Kristin Luke, 27 October 2013

‘You could imagine things as what is excessive in objects, as what exceeds their mere materialisation as objects or their mere utilisation as objects – their force as a sensual presence or as a metaphysical presence, the magic by which objects become values, fetishes, idols, and totems’ – Bill Brown, Thing Theory


This is an inventory of the things I am researching for a broader project, Reports on the Materials of Utopia, whose scale doesn’t quite fit into a blog format. I would hope that the list-like approach I use here at least acts as a pointer to a more complex set of relations between the things presented. My approach regarding the broader project considers each thing as a moment where material culture has been instrumentalised, concretising links between the model village of Port Sunlight and the palm oil plantations of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The materials, the things that constitute and connect each location, form both conservative and radical ways of thinking about and employing the concept of utopia. The flux in assignation of meaning to things over time creates blind spots and unknown territories, deconstructing the once-smooth relationship between the authority which produced the thing and the original intention for how the thing should be read and responded to. This mutability of things helps to articulate the question of how to avoid falling into the trap of navigating the world according to models which are in part predetermined by material conditions, and instead move towards a state of potentiality, an openness to a kind futurity that allows for a co-definition between us and things that isn’t dictated by the narratives handed down by the present and History.

To give a basic background of the two locations and how they are connected: Port Sunlight is a model village near Liverpool which was predominantly designed and built by William Lever to house the workers of the Sunlight Soap factory, owned by the company Lever Brothers, which has evolved into the present-day multinational corporation Unilever. With construction beginning in 1888, Port Sunlight was built with the utopian aspiration of providing a complete live/work environment which accounted for all practical, biological, psychological, and cultural needs of the factory worker, from social events to medical care to art galleries. Over the 150 years of its development, Lever Brothers, now Unilever, has acquired palm oil plantations and mills in what is now the DR Congo, amongst many other sites around the world.


Articles from the 1927 issue of Progress, the in-house journal authored, distributed, and read by the community of Port Sunlight. The article reveals an understanding of the function of things (‘wheels’ and ‘vitamins’ in this case) in societies in terms of how they permeate, shape, and govern commerce, culture, manufacture, the insides of our bodies.


Recounted in a 1903 issue of Progress, a speech given at the opening ceremony of a library and art museum in Port Sunlight for the factory workers, links together, in quick succession, 1) the number of tons of soap production increasing from 20 per week to 3000 per week as a measure of Sunlight Soap’s success 2) the happy, smiling faces of the factory workers 3) the civilising qualities of libraries and museums. All this was carried out with the smell of soap wafting through the air from the nearby factory. The tangible, material, physical, olfactory, and social presence of this soap-thing becomes intimately entangled with the art collection and library – the societal values of culture and knowledge. The soap has been fetishised in that moment, encoded with a message which extends beyond its material boundaries.


The majority of Port Sunlight’s design and construction took place between the 1880s and 1914, decades which also bore witness to a crossover between the Arts and Crafts and Beaux Arts movements, both of which embodied different utopian aspirations through the emancipatory projects of town planning, architecture, and education in craft skills and art for the working class. The distinction between these two movements is at times unclear and inconstant, being contingent on how their methodologies or styles were co-opted by different architects, town planners, and businessmen, such as Lever.

Although the architecture in Port Sunlight stylistically references the Arts and Crafts movement, it does not embody the movement’s original ethos, whereby communal, process-based methodology was prioritised over any one particular style. Lever employed a kind of second-wave, contrived interpretation of Arts and Crafts style that was illusionistic and nostalgic, openly equating the cottage-look with the profitability of the company.

Beaux Art design and ideology, also used in Port Sunlight and Congolese plantations, treated the townscape as a theatrical set, acting as a complementary backdrop to the events of village life. These principles were consciously employed by Lever in a subsequent phase of town planning at Port Sunlight in 1910, to be read as a clear message that Lever was engaging in the next era of architecture, town planning, and therefore dialogue about utopia. In the before and after images of Port Sunlight above, rural organic layout shifts to Beaux Arts rationality and order.












