Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship
Journal: July 24, 2007
On my way: Los Angeles, CA to Rome, Italy
So today has finally come. After months of planning and preparing, I am on a plane headed away from everything comfortable and known to live out the Keegan Fellowship abroad. Particularly over the past few weeks, this had become something that I just talked about. "My fellowship" was something that I explained over dinner, shared with my family and even talked about on the radio once. Only yesterday did it strike me that I am actually going to be doing all of this. I am thrilled, nervous, intrigued by what lies ahead, a little scared, and so relieved that I am finally here. This year will only happen once - at times going as planned and at times beyond my control and intentions - and from here everything still lies before me.
Fortunately, I was completely distracted for the past week and did not have a chance for reality to set in until the last minute, so I suppose a moment of reflection on my expectations, dreams, and fears is needed. It was only the night before my departure, when it was time to zip up my bags, tie up loose ends and say goodbyes that my emotions caught up with me briefly as I realized I was really leaving. I think I was generally overwhelmed as opposed to feeling any particular emotion. I think most of all I will miss my family, especially since I spent the last few months settled in the comfort of home often referred to as "the womb." From a preparation standpoint, it was a great place to focus, though I admit it makes the transition away a bit harder. I think my greatest personal fear is that something could happen to someone that I love while I am away, though I remind myself that the chances of this happening do not increase as a result of my absence.
This brings me to briefly cover relationships, and the impact that they can make when embarking on personal travel and discovery. A few months ago, I was ready to set out on the road, free of ties - an independent woman ready to take on the world and all it had to offer - until I started getting closer to a good friend and realized how much this person meant to me beyond our friendship. Obviously not something I could help and I would not take back a day we had together. However, it made leaving much more difficult and intensifies the absence of other people when I am alone. As someone once told me, sometimes loneliness can taste like pennies. The best way to cure this will be to take joy in those around me, find camaraderie wherever it may lie and get pleasure from people welcoming me into their homes and their hearts.
On a lighter note, I am certain that the people that I will meet and the relationships I will make along the road will be some of the most interesting and memorable of my life. What is most important is to keep an open mind and not be afraid to smile and strike up a conversation with whoever is around. You never know where acquaintances can lead you and, while staying aware, it does not hurt to expect the best from people.
I think that my greatest personal challenge this year will be adjusting to not having a routine or consistent safety net. I have become so used to planning my life and staying in control. This year abroad will serve as an important lesson in flexibility, adaptability, and spontaneity. I will be tired. I will be uncomfortable. Things will inevitably not go as planned. But I will have unique and thrilling experiences to make it all worthwhile in the end.
The nature of the Keegan Fellowship is largely experiential, which presents challenges unique from those faced when conducting detailed research or working to obtain a specific goal. Focusing my experiences and observations to contribute to my fellowship goals and desires will be an interesting process. At this point, I have a diverse array of opportunities ahead of me in various countries, and it is difficult to imagine what I will take away from them all. Seeing modern sustainable design efforts and meeting with architects, builders, and engineers behind them in both developed and developing countries will enhance my understanding of how designs are planned and executed. On the other hand, interacting with communities - particularly those with a more recent tradition of vernacular design executed without the "expertise" of architects - will provide perspective on architecture's social and cultural function within specific context. I expect I will witness disconnects between intention and results, mismanaged resources and the disheartening idolization of western design in place of traditional architecture. However, I also hope to see examples of appropriate designs and technologies, communities questioning the status quo, innovation and insight, and architectural cultures that are being sustained from an environmental, social, economic, and cultural perspective.
In the context of this project, my methodology will have to be following my instinct, documenting my observations and responses, and being inquisitive. I hope to get my hands dirty, both physically through natural and traditional building opportunities, and metaphorically through personal interaction with individuals and communities around the world. Aside from photographic documentation and maintaining a journal of my observations and experiences, my sketchbooks will most likely be my greatest resource. Dedicating time to these means slowing down from my normal levels of activity, but the product will an important method of personal documentation and an invaluable reserve as I go into architecture.
Throughout this year, I must be realistic about my goals but daring enough to follow my dreams and desires. There are certain places that I will be disappointed if I do not travel to, Africa being the foremost, though I cannot compromise my health, safety or sanity to do anything that I think will be best. Some of the most important advice I received before my departure was from the current Keegan Fellow, who told me not to worry about the responses I do not receive or the things that do not work out, but to recognize the value of people being excited about my fellowship and making the most of opportunities that arise along the way.
By traveling around the world, do I expect to find an architectural solution that will be valid throughout the world? No, and I believe that is exactly the point. I have never hoped to. There is no architecture that can be universally applied with social, cultural, economic, aesthetic and environmental success. This is where the importance of traditional, or vernacular, architecture provides models of how structures can be built economically, from locally available materials, to respond to climate and site conditions, while having a relatively low environmental impact. Combined with appropriate technologies, quality of life can be improved without vast resource costs. Traditional structures have also been successful because they reflect social and cultural needs and customs of the communities in which they are built. I think that as the world becomes increasingly globalized, many communities in locales that have historically been unique and independent and are losing sight of this. My focus for this fellowship is developing countries because they are closer to such traditions and are not as far invested in one way of thinking and developing as are most developed countries. I hope that along my travels, I will have opportunities not only to learn, but also to educate as I encounter communities that may believe that their future depends on importation of design solutions from the developed world.
Over lunch with a woman with whom I plan to work in Tanzania a few weeks ago, I began to realize what this Fellowship could actually mean. She described her expectations that in Tanzania, I would most likely not come away with any immediate solutions, but that I would have gained a personal and more thorough understanding of the problems. Maybe I will realize design solutions for Tanzania down the road. Maybe what I will learn will contribute to my ability to find solutions to future problems in completely different contexts. The least that this fellowship experience will do is leave me a more enlightened, sensitive and aware person, and hopefully a more intelligent future designer as a result.