Wednesday, June 13, 2007

06.13.07: SHOES, and other baggage

Since I only have a few days left here in Europe, I am feeling the need to try to summarize this experience. This study will surely continue to evolve over the next several months as I complete the research and reading that I have started (I finished a lot of the reading I brought with me, but not all…) and begin to try to organize this into a lecture for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign next fall. But here are my initial thoughts and lessons learned so far, probably posted as individual posts as I complete them. This is not intended to be a preachy lecture of things you must do, rather, these ideas are things that I am taking away from this valuable experience. These lessons are for me, but feel free to borrow.

This is the third time I have had an opportunity to spend an extended amount of time in Europe. The first opportunity was when I spent a year studying architecture in Versailles, France through the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1995-1996. The second occasion was a travelling fellowship award for my graduate thesis which brought me back to Europe for three months during the summer of 1999. And finally this experience this summer. I have noticed some changes since my first stay in France, almost 12 years ago. Technology is a big one, we didn’t even have email the first time I was here, and now I can login to free wifi from my hotel, but I want to talk about shoes. The first time I was here, all of us very quickly learned that if you didn’t want to stand out as an American tourist, it was very important what kind of shoes you wore. We all very quickly learned to dump our white tennis shoes for something a bit more Euro-looking… no tennis shoe, and nothing white! This time, before leaving for Europe, I was very concerned as to what kind of shoes I would be wearing this trip, I was looking for something with the comfort of a tennis shoe, but not something that would instantly tag me as an American tourist (even though I still stand out as being an American, no matter what I do)… Also important is that when you wear size 13 shoes, there is only room for one pair when travelling….

To make a long story short, it is not so easy to pick out the American tourist anymore by the clothes or shoes they are wearing – French people are wearing white tennis shoes! (and shorts!) Furthermore, I think we are all beginning to dress the same way too. There are still subtle differences in style and appearance, but this trip I have noticed that it is much more difficult to tell people apart by just the way they look, dress, or most importantly, the shoes they are wearing.

While I realize this is just an anecdotal story, but I think it touches on the larger issue of globalization. The world is shrinking. Global culture is being branded on the internet – to everyone. We are all listening to the same music, watching the same movies, wearing the same clothes, and shoes… and building the same buildings? I think the lesson here if for architects to be careful. It is becoming much more difficult to distinguish world places and cultures from one another, but that does not mean that context is not important. I would argue that context becomes even more important, as the global economy erodes cultural differences. The lesson here is that it is increasingly important for architecture to attempt to find that special connection to place, the kind of connection that gives buildings specificity to a particular time and place. This specificity in architecture is something that Jean Nouvel argues for as a response to the banal buildings that look the same everywhere in the world. It is this specificity that makes his Musee Quai Branly a building that could only exist here in Paris, at this particular time. I think Zaha Hadid’s Paeno Science Center also illustrates a specific intent to try to tie the building into the urban context of the city of Wolfsburg.

So lesson one is to be conscious of context. Even though we are all wearing the same shoes, doesn’t mean our buildings need to be the same. Buildings need to be integrated into the specifics of place, to become a meaningful part of the culture of that place.


  1. Ok, inquiring minds want to know if the shoes you brought were the right shoes?! Were they comfortable? I was left hanging on this issue after reading this posting! Details!

  2. yes, they were quite comfortable, but did nothing to help me look more European....

  3. that's cuz you're too tall with red hair...I think they all probably thought you were Scottish anyway.

    Believe it or not, I really don't like the alien building by cook. And I'm a big fan of whimsy in architecture. I don't know, its just too much perhaps? Maybe its the proportions. Its just off. I think making the massing similar and lining up a few parts doesn't make it any more contextual. But hey, its a big black sluglike building, what can you do?

  4. jim, I thought you of all people would like this one! For some reason it didn't seem so out of place to me, but I agree with you that the proportions are a bit odd.

  5. Your insight on the importance of context, I agree, is a critical responsibility of the architect to consider in his/her design. But I believe that there's more to being cognizant of the context than what is encompassed by Frampton's words... Context exists in both locality (physical/empirical at that specific site) and time (trends, beliefs, ideologies, building methods, material availability, market, political shifts, stocks, currency ...)

    Today, as you pointed out, globalization is homogenizing the population. In the surging waves of capitalist-driven popular culture, the globe is becoming a 'single disease pool' (to quote from Delanda). But there is and always will be a divergent culture inherent within the ‘main’ stream: a heterogeneous mix of common-interest groups, personal websites, and of course, blogs.

    I guess my point is that the idea implicit in any word, like context, needs to evolve with the fluctuations of time. But that doesn’t mean that the prior meaning of context is primitive or no longer valid. History is not progress, but a layering of multiplicities sifted through numerous selective forces. Hence, evolution is not necessarily a ‘step-forward’ (we as hunter-gatherers did not evolve into a higher state as farmers. The ‘centralization’ was merely a necessary byproduct to adequately maneuver the new system of sustainability) and that applies to the word application as well. Although site-specificity as in light, site history, appropriate materials and construction process, and scale will always be important, there is, in a sense, value in being site specific beyond specificity. World is shrinking. This is context. Like Bucky did when he envisioned a grand scheme, from collecting raw materials to processing, transporting and erecting, there is an interconnection between what you build and the world, intensively and extensively, perpetually restricting and/or amplifying each other.

    Then again, whether as an architect you pursue this path or not is your choice. Your conscious design choice that is, which you can back up with full confidence. If you always play it safe and do not challenge the boundaries of what is acceptably, ‘working well in context,’ you may only be compounding on nostalgia.

  6. And now, this blog is global as well - hello from Japan!

    Miwa - I completely agree with what you are saying... I think what I am trying to argue is that, in a world where everything is beginning to look the same, or becoming homogenized as you said, the risk is that we forget to recongnize that places are still unique. I am not in any way suggesting a nostalgic approach, site specific and nostalgia are two very different things. As designers we cannot forget the local, which encompasses all of political, cultural, social issues that you mentioned, and may also include aspects of the global. I think our ability to evoke emotion and poetry from a place still resides in our understanding of the uniquness of places, which is becoming more difficult to decern. That uniquness of place is still there, just under the surface a bit.

    I think the Kunsthaus Graz is a good example of this, reacting to a number of local issues while at the same time communicating Graz's position withing the global art scene.

    You are absolutely correct though, architecture is both global and local at the same time, and maybe the global is the context we should be working in, especially in the era of global climate change.

    Poetry, however, still resides in the experience of space, which is distinctly local.