Weitzman student Allison Nkwocha has been named among six finalists for the 2023 award. She has been working on the research discussed below over the past year in her project Igbo Landing and Flying Africans: Landscape, Folklore, and the Future. Nkwocha is a dual-degree student in Weitzman School’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Historic Preservation Program. The Department of Landscape Architecture faculty selected Allison Nkwocha as the department Olmsted Scholar nominee in the spring 2023 semester. Through the national Olmsted Scholars Program, The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) honors students with “exceptional leadership potential who are using ideas, influence, communication, service and leadership to advance sustainable design and foster human and societal benefits.” Nkwocha’s project was the focus of her Master’s Thesis project in Historic Preservation and an Independent Studio in Landscape Architecture.
This is an impressive project as a work of research and a work of design. Can you say a few words about your career focus as a dual degree student in landscape architecture and historic preservation?
I am interested in new paradigms for spatializing and communicating collective memory in cultural landscapes. Through design and research, I strive to explore how memory can relate identity, presence, access, and equity through both spatial interventions and storytelling.
You entered your studies at Penn without a background in landscape architecture--or even specifically in design. Can you tell us about your development as designer and scholar at Weitzman School of Design, through your internships while a student, and if you can, specifically how this interdisciplinary project relates to your growth at Penn and where you might see your direction move from here?
In January of this year, I found myself in the tidal marsh of St. Simons Island, Georgia, travelling down the 3.6 miles of Dunbar Creek by boat. I was looking for the unmarked site of Igbo Landing, the origin point of the Flying Africans folktale, and trying to understand this cultural landscape that is an enduring and evolving collective idea of liberation and resistance in Black culture. I’d spent the prior semester and parts of the previous year researching the folktale as an active Black cultural process that transcended beyond any original geography. The captain and I arrived at the most commonly agreed upon site of Igbo Landing (though the exact location on Dunbar Creek where the ship was grounded in 1803 is unknown). I collected some water in a small container and took in the makeshift memorial someone had marked on their private dock. While I might have been able to logically anticipate that this place would be personally meaningful to me as a descendant of Igbo people, I was struck in real-time by what it meant not only to connect to an ancestral geography, but more deeply and more intangibly, to identify there on the marsh with a collective cultural process.
I entered my graduate studies with a desire to make stories of the past legible in today’s landscape. After a few years spent working in architectural salvage, material reuse, and historic restoration, I initially saw these stories primarily as living on through extant physical materials. In its tangibility, this work left me with a keen awareness of how certain histories and heritages are privileged in their transmission and preservation. Years of lifting, moving, documenting, repairing, and reworking physical heritage gave me time to contemplate the intangible heritages I couldn’t see. Looking beyond tangible remains and the scale of the building, I sought an opportunity to imagine and give expression to these invisible stories in the landscape. I thought this would be best accomplished through the dual study of landscape architecture and historic preservation. My four years in the two programs have been mediated by learning how to move between looking to the past and looking to the future, understanding and defining the overlap between the two fields to develop a design practice and positionality.
A first semester landscape history and theory course introduced me to the concept of cultural landscapes—this is where I began to see how my studies would come together. I explored intangible cultural heritage in my first-year studios at the park scale, documenting experiential aspects of place and experimenting with employing past knowledge, delineations, uses, and materials to reveal the process of time passing in the present landscape. The following summer, I began working at Monument Lab, where our team strove to critically examine the relationship between power and public memory, treating monuments as symbols of this interconnected system. A close study of St. Louis, Missouri through the eyes of 750 residents who had been asked to map the city’s monuments raised questions not only about who gets to remember a place, but who gets to imagine one. These questions weighed on me in Philadelphia as I protested systemic racism and police brutality, and they would become central to the rest of my time in school.
I continued to ask who gets to remember and imagine places in my second year of coursework. As part of the teaching team for a restructured theory course, “Critical Thinking for Landscape Design,” I helped develop a new syllabus and facilitated weekly student discussion groups that aimed to examine landscape architecture’s engagement with politics and layered cultural landscapes. I presented personal research on Seneca Village, which explored contemporary modes of remembering and re-imagining an erased Black landscape. Studio provided space to further develop these threads of discussion. Focusing on the neighborhood scale, my two studio teams designed alternate futures rooted in the visions of Philadelphia residents’ whose neighborhoods face development pressures and have long suffered racial, economic, and environmental injustices. We envisioned economic and educational opportunity, mutualism, and connection as means of beginning to heal harm and of continuing to establish agency and equity among South Philadelphia residents.
