The work of Amâncio (Pancho) Guedes for the Swiss Mission. An ethnographic and historical account of modernist colonial architecture in postcolonial Mozambique

Drawing from theoretical and empirical approaches of anthropology and ethnography to answer questions concerning the history and theory of architecture, this Ph.D. research intends to document the history of production and the current social, political life of a selection of buildings commissioned by the Swiss Mission to the Portuguese émigré architect Amâncio (Pancho) Guedes during the long-lasting Portuguese colonization of Mozambique which ended only in 1974 with the independence of the country. 

Through the localized study of Guedes’ architecture for the Swiss Mission in Mozambique, the research aims to contribute to the broader historiography of post-war ‘modernist architectural diaspora’ (Sharp, 2005) beyond the European metropolises. The thesis brings attention to this country, still profoundly overlooked in the broader discussion of colonial modernism today and to this specific segment of the work of the ambivalent figure of Pancho Guedes: ‘alter-modern’ (Gadanho, 2007) architect, educated in Africa, who spent most of his life in the colony. 

Shading light on his artistic, social, and political position, the research also wishes to enhance the understanding of the role of the religious institution of the Swiss Mission in the country. 

The collaboration between these two actors led to the creation of a consistent amount of worship and educational spaces across the country. The Ph.D. intents to critically examine the spatial agency of these spaces in fostering an ‘African consciousness that was broader than the early ‘ethnic’ consciousness, and encouraged a national rather than a local perspective of opposition to Portuguese oppression’ (Cruz e Silva, 2001). 

The study aspires to understand the significance of these spaces as political spaces (spaces of agency) during the late colonialism and in the contemporary postcolonial and neoliberal Mozambique. In this sense, the investigation points to going beyond an evaluation of modern colonial projects through welfarist terms of success and failure, instead of focusing on the aligned and unexpected relations that they set up’ (Le Roux, 2014).

The chosen case study works as a paradigmatic example to contribute, methodologically speaking, to the interdisciplinary fields of historical anthropology, integrating approaches derived from liminal fields as material culture studies (Buchli, 1999) and architectural anthropology (Amerlick, 2001). 

Through the employment of ethnographic methods in historiographical research, the inquiry wishes to discuss methodological issues of current ways of writing about modern colonial architecture in postcolonial times from architecture historians. It positions itself in the tradition of cultural history: a ‘history from below’ (Sharpe, 1991), adopting what Lloyd (1993) describes as the ‘attractiveness of anthropological method’ for historians, which permits ‘a dynamic interest in culture to the historical study […] by way of «scale reduction». Large questions are posed to intimate settings.’

A visual essay is meant to constitute the backbone and the narration guideline of the theoretical dissertation, combining images conceived as historiographical sources in archives and images as ethnographic outputs of the fieldwork, theory-generating in the anthropological sense.

Supervisor: Prof. Till Förster 

Co-Supervisor: Prof. Tom Avermaete (ETH Zurich/gta)


Silvia Balzan is an architect, a graphic designer, a PhD candidate at the Cultural Anthropology Department of the University of Basel and a research assistant at the Visual Communication Institute of HGK FHNW Basel, where she is part of the SNF funded research project “Visuelle Kommunikation in partizipativen Stadtplanungsprozessen”. She holds a master’s degree in Architecture from IUAV University of Venice, Italy and TU Delft, NL and an MA in Visual Communication and Iconic Research from FHNW of Basel, Switzerland. Prior to starting her research at FHNW Academy of Art and Design University of Basel, Silvia worked for architecture offices, clients and teaching institutions such as the Urban-Think Tank’s Chair of Architecture and Urban Design at ETH Zurich.

Portrait Silvia Belazan

Silvia Balzan
Social Anthropology 
Rheinsprung 9/11
4051 Basel, Schweiz