Building Inspiration

All architects have a similar way of designing, they first seek inspirations, develop ideas, and build. Like many things, the first step is often the most important. So how does one seek inspiration? Some seek it through sketching, reading, others, like Professor Kay Bea Jones from Ohio State University, seek inspirations through research, which sometimes can be too valuable to keep it to oneself.1

After years of studying about Franco Albini, Professor Jones is writing a book to inspire other architects and designers by providing insights about Albini’s achievements and most important, yet not completely well-known contributions.2 In her book, she considers Albini as one of the most important Italian architects that deserves more attention from the design community. She notes that his works, which include museums and public buildings, could offer valuable lessons about design rigor, unity, logic, and effects beyond style. It is quite shocking to me that Albini is not situated among the modern masters of the last century such as Carlo Scarpa, Louis Kahn, Phillip Jonson, and Renzo Piano – one of Albini’s student. I suppose it does happen a lot in reality, sometimes the student is a lot more famous than the mentor, because more often than not, the mentor doesn’t get much credits for his or her teachings.

Jones’s essay on Albini made me contemplate what it’s like to be an architecture professor.3 Some people would say that teaching as a profession is the last resort. In my opinion, it is not true. Without good professors, we wouldn’t be able to be better at what we do. Some professors questions our logic, teaches us to think more, creatively help us seek inspiration, and broades our view on our own design. Some, like Albini, teaches us through silence and work, inspire us through actions like the way Albini inspired Renzo Piano to be the architect he is today. Either way, architecture professors don’t often get the attention they deserve. Perhaps it’s true that those who want to teach architecture are those who are not able to design as well as others, but perhaps they are the ones who realize how important it is to share their knowledge with the world and let someone else continue their legacy. Besides, is architecture solely about design?

Doug Patt, an architect who offers insights about architecture in his video series “How To Architect”, believes that architecture is many things, not just design. In his video “The truth about being an architect”, he claims that “architecture is about making form, story, music and inspiration” and it’s also about illuminating one’s life with philosophy, engineering, history, construction, etc. That is why architecture can be a great profession and a horrible business. Consequently, some of us, as architecture students, often get discouraged when we think about post-graduation, we start to worry about where to work, what to do, and lose the motivation to do our best while in school. We look so far into the future that we start to forget what inspires us. We need something, or someone to motivate, remind, and help us find the inspiration we need whether by writing a book like Professor Jones, sharing insights like Doug Patt, or simply teaching architecture. In the end, they are the architects who build inspiration.

-Minh Tran

1.  Kay Bea Jones, guest lecture for the University of Oklahoma, April 16, 2013.

2. Kay Bea Jones, “Chapter One: Introducing Franco Albini”  book manuscript. Renzo Piano, “Pezzo per Pezzo,” essay translated by Kay Bea Jones.

3. Jones, Chapter One.

Architecture Abroad

Just as filmmaker Nanni Morretti took a satiric look at Italian life in his movie “Caro Diario” (Dear Diary), I do the same as I evaluate how this semester of studying architecture in Rome has affected my studying and personal experience. Here in Rome, I got to see how much Roman and Oklahoman lives differ. What’s so great about Rome is not just the culture but it’s also the people. The modern culture of Rome is a mix of the arts, music, fashion, and historic architecture.

Daily life revolves around religion and food. There are more than 900 churches in Rome so walking to Sunday Mass is never a problem because the closest church might be right next to where you live. Sometimes two churches  can be located within 50 feet from each other such as the twin churches Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria di Montesanto in Piazza del Popolo. Furthermore, Vatican City, home of the Pope, is located in Rome and for this reason, many consider Rome to be the most important city in the world.

Food is no less important than religion to the people here. When people speak of Italian food, many think about pizza, ravioli, and spaghetti smothered in tomato sauce. It’s amazing how many ways people can use one ingredient: the tomato (or as Italians call it il pomodoro). Another thing that I will definitely miss is the water, which is not only abundant in quantity but also very amazing in quality. For someone who doesn’t drink alcohol and few soft drinks, I am very picky when it comes to drinking water. I would rarely drink out of tap water from the sink or water fountains in Oklahoma but when I tried the tap water here in Rome, I never stopped drinking it. The best thing about it is that you can come up to a water fountain (or nasone) every five blocks while roaming the streets of Rome, which is my favorite thing to do.

