Architecture student examines subtext
in Gambian, German built environments © Feb. 25, 2011, Norwich University Office of Communications

Norwich University student Aaron Cayer started the spring semester of 2010 with a disorienting case of culture shock.

Cayer, an architecture student, transitioned from one of the world’s poorest countries—The Gambia in West Africa—to one of its most progressive cities; Berlin, Germany. During the lone week he had at home in Maine between trips, Cayer had to turn in a major portfolio and was ill with the flu.

But Cayer, a senior who is also earning a minor in sociology, found the contrast fascinating, and began analyzing the differences in the Gambian and German lives and values, and how that was reflected in their buildings. Over time, ideas began to take shape for an independent study report: Discourses on Transparency, Privacy and Security, Architecture as Ideology, which he has been invited to present in Helsinki, Finland, at an international symposium, Urban Symbolic Landscapes: Power, Language, Memory, in May.

More specifically, his project focuses on the embodiment of transparency in buildings, both in the use of glass or opaque materials and the often ironic way those choices reflect a culture’s ideology, or as he puts it, “looking at physical transparency and social transparency and seeing if there are any connections.”

The experiences that led to this train of thought were dramatically different.

In The Gambia, his very presence was cause for celebration. He observed very poor people living in buildings constructed from natural materials. In Berlin, he was a relatively anonymous person in a city of classic cathedrals and modern glass towers, many designed by the architects he studied in class. The ways people utilized energy and space were very different from what he encountered before.

“To compare the two is really hard to do,” said Cayer.

Nor had he intended to. The Gambia trip, which he took with friend and fellow student Ashley Potvin on a grant they had acquired together, was a 10-day journey to work on independent-study projects. The Berlin trip was an entire semester abroad, and a core experience for many of Norwich’s architecture students.

He was fascinated by the process of how buildings came to be in West Africa—how builders learned; how problems were solved and the way technology was used. When he wasn’t meeting with architects, Cayer often wandered the streets with a camera.

“I felt, maybe we can learn something from their architecture,” he said. “The things they do with what they find in the ground are just incredible.”

Potvin, who was studying educational systems during the Gambian trip, said she and Cayer, as well as education Prof. Diane Byrne who accompanied them, had a lot to ponder and benefited from daily mealtime “conferences.”

“It was good that we were just able to talk to one another,” she said.

In Berlin, Cayer continued to take pictures and think about the independent study he would resume upon return to Norwich’s Northfield, Vt., campus in the fall of 2010.

It was sociology and justice studies Prof. Aimee Vieira who urged Cayer to take lots of pictures while he was in The Gambia, and guided his study. Photographs formed the basis for much of his analysis. In them, he looked for consistency in architectural symbolism.

Vieira added that architecture was something she has little experience with, making this direction very challenging for her. She was there to guide the project, but Cayer was the real leader, she said.

Cayer found another colleague in University of Liverpool lecturer Paul Jones, author of the Sociology of Architecture, who consulted with Cayer and offered up his own bibliography as a starting point. Reading helped him understand how to look at the built environment in sociological terms, and define his topic.

“It was a pretty long literary review before I even decided what I wanted to do,” said Cayer.

His interest in analyzing sociological implications in architecture continues, and Cayer said it will form the basis for his graduate school thesis. He plans to return to Norwich, which offers a four-year bachelor’s degree and a one-year master’s degree in architecture.

Sociology illuminated the ongoing debate of aesthetics versus pragmatism that is so vital to architecture, and changed the way Cayer looks at buildings.

“There’s so many connections and it’s so fascinating ...” he said. “This is just a glimpse of what there is.”