Eleni Bastéa on Architecture and Travel
What is the importance of architectural tourism?
I think it allows us to dream and imagine having different lives and it transports us not only to different places but to a different society as well; I can say from my own experience, that I have actually been able to go to Saint Mark’s Square, for example, in Venice, something that made me feel a little closer to the people who live there. But I cannot separate it from what we bring into the travel that is the preparation we have, perhaps from reading books or watching movies or, in our case, studying architecture history and visiting some of the monuments; so I think it all comes together.
It’s hard to separate the experience of seeing a building from the background that we have accumulated. And mostly, I’ve been thinking that it’s a little bit outstanding in your language that you are not only studying it for Proficiency or business and so on, but it almost allows you to reinvent yourself and, for instance, to be friends for a little bit or be American for a bit or British, so I could have made these connections among travel and our preparation for it and our personality and mostly our dreams.
So, I don’t think that travel is only going to big monuments or major sites; I don’t think that architectural travel has a specific way to learn the telephone move of architecture like “I have to check this, I have to check that and so on”. I’ve actually enjoyed more taking in the whole experience, not just the monument, but also what’s around it. In some ways, I would like to invite everyone to look around their neighborhood, think about it as architectural travel, as well as enjoying the distant places travel.
Obviously you have made many trips and have had so many experiences from always…
I’ve been travelling, but perhaps not as widely as the younger businessmen for instance; I’ve never been to Asia, it would be interesting to visit, but I am actually the kind of person who likes going back to places and it seems like we don’t do things if we just go once, even if you spend the whole weekend in the city, if it’s the first time. I think it’s almost like a dream, when you wake up and see that’s you’ve already gone there. I’m drawn more to the experience of imagining living there, for instance, going for shopping to the supermarket or somewhere in small places.I’m trying to come closer to the experience of people who live there, who see these buildings and these sites and so on, because it’s part of their daily life. But, I also feel fortunate to have travelled and I hope to continue to be doing that; and I realize that it’s a privilege to be able to afford to travel and to travel for choice and not because you are escaping the economy or the political system. I surely don’t want to trivialize the drama of travel for people who need to live, to flee; but when you travel for education, for enlighten, for dreaming and so on, it’s a gift.
What do you think is the importance of travelling, especially for architects and humans in general?
Talking about architecture students, for instance, I’ve been teaching architecture students for over 20 years full-time and in some cases – and this has always been in the United States – students have experienced other countries, other cultures, but in most cases, like students in Greece, they are more limited. So, we end up studying buildings through images and there is an ease, I think; you think you know a building just because you have seen many photographs of it, but actually it’s about finding your way to a building and making it there and experiencing the cold or the heat or the noise, or even the fear if it’s in a distant place. So, all of this is part of the fact that you cannot simulate an experience, unless you actually travel. So it’s more about the physical part, like learning with your body, feeling the space and also the scale, because the perception of a scale gets flat, obviously, when you use projection or the books.
It’s also possible sometimes, when you actually visit a building that you leave disappointed, a building that you expected to like very much for example. I also had the experience of enjoying a building that I didn’t think I would like. First time when I visited Farnsworth House by Mies van de Rohe, which is about an hour away from Chicago, I thought that is was going to be a very cold building and I was going to be drown into it, but when I experienced it and walked into it, it really surprised me. So, that would be the other reason.But, I like to encourage, especially architecture students and architects, to travel, because in many cases we come from places where we didn’t have the experience of moving into beautiful spaces or really good architecture. And doing this interview in Thessaloniki, where I grew up, I have to say that when I was growing up in the periods 60’s and 70’s, modern architecture was not an attractive option.
There were few modern, new buildings and international fair, the pavilions. But in general, most of the buildings were drab; it didn’t work very well and I don’t think that’s a very good preparation for an architect, because I studied architecture in the States. And it’s not a good preparation because you can’t even know for your own buildings if they are going to be drab and unfriendly and so on. You really have to try to go to some places where they have invested in better architecture, maybe because they are in a better economic shape, so you can experience that you can have more buildings that work, that make you feel more human, that make you feel happy.In architects in Greece, we often expect the experience only from the older buildings and I think that’s a pity, because we can also make new better buildings. So, for all those reasons, we also try to taste the experience of being in other places, so people can walk into a new building and grim and be inspired to work in that more on themselves. Here, for instance, when I visited the Museum of Byzantine culture I thought “that’s just a wonderful example of new architecture that works, has nice scale and makes you feel inspired, moving through this comfortable spot in the city”.