Here in Rome, you can walk everywhere unless you want to spend your money on public transportation. Walking to school not only helped improve my health but also allow me to appreciate the beauty of Rome. Sometimes it is the journey and not the arrival that matters most about traveling. But how does this trip affect my studying and my way of designing? As I have learned from one of the reviewers at my final presentation, the concept of a project is important but what’s more important is how my attitude about design has changed over this semester. Concepts are often a one-time use while attitude can be the main inspiration for the rest of my designing career. The answer is: I definitely have more confidence, which does not only affect my life, it is also reflected in my design. I remember months ago, I was uncertain about signing up for this trip because I was worrying about being away from home, living in a foreign country, learning a foreign language. However, by the time Spring Break came, I was used to taking care of myself, not being so dependent on my family and was more confident than ever. I contemplated, reevaluated, and found that confidence in my project, in which I now see expression instead of neutrality, radicalness instead of conservativeness, and complexity instead of simplicity.

Caro Diario = Dear Diary. Prod. Nanni Moretti. By Nanni Moretti. Dir. Nanni Moretti. Perf. Nanni Moretti. A Lucky Red Release, 1993.

– Minh Tran

Rome – The City of Ruins

When my classmates and I landed in Rome, we were exhausted after hours of being on flights and dealing with airport customs, the only thing we wanted was to reach our apartments and take a long nap. On the way to our “new homes”, I kept looking out the window searching for the marvelous city that I’ve read and heard about but couldn’t seem to find. As the driver took us through the winding streets of Rome, filled with old Renaissance buildings illuminated by yellow-tinted lights, we found ourselves in the center of Rome. A concrete structure, hidden behind the trees and cars caught my attention. There it was, the Colosseum.


The quick drive around the building reminded me of the hundred times that I had seen it through pictures in books; but this time, these pictures were overlaid with a modern, lively city. It felt like I was taken back into ancient time, the same feeling that Andreas Huyssen refers to as Nostalgia for Ruins. Huyssen claims that the age of the “authentic ruin” is over because the materials of modern architecture such as glass and steel, are not subject to erosion and decay as stone is. He also argues that “authentic ruins” become obsolete because the ruins of the twenty-first century are often made to look old to increase value but they lose their authenticity, age, and true value in the process. This makes me questions the authenticity of the ruins that I see in Rome.

As the semester goes by, we got to see more of Rome – the Pantheon, the Mausoleum of Augustus, many churches, and Ostia Antica, a well preserved archeological site, not far away from the historic center. Here, we got a chance to see and sketch the remnants of these ancient buildings, frescoes and mosaics.

Piranesi's Etching

Piranesi’s Etching

As Piranesi did in his etchings, we attempted to reconstruct the ruins through our imagination and site analysis. Yet again, I question the authenticity of these ruins. Some, like Andreas Huyssen, might argue that because of the preservation and reconstruction, the authenticity is lost; however, there is a reason why these ruins need to be preserved. If the process of erosion is not ceased, these ruins will keep decaying and thus, at one point in time, will turn into rubble or disintegrate completely. In order to save them, people use technology to freeze this process so that the next generations will be able to appreciate  these ruins.

As one learns about the value of these ruins, historic preservation comes to mind and eventually teaches one to apply adaptive reuse in design. Nowhere else is a better place for learning the concept of adaptive reuse than in Rome, the city of ruins. In most parts of Rome, wherever you are trying to build, it is most likely that you will encounter ancient structures. For that reason, people were forced to learn how to incorporate history and modernity in their designs. This can be explained by looking at how the Colosseum was used as an amphitheater, religious space, housing and the way the Montemartini Power Plant was turned into the museum that connects ancient archeology and industrial archeology. As we apply the concept of adaptive reuse in our design, we do not only preserve the existing ruins, but we also overlay it with our own layers of history that would eventually be considered ruins themselves.


Montemartini Museum

Huyssen, Andreas. “Nostalgia for Ruins.” Grey Room 23 (2006): 6-21. Print.

Fotografia di Roma: Jewish Ghetto


Photo courtesy of Amber Conwell

In the Jewish Ghetto, the narrow quirky streets are lined with restaurants, art galleries, and pastry shops. Around lunchtime the area becomes a lively place to stop and have a bite to eat at the kosher fast food joints or enjoy a traditional Jewish pastry. It is hard to believe that this lovely little area was once an unpleasant and unsanitary place to live.
In 1555, Pope Paul IV created a wall around the Ghetto and forced thousands of Jews to live in awful, cramped, impoverished conditions. During the daylight hours the Jews were allowed to leave the Ghetto, but only if they wore a mark signifying their religion. Over the three-hundred plus years within the wall, the Jewish population grew from a couple thousand to around seven thousand. With nowhere to spread out, the Jews were forced to make due with the little space they had. If you look close enough today you can see the remains of the haphazardly formed buildings that were altered continuously throughout the years. To make things worse, the already confined, poor environment was located near the flood-prone Tiber River. At various times throughout the year, the flooding turned the community into a sooted marsh. Finally, in 1870, the papal dominion ended, the Jews were granted full citizenship, and the terrible wall finally came down. The Ghetto continued to change over the years following, especially during the Fascist regime, but finally developed into the delightful community it is today.
If you want to have an authentic experience of everyday Roman life, that is rich with history, and away from the typical tourist hotspots, then the Ghetto is certainly a good spot to slow down and “ Do as the Romans do:” relax and enjoy life!

