Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship
Journal: October 3, 2007
The southward migration
Hola! Two weeks ago I said goodbye to the comforts of Europe and headed down to South America. While leaving a posh flat on the Thames in London was not the easiest thing I have done, it was probably the most necessary.
I last left all of you in Germany, following my adventures with the Passivhaus movement there. This was followed by a trip to the Stockholm area to visit family on my way to London. Aside from a little R&R, Swedish meatballs, and playing with my god brother and god sister, I got to spend a little bit of time in the city of Stockholm. I went to the Arkitekturemuseet and got to see models and photos of the evolution of Scandinavian architectural design over time. I also stumbled across a great temporary exhibition on the work of A + URL (Architecture + Urban Research Laboratory), which focuses on understanding architectural context and dynamic design within our age of globalization. A former professor at the School of Architecture at the Royal Institute of Technology had started this program with students in 1999 and it has evolved into an international organization and firm. I am hoping to get in contact with this professor about her work and find out more about some of the projects that ended up being implemented in developing countries.
I have to say that London was one of my favorite cities that I have traveled to so far, though to be fair, I did not have a day in two weeks without at least some brilliant sunshine, so it is really not fair to judge. I had the additional pleasure of staying with Kourtney Harper, former Fellow and her husband Simon in their flat overlooking Tower Bridge on the Thames. Despite the greeting I got of hours in line at Heathrow and a tube strike in honor of my arrival, I made it to London unscathed. It was in London that I finally started to feel like I was really traveling. I arrived without a specific plan and spent the first few days wandering and absorbing the city and seeing what it had to offer, while I got in touch with a few contacts in the design world. Aside from the fact that you can never possibly be bored in this city, the way that London visually unfolds reminded me of a modern art museum. Unlike historical cities like Florence and Paris, which have a great sense of place but everything falls into the same few historical periods, London is an architectural free-for-all. You have a Tudor style restaurant tucked underneath a steel and glass feat of engineering with curves that reflect a distorted image of the neoclassical church across the street. I had the wonderful chance to be in charge of my time and just see where the city took me.
One of the best things about my time in London was getting to talk with Kourtney about her experience with the Fellowship. Kourtney went on the Fellowship in the early 90s to learn about illustrative design and cartooning. At the end of her travels, she published a cartoon journal recounting and reflecting on her experiences abroad, which I had the pleasure of reading this summer. This book was the closest thing to reality for me in the months before I left because it gave me a glimpse of what this year could really be. I was excited to meet Kourtney because I admired her sense of humor and ability to take things in stride while traveling. I was also intrigued by the fact that she traveled alone around the world in the days before the inescapable world of cell phones and internet.
From my short time there, England seemed to be a pretty strong market for "green" design, especially since London's proposed plan to have the first "green" Olympics in 2012. I am learning quickly that while planning has its place to get things up and running, the true power of an experience like this is what doors open up before me once I arrive somewhere. I started out with the initial goal of meeting with someone from Arup's Foresight and Innovation team and learning about their involvement in international sustainable design efforts. Arup is a global design and business consulting firm that has done some highly visible work over the years, such as the Sydney Opera House and the new Beijing Olympics aquatic center, and is currently working to promote sustainability in their work. My brief meetings with two members of Foresight and Innovation provided a good insight into how Arup operates within an international scope of work, but more importantly led to some contacts on the design side of things. That afternoon I found myself at Grimshaw Architects, a London based firm that is designing projects with a focus on sustainability. Two employees there talked to me about Grimshaw's major projects, its environmental audit system, and how sustainability is integrated into the office environment.
Grimshaw and Arup teamed up together on the Eden Project, which I was able to go out to visit the following day. This site is located in the region of Cornwall, England and is home to the world's largest biosphere and has been designed as display of both sustainable design and community revitalization. The biosphere geodesic domes are designed to be the most efficient construction to maximize interior space, and like the Beijing aquatic center, have a similar structure to foam bubbles. The panel material is ETFE, Ethylene Tetrafluoro Ethylene, a plastic that is light weight and recyclable. Materials were chosen based on sustainability and local labor has been used throughout to promote the local economy. The architecture was very intriguing, but it was also fun to see the microclimates, especially the part that was supposed to look like California complete with informational signs about avocado trees and Mediterranean architecture. Wow, I must be far from home if they are putting it in a museum!
Later in the week, I had the pleasure of meeting with Jeff Teerlinck and Braulio Morera from the Urban Design Team. Jeff sat with me for two hours sharing the importance of urban design in obtaining sustainability and Arup's current projects in China, including the Dongtan Eco-City. He talked to me about how Arup works to incorporate traditions and institutions of each place into their planning. This is particularly important in China where the countries leaders are showing very little interest in culture, place or tradition when it comes to their design future. Jeff and Braulio also talked to me about how Arup uses its SPeAR method of sustainability analysis to generate holistic projects from urban planning to specific materials used in construction. Though the Dongtan project, near Shanghai, will most likely not be accessible by next spring when I plan to travel out there, Jeff and Braulio asked that I keep in touch and hopefully they will have some suggestions and contacts for my future travels in that region.
In London I did make it to a couple of museums, the Tate Modern and the Design Museum, and spent one afternoon seeing "the sights" of Westminster and Buckingham Palace. The Design Museum did have an interesting exhibition on Zaha Hadid, the first female architect to receive the Pritzker, the highest international award for architectural design. I was fortunate in London to have Kourtney and Simon as my generous and entertaining hosts, who introduced me to rugby, London's Indian food and "eco-balls" (supposedly more environmentally friendly laundry detergent - whatever you do, DON'T put them in the dryer!). I also had my friend Derby from Vanderbilt to show me the back roads and great pubs of London.
After an epic two days of travel, including a tour of Manhattan dining with Austen Heim during my layover in New York City, I landed in Quito, Ecuador. I was immediately thankful for both the years of Italian and the month of Spanish class that I took this summer because my excited host family whisked me off my feet at the airport speaking ONLY Spanish! I also quickly learned my lesson for teasing my mother about her Italian-ish in Italy because I have proceeded since day one to spit out Italian words on a regular basis. Fortunately the two are not so far off that I am completely misunderstood. My decision to take the time here to get immersed into life in South America has been one of the best that I have made. I have spent the last two weeks living with a family here and taking four hours of Spanish a day and it has started paying off. While there have definitely been mornings that I have thought about the challenge ahead for the day, I would not take back the morning conversations in Spanish with my home stay mom Cecilia and sister Paty for anything. Paty knows about ten words in English, which introduces an interesting and often comedic atmosphere to our conversations as my Spanish slowly improves.
While I was sorry to say "chao" (yes, they use this all over the world apparently, so when in doubt just throw out some version of this and smile) at the end of this week to my Spanish professor Diego, I am excited about the week and a half ahead that I have to explore Ecuador and see where life takes me. After that I head to Peru for two weeks before settling in Argentina for a bit. More exciting news to come soon!! Adios!