Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The City of Love and Crepes

What to say about Paris that hasn't already been said. Lets start off by saying that it's true, Paris is not the cleanist city in the world, but thats not why thousands of lovers flock's for all the beautiful and romantic spaces just waiting to be found. Sure, theres the tower, a famous lady named Mona, the church of Our Fair Lady and a lot of glorified arches, but the city hasn't stopped there, it's always expanding and showing that it's not all about old relics and hopless romanics. Underneath the grim of yesteryears, Paris is looking ahead and taking a almost endless city of exploration into a city full of infinate possibilities for those lucky enough to find all it has to offer. It is impossible to see all of it in the course of five days. Taking the dirtyest part of Paris, the underground, is also a diservice because of what you miss. It's no wonder why this is the city of love and perhaps no other city gives better spaces for people to meet and come together.

Paris has a lot more to offer than in years past, with new developments sprouting up everywhere. Big name architects can be found almost anywhere in the city and perhaps the biggest currently is the native French-man, Jean Nouvel. As one of my favorite architects, I was looking forward to seeing the Cartier Foundation because of the stance it took on preserving the surrounding nature. When walking on the sidewalk, you are greeted with building after building running right up to the sidewalk until you get a glimpse of trees sticking through a glass wall, thats when you know you are there. Once you pass through the single free-standing curtain wall that joins the sidewalk, you enter back into nature before the actual building itself. The gallery is surrounded by trees that are actually framed between the two walls. Staircases on the outside preserve two of the larger trees on site and make nature part of the architecture itself. The feeling of being outside of the city while right in the middle of it is a hard emotion to achieve and this building nails it. Of course, they had to be changing exhibitions at the time and we were not allowed on the grounds. I still found my way on and was able to get at least a couple of pictures before I was asked to leave. Getting kicked out of one of your favorite buildings at least makes for an interesting story.

Cartier Foundation by Jean Nouvel

Of course you can't just travel to Paris without seeing any of the long talked about landmarks that made the city what it is today. Walking on the steps of Notre Dame and standing around in a large group just to see the Mona Lisa are experiences that cannot be missed. Of course, Paris wouldn't feel right without a trip to the Eiffel Tower, something I had the pleasure of doing at night as well as the day. The tower can be seen from many places all around the city, but you really don't get a feel for it until you are right there beside it. A group of us were able to sit outside a small restaurant nearby and just watch the light show it put on at the top of every hour, a dazzling display that lights up the night and is just something you don't get a chance to see everyday. The day after this was when we decided to actually up up to the second level and get a different view of Paris. Now you do have to wait and pay a little more to ride the elevator and looking back on it, that might be well worth it in the grand scheme of things. We had the brilliant idea of going up six-hundred steps an a rain soaked afternoon. Six-hundred going up, five ninety-seven on the way down...slippery when wet.

Eiffel Tower, Paris

Of course getting to the Eiffel Tower can be a bit of a tough test due to the large amount of street salesman who will try anything in their power to get you to buy their wares. You pretty much cannot move under the tower without being approached by one of these guys who sell mini replicas of the towers and toys to catch peoples eyes. It almost comical to see how these people work and how many people they hit by throwing toy planes and balls into the air. But they are prepared, the moment the rain starts to fall, they pull out umbrellas from no where and try to hand them to you...even if you are currently using one. We have been really lucky at avoiding the beggars so far, they really were not a problem here and hopefully it stays that way.

