A short blog about my time as a CRD Master’s student and my experiences since graduating from UW…

Tuesday 5. April 2022 | By: David Kampfner

For a very long time, longer than I care to remember, I’ve been interested in the adaptation of derelict buildings as cultural and arts spaces - in particular the creative re-use of industrial structures such as abandoned factories.  I spent twenty years working in heritage conservation (one of my projects was the restoration of a historic steamship in east London into a photography gallery for schoolkids) so I was intrigued to read about UW’s new Coastal Communities and Regional Development programme and delighted to be accepted in 2019 - the first intake year.  

My objective was to see if some of the results of ‘real world’ projects that I’d been involved in could be mirrored in qualitative academic research.  I wanted to find out whether creatively repurposed industrial structures can be shown to drive regeneration and socio-economic growth in disadvantaged communities.  I called my thesis Finding the Phoenix Factor and with the support of Dr. Matthias Kokorsch, CRD’s Programme Director (and my thesis supervisor) I set out to conduct 50 stakeholder interviews at 16 disused industrial sites around Iceland. 

Djupavik herring factory.
Djupavik herring factory.
 

I managed to complete the first stage of in-person research before Covid before those dark months of remote working & lockdown forced us all indoors and online, though thankfully a break in the pandemic restrictions over summer 2020 allowed me to resume face-to-face interviews (with safety protocols).  My methodology included participants agreeing to be identified in my research - so I began the analysis by coding 3000 quotes or segments which were then categorised into 42 subcodes using the qualitative data app MAXQDA. 

When the second Covid wave pushed everything and everyone back to working online again I headed back home to France to finish my research & writing over the winter of 2020/21, submitting and defending my completed thesis in spring last year - which meant I could come back to Iceland to join my fellow students at Háskólahátíð, twirling our toques at the convocation/graduation ceremony held at Hrafnseyri on June 17th - the celebration of Iceland’s independence.

Graduation at Hrafnseyri.
Graduation at Hrafnseyri.
 

I did a short speaking tour of Icelandic museums to present the findings of my research – and had a warm welcome from Reykjavík Maritime Museum, Akureyri Art Museum and the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður.  I also had the privilege of sharing my research with the Mayor and residents of Skagaströnd where several abandoned factories are currently being appraised for re-use.  So if you’re foolish enough to want to read about my research (including my conclusions about why so many historic structures are still being lost or abandoned in Iceland) you’ll find more in a blog I wrote for the Regional Studies Association - and if you’re a real sucker for punishment you’ll find an introduction and the full thesis in an article published by Byggðastofnun - the Icelandic Regional Development Institute - who also generously provided grant funding for the research.  And if you’d like to watch a few short videos that I put together describing my journey to Iceland and my experience of returning to education as a mature student take a look at the Back to School vlogs that I filmed while in the Westfjords.

Me and my guide from the Goa Foundation, Bertrand Fernandes.
Me and my guide from the Goa Foundation, Bertrand Fernandes.

Since graduating I’ve been taking time out to enjoy post-Covid fresh air and long walks with my lazy old labrador Star.  Inspired by the experience of writing my thesis I wrote an (as-yet unpublished) book while thinking about what to do next.  I started reflecting on my early student days when as young photographers and artists in London in the 1980s we squatted derelict industrial buildings and turned them into galleries and art co-ops, often drawing attention to their architectural and historical importance and in some cases successfully preventing their demolition.  I’ve always been attracted to the power we have when we work together - collectivism, joint ownership, social inclusion and intergenerational equity – ideas that surfaced during my Master’s research and which are now more commonly referred to in the context of the circular economy and doughnut economics.  I’m interested in investigating who really owns our common wealth and heritage assets, and whether we’re really content for private land rights, rigid property law and profit maximisation to determine whether the landmarks of our history and ancestry should survive or be destroyed, as is usually the case.   Alternative ideas in our changing civil society, often made by the arts and counterculture communities, seem recently to be gaining traction - for societal ownership of significant assets and the preservation of collective capital for the benefit of future generations, by applying ideas such as cultural property law for instance in order to reappraise irreplaceable assets as a public resource.  In short, who really owns the symbols of our collective history and heritage – and under what circumstances might we – should we - redefine their ownership and utility?

Unlicensed/illegal stone mining, Shirgao, Goa, India.
Unlicensed/illegal stone mining, Shirgao, Goa, India.

Rice paddies, Betelbatim, Goa, India.
Rice paddies, Betelbatim, Goa, India.
 

These concepts are currently being developed by several research institutes and thinktanks, including the Long Now Foundation. Intergenerational Foundation, World Future Council and The Elders as part of a growing movement away from conventional economic metrics (such as GDP) towards progressive wellbeing indicators including the UN SDGs – as outlined in a ground-breaking 2019 Icelandic government white paper.  Such ideas might not only help us prevent the loss of cultural heritage but are also increasingly being applied in a wider context to limit natural resource extraction and mitigate environmental damage - as I discovered on a recent trip to southwest India and which I’ve covered briefly in a short video that I’ve attached to this blog - where I met with the Goa Foundation, an NGO investigating and campaigning the wholesale destruction of forests and mountain ranges caused by illegal, unlicensed iron ore mining.

Inspired by my CRD experience at UW I recently wrote a PhD proposal entitled Rising from the Ashes to continue my research on saving Iceland’s built heritage.  I had the pleasure of meeting with Professor Brynhildur Davíðsdóttir, Academic Director of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Iceland last December and last week I was delighted to hear that I’ve been accepted to begin my doctoral research. 

So finally if you’re thinking of coming to UW to study but haven’t made up your mind, or you’re already enrolled and can’t decide on your thesis subject, here’s my advice:  always pursue an interest that you’re passionate about, do whatever it takes to grow your knowledge in a field that excites you, never stop learning by whatever means and at whatever stage of your life you find yourself - and crucially never let anyone tell you you’re not smart enough.  Which just leaves me with one final, research question – as a 61 year old does this make me officially the oldest university student in Iceland?!  If you’re an older student let me know – I’ll gladly buy you a beer and pass you the title! J Gangi þér vel!

 

David Kampfner is a former Master’s student in Coastal Communities and Regional Development at the University Centre of the Westfjords and a researcher and consultant in asset conservation and resource management specialising in the built environment and heritage protection. 

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www.kdclondon.com

 

Djúpavík herring factory and oil tank.
Djúpavík herring factory and oil tank.

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