– Amber Conwell


Photo Courtesy of Minh Tran

Here is a slideshow of some of our favorite areas of the Ghetto:

Fotografia di Firenze

Photo by Minh Tran

To begin any great tale, you must start from the very beginning.  The night before our departure to Florence, I carefully planned out our transportation to Roma Termini (a.k.a the train station).

Jump on the tram at 6:10am, arrive in Largo Argentina at 6:20, hop on the 40 bus at 6:26am, and off to the train station. Easy.

Well, unfortunately on that lovely morning, it was down-pouring. I mean literally, it felt like buckets of water were continuous being dumped over our heads. We managed the tram ride to Largo Argentina, no problem (we have done this many times before). When we arrived at the bus stop we had three minutes for the first 40 bus to arrive. Perfect, right on time.

Well…so I thought.

A few minutes pass. No 40 bus.

The 64 bus rolls up to our stop, which could also take us to the Termini. But, we had heard many times over that it was not a safe bus to take. Too many pick-pocketers. Plus, it had more stops than the 40 bus did. Ironically enough, as the bus pulls away from the stop we realize our professors were on there, waving as the bus pulled away! Great, we should have taken that one.

Standing there shivering, as the minutes passed slowly by, every bus turning the corner, we could only hope would be ours. But they weren’t. The group was starting to lose hope, snipping at each other, trying to place the blame for this poor planning.

‘Should we just walk?’

‘I don’t want to miss the train.’

‘This is awful.’

‘Who’s genius idea was this?’

Precisely twenty-two minutes passed the supposed arrival time, the bus pulled around. Finally! Literally everyone made a big squeak of excitement. You could see the Italians at the bus stop shaking their heads. “Americans.” We all rushed onto the bus and made our way to the Termini, safe and sound.

Once we arrived in Florence, everything was a piece of cake. On our first day out we were able to easily navigate our way around the city. The streets were laid out in a relatively functional pattern. Most streets were on a grid; some had a few twists to them, but not quite as winding and intense as Roman streets.

The streets in Florence functioned a little differently than Rome. In Florence, most of the roads do not have a defined sidewalk. Pedestrians just walk where they please. Because there is very little vehicular traffic through the major areas, the idea of mixing the two seems to work well. People were not speeding around driving like maniacs like they do in Rome. The traffic in Rome is crazy, you never know if you’re going to see a smart car flip into reverse in middle of the road and fly 30 feet backwards to make a turn that was missed.

Since we managed to run ourselves ragged in exploring every detail of the city, it would take a small novel to completely describe all the wonderful experiences we had, so here  is a small summary of the weekend:

Following our scavenger hunt of required sketches, we went along a fairly simple path that hit all the major attractions over the course of four days. Starting on the first day, with Palazzo Medici, where the scale and mass of the building was completely overwhelming. The size of one stone stood half the height of my short, five-foot self.

Continuing on our journey, nothing could have prepared me for the astonishing view that came into sight as we made our way into the square and saw the Cattedrale di Maria del Fiore, also known as “il Duomo.” Yes, I have seen a million pictures of it, but to actually be there, gazing at all the intricate detail of the spiral columns and vibrant green and pale red colored marble, covering the entire cathedral left us in complete awe. No words needed. It was amazing.

After we pulled ourselves away from the remarkable cathedral we made our way to Piazza della Signoria. There we came across Palazzo Vecchio, Loggia dei Lanzi, and Piazzale degli Uffizi. The piazza was huge, and to my liking, was not made of cobblestone. As a matter of fact, most of the streets throughout Florence were nicely paved with evenly cut rectangular stones. No gaps for my heels to slip in and send me stumbling forward. As much as I love Rome, it was delightful not having to focus on every step ( if you do not already know, I’m extremely clumsy).

From there we made our way through the Porta delle Suppliche, and crossed the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge, covered in haphazardly formed medieval buildings, which contain some very expensive jewelry shops. Making our way back to the hostel we went through Piazzo della Repubblica and stopped to listen to some jazzy street music.

On Friday, we toured San Lorenzo, including the Basilica, Old Sacristy (by Brunellischi), New Sacristy (by Michaelangelo), and the Laurentian Library (by Michaelangelo). Then we explored the Uffizi Museum (holding the only panel work of Michaelangelo in Florence). All of it was incredible; we did not want to leave any of them!