I should take a moment to mention some of the places we visited before Paris, specifically in Ronchamp, where Le Corbusier has his famous chapel. Now I have to say, looking at pictures, I was never really a big fan of this building, but it was a rather pleasant experience. The pilgrimage church is a bit of a breakaway from Corbusier's five points and quickly evident from the sharp angles and curves. The highlight is the massive roof structure, that looks heavier than it actually is, and appears to rest on glass, giving it a floating look, symbolic of resting on faith. The chapel on the outside plays host to large crowds every year while the smaller one of the inside is used year round. This is a lot different than the Villa Sayove by Corbusier, which we visited the day after, becuase it is an attempt to prove that he could step outside the box and expand on the five points without compromising them.
Notre Dame du Haut by Le Corbusier

The next part of the travel program is the independent section, where we got to choose where we would like to see that was not a part of the trip. I'm actually wrapping up the first of two cities tonight, as we leave London for Madrid tomorrow morning.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Haus That Zumthor Built

Coming out of Germany, Bregenz, Austria was our first stop on the journey East. This is where the alps really come into play as you are usually surrounded by mountains. I guess you officially know your you are getting into Switzerland when you have to stop on the road to allow cows to pass.

This part of the tour is pretty much about Peter Zumthor and his creations. First on the list was the Kuntshaus, a gallery in the middle of the city, next to the river. The building seeks to let the art speak for itself and not have the architecture or the scenery take away from it. The outside is clad in a rain screen of glass panels that are overlapped to give a layered effect. The panels themselves are opaque and allow allow filtered light in instead of direct views outside. The current exhibition was quite disturbing and included deformed stuffed animals and strange music, not the kind of place you want to be in for a long time. The galleries are well lighted but it makes you feel closed in, especially when the exhibits have a creepy atmosphere.


The hostel here was not a fun experience. The age level of our fellow inhabitants decreased to middle school age and made eating in the dining hall a interesting experience. I also had the luck to get stuck in a small room with six other roommates and one bathroom. One of the other problems was the hostel was too far outside the city to do see anything when you are bored.

Luckily, we were headed to Vals, Switzerland, for Zumthor's Thermal Baths. The road to the resort was a little terrifiying as we were driving on the side of the alps in a huge bus with blind corners. The view from the hotel was amazing as it was situated right in the middle of the Alps. The spa itself was so relaxing and just the thing I needed to rest up. The spa is divided into several different baths. A cold bath (which is indeed very cold, I only got in to my stomach) a hot one (which was my favorite), a flower one (bits of flowers float in it to keep you smelling good, especially after long bus rides), and several regular pool areas with one being outside. They also had a very nice sauna with three levels of steam, the hottest being where I spent a good portion of time. The nicest moment was going in during early morning hours and feeling the mist hit your face when you're outside in the water, starring up at the mountains. This has been one of the most enjoyable parts on the trip so far, it just too bad that photos were not allowed inside.

Thermal Baths from Hotel

Leaving Paris tomorrow for London, expect that within the next week.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Munich: A Farewell to Germany

So the last stop on the German leg of the tour is Munich, one of the largest cities in the country. We looked at a lot of different types of buildings, everything from stadiums to modern churches to museums. The city had a lot to offer and our last chance to get our taste of Germany.

Allianz Arena

The two stadiums we looked at could not be any different from each other. The first was on the ride in to the city where we looked at Allianz Arena by Herzog and De Meuron. The firm is known for their elaborate skins and this was no different. The stadium is host to the soccer team and almost looks like a deflated soccer ball. The plastic like exterior bulges out and gives an almost transparent appearance which works well at night when the stadium is lit in the colors of red and blue for the soccer team. This white skin is attached to a concrete frame by metal anchors which are visible when walking up the staircases. Unfortunately the insides were blocked off so we did not get to look at the field set up, but at least the outside had a lot to offer.

The second stadium on the list involved a long and painful trek up a mountain to look at the Olympic Stadium of Munich. From up top you could really see how the Olympic grounds were laid out as well as the rest of the city. What’s special about this stadium is the unique tent structure that is carried out. A large arc is laid out and anchored to the ground with massive concrete structures. The rest of the tent is hung to steel columns that span from the ground and hold the points in tension. These columns are placed all over the grounds and really interact with visitors by becoming part of the path. There are many times when you enter the stadium or pass from one event to another that you are sheltered by these soaring glass panels.

