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Erica Mann and an Intimate Source

Some notes on Kenny Mann’s 2014 documentary Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots
Rachel Lee

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Thank you to Benjamin Tiven, who very generously gave me access to the material he collected on Erica Mann during a research trip to Kenya, the results of which were published as “The Delight of the Yearner: Ernst May and Erica Mann in Nairobi, 1933–1953,” Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art, no. 32, 2013, p. 80–89.

  • 1 Kenny Mann, Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots, 2014. (8:42).
  • 2 Ibid. (8:35).

1Standing at the entrance of a dilapidated farm house near the Athi River in Kenya, the architect, town planner and activist Erica Mann (1917–2007), wearing a blue denim sunhat, silver eye shadow and fuchsia pink lipstick, muses about her humble beginnings in Africa (fig. 1). “It took about twenty years before we became just ‘foreigners,’ not ‘bloody foreigners!’”1 she explains, referring to how the British colonisers had treated her and her family when they had first arrived in Kenya over 60 years before. The camera follows her inside the small building, which she walks through slowly, gesticulating with her hands and walking stick towards the empty spaces and dirty walls, “This is the sitting room to which we brought mama. And when she came here she said, ‘How can you tell me you are doing well? You have no carpets, no crystal. What is this?’”2

Figure 1: Erica Mann in front of the farm house in Kenya.

Figure 1: Erica Mann in front of the farm house in Kenya.

Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.

2This early sequence in Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots, a documentary film made by Erica’s daughter Kenny Mann (1946–) and released in 2013, is the viewer’s first confrontation with Erica Mann, who, a widow in her eighties, is revisiting some of the places that defined her life. In the film, Kenny Mann investigates her family’s history in an effort both to grasp her own identity and to uncover how identities can be shaped and changed. While this is not a film about Erica Mann, she does play an important role, appearing regularly in recollections, anecdotes, old photographs and video footage, most of which was shot by Kenny’s brother Oscar Mann. In the following article I will consider the film’s potential as an unconventional source for research in architecture and planning history. However, I will first give a brief introduction to Erica Mann's life and work.

Figure 2: Erica Mann and her “grandfather”.

Figure 2: Erica Mann and her “grandfather”.

Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.

  • 3 Ibid. (23:34).
  • 4 Ibid. (3:38).

3In a later scene in Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots Erica Mann stands barefoot in a silver dressing gown on the threshold of her house in Nairobi, holding the thin wooden arm of a sculpture of an aged African man (fig. 2). “I have always considered the old man outside as my grandfather,” she says, “He looks ahead, but he also looks behind. He smiles but he is also sad. He is full of thoughts. His head is empty. He can’t remember. But I feel, you know, he is family.”3 Erica Mann’s roots, however, are in Central Europe. Born in Vienna to Jewish parents, she was raised in Bucharest and studied architecture at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the only female in a class of 300. With the outbreak of World War II, Mann, then Erika Schoenbaum, was forced to return to Romania. In late 1940, she and her husband Ignacius (later Igor) Mann, a Polish veterinarian also of Jewish origin, escaped the dangers of anti-Semitism and war on a journey through Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey to a refugee camp in Palestine. In 1942 an opportunity arose for the couple to move to Africa. Igor Mann had been offered a job in Fort Jameson, Rhodesia. Erica Mann’s dream since childhood was to be fulfilled: “Ever since I was a little girl I decided that one day I would come to Africa and look at what was in all the places that were white on the atlas and marked as unknown territory.”4

  • 5 For more information on Nairobi’s development see e.g. Anja Kervanto Nevanlinna, Interpreting Nair (...)

4From Rhodesia the Manns soon moved to Kenya, where Igor worked as a meat inspector at a factory that made corned beef for the British Army, raising his own cattle on a neighbouring piece of land (fig. 3). Erica was employed by the town-planning department in Nairobi to work on the 1948 Nairobi Master Plan (fig. 4), which she prepared with the Town Planning Officer Thornley Dyer and Helga Richards, in cooperation with Thornton White, a South African planning firm.5 In order to get to the city each day, she hitched a ride on the milk or sand trucks on Mombasa Road, returning on the evening train and walking the several remaining kilometres home.

Figure 3: The cattle farm at Athi.

Figure 3: The cattle farm at Athi.

Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.

