Fragment 11: An Architect's Travels Iceland


We live in a world of diversity. Traveling and experiencing different cultures and lifestyles offers architects an insight into the artwork of the human experience. Traveling enables us to draw parallels between different places and thus, compare different ways of life, different responses to the environment, and ultimately different perspectives of living.

As architects, we are visual creatures that are wired to learn more and continue bettering ourselves and our work, constantly building off of what we learned from the last design or experience. Experiencing other environments, both built and natural, allows us to discover everyday life – and its nuances – in the most ordinary (or extraordinary) places. It is for that reason that travel is essential to maintaining a clarity and openness to design solutions. The simple exposure to something different and new can help one see things more clearly at home. We must detach ourselves from our daily life and get engulfed by the source of our creation.

By expanding our horizons geographically, we expand our mental horizons of what is possible in life and design. The exploration should challenge and change you.

Iceland, a Nordic Island nation south of the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic Ocean, hosts dramatic glacial landscapes, geothermal hot springs, volcanoes, and lava fields across nearly 40,000 square miles. It is a land of contrasts and stark beauty. A frozen landscape set atop a volcanic melting pot yields glistening icebergs washing ashore black volcanic sand beaches. The interior plateau known as the Highlands is barren, cold and uninhabitable while the coastline, punctuated by many stunning fjords where glacial rivers flow to the sea, is characterized by several flourishing towns.

The agenda reflects a week-long adventure driving Route 1, fondly known as the “Ring Road,” counter-clockwise around to most of the inhabited parts of the country. Destinations include the fissures, waterfalls, geysers, and volcanic craters of the Golden Circle; black sand beaches and rock formations of Vik; the lava fields and glaciers of Skaftafell; the fishing village of Höfn; the dramatic mountainscapes and beautiful coastlines of the East Fjords; a refresh and rest in Egilsstaðir; the geothermal area of Hverir and hot springs of Myvatn; basalt-inspired architectural wonders of Akureyri; northern lights in the port town of Dalvik; volcanos, glaciers, lava fields, craters, hamlets, mountains, and rugged Atlantic coastlines of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula; and finally the country’s capital, Reykjavík – a melting pot of varied and striking architecture and natural attractions.

“You need to leave America to see America”.

He was wise enough to realize I did not understand.  I was not yet twenty years old and in less than a month I would leave the country for the first time as part of a college study abroad program.  I could not understand the inherent contradiction of seeing America by leaving America.

Sitting in a gothic cathedral in Basel several weeks later, I understood.  You cannot see one thing unless you see many things. You cannot understand the one unless you can contrast with another.  Perception has been described as the ability to differentiate.  Insightful perception is the foundation of meaningful creativity.  This is why travel is essential for an architect.  Travel allows an architect, like Allyson, to enhance her perceptive abilities by experiencing different built and natural environments.   Perception gained from her travel experiences builds her creative process.

During my college study abroad trip, we visited Notre-Dame du Haut, a Roman Catholic chapel in Ronchamp, France.  Designed by the architect known as Le Corbusier, Notre-Dame du Haut is a modern interpretation of the gothic cathedral.  Built in 1955 for a brotherhood of monks in the nearby town of Belfort, it is a pilgrimage point for the Alsace region.   For an architect it is a wonderful example of the boldness of the profession’s early modernists.   Ronchamp is a truly innovative reinterpretation of the gothic cathedral.  In a profession where it is nearly impossibleto look at a building and not see the duplication of past details, Notre-Dame du Haut exhibits a bravado and creativity rarely matched.  Since arriving in France, we had been excited about the impending Ronchamp visit.


You can imagine we were dismayed, (even angry), when our teacher, an urbane and hyperpolyglot Italian from the Swiss Canton of Ticino, told us that our visit to Ronchamp would be limited to “no more” than ninety minutes, (per the rules governing the work habits of our Swiss tour bus driver, we needed to be in Paris no later than nightfall.)   Continuously through the duration of our visit, we moaned and complained that ninety minutes was not nearly enough time to sketch this paradigm of triumphant modern architecture.   When we returned to the bus, the teacher stated that sketching Ronchamp in ninety minutes was an “assignment for professionals.”  Again, I was confused by his comments.

It was not until I graduated and began working in an office that the meaning of the comment became self-evident.   Professionalism demands that you produce results in response to the parameters of the given task.  If you get ninety minutes to sketch Ronchamp, you sketch Ronchamp in ninety minutes.  It does not matter if you want three hours or three days to sketch Ronchamp, the task is to sketch Ronchamp in ninety minutes.  A professional produce when given an assignment.

Here again, the benefits of travel help fuel the architect’s creative process.  Travel allows the architect to collect ideas and “store them” for future use.  Travel allows an architect like Allyson to replenish her sketch book of ideas.  She then carries those ideas around in her “back pocket” for use when needed (i.e., the inevitable case where the professional deadline seems to be much too short).

I used to wonder how architects working internationally kept their studios afloat and project designs cohesive.  If they spend so much time devoted to travel, how do they keep the creativity of their studio alive?   After meeting and working with several of these internationally renowned architects, I came to understand their creativity is fed by their travel.   They see things freshly when they visit new places, and the internal sketchbooks they share with their studios are brimming with ideas and concepts collected from their travel.

In her Icelandic travels, Allyson has filled her sketchbook with ideas and brought them back to our studio.  While many architects are good photographers, (I think it is an offshoot of an education devoted to studying light, shadow and composition), Allyson is more than a good photographer.  As the photos in the book attest, she is an accomplished observer with a talent, willingness, and perception to capture compelling images.  Images that convey a deep sense of meaning and place; the “genius loci” of Iceland.  In addition to displaying a level of compositional talent uncommon in all but the finest travelogues, Allyson’s photos in this book reinforce to her colleagues the essential nature of travel for architects.

Allyson’s photos of Iceland remind architects that travel is not a luxury, it is essential.

John K. Burke
Washington, DC

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