According to Francois Laruelle, models play a key role in giving shape to a conservative utopia. Laruelle describes a model-based utopia as one that is already full of prescription, where known vocabularies are used to articulate it. Although Laruelle claims models cannot escape the parameters of known, I would also claim that models can inhabit a state of potentiality or immanence, located between the conditions in which they exist, and the conditions they propose, and make their audiences operate in this mode of pairing and synthesizing the imagined with the concrete. The space between the model and that which it proposes is an opportunity for information gaps, misunderstandings, and moments of illegibility.

One of the deciding factors in establishing the link between Unilever and the Congo was Port Sunlight’s portrayal of itself as a model of a functioning community. King Albert of Belgium, having recently inherited his uncle King Leopold II’s colonial tatters known as the Belgian Congo, was searching for foreign investors who had the reputation for respecting the human rights of their workers. In 1909 Albert sent a representative to Port Sunlight to invite William Lever to invest in the Congo. This decision to invite him was the direct result of an anonymous tour of Britain that the then Prince Albert had taken in 1903. Disguised as a common tourist, he had visited Port Sunlight unannounced, and had been impressed by the way the village had portrayed itself: ‘the wide boulevards he had walked down, the light and airy factory he had toured, and the stories he had been told about the benevolent boss who had built this place for his workers’ (Macqueen 2004). The village had performed as a good model: its surfaces, and the actors carrying out their activities in front of their backdrop, had successfully ‘project(ed) images drawn from the World’ of a utopia (Laruelle 2004).


Architecture and town planning create substantial links between Port Sunlight and the Congolese plantations. The Beaux Arts and second-wave Arts and Crafts mentalities operated on a global scale. This aspiration for global unification was exemplified by the following series of commissioned painted photographs of models of all of Unilever’s plantations, which clearly display the influence of the Beaux Arts methodology in the layout and homogenisation of the appearance of the factories:

They portray diverse locations, notably Kinshasa, DR Congo (first), and Port Sunlight itself (last). All these models have been made in shallow relief, photographed, then retouched with paint to embellish and dramatize certain aspects. Each location is portrayed in a way which emphasizes their uniformity, order, geometry. They are all generally oriented at the same angle and height. The model maker had to view the actual towns as if they were models in order to portray them as such. This a process of abstracting, distancing, homogenising, ordering, creating a face and appearance, a backdrop against which activities are performed. Another striking aspect to the models is their layout – note the ‘radial lungs’/sunrise shape of the roads in Leverville, compared to the Beaux Arts layout in Port Sunlight (above).

In Port Sunlight News of April 1928, Lever’s son publishes a diaristic article titled ‘A MODERN NATIVE VILLAGE’, written while on his survey trip to Lever Brothers’ DR Congo plantations. He writes, ‘ M. Beissel and I walked to the H.C.B. (Huileries du Congo Belge – Lever Brothers’ Congo operations) native village, where several of the houses are of the newest type, with tiled roofs instead of thatched roofs. I was delighted with the whole appearance of the village – the trim one-roomed brick houses, each with its own garden in which the occupier can grow bananas and other foodstuffs; their houses in lines back to back, their fronts facing wide avenues intersecting the village and kept scrupulously clean’. This absolutely reflects an awareness of Beaux Arts town planning, as well as of the efficacy of architecture-as-surface in portraying an image of a good life – the order and rationality of wide avenues, the rows of front-facing, performative houses with gardens in back, the taste-based preference for tiled roofs, being ‘delighted with the whole appearance of the village’ reflects a view of architecture as a set, or backdrop in front of which human activities (growing bananas) could be performed (although he edits out the occupiers to the point of invisibility). His tastes and gaze, in line with the tastes and gazes of his audience of western European workers and investors, lingers over the surface of these architectural texts-to-be-read.



‘…there are being established what are called in the Congo ‘Professional Schools,’ that is, schools in which handicraft of all kinds is taught, and training is given to natives to befit them for posts as skilled workmen…(the picture) shows a potter… together with some of his finished work… the design to which the potter works has been prescribed to him by the European teacher… boys thus trained in the school workshops become fitters and skilled artisans in the H.C.B. centres’ (Progress 1926).