After gaining professional experience through an internship with Surfacedesign, I began working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund as part of a team of designers, historians, and local community leaders developing an Akron, Ohio Sojourner Truth Memorial. I documented the process and developed a framework for a replicable toolkit for community-led memorial placemaking processes at sites with underrepresented histories. This helped me further articulate the potential of landscape architecture to make invisible stories, knowledge, and cultures tangible. Landscape architecture’s tools could be employed to activate intangibles, making them socially, politically, and economically productive for those to whom these underrepresented histories belong.
The final semesters of my studies have been defined by exploring how I can employ design to develop and respond to my own questions of memory, imagination, visibility, and identity. I undertook an initial independent study of Igbo Landing, asking how its layered temporalities might be treated differently to engage collective memory more meaningfully. Over the past year, I’ve examined this landscape through the lens of the Flying Africans folktale in my independent studio and thesis, which explore how place-based experiences of the Black diaspora express futurity. My work also asks how design can contribute to a Black spatial imaginary and the greater project of ensuring the enduring visibility and presence of Black geographies. I believe that this work at the intersection of landscape architecture, historic preservation, and folklore studies has profound implications for our discipline as it continues to find new ways to engage with and activate cultural landscapes as a record and medium of our histories.
LAF offers these awards to students with the goal of “increasing the influence and impact of landscape architecture in creating a more sustainable, just and resilient future”. Where do you see this project going to further these goals, and how do you think LAF’s recognition will impact your work moving forward?
I see my in-progress design proposal for memorializing a folktale in the landscape as planting the seed for a longer-term cultural landscape study. It will begin with the islands and enclaves of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and eventually extend to analogous international Black diaspora geographies. This Olmsted Scholar prize will help me to continue the next phase of my cultural landscape research, to build coalition with ongoing regional Black heritage protection efforts, and to engage local communities on St. Simons Island. The next phase of my research will document and map other Black oral traditions on St. Simons to construct an atlas. These are memories, stories, and lived experiences that residents have shared with me in conversation or that I have encountered in my research—they range from stories about enslaved ancestors who could cast curses to memories of days spent at Cusie’s Fish Camp on the marsh 60 years ago.
The prestige and recognition that comes with being part of the LAF Olmsted Scholars Program will further highlight and generate interest among designers around the Black land loss prevention work of the Saint Simons African American Heritage Coalition (SSAAHC). The SSAAHC and other regional organizations work to legally protect vulnerable heirs’ property among Black communities and strengthen their ownership through sustainable and economically beneficial landscape operations. Landscape architecture could directly contribute to this work, particularly as it responds to the sea level rise that physically threatens the Lowcountry and has already displaced residents. Building coalition through various types of engagement is a priority that will ground future phases of my coastal cultural landscape study. A Flying Africans event coordinated with planned annual summertime island festivals celebrating Gullah/Geechee culture and local Black heritage would generate public interest and participation in the island’s cultural landscape. A workshop would engage residents and visitors over oral tradition, ways of knowing the landscape, collective memory, and new modes of storytelling. A designed event near the site of Igbo Landing celebrating the Flying Africans would create an ephemeral opportunity for people to collectively engage with the ongoing Black cultural process that is the story.
Thanks for your time, Allison. Any last thoughts or observations from your time as a landscape architecture student at Weitzman School of Design?
In the four years I’ve studied landscape architecture, I’ve seen the field increasingly spotlight public memory and its spatialization. Landscape architecture’s multidisciplinary, multiscalar systems-thinking approach offers a unique means of interpreting and revealing the past to subsequently project new futures. Whether at the geographic scale of an island, a city, or a neighborhood, or the temporal span of centuries, decades, or days, finding new ways to give expression to oral traditions, alternate ways of knowing, and intangible heritages is a vital part of designing for environmental and social justice and resiliency.