UCL Engineering Exchange


10 Questions with Tom Davies

18 July 2018

The heritage and community doctoral researcher talks about Khalil Gibran, Blackadder, and neighbourhood parties

A photo of Tom Davies standing outside a building site

What is your role and what does it involve?

I’m a doctoral researcher at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO), Norway. My experience in heritage and community enables me to look at the relationship between heritage and use in Post-war ‘Brutalist’ architecture. I want to understand how communities perceive these buildings as heritage - a perspective that barely features in heritage planning today - and how we might develop planning and heritage to help communities make beneficial changes to their homes. I have a background as an archaeologist and heritage planner, and have long been aware that heritage and supporting the changes communities need do not necessarily go hand in hand. For me, the PhD is an opportunity to work with communities to explore real need for change, and see how we can use that to improve the approach we take in heritage and planning.

What is your experience with community-engaged research?

My route to community-engaged research has been through a mixture of happenstance and opportunity. After a project working on the heritage protection plan for Ålesund, west Norway, (which I was thoroughly unprepared for!), I took a master’s degree in Sustainable Heritage to redress the balance. This changed my understanding of how heritage can build community. Since then, I have been fortunate to work in an array of professional and voluntary opportunities, from planning for miniature Icelandic turf-houses in Norway as a children’s play area, to understanding community affiliations to concrete dams and power-stations. This has all contributed to the PhD.

I also recently attended the Engineering Exchange's CPD training 'Skills and Strategies for Community Engagement' and blogged about the experience here and here.

What are you most proud of, in work or in life?

My family and daughters, but also setting up and running the Sofienberg Festival, a street party to celebrate the history of the Oslo district where we live. Three of us worked tirelessly for months and were rewarded with a day-long party under glorious sunny blue skies (not a given in Oslo) with live music, a market for local businesses and a history exhibition, and cartoon caricatures of Oslo University professors who are connected to the district, together with historic photos and stories in an empty shop. I learnt a lot about my district, such as the time a German ambassador tried to blow up Britain with bombs inserted into coal in Sofienberg attics, which were to be smuggled onto English railways. My highpoint was after leading a group of festival-goers round on an historical tour of the area, turning back into our street to the sound of the Oslo band Twintoulouse belting out one of my favourite tracks, surrounded by happy people.

What saying do you try to live by?

Partying with your neighbours builds community and a home.

If you could meet any person, at any point in history, who would you choose and why?

Khalil Gibran, author of The Prophet. A close friend gave me his book of prose poetry while I was working on a Roman excavation in Turkey in 2000. From first reading, I’ve found its insights really inspiring, and have carried it round from dig to dig for years. I’ve read about Gibran’s life, and discussing his interests – such as Islamic art, Romanticism, pre-Raphaelites and surrealism – over dinner with wine would be a heady mix! His work spans Arabic and Western culture, which is especially relevant today. The Prophet shows how we should be focussing on values and humanity, not division.

Which album, film, TV boxed set and book would you take on a desert island?

Album: Inna De Yard’s The Sound of Jamaica. The pared-down acoustic reggae tones of piano, drums, voice and guitar would really suit all the sunset piña colada evenings on the beach.

TV boxed set: Blackadder, for a healthy dose of humorous cynicism.

Book: John Fowles’s The Magus. By far one of the most enchanting stories ever written and a lesson about life for me when I first read it aged 18.

What do you think is the most important quality in a friend and/or colleague?

Humour. Many of the other important things, such as tolerance, perseverance and integrity, are only made possible by our ability to laugh at ourselves and at each other, which makes all else flow much easier.

What do you like best about where you live?

We live in Squeezegut Mansions, a tiny converted horse-stable in a block in central Oslo, where we are right in the middle of our neighbours and the other residents in the collective. I love the everyday socialness of bumping into each other and nattering, or sitting out with our neighbours in the evenings with a glass of wine and seeing who joins us.

If you could be Mayor of London for a day, what would you do?

Declare a holiday and have a citywide street party: a massive Notting Hill kind of thing with a million floats!

What opportunities for community-engaged research are coming up for you or your organisation?

I’m working with Oslo’s Abloom Film Festival, an NGO which raises awareness about accessibility and inequality. We’re preparing a mini film festival at Stovner, a Post-war suburb of East Oslo. Stovner District was built in the ‘70s and its design included surveying of early residents to try to tailor the design to their needs, giving it a history of accessibility. We will work with pupils and teachers in Stovner schools to discuss their relationship to the place they live and explore what they might do to improve it. We will explore different options using workshops and model-making, which will be presented at the festival together with films and activities, and before that in an exhibition at the local library.