The Arts and Crafts and Home Arts Exhibition in Port Sunlight, comprised of the objects made by Port Sunlight villagers displayed alongside objects borrowed from museums and Arts and Crafts society collections around the UK. The exhibition was described as ‘the endeavour to foster art education through the medium of an Arts and Crafts Studio.’ Lever is present at the opening ceremony, and in his opening speech makes a direct connection between architectural environment, ‘cultivation of the taste for producing beautiful objects’ and how these can have an ‘effect upon the character’, helping to produce an ‘all-round, even life’ outside of factory working hours, but a life which is in service of ‘producing goods under strict economical conditions’ (Progress 1904).


Another example is the promotion of craft skills in the Girls’ Social Club of Port Sunlight through an ‘Exhibition of Work,’ as presented in Progress, particularly focussing on the craft of Raffia weaving. This craft uses the leaves of palm oil trees and comes from the Kuba culture in the Congo. These Port Sunlight Girls were adopting this craft under the observation of the wife of Harold Greenhalgh, the manager of the H.C.B., who also had a hand in delivering prizes for the work (Port Sunlight News 1930). Mrs. Greenhalgh would have been aware of the crossovers of this craft in both locations. These crafts, these involved things, create a consistency for Unilever as a brand, fuel production, and substantiate the narratives told about the utopias being built both in Port Sunlight and the DR Congo.


All of these material cultural practices, these things, were being instrumentalised for the sake of production of palm oil, the thing upon which the success of the whole of Unilever hinged. The importance of this thing, its magic, fetishistic, socio-economic aura, is embodied within moments like these:

This carved ivory and gold chest and its contents were presented to King Albert of Belgium by Lever Brothers in 1912.  The chest, covered with carvings depicting Lever Brothers’ Belgian Congo palm oil plantations and mills, contained the very first bar of soap produced with Congolese palm oil, from the very first Belgian Congo plantation.

Palm oil inhabits another form, embodying the sky-high ambitions of New York cosmopolitanism and capitalism.


At the same time as Lever’s ‘Modern Native Villages’ were being built and represented as a solution to poverty, European colonialism in general was laying the foundation for the contemporary Crisis of the Global South. This is why Kinshasa, the capital of the DR Congo, once home to the H.C.B.’s administrative headquarters, today has the 30th largest Megaslum in the world, Masina, with 500,000 inhabitants (Davis 2006).

The same period of industrial revolution-related sanitation crisis, in addition to facilitating the cleansing success of Sunlight Soap in England and Europe, led to Kinshasa’s current state of terrible sanitation. The European empires generally refused to provide modern sanitation and water infrastructures in native neighbourhoods. Through Lever’s palm oil plantations, soap becomes the thing whose production and manufacture directly adds to the sanitation crisis of the DR Congo, while at the same time accumulating idol-status of a historical and nostalgic weapon against the filth of Europe’s industrial urban squalor.

The layout of slums, when viewed through a Beaux Arts lens, are chaotic, anarchic, and rhizomatic – they are the result of an absence of town planning. There are no monoliths, no wide open avenues or radial lungs. External organizations have created new models (albeit models based on a Laruellian positive, reproductive imagination) for penetrating, understanding and navigating these spaces. These ‘unknown’ spaces have prompted US military crash training courses in ‘realistic’ models of slum conditions, such as uninhabitable housing projects and unusable industrial plants in the US (Davis 2006). It is important to note that these ‘unknowns’ are created by the physical layout of slums, the width between actual housing structures, the angles of streets, the way things are physically covered or concealed. It is the unknown quality of things which creates a call to develop a new way of thinking, despite the military’s ultimate reversion to known models.

Port Sunlight seems to now be participating in the property-as-capital model. Almost all of Port Sunlight’s buildings are Grade II listed, having ‘Special Architectural and Historic Interest,’ and are protected by extensive conservation policies. Many buildings which previously housed social functions for factory workers have now been turned into private event and film location hires, holiday cottages, and private flats not necessarily owned by people with any connections to Unilever. In other words, the material qualities of the things that constitute the village have shifted in meaning by now becoming instruments of the non-reproductive financial stasis of property investment, while the global south’s material exports continue to allow first world countries to function in this way (Seymour 2007).