Figure 4: Nairobi Master Plan, 1948.

Figure 4: Nairobi Master Plan, 1948.

Source: Erica Mann’s private archive.

5After moving into Nairobi in the 1950s, Erica Mann’s town-planning work became increasingly focussed on regional and rural development, with projects aimed at improving living standards and quality of life by empowering women. In 1972 she founded the Council for Human Ecology Kenya (CHEK), through which she instigated the Women of Kibweze initiative that sought to improve living conditions in a settlement in a drought stricken rural area by providing women with income-generating skills such as beekeeping, brickmaking and bookkeeping. She was also committed to studying traditional African housing types and dispelling the negative myths that had been established about them.

  • 6 Betty Caplan, "Kenya: A Woman of Substance," The East African (Nairobi), 17 July 2007. URL: http:/ (...)

6Although she presented the results of her work internationally, e.g. at the UN-Habitat conference in Vancouver in 1976, and received some recognition—the Women of Kibweze project was judged one of the 100 best practices in the world at the Habitat II conference in Istanbul6—Erica Mann’s contributions to planning and architecture remain largely unknown. And despite also being involved in international networks such as Doxiadis’ Ekistics group, as a female refugee from a country on Europe’s periphery working in Kenya she was truly on the fringes and off the radar. In fact it was only her friendship with Otto Koenigsberger, a fellow exiled Jewish architect and planner committed to improving the quality of life of the poor in the Global South, that brought her to my attention. Her work, ground-breaking as it may have been, was not published in the Western media. And while she was involved in the founding of two African journals—Build Kenya and Plan East Africa (figs. 5)—her intention was not to memorialise her own architecture and planning projects.

Figures 5: Covers of Build Kenya and Plan East Africa.

Figures 5: Covers of Build Kenya and Plan East Africa.

Source: Erica Mann’s private archive.

7As I have not yet been able to travel to Kenya to visit what remains of her personal archive, which is held by her son Oscar, or the town planning department in Nairobi, I have been trying to uncover other possible sources of information about her life and work. Kenny Mann’s film Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots is a particularly valuable source, as it provides insights into Erica’s family history, her personality and, to a more limited extent, her career and work. Kenny Mann’s rich collage of archival TV footage, home video, wildlife documentary, family photos and documents, charts her family’s European past and their lives in Kenya. Overlaid with her own narration, and interspersed with comments by her brother Oscar, her sister Rhodia and other family friends, as well as diverse types of music, the content is as unbounded as the Maasai land she describes. At times arrestingly intimate, Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots is a unique portrait of a family in exile and a window into the life of the elusive Erica Mann.

8Archival image material, consisting of photos, documents and drawings, is one major source of information on Erica Mann that the film offers. Black and white photos present the young Erica as an aspiring architect and political activist (fig. 6, left). We see her lounging happily with Igor in a rowing boat (fig. 6, right).

Figures 6: Erica Mann as a young architect and with her husband Igor in Romania.

Figures 6: Erica Mann as a young architect and with her husband Igor in Romania.

Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.

9A series of sketches that document their escape to Palestine and Africa do not only illustrate Erica’s graphic talents, they also reveal the spartan conditions of the refugee camp in Palestine (figs. 7, a+b), life on the ship to Africa (fig. 7, c) and initial impressions of Rhodesia, including her first observations on the racial divide. A drawing of black Africans collecting material for the thatched roofs they are making is captioned “They build our houses” (fig. 7, d).

Figures 7 (a, b, c, d): Sketches made by Erica Mann en route from Romania to Kenya.

Figures 7 (a, b, c, d): Sketches made by Erica Mann en route from Romania to Kenya.

Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.

  • 7 Kenny Mann, Beautiful Tree, op. cit. (note 1), (50:06).

10During a sequence in which Kenny Mann discusses her socialist parents’ complex allegiances to Kenyan freedom fighters, such as Tom Mboya, as well as Queen Elizabeth II (they became British citizens in 1948 and Igor was awarded an MBE in the 1960s) and members of the post-colonial Kenyan elite, she shows photographs of Erica Mann (fig. 8), by this point an established town planner, mother of three children and key member of Nairobi’s cultural scene. Dressed in elegant clothes with her hair perfectly styled, she makes the impression of a successful, confident person who is very much in control of her life. Later on, while considering the impact of her parents’ work in Kenya, Kenny Mann comments, “My parents were catalysts for change in Africa, breaking long standing traditions for the good of the people. But despite colonial echoes to their work—the great white master hands down wisdom—no one here seems to care. The job gets done, that’s all.”7

Figures 8: Erica Mann in Kenya.