In the University of New Mexico where I teach, most students don’t have the opportunity to travel within the United States; you might think that they are very familiar with Chicago and New York, but they are not; they are actually intimidated. They think it’s a big city out there, scary a little bit, so we make an effort to include a little bit of travel, like going to New York, to Francisco, to Los Angeles to see the new exciting architecture and to give them ideas and prepare them. And the Foundations show excitement about architecture, especially in schools; they are really passionate about communicating the rest of the world with the students. And if they cannot go themselves, then they do it through our teaching and the books of course, or when you can share your personal experience with your students, for instance and the context. I mean, we talked about the scale and about being inspired by buildings, but also seeing them in the city scale, which often appears in some websites, or tour guides, small books; however, it cannot not give you the whole context. And I think it’s interesting to see what the whole block is like, how it is like to go from one spot to another, from the entrance to a new department store etc.
So you encourage them to search on their own and discover new things?
That’s very important; actually I teach a course in the summer called “Architectural Travels” that we do through e-mail as correspondence. Mostly, the students take the 4-week course, we teach and they also sign up for my class, but I’m not with them, I’m normally in Greece or taking summer travelling and we are communicating through e-mail. So, you asked about discovering new things; of course they discover new things, but it’s also interesting, because they write these essays for my class, now for the last four years and I also watch them re-discover themselves.Often, there are times they travel to get away from themselves or they don’t like their own city, they feel ashamed of it and then they’ll go to Milan, for instance, like I was last year in a space, lost in the train station and they will also get lost trying to find the train station. And then they will remember being lost and it’s very interesting to watch them reveal their own stories, as they are also describing the foreignness of travel.
This connection helps you remember the new place better, if you get a point to connect your personal history with what you have in front of you.For instance, let’s say that we visit Paris for the first time and maybe you are 21 years old; I guess that when you first see, let’s say, the Eiffel tower or the Louvre, you will remember the first time you heard about that when you were 5 and you got a post card from your uncle. You can connect your personal family history with what you are seeing and then it becomes yours in a way.And in some cases, again from the essays I’ve been getting from the students in this class, they would also discuss about getting over their fear of travel, but being a little bit intimidated by travel and trying to get over it. I even had a student who said “I just don’t like travelling, what’s all this big deal about travel and the whole essay about?”; and though he didn’t like travel, he had already been to Barcelona, Paris, London, etc. So you can also get to a point to use humor and perhaps reach the reader or the audience more directly, because I don’t think we should idealize anything. I mean, there are no crappy streets anyway, there are drab buildings everywhere and maybe that makes you feel more in home, because you didn’t really escape your home, you just went somewhere else to see the same exciting differences.
What is the added value that architecture creates within a city?
I actually believe that everything is architecture, that it is an approach of separating buildings into architectural capital and the surroundings. But it’s a little hard to know where to draw the distinction. We often use the term of built environment. Everything is architecture, you can’t escape it. It would be nice to say that “maybe this building I see across the street should not make it into architecture, I could pick and choose”, but that would be a little bit like saying “I only want to study history of cool events and leaving out the sad parts of history”.
So, I actually believe that one reason for moving through a city is because it allows us to get to know it better and because you are not bound by language; for example you may go to Warsaw and know no polish, but still move around and begin to learn about the history of the city, which includes a lot of construction. Singapore, for instance, which was bombed and the whole center was rebuilt around the 50’s, so, if you walk through, you think at first look that you are going through a medieval pedestrian street; but any person, especially an architect, would know these are new buildings that were recreated to look like medieval buildings. So, just going through that, you begin to realize the drama of the city being destroyed, then the effort to remake it somehow, and then the fact that life goes on.
Maybe, after that experience you are more interested in reading a book about Polish history or maybe a novel about Polish history, because then you can place it, you have a little bit of a sense. I’m not claiming you are an expert; it’s a lot different than not having walked through the center having that experience and seeing the people minding their own business. So, there are, in some ways, buildings that come out and reach us and try to communicate their history. But, from my perspective, the reverse of that is that buildings can also hide their history, because we can just put new meanings outside, you can put new messages, we can change the functions. We can have a Palace that becomes the Parliament, for example, in many places, or you can have a mosque that becomes a cathedral center. And maybe the visitor, who is not so observant or so curious, will just take all that façade as fact, without realizing that maybe a century earlier, there was a different story communicating with that building.
