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...
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