Munich Olympic Stadium
The hostel is Munich did turn out to be a little rough. It seems that every hostel we stay at, the majority of the other residents get younger and younger. Most of the ones in Munich were about freshman in high school and were very noisy in the halls at night. The internet once again proved to be an issue as the wifi in this hotel didn’t seem to ever work. Much in the internet time in Europe has come from sketchy internet cafes or closed Starbucks. I would have really thought that technology like wifi would have been more prominent over here.

Speaking of technology, one place that had no problem showing it off was BMW world. Basically the headquarters of BMW, the complex stretches a couple blocks and consist of a manufacturing plant, museum and tower. The facade and interior of the museum are compromised mostly of brushed aluminum and glass. The intention of the building is clear; it seeks to grab your attention and tried to do so in flashy ways which in some points are a disadvantage. Customers purchasing their cars here are able to drive in from the museum to the outside as visitors are able to watch. There are many of exhibits of display, but the building itself may be geared more for car enthusiast over architecture. It is a really nice environment in parts but feels over done as a whole. The highlight is the glass funnel on the outside that also showcases some exhibits and catches the light rather well.

BMW World Museum
Germany was a very interesting place and I feel like I really learned a lot from it, but I honestly feel like I am ready to move on. I’m really excited about the upcoming cities and we still have a lot of places to go. Currently I am in Switzerland after a short retreat in Austria. I've spent most o my day at the Vals Thermal's hard work but someone has to do it.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Nuremberg, like the other cities in Germany we visit, has a rich but dark history. Deemed one of the three favorite cities of Hitler and the Nazi party (Berlin and Munich being the other two), it was a major rallying ground and propaganda area for the country. Much of the city had been bombed out in WWII and left many of the buildings needing to be restored or even rebuilt from the ground up. They really did a nice job in keeping the buildings looking from an earlier area even though most had major work done. One of the most interesting buildings we visited was a museum that had been converted from a headquarter building of the Nazis. A lot of plans had been set forth to change Nuremberg into a strong hold and this building, made in heavy stone, was constructed mostly out of forced labor and built as a fortress. The archtitect does a nice job in cutting through large sections of the building with a radical design, symbolic of the change in thinking that took place from then and now. Most of the exhibits take you through the original building, but these cuts, visible from the oustide, guide you through it. There are also several times where the path brings you outside to see large courtyards where rallies were once held. It's really amazing to see these huge chunks cut out of the heavy stone construction and this modern steel skeleton breaking away.

We also had a chance to meet up with a local architect from the city who once attended Tech. He took us to his job site still in the construction stage. This building was going to be in the older part of the city but he wanted to give it a more modern look while keeping some of the same program of the surrounding area. These were to be apartments that started at 600,000 euros in rent, but were right on the canal system. He also gave us a tour of his office/home which was very modern and nice. We had dinner there that night and talked about his practice with some serious architecture discussion and where it was headed. We also talked about vampires, one of the running joke on this leg of the trip, where one of the girls has apparently been mistaken as one by some kids on the subway. One teacher has actually been making a lot of them, bragging about asking the subway ticket window for one vampire ticket and how she couldn't find one. I of course chimed in with "she was probably looking in the day tickets". It got a lot of laughs and I was pretty much done for the night because I couldn't top that.

Another one of the buildings we looked at was the Neues Museum which is a very modern building, still in the walls, although you wouldn't know that unless the walked down the ally. The view from the street looks just like any other on the block with the gift shop entrance doors are visible there. When you turn down the ally however, a curved wall of glass stretches into the plaza behind it and showcases the modern interior and large spiral staircases. There were a few interesting exhibits in the museum, including one of famous chairs and the impressions they made on a womans bare backside. My favorite part of this concrete building was the spiral staircase that winded its way to each gallery in its pure neutral colors. What you see is not what you always get and this building was exactly that. Just walking by the front gives no sign of what happens around the corner.
Neues Museum
We just wrapped up our first full day in Munich and we have a few more until we hit the road again. We didn't see a lot of big buildings in Nuremberg and the scale was a lot smaller, but it was a nice change for a few days. We have already seen a lot of large scale buildings, including stadiums, in Munich and have a few more to go.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Hostel Situation

So we arrived in Munich today and saw a few more buildings along the way. This also makes the second hostel in a row we have stayed at.