I’m intrigued by this level of the ability of buildings to communicate, but also the ability to hide their secrets and I think that my mission as someone, who writes about architectural history, is to kind of prod the past and reveal some of those histories. I can give you a personal example from growing up here in Thessaloniki. We lived in an apartment across the Alatza Imaret, which is a mosque, but of course it was not used as a mosque when I was growing up; it was used at that time for boy scouts and later on it became an exhibition area. And further north from there, was the old city and the upper city. We liked walking around when there were still small buildings, taking pictures, when I was in high school, taking slights and feeling that entire cultural environment that we appreciate about architecture. I was probably thirty when I realized that in the past there would have been most of families living around and there would have been different energy around, different uses of space; you cannot always have a pulse without the whole life that goes around the mosque.
But, it wasn’t conscious in my mind, because I think we may have been captured in the present, no matter what we say about respecting the past and want to be part of that; very much we have the “knees” of the present. So, I try to put back into the building, to its original function, without privileging the life of the past, if that’s possible. I may have my own memories of Thessaloniki, but you have your own and mine aren’t better than yours; now there are different buildings and different sites and different crossroads. So, if we want to see now the responsibilities of the conservator of the urban designer of this city, I think there is a fine balance of showcasing the past, but not in a way that it diminishes the presence with present, you know and the potential. So, in that respect, I think if we go back to travel, of course there are places that you visit because you’re very tired about the present and the future like New York, for instance; you wouldn’t be thinking, wondering very much what happened there 300 years ago, but there is energy of the present and the future and I think that those are very exciting sites about architects and architectural students, because we are building on the future and we need to go forward.
What is the importance of architectural events worldwide? What are the profits for a city holding such kind of major events?
Actually I wanted to say that these events can draw other people who are not architects. I understand that most of us, who are professional, need some kind of excuse to travel, like we do. So on that level, it’s wonderful to have opportunities, excuses for architects to visit other colleagues and other places. Imagine, now, having an event in Istanbul or having an event in Warsaw or Marseille; it’s a nice opportunity to gather an exhibit work. From my experience, usually these events attract a wider audience, I don’t know if it’s possible, I don’t know if it’s preferable either, but nevertheless I do see them as valuable; and in a lot of them, students of architecture are meeting international people and I can see architectural events create similar opportunities like universities do to gather people from different places so they share their questions, their dreams, their obligations to their own culture and then the desire to be more global, or international.I think we can also look at other events that bring architects together like architectural competitions, that are events that can happen virtually, but they still get people interested and exited.
Furthermore, I want to add the social responsibility component of the profession and I realize that, especially in hard economic times, it’s not the best time to think of what architects can offer to the world.However, I was very inspired by a group that did operate and was named “Architecture for humanity”; it was started by Cameron Sinclair, an architect who studied at the Colombia University in New York. It’s an international group that goes to places that have been hit by disaster, organizes competitions to help locals build new structures or competitions for, let’s say health clinics in Africa. To me, these are also opportunities for architects; the optimism and giving is more in the DNA of the younger professors. These new organizations can draw and inspire mostly the students to also contribute something to the world in addition to their regular practices and obligations and also to create connections, so that peoples’ concerns come together. All these are exciting; I think the accessibility of the media, the internet and the websites, all that makes us feel less lonely. There are people out there we can reach out in the compression in these events, as you say, the architectural events, the exhibits.
At the end, can you please provide your personal proposal for 10 buildings (constructed and visitable) which you think as the most important worldwide that someone must visit anyway?
I don’t know if I have ten buildings on the top of my head, but I can think of places that inspire me and I remember after visiting and they tend to be whole environments, perhaps more than specific buildings. For instance, I had the opportunity to visit the Alhambra in Spain and even though it was in the winter, it was a magical place with regards to the scale, the relationships of the inside and outside and the beautiful sculptures; the whole build environment had a very elegant feminine quality.There are actually several sites in Greece that I visited and felt magical; I would choose the city of Nafplio in southern Greece, especially the parts of the old city. I could probably move there tomorrow, if I had the opportunity; It was so beautiful, small, elegant and rich place.We also had the opportunity to visit Monemvasia that is probably the most singular, unique place I have visited, settled in Greece; a place where you can dream and imagine at night and think of the middle ages. Well, it is not a new structure, but the first time I visited Delphi, I felt that it was a spiritual place and in architecture we talk about the spirit of a place and we kind of look for it. There was something about the experience of Delphi, walking up and feeling removed from the modern times; that was powerful. I wish I could say I felt the same visiting the Acropolis, but I haven’t.