The following day we made the grand climb to the top of the Duomo in Santa Maria del Fiore, and found ourselves in a serene daze over looking the 360 view of Florence. Around lunchtime, we managed to find time for shopping through the street markets surrounding San Lorenzo, where you can find some top quality leather jackets, purses, and wallets for a reasonable price. After a days work of finding the best deals in town (and of course completing some sketching assignments), we made the steep hike to the top of the hill to see San Miniato. We listened to the chanting monks (check out the entertainment blog to hear a recording) and enjoyed the spectacular view that rivals the view from the top of the Duomo.

On our final day we spent most of our time losing ourselves in the beautiful gardens of Palazzo Pitti. It was calming and quite an enjoyable end to our journey of Florence.

Whewww…. what an adventure! Enjoy our slideshow of our journey through Florence!

-Amber Conwell

(To read captions of the photos, play in full screen and click show info)

Fotografia di Roma: Madonnelle

Photo courtesy of Amber Conwell

Imagine the time of Rome when the thought of street lamps lining every street was a mere aspiration. Walking the small alleyways in complete darkness of the night, hearing the little bustles of movement, but unable to see. Maybe a rat or maybe something else creeping about. From a distance is a dim glow seeping around the corner. Drawn to the little flickering light, it gets brighter and brighter. On the corner there is a lantern that reveals a small shrine behind it. In an intricately detailed bronze frame is a painting of the Virgin Mary. For a moment, something seems to shift in the painting, as if her eyes had changed their gaze. Maybe just the flickering light playing tricks, or maybe the fabled stories of the Madonnelle’s moving eyes are true.
The now fading and unkept paintings which decorate various corners of the city were once believed to have supernatural powers. They could heal the sick, give good fortune to the poor, and apparently intervene in disputes. It has been proclaimed that during several fights (and even a few murders) that took place in front of various shrines, Mary appeared to be weeping real tears. By some accounts, she had even stopped a few violent interactions.Typically when such acts of prodigy were witnessed, the Madonnelle was taken down and placed in a sanctuary somewhere else.
Some of the most baffling and renowned occurrences recorded took place in July, 1796. Legend has it, throughout the city of Rome some of the Virgin Mary’s images in the small Madonnelles began to move simultaneously. In some cases, the eyes moved sideways, and in others, vertically. Whether it had been the heat of the summer or maybe just a little too much vino, crowds of people claimed that they had seen the peculiar events occur. Convinced that this prodigy had happened, a man climbed a ladder to measure the angle movement of the eye with a compass, determined to prove that what they saw was true. The mysterious events of the moving eyes was considered to be a bad omen. When Rome fell to Napoleon’s troops two years later, the people took it as a confirmation of their belief in the mystical occurrences.
Of the five hundred Madonnelles’ left, out of the thousand that existed before, you can find quite a few in the Jewish Ghetto, Trastevere, and areas around the Vatican. The pictures posted are just a few that we have stumbled upon. Although we have not experienced these supernatural events ourselves, you might keep your eyes peeled when walking the streets of Rome in the night. You never know if you will come across a madonnelle and witness her moving eyes.

-Amber Conwell

Fotografia di Roma: Nasoni

Photo courtesy of Amber Conwell

On the long walks, roaming the winding streets of the city, the ice-cold spring water flowing abundantly from the nasone is quite a refreshing treat. Stumbling upon them on a hot sunny day, the fountain becomes a little oasis. You may come across children playing acrobatically with the water, locals splashing the cool water on their faces, or simply someone filling their water bottle.

Photo courtesy of Minh Tran

By plugging the main part of the spout, a small hole at the top sends the water cascading out in a little arch, perfect for drinking.  The long, bent cast iron spout sticking out of the fountain is what gave the fountains their unique name, nasoni, meaning “big nose”. Most of the fountains do not have basins, but just a hole to capture the water (which is recycled and reused for various purposes). The reason for this was because the purpose of the fountains were to provide the public with a means of washing, cooking, and drinking, so there was no need for the basins.

Photo courtesy of Minh Tran

What started as 20 simple public drinking fountains, mainly in the Trastevere neighborhood, turned into 2,500 scattered about the city. Each one is marked with the S.P.Q.R (Sentus Populusque Romanus), referring to the government of the ancient Roman Republic, still used today as an official signature. The original fountains were designed with three nozzles topped with a dragon head, but were developed into a simpler form when mass produced in 1874, to accommodate the many immigrants settling in Rome. You can typically find them in outdoor markets, and in main piazza and squares. Although they play a small role in Roman history, the charming little nasoni are still very much a part of the daily life in Rome.

Photo courtesy of Amber Conwell

– Amber Conwell