Studying Abroad as a Student

In the Spring of 1994 I went to Greece as an architectural student with the University of Minnesota. Our class didn’t go there to study classical temples, amphitheaters or stadiums. We didn’t go there to draw Doric, Ionic or Corinthian marble capitals. We went there to study the houses and towns of the Cyclades. In other words, we didn’t go to Greece to study the classics, we went to study what ordinary people lived in and built, what we now call vernacular architecture.

This is my personal story of how I experienced Greece by sitting, observing and drawing its traditional townscapes. It changed how I feel about architecture and more importantly how I view the world.

I had actually travelled to Europe before the Greek trip, as a student at Lawrence University in 1983. This trip was an awesome experience because it focused on Eastern Europe, primarily the Soviet Union. My teacher was George Smalley and it was memorable. In 5 VW vans with seven students apiece and one professor we drove throughout Eastern Europe. This was before the communist curtain would fall and what we would experience was true communist Russia and her eastern block countries.

George Smalley
Russian Professor Lawrence University

The second trip was with the University of Minnesota. My teacher was Dennis Grebner. For the first two weeks of this trip, we worked in pairs and travelled to the country of our choice, mine was Spain. We documented some of Spain’s most traditional villages. Then all of the students met in Greece. The island I stayed on was Skopelos. A small fishing village, that at the time, was just getting started as a tourist destination. Unlike Santorini, heavily populated with tourists, Skopelos was less commercial so it had a quaint and unassuming feel to it.  The town that I stayed at for 6 weeks on the island of Skopolos was Elios. I ultimately designed a “platea” or plaza. Most every traditional town had a center plaza, which is where festivals and shopping would occur. Mine did not and I felt it needed one.

Dennis Grebner, FAIA
Architectural Professor University of Minnesota
Entering Skopelos from above

Before designing anything however, our assignment was to observe. We were told to find locations that we felt important and then document them. I learned all sorts of things by walking and observing, like how the buildings of the town had been primarily of stone and now were made from concrete. How the town had changed over the centuries and how it initially began with just a path. How Greek towns were designed for pedestrians not automobiles. I found out where the town’s bread was made, where octopuses were brought to market and where the lambs were slaughtered for festivals. I learned where the good beaches and olive orchards were. I learned that the traditional house started with a downstairs basement stall for the animals and while the owners slept upstairs. The list goes on and on.

The town starts with a stone wall
My drawing of the stone wall on one side and the sea on the other

To better understand and analyze the town layouts we applied the teachings of Gordon Cullen, who was Dennis Grebner’s mentor and teacher. We asked ourselves, what is the story of this place? With this critical eye I documented the spacial sequences as I entered and left the town. I saw views and vistas of the Agean Sea that opened and then closed. Overlooks of the entire village. Walking paths that curved, slopes that integrated houses into the hill. Landmark buildings like churches, grocery stores and restaurants. I learned to use adjectives to describe the different sequences, paths or views. Is a place friendly, inviting, intimidating, hot, cold, formal, useful, comfortable, active, lonely, mysterious, opaque, dense or permeable?

Clay roof tops appear
My drawing of the clay roof tops and a wall that forms a house

After exploring, drawing and documenting these experiences we were ready to share our information with each other and design something that we felt would improve the our villages. Can we help make some changes or enhance what is there to make this village more interesting? If we were commissioned to add a significant building where would it go, what would it look like and how would it communicate with the people and the other the other buildings? Most important though, by walking, sitting and drawing I experienced how delightfully beautiful these traditional villages are. Ironically, they were not designed by architects but assembled by local craftsmen. The happy accidental nature of the building and landscape were unavoidable. My feelings for a space changed with every corner, with every street with every step. I not only found locations that I was drawn to, I found locations that I felt I belonged to.

Stone houses appear and the town begins to grow
My drawing of overlooking the clay roof tops to the sea

My travel and study program to Greece changed how I will forever design. It changed my view of what architecture is. It fundamentally changed my life and what I value. I hope to be able to travel again with more students and pass on this knowledge. I believe that studying abroad it is the single most important experience you can have as a student. It allows you to view the world with a fresh set of eyes and opens you up to other cultures and an appreciation for other people. Thank you George Smalley, Dennis Grebner and Gordon Cullen and other teachers who help guide students outside the classroom and into other worlds never to be forgotten. I am hopeful that I can carry on their legacy with trips of my own in the future.

Finally you reach the sea and Greek fishing boats and your journey is over

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