An innovative program encourages students to design and build culturally appropriate architecture
Eight-and-a-half days is barely enough time for most people to get over jet lag when traveling, but for a group of nine students from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., it's a period of intense work in far-flung locations such as Nepal, Machu Pichu, or Ireland. Through a program called Spirit of Place/Spirit of Design, taught by architect Travis Price, the students come to these exotic settings ready to build a project they've spent the spring semester designing. The small structure they erect—whether a temple, a pilgrimage shelter, a sweat lodge, or an outhouse—does not just add to the startling beauty of its locale; it taps into and expresses the location's culture through architecture's symbolism.
Almost 15 years ago, Price had a revelation that great architectural forms are often mystical and mythical. He sought a way to introduce students to the "mythic modern" by enforcing the need for "poetic specificity." Much like Sam Mockbee's Rural Studio, which has made a brand of regionalism famous, Price aspired to "counterattack homogenized internationalism" by teaching students to draw on a site's culture to give meaning to architecture.
From the beginning, students have shown an overwhelming interest in the program: As many as 135 applied for the nine spots in the first seminar. Now the program includes both an undergraduate 3-credit course and a 9-credit graduate studio.
There are three parts to the class: First, students study a site, its ecology, and culture, and write poems and create sculptures in response. "It's metaphor-driven in the initial stage," Price says. Then, the students' ideas are combined until a single architectural model is chosen for them to build as a group. The second half of the semester turns into what Price calls "IKEA mode"—where every single screw for the project is accounted for, so that when the team goes on-site, the structure can be swiftly built.
What makes this program different from other design-build programs is the focus on teamwork, consensus rather than compromise, and the search for metaphor in architecture. According to former student Brendan Rogers, "It was an education in culture, place, architecture, construction, self, and life all wrapped up in the building of a temple in 10 days. This is only possible when the group becomes an organ fundamental to the common goal." Another former student, Jennifer Doney, says, "In one word: transformative. While I learned a tremendous amount of practical/professional architectural knowledge during the design development during the school year, it was the physical construction of the temple on-site in Bellmullet that will stay with me forever."
Price's goal is to expand the program to another six architecture schools and to catalog his ideas about site-specific design into a pattern language. For now, his program will continue to expand students' minds. "After doing this program, how can a student build a phony Tudor house somewhere?" Price asks. They probably can't, and almost anyone can agree that's a good thing.
We asked Travis Price more questions about his Spirit of Place projects, and this is what we learned:
About the floating house the students built in the Amazon: The house is part of an ecological research and resort village up river with canopy walks, sub-aqua septic systems, photovoltaic systems, and modernist indigenous architecture. It is occupied by visiting researchers and eco-tourists. It's an amazing place with eco-activists running around with CIA and replete with smugglers and drug runners up river. Google Iquitos if you can.
About how he finds the sites for the projects: The sites are generally privately owned. Most times it's a private owner. Many of the projects are also on the edge of government involvement, especially in Ireland where art is high on the agenda for particular government leaders.
Most of the projects come to me years in advance through a vast network I have at National Geographic, architects, and world clients. For instance, this year we are building the National Monument for the 250th anniversary of James Hoban (an architect of the White House) in Callan, County Kilkenny, Ireland (a three-part project: 1. in Desart – birth spot, 2. Callan – the nearest township, 3. Washington, D.C., near the White House).
In 2009, our project will be a new Chuwa Temple deep into the Eastern Plateau of Chungpa, Tibet. We'll be working with monks, local villagers, and repatriates, all with Chinese applause and approvals.
About his adventures: There are so many, many amazing tales for each and every project, like being fire bombed by Maoists in Nepal, having Shamans and royalty worship at oursite when finished and then dining with the Crown Prince three days before he kills all the royal family. Or swimming with piranhas in the Amazon by day and dining on them at night with live grubs. Or, building on the spot where River Dance was spawned in County Mayo, Ireland. Or paying off the Mafia in Pantelleria for designing the shrine of Venus where Odysseus lay with Circe. Or tricking the bureaucrats at Machu Picchu to drink at the opening party of the Star Gazing Temple to sign permits after it was built, while watching repressed Incans arrive to have their first non-Catholic all Quechwa wedding at the site. Or …
So much I am writing my second major commissioned book right now, Spirit of Place: Architectural Expeditions into the Ethno-Sphere, to be published by Palace Press. I anticipate it will be published by the end of 2009. There is a mini-chapter about it in my current book, The Archaeology of Tomorrow.
Cultures and Sacred Space, in addition to being a full graduate studio and concentration, is now a two-year graduate program at Catholic University's Department of Planning and Architecture. I am the director of the concentration.