More and more architecture students
are spending a semester in Berlin © April 29, 2011, Norwich University Office of Communications
The contrast between the hills of Vermont and one of the great European cities is dramatic, to say the least.
“Berlin is a city that, literally, never sleeps. Everything is open all of the time,” said Stacey Flint, an architecture student who left Norwich University’s campus to study in Germany during the spring 2011 semester. “For me, it was kind of overwhelming, how much there was to do.”
For a growing number of Norwich architecture students, the chance to spend time in Berlin has become a defining experience in their education.
“When you’re studying architecture at a small school, especially a small school in the hills of Vermont, you see photos of these buildings, you study them, you learn about them, but you don’t get to experience them,” said Matt Giffin, a 2008 graduate of the School of Architecture + Art’s master’s degree program. “Architects are very spatial learners, so just seeing a building on a slide in a hot classroom just doesn’t do it. We have to experience a building firsthand."
In fall 2006, Giffin was one of the first Norwich students to study in Berlin, and now works for the company that organized the trip as a program director. Now in its fifth year, the Berlin semesters are a joint venture with Lexia International, a New Hampshire firm that develops and runs study-abroad and cultural exchange programs.
I can’t imagine not
taking advantage of this opportunity. That's what architecture is for: It’s for the human experience.
Norwich architecture student
“A long-term goal for our architecture program has been to establish opportunities for students to study abroad, to travel, to become better educated as an architect, and Berlin is a strong center of contemporary design,” said Norwich architecture Prof. Art Schaller. “Historically, Berlin has gone through a period of rapid change. For most of the 1990s, most of the construction cranes in Europe were all in Berlin.”
Carol Scherer, Lexia’s academic director in Berlin, said the city was attractive to Norwich because it offers a “comparative place to study architecture.”
“We have the urban fabric of the city with a long history, but most interesting for architects is that after the wall came down, Berlin reinvented itself,” she said.
Hurdles American students face include learning the language and how to move about in a city of 3.4 million people. As soon as they exit the plane, students are shown how to purchase a travel pass because use of public transportation will be critical throughout their stay.
During the first five weeks, they are immersed in the German language, studying it for 20 hours each week.
“They go within the first week from not speaking any German to being able to order a cup of coffee, ask for directions or say their names and where they’re from,” said Scherer.
In addition, the curriculum features a design studio, architectural history seminar, and a hands-on workshop. Students develop theoretical designs tailored to undeveloped areas of the city, taking into account history, energy efficiency and modern ideas of style and building usage.
They also have the German capital itself to study, both through lectures and by visiting sites such as Museum Island, a complex of neo-classical structures built between 1830 and 1930, or the Reichstag, the traditional seat of the German Parliament remodeled during the construction boom of the 1990s.
“The best way to describe Berlin is diverse in culture and diverse in time period when it comes to architecture,” said Flint.
For many students, it was difficult learning to live in a large city for the first time.
“The biggest adjustment wasn’t language, because a lot of people there will speak English if you ask them to,” recalled Dustin Fleming, a Class of 2011 student who spent the fall 2009 semester in Berlin. “I’m from a very rural area in Vermont [Bridport], so the biggest adjustment definitely was being in a big city.”
A centerpiece of the program is spring break. During the first week, students are free to travel anywhere they wish. Flint took a whirlwind tour of Southern Europe, visiting the Roman Forum, the Parthenon, the Coliseum, the Sagrada Familia and the cities of Rome, Milan and Barcelona. Giffin traveled to Istanbul, where he walked through the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the city’s famous underground cisterns.
During the second week of the spring break,students travel throughout central and Eastern Europe in tours organized by Lexia, visiting cities such as Prague, Warsaw, Krakow, Dresden, Weimar and Dessau.
Seeing Europe can have a big effect on a young architect. For Giffin, it turned his intentions away from designing residential buildings.
“After going over there and seeing the scale of the museums and different designs ... I decided I was more interested in designing for higher education, for colleges, universities and museums,” he said.
“Experience really is the best way to learn,” added Flint. “I can’t imagine not taking advantage of this opportunity. That’s what architecture is for: It’s for the human experience.”