How to Travel like an Architect: 3 Tips

posted by Allison Stoos

In today’s world where your camera can easily fit in the pocket of your jeans, and a selfie stick can snap an image that is truly grammable without having to ask a stranger to help, it is quite tempting to move quickly from one architectural wonder to the next with the confidence that you adequately captured all you could – but you have not. Here are a few recommendations that will help you get the most out of the places you have travelled so many miles to see. 

1. SKETCH      

It’s tough to slow down, especially in the swarms of tourists and police officers that crowd the world’s most popular spots. But try to take a moment, find a spot to sit and pull out your sketch book and pen (I use plain soft black leather Moleskine and a Tombow Monotwin), and learn to look at a building in a whole new way.

"Sketching while traveling is less about being a good artist and much more about focusing your mind to really look at something.  So, don’t worry about how it comes out – just draw!"

Start by taking in the proportions. I’m often surprised how many passes I need to take before I am happy with how the view I am drawing fits on the page. I may learn that the structure is taller than I first thought or perhaps there’s a whole bay that I didn’t even notice.

Once I am happy with the representation of form, I try to understand the order of the building. Count how the façade is divided into bays, is it generally symmetrical or not at all? Are there major elements or forms that stand out or are repeated? Once I’ve taken in the concept, I start to break down my sketch into these elements. Then I just start filling in details as I see them. And as Mies said – “God is in the details.”

As you work through translating what you see to your page, you start to notice order or deviations, material changes and shadow lines. You may start to wonder why something is different or wonder who is that sculpture of? You’ll notice how the building has aged over time, how it handles water runoff, and which areas are possibly accessible – but not to the tourist. I wonder who can go in there and what’s inside?

Now full of questions and wonder, you look down at your masterpiece and if you’re anything like me you’ll be a little disappointed. It’s definitely not the best sketch you’ve seen and certainly not of this building. But I wonder who has done it best? How close am I standing to where Seurat painted his Eiffel? Did Victor Hugo sit in this square looking up at the same gargoyles of Notre Dame Cathedral, contemplating their disrepair?

Now as you take note of your place in history, full of inspiration and awe, you close your sketchbook, knowing you’ve only scratched the surface of this amazing work you are visiting and overwhelmed with thankfulness by the opportunity you had to spend a piece of time here. To me, sketching while traveling is less about being a good artist and much more about focusing your mind to really look at something.  So, don’t worry about how it comes out – just draw!   

2. TOUCH EVERYTHING

Hand painted tiles of a Portuguese façade, cool marble threshold of the Hagia Sofia, rough engraved letters of the bronze doors at the Sagrada Familia, these are a few of the many textures I’ve ran my fingers across over my travels. I think sometimes we mistakenly treat buildings like some sacred artwork that was created to hang on some rich guy’s wall.

"Just because that door is already open for the ease of tourist flow doesn’t mean you should miss out on the experience of turning that handle. So go on, touch it!"

But architecture is much more durable, created to be both beautiful and functional. To be experienced by all the senses… ok yes, perhaps not taste in most cases… but certainly to see, hear, smell and yes, touch. In fact, many elements in a building are specifically designed for you to touch them. In Gaudi’s apartments, he designed the hardware by squeezing clay so that it was perfectly molded to the shape of a hand grip – so just because that door is already open for the ease of tourist flow doesn’t mean you should miss out on the experience of turning that handle. So go on, touch it!

3. EXPLORE THE UNEXPECTED

"Some of the best architecture in the world is behind a closed door. So, if you're ever curious, go ahead and open it!"

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve stopped my husband mid stride towards our next stop to say, “can we just go in here real quick?” In the same way most people walk past shops, peering through the windows for something interesting – an architect is looking at the building itself. See a beautiful green wall in an office lobby? Go check it out. Wonder what the view is like from that rooftop? Walk up there. You’d be amazed how many doors are opened with the phrase “well I’m an architect and I just wanted to look at …”

More often than not people are excited and willing to share their space with you – and on the occasion that aren’t, they’ll let ya know. Some of the best architecture in the world is behind a closed door. So, if you're ever curious, go ahead and open it!

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About the author:  Allison Stoos is an Associate Architect and Project Manager at JGA with a background in Public Interest Design and design build. » Full Staff Bios