The hostel in Nuremberg was in a large, converted stone castle. This was in a smaller section of the city, located behind walls that connect to the heavier traffic areas of the city. The major issue with this spot had to be the huge hill we were forced to climb up after every day to travel throughout the city. Most of the stores and places to eat were also at the bottom which made going out difficult. The hostel itself was not that bad, mainly because I was finally able to get some sleep, something that had been lacking in Berlin. Our room only had three people and no bunk beds, which is always a plus. The bathrooms however were shared and the showers required a button to be pressed about every twenty seconds to keep the water running. I also had the luck of taking a shower every time a large German kid was in there, which led to some nightmares. The rules are also a little different than hotels, with doors locking at one o'clock in the morning and checking out of your rooms by ten for cleaning gave some people problems.The dinner and breakfast were provided and were actually pretty good. This was also the first place to have a fresh water readily available and free, something thats hard to find here. It's usually the same price as a coke and most of the time, carbonated. I made my first mistake today of buying a large bottle of water only to find out it was gassed, a real disheartening feeling. Overall, this was a good experience and nice quiet place to live.

The hostel here in Munich does not look as promising. I'm not really sure what I had for dinner, but it was extremely heavy. I'm also back to sleeping on top of a bunk bed, not a good experience for someone with ,my height. We do have a bathroom in our room, but it's extremely small with four guys sharing it. We also have a rowdy bunch of Germans living next door that keep the door open. It's a much different culture, very open and pushy at times. I guess time will tell as we are here for another three days.

The whole Nuremberg experience will be updated later, with stories of architecture and vampires but for right now its time to live the Munich lifestyle. This is one of the biggest cities in Europe and we have a busy schedule ahead of us.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Dessau and the Bauhaus

You don't go through architecture school without learning about the Bauhaus and its founder Walter Gropius. One of the most famous art institutes in the world, the Bauhaus played an important role in the foundation of architecture to come. It is a building that was ahead of its time and the inspiration for later works. The travel program was fortunate enough to get a chance to tour this building and see the studios, apartments, stage and exhibition area. This was designed to be a place where students could live and work in the same environment while interacting with other students. The primarily neutral toned building uses the  three primary colors to establish direction and the floor you are currently on, which can be seen in variations of architecture today. It  of note to learn that it became a famous architecture school but didn't even offer those classes in its first year. It is still a major tourist attraction to this day with tours and the cafeteria open to visitors. It was a nice opportunity to visit a building that you have heard so much about over the past few years.
The Bauhaus
From Berlin, it only took us about two hours to get to Dessau. It doesn't take long to realize that the speed signs with no numbers or x's mean there is no speed limit. Sports cars fly by you and its crazy to see. Luckly the bus was nice and roomy and it was a smooth ride. Dessau is not nearly as big as Berlin, but it was refreshing to see something more on that scale. It's located south of Berlin and almost halfway to our night's destination of Nuremberg. The last night in Berlin was an eventful one with hotel glass breaking and rough sleep so now it's time to see what else is out there.

