Traveling with an Architect: Check out the Doorknob?
Published: June 2009
By Belinda Luscombe
Just like their drawings, architects' itineraries can be hard to follow
Recently, a colleague of my husband's— let's call him Daniel— was about to go on an extended trip to India. At a farewell dinner I asked whether he had any special plans.
Daniel intended to travel to a different town every two days for two months. He had read all 37 travel guides written about India, highlighting information on every Hindu temple that interested him, and typed up the highlighted parts. He had then found a map of India, a list of monsoon times, and a schedule of seasonal events, and had plotted an intricate journey, taking into account weather and road conditions. Moreover, as this kind of travel would be extremely hard on his clothes, he had packed two bags with identical items of clothing in each. He was leaving one bag at a central point, so that at the end of the first month he could throw out the first bag and start afresh with precisely the same wardrobe.
After Daniel finished telling me all this, I looked sympathetically over at Mark, his traveling companion. Mark smiled wanly and noted one more thing: Daniel's itinerary did not include a visit to the Taj Mahal.
Welcome to the peculiar joy of traveling with an architect. I've been married to an architect for six years. They are, on the whole, very reasonable spouses: creative minds, cool dressers, don't mess up the house with heavy equipment the way, say, professional weight lifters might. Occasionally, if you ask nicely and often enough, they'll even whip up a set of shelves for you. But as traveling companions, they're murder.
Almost as soon as they set foot in a foreign city, these normally easygoing humans turn into obsessives with mile-long lists, thick paperback guides, and 16 pounds of delicate camera equipment that under no circumstances can be put down. They have zero interest in anything but buildings. No markets, no festivals, no theater. Just buildings. And lots of them. My husband has another colleague who put together a similar itinerary for a short trip to France. His datebook, marked out by the half-hour, included stops at the bank, for lunch, for the bathroom, and so on, all ordered in the interest of seeing the maximum number of buildings in the time available.
Jeremy's not quite that bad, but he has his moments. Take our trip to Paris. He planned it as a surprise for my birthday a few years ago, and at the time I was overwhelmed. Looking back, I wonder whether the "surprise" wasn't really a ploy to prevent me from planning anything, so that I'd have to do the things he had in mind. These included going to the Louvre, the Arab Institute, and the Pompidou Center. Nothing wrong with those places, but we went to the Louvre solely to see the disabled elevator. It's a neat little piece of engineering that sits atop a moving pillar surrounded by a spiral staircase, but it's no Mona Lisa. At least I don't think it is. I never actually got inside the museum to compare. At the Arab Institute, we skipped the exhibition in favor of a closer examination of the library staircase, the lens mechanisms in the façade that control the light, and a few (gosh!) roof details.
The next day I suggested the Eiffel Tower. Instead we traveled to the outskirts of the city to Parc de la Villette, an urban park dotted with 25 red metal cottage-size structures. We spent five hours there, he taking photos, I asking if we could go now. The following day we visited a Salvation Army shelter. It was designed by Le Corbusier. We sat in the lobby. We watched down-on-their-luck French people shuffle around. That was a nadir.
Finally my husband agreed to go to the Rodin Museum, as long as we could stop by the Maison de Verre, a beautiful house, he assured me, made largely of glass. He neglected to mention that the house is still inhabited and the owners, sick of pilgrims like him, have surrounded the place with walls. All we could do was jump up and down for a desperate glimpse. When I told this to a friend with an architect father, she said, "You got off easy. Whenever we went to places like that, Dad would find a little gap in the fence and make us kids break in."
Architects think nothing of driving six hours to a building just to take four photos. I've never met another English-speaking person who has been to Brno, an unremarkable town in the Czech Republic and the site of one of Mies van der Rohe's greatest works, the Tugendhat House. You pay some nominal sum to go in— unless you want to take photographs, in which case you pay $20. Architects have never really been to a building unless they've "documented" it, which means taking photos of doorknobs and stair railings and window-opening devices. So we forked over the 20 bucks, naturally. They make you wear these little calico bags over your shoes. It's actually a beautiful Modernist house, all clean lines and onyx and travertine marble. And it's kind of fun watching everyone traipse around in those ridiculous booties.
But of course there are no pictures of us in the house— or in the booties. I estimate that my husband shoots one photograph of a person for every five rolls of film. When we get home he neatly files the slides away, rarely looking at them again. He occasionally reminds me that many architects invite other architects over for slide shows. I remind him that pitiable people have no sex life.
Architects' spouses have so much in common. If we've been to a city, we've all seen the same places. In Prague, it's the Bat'a store. In Copenhagen, it's the furniture shop designed by Joern Utzon. In Vienna, it's the Postsparkasse, which is a bank. Someone told me Vienna was romantic; I wouldn't know. I spent my time there watching Austrians stand in line.
We've also all been lost any number of times. The buildings that architects really want to see are not generally listed in guidebooks. The plums are little-known works by architectural masters in out-of-the-way towns, far from the nearest decent cup of coffee. The four scariest words in the mouth of an archi-traveler?It's around here somewhere. And like hunters, architects on the scent of a building will not be deterred. Once, my husband's ex-boss got so lost he didn't find the site he was looking for until 10 p.m. Unable to see anything, he jumped out of the car and began to feel the building. I wish these weren't true stories. They are.
I've decided there's only one thing for it. I must develop an equally deep passion for something else. Then my husband will never again be able to say, "But you didn't want to do anything in particular, did you?" It has to be something every city has. Something that will keep us near comfortable hotels and major monuments. Something that other normal people will want to discuss when we get home.
I've got it: supermarkets.
BELINDA LUSCOMBE writes the People section for Time magazine.
In the unlikely event you'd like to do an architectural tour of your own, or just to take the fun out of it for other architects, here are the addresses of some spots I've been (dragged) to, along with the names of their designers.
Arab Institute 1 Rue des Fossés St.-Bernard; Jean Nouvel.
Maison de Verre 31 Rue St.-Guillaume; Pierre Chareau.
Parc de la Villette 30 Ave. Corentin-Cariou; Bernard Tschumi.
Salvation Army Refuge 12 Rue Cantagrel; Le Corbusier.
Channel 4 124 Horseferry Rd.; Richard Rogers.
Lloyd's of London 1 Lime St.; Richard Rogers.
London Zoo Penguin Pool Regent's Park; Berthold Lubetkin.
Hill House Upper Colquhoun St., Helensburgh; Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Paustian A-S 2 Kalkbraenderiloebskaj; Joern Utzon.
Postsparkasse 2 Georg-Coch-Platz; Otto Wagner.
Bat'a 6 VÀclavské NÀmesti (Wenceslas Square); Ludvik