Study Abroad as missed opportunity!?

Before I begin with the following thoughts I would like to disclaim that I do not condemn the practice of foreign study in general, as I believe immersion outside one's comfort level and personal experience is essential to growth. That caveat having been stated, I will address the problems with study abroad programs in the discipline of Architecture.

Study abroad programs have become a major industry for higher education yet in architecture they often function somewhat paradoxically. Ideally the purpose of such study is complete cultural immersion and appreciation for other approaches to universal problems as well as invaluable personal experience with works of architecture. This perhaps is key as the subtle characterization of light and space in three dimensions is virtually impossible to fully comprehend through representations alone. I would argue that the cultural understanding and immersion is just as crucial to understand how in the context of the built architecture. The paradox of study abroad is that it tends to take two forms which are counter to some or all of the goals of foreign study.

First, study abroad tends to easily become corrupted by the virulent architectural studio culture leading to sequestration of students inside studio rather than outside among the architecture and the culture. One example of this would be a prominent architecture school [name redacted but they will be playing in the Rose Bowl this year] who houses students for its Florence study program in a villa over 40 km from Firenze. One can logically question, given the distance, just how often the students will ever reach their alleged object of study.

The second type of study program is the whirlwind study tour (ie If It's Tuesday, this Must be Belgium). While very strong experientially such programs utterly fail at cultural immersion and understanding and often end up as a surreal blur of architecture fueled by lack of sleep, disorientation and booze.

Then there is the question of whether study abroad programs are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the face of global forces.

I was privileged enough to spend about 12 weeks studying in Italy three years ago and was startled to realize (although it shouldn't have been much of a surprise) that the phenomena we studied in the greatest depth were unnervingly similar to problems faced back home. For two weeks we studied the sprawling "Adriatic City" a loose conglomeration of big box stores, warehouses, housing tracts (with cul-de-sacs even!) and apartment buildings that sprawls across the Adriatic plane over half the length of the coast. This area is characterized by shoddy speculative building, heavy industry,automobile dominance, and wall sized supergraphics that would make Morphosis proud. Obviously these are resultant from truck-based shipping, the highway network needed to facilitate it, and the speed at which the observer moves relative to the context; all of these have as much to do with Italian history and culture as sushi does.

After this project the subject for my independent study became abandonment and, while dealing with historical examples of abandonment and ruin, I found the project focusing more on contemporary examples of abandonment from shuttered gas stations to abandoned tourist motels to industrial relic that were, to my view, suprisingly littering Italy often almost in view of the throngs of tourists. With a step back it is clear that such sheer disposability of the built environment is certainly not limited to Italy; as a continuation of the project I extended it to the United States and used it as the basis for my senior thesis project. Much like the sprawling environment of the "Adriatic City", abandonment is a symptom of global processes that supersede natural and cultural boundaries.

Given that the major forces shaping Architecture are globalized and transnational in their effect, is it necessary to pack up and move to China to learn about rampant development and environmental un-sustainibility (or for that matter how to fight such proclivities and forces)? I argue that my talents are better used here. If a casual jaunt through the North Side, Alton, Brooklyn, or Sauget is any indication there is a surfeit of work to be done...

3 reactions:

Evan Chakroff said...

One one hand I completely agree with your criticism of architecture-abroad programs, and I wish there was a way to Hemmingway myself into rural Spain, sip wine and watch bullfights and just bask in the pure unadulterated authenticity of it all.

But realistically, there's no way to return to romantic visions of cultural tourism, much less immersion, without willful suspension of good judgment and significant leaps of faith (things that tend not to mesh well with your typical architectural career path). The areas of the world least "spoiled" by American/corporate influence are the areas most embroiled in war and societal collapse.

This leads me to believe that the drug-fueled sleep-deprived whirlwind-architectural-bender may truly be the most authentic grand-tour one can take today: a hyper-speed global shopping extravaganza. Take a few last sips of regional beers before you realize that the last remnant of cultural differentiation is the difference in stock between H&M New York and H&M The Hague.

Still, perhaps a long-term study of big-box stores and cul-de-sacs in the Italian countryside is ultimately more instructive than a whiplash bus tour that still leaves a vague impression of the importance of history, an impression that will prove increasingly false as historical cores are gradually eroded by the continuing sprawl of the worldwide suburb. It will ultimately be of greater benefit to architects, planners, and philosophers, to study the world as it is, rather than the world as we wish it to be.

Andrew J. Faulkner said...

Although I find myself in agreement with you, you are pursuing a tertiary point to my argument, which perhaps is more radical than you initially perceived. The argument I meant to make (perhaps it got lost in the composition) was that in the current age study abroad is not necessary at all. Using the points you bring up as evidence of the overarching dominance of globalized forces (or flows... but I hate that terminology) what point is there in studying them or addressing them somewhere else? Perhaps you could learn the German techniques to dealing with McMansions, but what point is it to burn jet fuel and liquid assets to see it in person when you can journey to the fringe of your city to see the same phenomena reified only marginally differently due to fluctuating levels of "taste" and ostentation.

If the world is exponentially more homogenous and the same architects churn out competition entries from Dubuque to Dubai with the same jetlag-delirious fuzzy conception of context as support why don't we all seize the opportunity surrounding us? But the grass is always greener...

Michael R. Allen said...

I have very little to add to a well-argued post. I faced the same situation in college, and also declined to study abroad. (I did make a trip to Thailand to visit someone studying abroad, and used the opportunity to actually engage the country on my own, which was rewarding to an extent that I doubt study abroad could offer.)

I made the choice instead literally to go down those roads in my hometown I had seen but never traveled, and the ongoing journey has placed me in a position to not only learn about the ills of the built environment but the opportunity to help fix some of them. Turns out there are more educated American architectural adventurers in Thailand than in East St. Louis, and East St. Louis wants and needs us more.

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