Figures 8: Erica Mann in Kenya.

Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.

  • 8 Ibid. (69:07).

11While the photographs are revealing, the footage of Erica Mann, shot with a video camera during the last years of her life in various settings, is more powerful. As the footage was shot by her son without the explicit intention of using the material for a documentary film, Erica Mann appears unselfconscious and frank. She is neither putting on an act for the camera, nor censoring herself as she might have done if a stranger had been behind the camera. The result is an extremely intimate portrayal—we witness her returning to Romania, for example, where she takes a boat trip on the Danube (fig. 9, left) and visits the Jewish graves in her hometown of Radauti (fig. 9, right) where she walks through the graves uttering the names of people she once knew and then, clearly exhausted by the experience, carefully sits down and rests on the edge of one of the tombstones. Later she reflects, in her thick eastern European accent, on her rekindled interest in Judaism, her cultural roots and the isolation wrought through her life as a foreign refugee, “I reverted, if you like, to my Jewishness not so very long ago, and mainly because I wanted to belong to a community and I don’t belong to anything else.”8

Figures 9: Erica Mann in Romania.

Figures 9: Erica Mann in Romania.

Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.

  • 9 Ibid. (49:36).

12A later sequence presents her at the inauguration of a building connected to the teaching and practice of herbalism in the town of Bungoma, for which she had prepared a development plan in the mid-1950s. While the herbalism centre is more directly connected to her husband’s legacy, it is clear that their careers and interests intersected and were mutually enriching, and that the projects that they initiated in the mid-twentieth century continued to inspire and challenge Erica Mann until very late in her life. At the centre we watch her interact with the local herbalists, who explain that she has always stressed the need for the knowledge about the power of plants to be made public, and that the practice of herbalism should cross generations and genders. The camera follows her outside where she laughs easily with a group of women (fig. 10, left) and, despite her walking stick, joins in enthusiastically as they dance together. On leaving the centre, we see her determinedly struggle to pull herself into an SUV before flirtatiously asking for assistance, “I need a push … from a nice young man … on my bottom sweetie, not my hand!”9 (fig. 10, right)

Figures 10: Erica Mann at the opening of a herbalism centre in Bungoma.

Figures 10: Erica Mann at the opening of a herbalism centre in Bungoma.

Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.

  • 10 Ibid. (34:45).

13The film also reveals Erica Mann’s domestic sphere at her home in Nairobi, which she designed in the 1950s and lived in until her death. We observe her being served soup by her butler of many years, Francis, in a room filled with dark wooden furniture and decorated with African wall hangings, sculptures and pots (fig. 11, left). Details such as the yellow glass dishes, the cloth tablemats and napkin, or the anomalous Ulster Weavers cat apron Francis is wearing, intensify our understanding of her and her life, as we see, for example, the partial rejection, and partial continuation of her mother’s bourgeois domestic expectations. Another sequence shows her in a sitting room with bookcase-lined walls and embroidered cushions, leafing through old documents that defined her life and helped her survive (fig. 11, right). “I have lived a series of lies. For instance this one, which is a very well documented lie,”10 she says of a fake birth certificate that states she is Catholic.

Figures 11: Erica Mann at her home in Nairobi.

Figures 11: Erica Mann at her home in Nairobi.

Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.

14Even more intimately, following her mother’s death Kenny Mann films another room filled with dark wooden furniture and African sculptures and objects. However, vases of flowers decorate the sideboards, and the centre of the room is dominated by a bed covered in white sheets embroidered with blue flowers on which Erica’s body has been laid out. With a book in her hand, a handbag over her shoulder, and framed photographs at her feet, surrounded by orange flower petals, in death as in her life the Romanian refugee is immersed in Africana (fig. 12, left). The intimacy of this sequence, which has already reached a degree that feels like trespassing, is heightened further in the final minutes of the film, in which Kenny, Rhodia and Oscar Mann cremate their mother in a Hindu ceremony (fig. 12, right). We witness the three siblings setting fire to the same embroidered sheet, now sandwiched between layers of carefully placed logs, that Erica Mann had been laid out on: an unexpected end to an unconventional life.