The Port Sunlight Employee Purchase Facility, run by a man named Ron T. The Facility is the result of a deal Ron struck up with Unilever whereby, in order for Unilever to save on the expense of paying for a landfill, Ron takes all of Unilever’s near-expiring and damaged products, repackages them, and sells them on. The Facility is housed in what used to be Port Sunlight’s draft horse stables, which are in the same murkily Arts and Crafts-based style as the rest of the village. Juxtaposed with the rows and rows of neon containers of liquid soaps, butter, cleaners, sodas, toilet rolls, chocolate, and washing powder, above the shelves are visible the ubiquitous Arts and Crafts/Mock Tudor exposed wooden ceiling beams.

Ron’s Facility is full of things, as Bill Brown would put it, ‘whose flows within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, have been arrested’ (Brown 2001). All the soaps, butters, and packaged foods used to hold status as commercially viable Unilever products. Their meaning as things has now been pulled out from underneath them; they have been retrieved from the status of waste. The things’ physical appearance and their architectural context make one another seem oddly out of place – the contemporary neons of the product packaging are jarring when displayed within the Arts and Crafts setting of Port Sunlight. Ron’s Facility houses and profits from things in flux through space and time, aging to the point of expiry or unknowability.


We experience a change in our relationship to the things in this moment of unknowability, therefore exposing the mechanism behind the ‘magic by which objects become values, fetishes, idols, and totems’ (Brown 2001). These occurrences, activities, attributes and behaviour of things, and the shifts in their relation to people and how people relate to them, create small pockets of unknown territory. These moments of non identifiability, and illegibility, open up a space for a type of response that is not based on given models and narratives. Material culture creates a glimmer of possibility for the radicalization of utopian thought.



Agamben, Giorgio 1999: Potentialities, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

Crouch, Christopher 2002: Design Culture in Liverpool 1880-1914, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press

Davis, Mike 2006: Planet of Slums, Brooklyn, NY: Verso

Laruelle, Francois 2004: Struggle and Utopia at the End Times of Philosophy, Minneapolis, MN: Univocal

Macqueen, Adam 2004: The King of Sunlight, London, UK: Bantam Press


Brown, Bill 2001: ‘Thing Theory’, Critical Inquiry, 28

Conway, Martin 1904: ‘Arts and Crafts in Their Relation to Home Life’, Progress, Vol. V, No. 59

Gilligan, Melanie 2008: ‘Notes on Art, Finance and the Un-Productive Forces’, Transmission Gallery,

Irvine, J.T. 1926: ‘Turning the Tropics to Account: The Romance of the H.C.B.’, Progress, Vol. 26, No. 172

J.H.P. 1930: ‘Girls’ Social Club Exhibition of New Work’, Port Sunlight News, Vol. 8, No.1

Leverhulme, W.H. 1928: ‘A Modern Native Village’, Port Sunlight News, Vol. 6, No. 7

Seymour, Benedict 2008: ‘Blurred Boundaries: Sport, Art, and Activity’, Mute, Vol. 2, No. 8

— 2007: ‘Drowning by Numbers’,

— 2012: ‘Anish Kapoor / Vanish the Poor: 3 Olympic Symptoms’, Mute,


Photographs of models: Anonymous 1924, from Port Sunlight Collection Research Centre, Port Sunlight

Ivory Chest: Progress, April 1912, p96

Soap Skyscraper: Port Sunlight News, June 1953, p 182

WEBSITES (accessed 27 Aug 2013) (accessed 13 Mar 2013)


Many thanks to Ben Seymour, Stuart Irwin, Danielle Pacaud, Amy Jones, Lucy Garner, Ron Titchley, Lucy MacDonald, Els Roelandt, Renzo Martens, the Port Sunlight Collections Study Centre, The Walker Gallery, and The Royal Standard for their time and generosity.