Federal Environmental Agency
The other building we got a chance to see was the new Federal Environmental Agency building headquarters in Dessau. This was a very modern building sitting in a older part on the city. Germany is one of the leaders in energy efficient architecture and this building follows that trend. Germany also has laws to give all employee offices fresh air so this building uses an atrium to give interior offices natural daylight. The outside of the building has ribbons of wood strips and colored window treatments that reflect the surrounding area. Red/Yellow on the sides facing the city and Green/Blue for areas facing the gardens. The roof and atrium are made of glass in an innovative design that allows for natural ventilation. This design allows for plants and shrubs to be grown indoors while allowing light to penetrate offices of both the inner and outer sides.
Federal Environmental Agency
We arrived in Nuremberg yesterday and I am staying at my first hostel, which sits high atop a large hill in an older castle construction. This is a city with a deep history and a lot to learn from. So heres to hoping I don't fall at the top.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Take My Breath Away

After about a seven hour multi-train journey from Amsterdam, we arrived Thursday in Berlin to meet up with the travel program. The arrival went a lot smoother than that of the one in Amsterdam as we took a cheap cab to our hotel. The hotel is an older building and the luxuries many of us have grown accustomed to are nowhere to be found. The internet is hard to find around here and it makes keeping things updated hard and contact even harder. The sink and shower is also open in our three-bed room so it makes taking a shower a little difficult having only a curtain between us.

The actual travel program has been very interesting so far. Berlin is a city rich in history, not the best, but a lot to learn from. It is still painfully obvious when you cross the border from West to East Berlin. The Western half is a huge city environment full of famous buildings and emerging technology. The Eastern half is not nearly as grand and still shows signs of yester-year. Buildings hear are more plain brick facades and tan colors, very dull and lifeless. There are still some good buildings there but are harder to find than in the west. One to note would be the Dutch Embassy by Rem Koolhaas which is located on the harbor and stands in contrast to the building around it which were once occupied by Nazis. This building attempts to separate the cube and use geometry to create space and help define its identity of being a part of Berlin. He uses views of the East Berlin Sphere to locate the positioning of the building while inside and embrace the history that it surrounds, something this side of the city could use more of.
Dutch Embassy
Again we have found that much like Amsterdam, Berlin has a heavy American influence. It doesn't seem to have as many people who speak English, but all the music and movies they watch are from the States. No matter if it’s a car driving down the street or in a restaurant, you hear popular American music. It's no wonder so many people have picked up English. We have found our first experience with the beggars in Europe who basically stay in plazas looking for tourist and asking for money. It can quickly ruin a nice moment when trying to take in the view.

Our first full day here was brutal; we were up at seven in the morning and walked around until about ten at night. Walking on all the stone here really kills your feet. The highlight of the day came at the end when we went to the Berlin capitol building, the Reichstag, to see our first Norman Foster construction. As one of my favorite architects, I was not disappointed. He designed the all glass dome on top of the building and the mirrored centerpiece on the inside. A coiled ramp leads visitors to the top for an unmatched view of the city. We were not lucky enough to see it at night, but we were able to get some photos of it as the sun set and these have to be my favorite so far. The wait for this seems to usually be long and we waited for about forty-five minutes in a cold drizzle to see it, but it was well worth it.

In Germany, the cuisine bears on the heavy side but Berlin offers a lot of food from different places. When we first got here we ate at a small cafe where I found a bottle of lemon sweet tea, so I was excited. We also got to try the local food although I don't really know how to pronounce or spell it. Luckily, we have someone in our group that speaks German, so that’s been nice. I haven’t eaten anything gross yet, but I don’t think I’m a big German food fan. On both the group dinner nights, they have taken us to an Italian restaurant down the street. I find it a little ironic taking American students to an Italian restaurant in Germany, but hey, it’s already paid for.

