The Importance of Travel for an Architect

Architecture is a risky profession.  If one lands onto the design end of the playing field, pitfalls can include tight budgets, inexperienced clients, zoning constraints, neighborhood committees and an endless list of other challenges.  None greater, however, than the idea of style.  Style is word that is used loosely in our profession and is oftentimes employed to vaguely describe generalities accurate to only the extent of the speaker’s grasp of architectural history.

Yet beyond classifying the epochs of design, style has another meaning being the individual’s style, vis-a-vis what the architect considers to be good design.  The major pitfall surroundings style in this sense is the possibility of commencing each new design in a manner that resembles too closely one’s last design.  For as soon as one begins to develop a style, one can find himself being lulled into a sort of design paralysis.  Dashiell Hammett once remarked on why he stopped writing novels, “I found I was repeating myself.  It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style”.

It’s for this reason that travel for an architect – particularly foreign travel – is vital to maintaining a clarity and openness to design challenges.  Travel introduces an architect to solutions that navigate beyond local building practices, de facto material choices, approaches to climate, water, plumbing and basic construction methods.  While merely aping what is done elsewhere is not the point of design, the simple exposure to something different and new can help one see things more clearly at home.

One a recent trip to the Czech Republic, I snapped the below picture of a wall construction exhibit.

European Wall Types

While the wall construction on the right is the historically normative approach – double wythe masonry coursing, stucco top-coat and optional insulation – the wall types to its right show the ever-increasing emphasis on insulation leading to today’s best practice of 4″ foam insulation stacked on the outside of the insulation filled stud cavity.

Or in a different vein, it sometimes takes a foreign solution to a design challenge to break the expected strategy that an architect would typically take.  Shown below is a barrel shaped roof of a mountain-top hotel.  Since this particular region of Czech suffers immense snow loads, the architect’s solution was to create a barrel vault on the scale of the entire building.

Novel Snow Load Response

Or sometimes the idyllic version of history and the magic of childhood fantasy can dissolve into the terrifying, all-to-real mayhem that penetrated every aspect of medieval life.

A View from the East Tower of Castle Trosky

Good design can be found everywhere.  However there is a certain richness in travel that helps break loose one’s default palette and design solutions that would ordinarily go unconsidered.  If you find yourself drawing the same thing on your next project that you drew on your last project, book a flight and go see the world!

View from atop the Prague Castle


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