Figures 12: Erica Mann’s death and cremation.

Figures 12: Erica Mann’s death and cremation.

Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.

15Unless they know them personally, I suspect that very few researchers investigating the histories of architecture and planning experience the human subjects of their work so viscerally. Certainly, the more detached and “objective” act of reading through documents in archives cannot match the emotional impact of watching Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots, or create such an immediate bond to the subject. Whether or not this has a purely positive effect on the research remains to be seen, but through watching the film, the scholarly distance that is seen as a crucial element of analytical reflection has long since been breached. However, having witnessed her determination, commitment and humanity as well as her vanity and frailty, I am all the more convinced that Erica Mann’s work deserves to be studied in depth, and her contribution to planning in Kenya better understood.

16The version of Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots that I watched was given to me by Kenny Mann via Erica’s granddaughter and my friend Zora Mann in 2013. Since then additional edits may have been made.

17The final version of the film is available from Kenny Mann’s website: http://www.rafikiproductions.com/​films/​beautiful-tree-severed-roots/​

18A trailer of the film can be watched here: http://www.imdb.com/​video/​wab/​vi815663385/​

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Notes

1 Kenny Mann, Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots, 2014. (8:42).

2 Ibid. (8:35).

3 Ibid. (23:34).

4 Ibid. (3:38).

5 For more information on Nairobi’s development see e.g. Anja Kervanto Nevanlinna, Interpreting Nairobi: The Cultural Study of Built Forms, Helsinki: Suomen Historiallinen Seura, 1996 (Bibliotheca historica, 18).

6 Betty Caplan, "Kenya: A Woman of Substance," The East African (Nairobi), 17 July 2007. URL: http://allafrica.com/stories/200707170653.html. Accessed 16 June 2014.

7 Kenny Mann, Beautiful Tree, op. cit. (note 1), (50:06).

8 Ibid. (69:07).

9 Ibid. (49:36).

10 Ibid. (34:45).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Erica Mann in front of the farm house in Kenya.
Crédits Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.
URL http://abe.revues.org/docannexe/image/3391/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 132k
Titre Figure 2: Erica Mann and her “grandfather”.
Crédits Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.
URL http://abe.revues.org/docannexe/image/3391/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 130k
Titre Figure 3: The cattle farm at Athi.
Crédits Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.
URL http://abe.revues.org/docannexe/image/3391/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 160k
Titre Figure 4: Nairobi Master Plan, 1948.
Crédits Source: Erica Mann’s private archive.
URL http://abe.revues.org/docannexe/image/3391/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 359k
Titre Figures 5: Covers of Build Kenya and Plan East Africa.
Crédits Source: Erica Mann’s private archive.
URL http://abe.revues.org/docannexe/image/3391/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 145k
Titre Figures 6: Erica Mann as a young architect and with her husband Igor in Romania.
Crédits Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.
URL http://abe.revues.org/docannexe/image/3391/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 149k
Titre Figures 7 (a, b, c, d): Sketches made by Erica Mann en route from Romania to Kenya.
Crédits Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.
URL http://abe.revues.org/docannexe/image/3391/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 424k
Titre Figures 8: Erica Mann in Kenya.
Crédits Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.
URL http://abe.revues.org/docannexe/image/3391/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 166k
Titre Figures 9: Erica Mann in Romania.
Crédits Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.
URL http://abe.revues.org/docannexe/image/3391/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 166k
Titre Figures 10: Erica Mann at the opening of a herbalism centre in Bungoma.
Crédits Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.
URL http://abe.revues.org/docannexe/image/3391/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 182k
Titre Figures 11: Erica Mann at her home in Nairobi.
Crédits Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.
URL http://abe.revues.org/docannexe/image/3391/img-11.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 168k
Titre Figures 12: Erica Mann’s death and cremation.
Crédits Source: Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots ©Kenny Mann.
URL http://abe.revues.org/docannexe/image/3391/img-12.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 176k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Rachel Lee, « Erica Mann and an Intimate Source », ABE Journal [En ligne], 4 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2014, consulté le 25 septembre 2017. URL : http://abe.revues.org/3391

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Auteur

Rachel Lee

PhD Candidate, Habitat Unit, Technischen Universität, Berlin, Germany

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La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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