It is mid-February. I am about to embark on a journey, a pilgrimage so to speak, to a place that has been cast deep in my mind. As an introduction to my architecture education, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye was studied over and over; each plan examined inside and out, the narratives, spatial tectonics and architectural significance formed the beginnings of my understanding of architecture. Both interest and education added to my library of architectural marvels, and needless to say, by the time I had graduated from my bachelor’s degree, I realised I had to explore architectural feats all over the world. There was an innate need to travel to every corners, no matter how secluded or arduous.
During the 17th–18th century Europe, Le Grand Tour was a customary trip often undertaken by young, wealthy European men and women. Its primary purpose was to expose the individual to the cultural value of classical antiquity and the renaissance, and the focus was for educational purposes. In a time where the exchange of information was much more limited, the Grand Tour was what people turned to in order to gather a clearer understanding of the outside world.
Our insatiable desire to see a world so big and so vast drives us to travel. Terms like “wanderlust” arise as a response to our need for intimate experience with space which would otherwise be a two dimensional image of a place. Travelling engages our senses - not just our sight, but in the process of our feet walking on cobblestoned roads, we get a whiff of the kebab from the corner shop roasted to perfection; we hear the foreign sounds of a language not native to us. The drops of perspiration that form on our foreheads, or the feeling of the morning dew on our arms are experiences that we do not derive from looking at textbooks or images from google. In John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding which he wrote in 1690, argued that our knowledge is derived from being in contact with the physical stimuli with which we are exposed to. It is insufficient to know things for a fact; it is necessary for us to develop our minds by travelling.
Through the course of my education, I have come to understand how travelling forms an integral part of our profession. Site visits and field studies were common even during the formative years of our education. It was an imperative complement to the drawings, photographs, literature, and the occasional ramblings of a (dorky) lecturer. Simply sitting in a lecture hall discussing the works of various architects was not sufficient in providing a complete understanding of the good works we hear of. The very act of walking and navigating through space allows us to be acquainted with the built environment, and is not only enjoyable, yet a very integral part in the appreciation of design. It is a part of our education that is irreplaceable and intrinsic in value. As designers, the act of travelling means more than just checking off our bucket list or posting one more photograph on social media. While most travellers may like a place for its atmosphere, or the fact that they get to see a bird’s eye view of the city, it is details on the Roman arches and the complexities of parametric constructions that unnerves us. Our eyes turn to look at how one building comprises of more than one material, and conclude that it could only happen because of how an accretion of materials and techniques from different eras led to this. To us, travelling not only engages our five senses. It awakens our architectural instincts and these instincts fuel our focus towards the environment around the paths we walk.
Journeying to the Villa Savoye required a 2 hour train ride from where I stayed. From the experiences I gathered from visiting other tourist attractions in Paris, I had fully expected the Villa to attract large crowds of people as well. Upon reaching Garde de Poissy, the train station closest to Villa Savoye, it instantly occurred to me that my imaginations were far from the truth. Unlike other tourist spots where you could anticipate crowds armed with cameras and maps, it was evident that I was the only outsider in the area. Instead of tourists, I was surrounded by locals going about their daily activities, carrying their grocery bags, and mainly running errands. My journey closer to the Villa revealed the detachment of the Villa from its surrounding environment. I had started to wonder how differently the status of the Villa was for me, compared to the residents living in that area. Upon reaching the entrance, overgrown vegetation obscured direct view into the house, and it was only after trudging through a short opening that I was greeted with the distinct view of the Villa. While it was previously a holiday home from a wealthy family, I had noticed that the surrounding areas were now an enclave for migrants and demographically in the lower socio-economic classes. It is only through travelling to the Villa Savoye that I realise the Villa’s detachment from the context of its environment. Without doing so, I can only imagine it as a heritage site, standing isolate amidst some greenery.
My visit to the Villa Savoye taught me an important lesson. As an architectural student, so much focus had been placed on studying details, understanding the architect’s intention and the needs of the context at that time. These things are important, but if we are not careful, we may end up merely replicating what is deemed as pristine, risking creating something that is irrelevant to its time and age. A building constructed in 1931 compared to a building today, will greatly differ due to technological advancements, shifts in aesthetic preferences and the endless changes in social dynamics. It is not simply about dismissing a site as irrelevant and unworthy of focus, but it is about learning to evaluate spaces with lenses from a different time, and thereafter, considering the appropriate response in our current (and future) times. We do not merely look at a place and conclude it as a marvel simply because of its historical background and significance; we learn to draw upon what our predecessors have done as a starting point for what we will create in time to come. Through our travels, we are reminded of our mediative roles as designers, and we learn to draw appropriate relevance with our time.
As designers, there are paths we must walk. It fills up the empty parts of the story that we do not know about until we walk the ground. Extensive knowledge of a place cannot complete the picture, until personally experiencing the place in its surroundings, cracks, and imperfections that are too trivial to be talked about in lectures or studies. Very often, the building industry advocates for a certain belief of idealism (aesthetics, construction), manifested in the form of precision drawings and endless iterations in design. In doing so, it portrays an almost ephemeral image of a place, easily enticing developers and clients, and we too can be drawn into the desire to create a place so perfect. But the act of travelling grounds us. As our senses are holistically engaged, it reminds us of the reality of making and building, including the imperfections of welding joints, the minuscule differences in the thickness of brick and mortar. These things are observed in the paths we walk, and it is these that make us.