political policies was not a workable approach, the Germans attempted to do exactly that. “They believed German traditions were more universal and would work differently than those of the British and Portuguese,” Osayimwese said, “but they realized quickly that this would not work economically. They had to import materials and German builders, and their poorly ventilated stone houses were not comfortable for living.”

One of the German strategies was to develop prefabricated housing that could be sent with settlers to the new territory. “I argue that these prefabricated houses were modern — cloaked in German surfaces and ornamentation, but very modern underneath,” she said. “Some of those structures are still used by government in Tanzania and Cameroon. There were two firms from which the German government purchased prefabricated structures — Christoph und Unmack, based in the small eastern town of Niesky, and F.H. Schmidt of Hamburg. Those two firms became the de facto modernist prefab companies in Germany.”

German architects at the time were absorbing information about non-Western cultures, rediscovering architectural fundamentals and the connection between structure and design. “Architects had always gone to Italy and France for study tours,” Osayimwese said. “Now the German government was sending them abroad — China, the Middle East, Japan, Africa —  as technical attachées at German embassies, advising developing countries on how to modernize. Many of those architects, I learned, were doing their own work, documenting lost cultures, and publishing books in Germany. Those books became an archive for modern architecture.”

The African diaspora and the impact of non-Western cultures in the 20th century remain important interests. In her first semester at Brown, Osayimwese will be teaching a course that uses the material culture of the Fox Point Cape Verdean community and the disruptions of urban renewal in the 1960s and ’70s as a local case study. “People think of Africa as a monolithic thing, but when we do a close study of its history, cultural traditions and so on, we see that it has a vast history of pluralism.”

Osayimwese’s work will likely connect her to other departments on campus — German studies, Africana studies, history. She is also interested in public humanities and the potential for engaging publics beyond academe. “I read President Paxson’s article on the web about the relevance of the humanities,” she said. “I want to be in an institution that believes in the mission of the humanities. I appreciate being surrounded by people who are working in that mission.”

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