Maybe, in some point, it would happen. In terms of a small urban environment of the islands I have visited, I remember Sifnos more strongly for the elegant and comfortable layout of the different villages and how they were connected.We realized that you cannot really capture that in a photograph, but it was mostly the experience of moving through. Changing places, I have a special memory of visiting Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, outside of Rome; maybe it was a contrast of Rome being all compact and full of people and then being able to go to the country, so to rope through the different monuments left from Hadrian’s time. I have read the book “The memories of Hadrian” by Marguerite Yourcenar, so I thought that was a nice escape.Back two years ago, when I visited Venice for the first time (and, of course, you can never get a bad photograph of Venice), I was specially drawn to cathedral of Saint Mark. We actually made a point of going there on Sunday during the Mass, where you have to dress properly and not be dressed like a tourist to be allowed to go in. And so, when we went through the Mass, there was a richness and magnificence about it, that for a moment I thought that maybe that’s what Agia Sofia in Istanbul was like (when it was a church). So, I came to realize that, to me, what makes this place memorable is the connection of the ritual with the cathedral or the place.Similarly, I have been to the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, I think maybe twice, and then, the last time we were there two years ago, we again happened to be there on Sunday and walked in during Mass, where worshippers were walking around as tourists were allowed to enter. There was something very powerful about the hymns and the incense and the singing; the drama, the theater and the ritual that made it come to lie. That’s the image I hold from that cathedral and not the previous ones, where we walked in and it was empty or there were just tourists taking pictures, it felt like a skeleton.
Again, staying in France, I remember the first time I had visited the cathedral of Chartres; it wasn’t during Mass, it was a regular empty cathedral that you visit and take your photographs, but when I came outside, there was a woman sitting and playing the guitar and that’s the memory I have. And I thought maybe that’s more close to what it would have felt like to be a pilgrim and arrive and see other people playing instruments and singing. So, it’s almost like an anthropologist’s approach to the buildings that makes them part of me, makes them matter in a way.
For instance, visiting the Louvre and experiencing the new pyramid entrance, makes you realize that old architecture is combined with the new one and those two connected give a very exciting result. With regards to the United States, I tend to think more of old cities, the ability to move through San Francisco, go up and down and either walk or drive or take public transportation and experience the city and its relationship with the ocean, that’s memorable.
I think that we each write our own stories, so you could just move around the neighborhood and notice maybe a good decision that is made in the mix of other decisions and be inspired. I could say more in terms of the ten must buildings, but I think the buildings are mentioning the places I would definitely want to go back, because they stayed with me. Seattle was a beautiful city, again there isn’t any specific building that stands up for it, but it has a certain drama, because of its relation to the ocean; it stays with you, the same way Istanbul’s relationship with the water, in a much more dramatic way, stays with you. I communicate the fact that I’m always looking at the buildings in their context, in their geography and remember them that way.
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Eleni Bastéa was born and grew up in Thessaloniki, Greece. She holds an undergraduate degree in art history from Bryn Mawr College, and a Master’s of Architecture and a Ph.D. in history of architecture from the University of California at Berkeley. She is the recipient of several grants and awards, including the Graham Foundation Grant and the ACSA New Faculty Teaching Award.Bastéa is the author of The Creation of Modern Athens: Planning the Myth (Cambridge University Press, 2000), co-winner of the John D. Criticos Prize, and a finalist for the Sir Steven Runciman Award. The book was also published in Greek (author’s translation): Αthens 1834-1896: Neoclassical City planning and Greek National (Libro, 2008). She is also the editor and a contributing author of the anthology Memory and Architecture (University of New Mexico Press, 2004). She is currently working on two books: Time of the Doves: Cultural Exchanges among Greeks and Turks and The Hungry Heart: Feeding the Creative Spirit (working titles). She has lectured at several universities in the US and Europe.
Bastéa teaches general courses on the history of architecture, as well as seminars on 19th and 20th century architecture and urbanism, memory and architecture, and contemporary indigenous architecture (co-taught with Professor Ted Jojola). Her new course, “Greece and Turkey, 1922-Present: From Conflict to Rapprochement,” offered through the history department, received support from the European Union Center of Excellence (2010). She has joined the team of the British art magazine .Cent as creative associate and architecture editor. Her short story “The High Heels” (2005), written in Greek, won the Navarino Foundation Prize, and is included in a Modern Greek Reader at Dartmouth College. She spends most of her summers in Greece with her family
:: Photo information and credits: © Eleni Bastéa, Mark Fonte