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Monday, October 11, 2010

Hola España

So I guess the first major sign that you have been out of the States too long is the fact that you get excited to see a Burger King that has free refills.

With the first of the last two countries upon us, Spain is definitely a sign that the travel program is winding down. For the second part of independent travel, we chose Madrid as our place of study and it worked out since it was close to where the program would resume in several days. The travel here was long and involved several cabs and two plane trips before we got to our hotel late in the evening. The hotel was rather nice and we were staying on the top floor of a busy plaza in the city. Of course this was one of the more interesting parts of the city as well, as we found out that night when each person in my group was grabbed by a different “lady”, trying to get us to buy into their business. I guess a hotel with a McDonalds and hookers right outside would be ideal for some, but when you get grabbed by one looking like an older Snookie, it’s not so fun.

Madrid is one of those cities that is really starting to get big and develop into something more. Architecturally, it has some big plans in mind, but with recent recessions, some of the work that was due to be completed was put on hold. That’s not to say that there is nothing to see, there are still some pretty prominent architects here such as Herzog and de Meuron and the Caixa Forum, a revitalization of an older building into a community center. Herzog and de Meuron are obsessed with the skin of the building and this one is no exception, retrofitting bronze plating on an old brick facade with perforations that can be seen from the ground, playing with the light.. The old window placements are then disregarded and bricked up, allowing voids to be creating and creating light in the areas that now need it within the new floor plan. The building is accessed from underneath the older building that is now lifted on steel and concrete, creating a cool gathering spot out of the sun. The inside still has a very modern theme with a grand staircase and views of the bronze screen where you can really study the pattern.

Caixa Forum, Madrid
Seville was where the travel program started back up and it didn’t have the best start and by far the worst ending of anywhere on the trip. Waiting on the public transportation system here takes awhile and the first time we used it happened to be at night, trying to look at some bridges in the area. Our instructor basically took us to one of the darker areas of the city. We had homeless people shouting at us and skater kids making passes at the girls most of the time we were there. The next day wasn't much better because we only had one place to go and it didn’t really catch any of our interest, but the city itself is nice during the day and there were a lot of nice shops in the more expensive parts of the city. The final day, the bus trip out of Seville, had to be one of the worst days of my life in terms of how I physically felt. I woke up sick and was in the bathroom most of the morning. Getting ready to go seemed almost impossible and when finally making it down the stairs, I realized I wasn’t the only one that was feeling ill. About half of the group had contracted food poisoning from the hotel food the day before. The total time on the bus this day was about four hours in total and involved me holding on to a trash bag for a good part of it.

Our first stop on this wonderful day was at Cordoba, to see the much talked aboutGreat Mosque of the city. This is a really interesting place and beautiful, but it was not a good day for me. Taking pictures proved a difficult task and looking at them afterwards showed how out of it I really was. More bad than good pictures is never a welcoming thing. The Mosque itself is a bit controversial in name as the Spanish Reconquista led to the take over of the Moor build building and converted it to a Catholic Church by inserting a cathedral inside. It's interesting to see the two styles mix and even clash in some areas, really telling the story of the times. The Moors saw saw Architecture as more in tune with nature and really letting the patterns and structure do the talking, while the Gothic influence infuses it with sculpture. The lead up to the area is a treat within itself as you cross the river and into the small town that surrounds it before you find the gates to the courtyard.

Great Mosque, Cordoba
Our final stop on this day was to Granada, a city I have no idea what it actually looks like because I was stuck in the hotel the whole other day we were there. Some other students also got hit with it after, bringing the final count to over half the class getting food poisoning. That is an experience I hope to never have again and far from my best experience in Europe thus far.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

London Calling

So we made it to the halfway point in the program, the independent travel section in jolly old London. We arrived in England on a pretty dreary day as it was cold and raining...it pretty much stayed that way the entire time we were there. London does not get a lot of sun and the weather can be kind of depressing when you are walking around outside the entire day. Rain jackets were a must at all times because the sky could open up at any minute to a very cold rain. Taking pictures in this weather becomes a real challenge and sketching a building is almost impossible. We were lucky enough to get a few breaks, but they were few and far between.

But enough about the weather...it was good just to be able to understand exactly what was being said to you here. We have already encountered several different languages and they all start to run together after awhile but at least being here, you feel closer to home. Of course I let a few "thank yous" in Germans slip, but at this point, thats to be expected. The lure of London is really about its tradition, not new and modern architecture, so that made this visit a little different for us. In some ways this was time for us to be just another tourist and enjoy the sights, but there was still plenty to see and do here and it wasn't even an issue asking for directions.

Easily one of the most well know architects of today, Norman Foster, is from and has his office in England. You really can't go any where in the city without being close by a Foster and Associates building. It's easy to tell the people love their native architect and his buildings are the most well know around the city. One of the latest projects to come out of his office goes by several names, the Swiss Tower, the Gherkin, or 30 St. Mary Axe being the most common ones. London is not a city that builds up very often, so seeing this skyscraper from different parts of the city becomes an adventure in itself. The tower is situated in a business section where the winds cut right through your cloths due to the tight spaces and larger buildings around. This plays into the design of the building by allowing it to expand from the base and eventually taper back towards the top. This is so the wind is lifted up and spiraled over the building instead of causing it to just sit and twirl at the base. The white bracing can be seen spiraling up the facade and enhances the spiral effect to the eye. I has a chance to visit this on a Sunday when the businesses were close and the windows were being cleaned from the very top. The wind in the area was able to carry the water over a block away leaving a few passerbys to get their umbrellas ready.

Swiss Tower

The tourist sites of London are some of the most talked about and impossible to pass up. Special trips were made to see Big Ben and even the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. This spectacle goes up for about an hour and consist of the night guards being replaced by the familiar fuzzy hat ones. There are literally hundreds of people that show up to this each day and the sidewalks become pretty crowded. Several bands of guards march down the street playing anthems before they gather in the courtyard and basically put on a concert. The funniest song they played happened to be the very first one, as the audience was treated to the Imperial March from Star Wars. It's pretty much a mini parade complete with bands and guards on horse back that look like they are straight out of Lord of the Rings. The finale comes as the bands march back out playing and had the good fortune of having one of the horses make it an interesting march out.

Now if there is one thing you can find plenty of in London, other than clouds, its bridges. The city is located on the river and is know for it's bridges, but perhaps the most famous one today hasn't even fell down yet and is only a pedestrian bridge that connects the side of St. Paul's Cathedral to that of Shakespeare's Globe Theater. The Millennium Bridge, by surprise, Norman Foster, is a suspension bridge thats strong angles and connections make it easily recognizable. Huge tension cables support the bridge by pulling from either side and joining in the middle. Thousands of people cross the bridge daily weather it is to get to work across town of just to enjoy the views of the river.
Millennium Bridge

And thus ends our time in London, as Shakespeare would say, "Parting is such sweet sorrow" especially in a city where you understand what all is being said, but we are now in the home stretch with Spain on the way next.

Things learned:
Yes, the weather is terrible in London
No, the fish n chips were not as good as expected
Crossing cross walks is a bit harder when they drive the wrong way
Abbey Road photo shoots are more difficult than you'd think