Honors architectural studies/history major Hannah Breshears is studying urban design this summer in London, Paris and Rome. She is a regular Honors College blogger.
A word to the wise: If you’re traveling anywhere in Europe, wear decent shoes! I’ve been abroad for 10 days now, from London to Paris and on to Rome, and my tennis shoes and rain coat are worth their weight in gold. Architectural tours aren’t your typical European holiday… air conditioned coaches are few and far between as you trek from one end of the city to the other for decent photographs of some of the world’s most spectacular buildings. The days are long and filled with hours of sketching and shading as you attempt to capture with your pencil the bits and pieces that make up each city.
London was complete chaos as construction crews fought to finish last minute renovations for the Queen’s Jubilee and the summer Olympics. I didn’t see much of the Queen (nothing at all actually), but the Olympic fever had taken over. There was an enormous clock in the middle of Trafalgar Square counting down the days until the opening ceremony, and thousands of miniature mascots in shops around the city. The political battle that is usually associated with this sort of thing was in full swing as the construction budget for the major stadia rose and fell with public opinion. Not even London has been spared from the global economic crisis and the question of how to spend the country’s money is of the utmost importance, despite the huge influx of tourist revenues the games are sure to bring.
Will the enormous Olympic structures be removed after the games? Reused? How? By whom? No one seems to know. There’s plenty of controversy surrounding the London games. Even world renowned designer Zaha Hadid, the woman responsible for the most iconic structure on the site, the Aquatic Center with it’s pair of removable “water wings,” has had some trouble getting a ticket to the events. That’s so ridiculous!
One of our last days in London was spent touring around Clerkenwell, essentially the “design district” of the city. Some of the biggest names in each industry (architecture, industrial and graphic design, sculpture, theatre) have offices in Clerkenwell and we were lucky enough to get a private tour of Zaha Hadid’s firm, though not by the designer herself. It was completely surreal. I’m only a year from graduation and I still can’t picture myself working in an office like that. I’m not sure the glow of the design world will ever fade for me, despite its overwhelming challenges. Maybe that’s a good thing.. Art is made to move us, to push us forward. We SHOULD be impressed.
I don’t think buildings like the Eiffel Tower, one of my favorite moments from Paris, could ever be anything less than impressive. It’s almost a pilgrimage site, you know? Since it’s construction for the 1889 World’s Fair, people from all over the globe have made their way to Paris to “ooo and ahh” over the Eiffel Tower. Our group had trekked across the city from our hotel just in time to see the lights come on. I don’t think any other site on our trip had garnered as much attention or as many photos. The real surprise came when just past the hour the Eiffel Tower lit up like an American Christmas tree, offering a few minutes of a brilliant white light show that the hundreds of tourists gathered on the lawn tried to capture on film. Everywhere you looked there were children playing, couples young and old embracing beneath the lights, friends clapping and laughing in appreciation. It was beautiful.
We’ve since moved on to Rome, after a long and exhausting series of taxi, train and bus rides. I’ve never felt so relaxed. After a weekend in Paris, just being able to read the street signs again, thanks to two years of Italian classes, has put me at ease! Not to mention the multiple scoops of gelato I’ve eaten since we got here. Something about Rome just feels like home. Our hotel is just a block from the Piazza Navona, a large swath of open space on the map, but a tiny courtyard in reality! I couldn’t help but laugh as I walked into the piazza for the first time and realized how different the “true” Rome is from the version I’ve constructed in my mind. Everything is smaller here than I expected, more personal somehow. The streets and buildings and even the cars… no space is wasted. Its almost as if “waste” is a purely American concept, a novelty unknown to the rest of the world. As we move from country to country, I’m starting to understand that space and silence denote status as easily as diamonds and yachts in Europe. In a city like London or Rome, packed to the brim with people, a quiet neighborhood is a commodity. Even a small yard is something very precious here.
I remember feeling a little jaded after my first trip abroad, like America had betrayed me somehow. It was a strange sort of emotion that I couldn’t seem to place. Now that I’m back in Europe for a second round of culture shock, I can almost taste the differences in the two continents. There’s a youthfulness to America, a naivete, that’s almost disorienting in comparison to London and Rome and Paris. The energy of the States are replaced by layer upon layer of European history and experience, masked by the dirt and grime only centuries of use could amass. A few days from now we’ll make our way to Barcelona. I’m interested to see Gaudi’s urban playground and to attempt to “translate” another completely new city with my drawing pencils. The summer’s adventures have only just begun.