In the summer of 2019, a group of nine university students embarked on a 24-day journey through many of the cities and towns of north-western Europe, as part of the construction management’s study abroad program. The course of study included a survey of the built environment, understanding historical context, methods and materials of construction over time, architectural styles and details, and preservation and sustainable building practices.
Areas explored were western Germany, Luxembourg, northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands; each location providing a new and unique experience with varied cultures, architectural features, incredible histories, and wonderful people. These places and people defined each individual experience as each person brought back a learned appreciation for European perspectives of the built environment.
Notre Dame Cathedral
In the months leading up to the group’s departure, a fire broke out in the attic of the world renowned Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris. It became evident within the group that a specific study of the cathedral would be appropriate. Despite the volumes of written material on the cathedral, the students were challenged to prepare an original work, which now contributes to the library of resources on the subject. Furthermore, these students were asked to study, collaborate, research, and write a cohesive report, each contributing from a different perspective.
Notre Dame de Paris has stood for over 800 years, since the beginning of its construction. It is one of the most visited sites in the world and has undergone numerous renovations over time. More has been written, studied, and documented on this cathedral than any other Gothic cathedral ever built. To contribute to this volume of work may seem inconsequential. Yet, for this group of students at this point in time, the fire and subsequent destruction of much of the original structure became the context for research. The visit to Paris taught each student the architectural, historical, and cultural significance of the Cathedral of Notre Dame of Paris.
Context drives meaning and significance for most of the built environment. Among the thousands of baroque-style row homes along the canals of Amsterdam, one simple example is so popular that it requires the purchase of tickets months in advance of the visit. Architecturally, it is no more significant than any other; perhaps less so in fact. But this particular house was the home of Anne Frank, author of the second-most read book in history (well, third now since Harry Potter). People from all over come to visit and try to understand the experience of this young woman, whose personal diary has inspired many.
Group pictures from Heidelberg, Germany were taken in the first days of the trip. Record heat in Europe didn’t keep the group from exploring some amazing places. The students developed a closeness you would expect after spending three weeks together. One of the highlights was visiting the ‘Depot’ in Rotterdam. This city was entirely destroyed during World War 2, but the people of Rotterdam have found their ‘united’ defining character by encouraging ‘individualistic’ architectural ideas.
The ‘Depot’ is being built to house the thousands of pieces of artwork from all over the Netherlands. The building is under construction, and the group was able to meet with the contractor on site. Students learned about their approach to construction, different materials and methods being used, and some creative solutions for the strict humidity and temperature tolerances required to house works of art.