We have moved at a very steady pace while here and it’s hard to believe we are already leaving. Along the way we have seen buildings from such famous architects like Foster, Koolhaas, Gehry, Van der Rohe, Libeskind, Eisenman, Rossi and even a few Virginia Tech graduates, which is always nice to see. It helps to show just how far architecture can reach and how many opportunities there are out there.
Jewish Museum
Two of the more humbling visits were to the Jewish museum and Holocaust memorial. The Jewish Museum is a snake like structure that bends to create voids in the structure, symbolic of the missing Jewish people. Outside is a garden of olive trees that are planted in a grid and elevated in concrete planers so visitors can walk under them. The final where you really feel the darkness is in the tower of the museum. Inside this small concrete room, the only light comes from a small opening about forty feet up and makes the air cold, making for an eerie experience. I’m not a big fan of the building, but the attached aspects are worth visiting. The Holocaust memorial is a few train rides away, on an open sloped surface in the middle of the city. Rectangular concrete blocks rise from the ground and vary in different heights, with the tallest ones near the middle and about twelve-feet high. The spacing between these creates paths you can walk through and does a good job showing the impact of what happened just by passing through these huge blocks and seeing seemingly endless paths. It has become a very visited site where you can walk on top, sit and relax in the memorial…just don’t try to lay down.
Holocaust Memorial
Next on the agenda is a day trip to the Bauhaus, followed by a stay in Nuremburg for a couple of nights. It’s a smaller city than Berlin, so it will be interesting just to see how things are different even when they are not that far apart.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I amsterdam

Amsterdam is a melting pot for different cultures and has an ever changing identity that is evident even within the architecture. Most of Amsterdam is full of row housing that extends from the inner city to the outskirts. These buildings go back to a time where the building's width accounted for the cost of the building instead of the overall area. This led to houses being built right next to each other and usually about three to four stories high. The smallest of these is only a little over two meters wide from the street view. Of course this layout is greatly determined by the canal system that runs parallel to the streets. Boats are constantly running and many offer tours from a different vantage point of the city. Just as many cars as you see parked on the sides of the canals there are boats tied in the water.

It is also home to many apartments and one of the most famous is the WoZoCo housing complex. This building was designed for senior living and is eye catching from the street due to the huge cantilevers that jettison out in front of the facade. Known for its well designed floor plans, it also provides balconys ordinated in bright colors the catch the suns rays. Many of the housing complex's to the west of the city are on a horizontal scale, but the WoZoCo takes it to a grander scale.

In the middle part of the city, Amsterdam's infamous Red Light District, is marked off with red lighting and children-to-be-accompanied-by-parents signs. This is perhaps the biggest tourist destination in the city and is home to numerous shops and bars. The biggest draw is however the ladies that rent out rooms in that area. The district occupies several streets and still maintains the overall look of the city but with more neon signs and higher traffic in the streets. This is not the area of the city for anyone to travel to and not expect to feel a little un-comfortable at some point. It's not for everyone but adds to the character of the city and sets it apart from other places in Europe. Most of the night life around the city moves to this area and mixes people of different ages and races around the canal lined streets. Most people are quick to denounce this area but it is a part that has been around for a long time and helped to build a very interesting city. There may be a lot of free thinking, but it's what helps to make the city. It's still not a good place for the timid but is an experience unlike any other and the prices in bars and dinners are no different than any other part of the city, making this a affordable place to visit...although I guess it depends on what you do. It should also be mentioned that any woman can rent the rooms...any size, any age...

The northern part of the city shows off some of Amsterdam's growing pains as construction disrupts the flow of the city. This is where a lot of the higher rising and overall bigger buildings have moved and adds for a totally different experience than the rest of the city. You don't find old churches and row houses here but rather museums and office buildings that surround a large port. this is where the old and new attempt to merge and create something different in this ever changing city. Amsterdam will be a very interesting city to see how it continues to develop and grow over the coming years. Its hard to overlook the construction now, but there is a lot of potential for the architecture to become as diverse as the culture.

Amsterdam is a very unique culture experience and really offers something for everyone. The american influence is everywhere and almost anyone you find speaks some English. This makes it a very comfortable environment to travel around the city. Most people are friendly and restaurants offer translated menus. It really puts things into perspective of how important tourism is for the city and how a different culture has affected the growth of it. It's been a good time and a nice change to see such a different place than what I'm used to and I look forward to seeing how the rest of Europe stacks up to it.

Tomorrow it's on to Berlin, Germany, where the travel program officially starts.