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Musings on Architecture and Travel

Like many, I was hooked on traveling the first time I went abroad.   Alone in a new country, my senses were assaulted at every turn by new languages, sights and smells.  It was intoxicating.

Henry Miller said that “one’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things, ”  and I found that to be true.  Travel takes us away from our daily distractions and routines with computers, phones, schedules and deadlines, but most of all, it changes our perspective.  It takes us out of our comfort zone and forces us to see new views of the world and ourselves.  Good travel days are busy with visiting places and seeing new things; time spent getting to see things you would like to experience once, if just for a moment.  Great travel days are rife with a pace that borders upon boredom; slow, schedule-less hours that force a sense of intense calm of experiencing just where you are, at that exact moment.

Travel, of course, can be the best form of architectural education.  Experiencing new places first hand lends an insight into the rich cultures and complex histories that shape place like nothing else.  It is through observing new places we can understand the words of Winston Churchill when he said,  “we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.”

I found this to be true during several summers in my late 20s and early 30s.  During graduate school (and a few long vacations while working downtown at OS Architects) I was a lecturer and tour guide on tours for an American company in Europe.   We covered six countries in three weeks—our tours would wind through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France—sometimes frantically, often lazily.  As I lectured on culture, food, politics, history and architecture, I observed first hand how the experience of place could transform people’s perspectives.  I began to understand how observing others in new places could be as powerful as experiencing them myself.

One day of the tour comes specifically to mind.  In Paris, at the end of the three-week tour and after a grueling day of walking in the heat down long Parisian boulevards, we would descend down into the World II Deportation Monument on the banks of the Seine.  This small, often overlooked monument is dedicated to the thousands of Parisian Jews who were sent off to concentration camps right from the center of their beloved city.   As one descends down into the site, you are swallowed up by granite, cold and hard, and walls close in as the texture of the rough cut ground with oversized joints makes walking difficult.  All views of the city, including the neighboring Notre Dame, disappear altogether, and it no longer feels as if you are in the heart of Paris. To enter into the dedication room, you are squeezed narrowly through a dimly lit passage. Moving through the space, like many such monuments, is at once disquieting and intensely uncomfortable as it takes a distant moment from history into an immediate, physical transformative experience.   As I watched how my group would maneuver the stones, look up to the empty sky void of the city and squeeze through the monument in silence, I was acutely aware of how all senses were being taken over in this moment of space.

After ascending from the monument, we would silently walk across the Ile de la Cite, past Notre Dame  and into to the thirteenth century gothic La Sainte-Chappelle.  Built in an unusually short time (for that time period) it was commissioned by King Louis IX of France as a private chapel to display his acquisition of the crown of thorns from the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Set within a courtyard just off the street of modern urban Paris, it is intimate, quiet, spiritual and uplifting.  Through the bold, extensive stained glass windows bursting with color, the effect, especially if the sun came from behind  the clouds, was a quiet explosion of color and light.

It was a day of opposites, to be sure, yet the day always ended in a discussion of how the design of place could be extraordinarily powerful — and how these places could connect you to moments of history that couldn’t translate through book, photo or film.   Of course, I don’t find this only limited to monuments or churches, for whether in a sleek high rise in Tokyo at a conference with colleagues, walking the floor of the Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland with my husband or teaching students in Rome, the transformative power of space was learned through both personal experience as well as the observation of others.

As life progressed, so did the shape of my immediate surroundings; new family members arrived in smaller packages and travel was less frequent; but it has never disappeared.  Seeing the world from a shorter, younger perspective through they eyes of our kids has brought on new meanings and understanding of space.  Our kids have learned (and we have learned with them) to travel abroad, living out of suitcases, eating new foods and understanding important life lessons such as you don’t need a park or grass to play soccer, large piles of ancient marble are way better than monkey bars, Christiania bikes  and dedicated bicycle lanes rock and sometimes… you have to squat when you use the bathroom.

We can change space, but it can also change us.

by Kathryn R. Merlino


Postscript: A Traveler at Home.

Being restricted to traveling to distant lands as often as I used to forced me to reassess being a traveler closer to home.  Over the past decade as a professor, I feel fortunate to have been shown many new local places by students through their investigations into the form and history of our own city. Seeing one’s hometown in new ways can be as eye-opening as traveling abroad, for it opens us up to new perspectives, and puts in the travelers state of mind.  One of these times was a few weeks back, when I joined MArch student Erin Feeney and MUP student Betsy Jacobson as tourists on a local popular tour of Seattle.   Both of these students have been studying the life of the floating home in Seattle, so we thought a different perspective might lend some insight.  As we sat back and viewed our city from a duck boat on a summer day, we sought new perspectives both physical and philosophical, and as an added bonus found humor, sunshine and delight.


See Erin’s description below:

When research meets reality
by Erin Feeney

Last year I began researching Seattle’s floating homes while writing a paper to investigate a vernacular urban community for Kathryn Rogers Merlino. Over the past year, my involvement with this community has increased, and I am now working on the design of a contemporary history exhibit on the floating homes community. This exhibit on Seattle’s floating homes will open in May of 2013 at MOHAI (The Museum of History & Industry) in the community gallery at their new location at South Lake Union.

In my research (which this summer has included a kayaking trip and a Duck Tour with Kathryn and her kids) I have found the floating homes to be a manifestation of Seattle’s colorful history and a remnant of its industrial past. The changing architectural character of these homes on Lake Union and Portage Bay reflect the evolution of the community both on the docks and beyond.  Each day brings new challenges and insights as I work closely with floating homes community and local historians. I look forward to sharing more in the exhibit!

Photo Credits: http://www1.georgetown.edu/centers/liturgy/envisionchurch/slideshow/30558.html?slideshow=33549; http://www.viajarafrancia.com/sainte-chapelle/; Kathryn Merlino, Erin Feeney.



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