Not To Be Unpleasant, But We Need To Talk About The Travel Week


Transient Solidarity

Volume 8, Issue 03
December 2, 2022

Sketchbooks full of new, colorful insights: incoherent scribbles, renderings of strange organic and inorganic specimens, and a ton of photographs; maybe some reflections on vernacular building practices, and a couple of book titles to look for when back at base. A little bit of the Galápagos, Greenland, Peru, and Benin, artfully constructed in a scaffold for the rest of the semester. Now, let’s step back and look at what has been assembled. How, amidst an academic landscape where the figures of the “explorer,” the “tourist,” and the “outsider institutional researcher” are increasingly scrutinized in the humanities and social sciences, are we, in our bunker-architecture-schools, keep craving and celebrating Travel Week? [1]

Yale views travel as “a core component of architectural instruction in an interconnected and globalized world.” [2] This phrasing suggests that traveling is a central learning practice for the design disciplines concerning space. Indeed, no one would deny the formative embodied experience of physical presence in a certain place. Research on the topic, although scant, does support this,[3] but even before we start dissecting what this “learning process” does, there are two points that need to be problematized.

The first concerns depth. Studio travels are many times hastily put together by overworked teaching assistants, doctoral students, and adjunct faculties, leaving students little time to prepare themselves for contexts that are often culturally distant. How much can really be understood in one week? How systematized, rigorous, and plural can these experiential, unstructured takeaways be? [4] How fitting is this temporal “sample” for our understanding? [5] Alas, it may be that we “feel” we understand more than we actually do. The second concerns reciprocity. It is impressive how much of the arguments for Travel Week centers on new experiences and meaningful encounters of the “individual student.” The various critiques of “extractivism”—material, symbolic, and epistemological alike—are teaching us to think of the relationality of exchanges. [6] What does the traveling studio give back? Should it do so, or is it “just” a form of tourism?

Let me qualify the following statement: We are increasingly traveling less as “students,” and more as “(design) researchers.” If our worldly wanders can tell us anything about how architectural pedagogy has evolved in the 111 years since Le Corbusier’s—then already somewhat banal—Tour d’ Orient [7], it seems to be that the interest has shifted towards places “in crisis.” Although the allure of the “European/Eastern cradle” still persists (the Rome Program), the travel menu is now rather overwhelmed by places that face a variety of hardships—environmental, post-disaster, post-colonial—or struggle with “underdevelopment,” recessions, poverty, refugee intakes etc. What are we “learning” from these destinations? Sometimes there is a cynical attitude concealed in these choices: Destinations in crisis teach us about “resiliency” and various strategies of “reparations.” [8] But judging from studio briefs at Yale, and other western schools, we are asked to enter the field as problem-solvers, cultivating an attitude of solution-oriented research and active intervention—more than deep understanding.

Through this reframing from “learning” to “researching”, the model of the Travel Week fits better under the categories of “fieldwork” and “scientific tourism”—and unavoidably inherits their discontents. In her seminal Decolonizing Methodologies, Linda Tuhiwai Smith argues that research practices in Western academia have historically been both woven with and operating through the narratives of Imperialism and Colonialism, producing a specific type of “knowledge” (and in our case, design solutions). [9] In contemporary and post-colonial contexts, others have uncovered how the “constructed imagination of the Other” in research persists problematically: Anthropologist Amelia Moore, looked at the intersections of scientific tourism and Global Change Science in the Bahamas. She found that the recurring waves of researchers have reshaped the development priorities of the place under study: money has been disproportionately put into reef conservation, while underappreciating the need to support local agricultural production. [10]

In light of the above, the Travel Week should also be understood as a geopolitical project. It would probably be illuminating to have a map depicting which schools travel and where. My guess is that the tentacles of certain globalized US and central European centers will be larger and thicker. Who, then, produces research and design for whom and by what framings? Undeniably, elite western academia would enjoy fashioning some of us as “worldly designers.” The problem here should not be thought of as a matter of intentions. On our good days we are all well-intentioned and happy voyagers, sensitive and altruist. But this is beyond the point: The culture of short-term travel out from the power centers is a structural issue of pedagogy and institutional—rather than personal—ethics.

Other “traveling” disciplines have developed methodologies and discourses to address these problems. Ethnography in Anthropology—a well established method of qualitative research—is notorious for its lengthy and immersive research, amounting to years of recurring months-long visits. In Development Studies, the very practice of short-term trips—so-called “rapid appraisals”—has been criticized in academic debates since the 1980s. [11] Here at Yale, some of these discourses have influenced how researchers do fieldwork. One example is the Wildlife Ecology Lab at the Yale School of Environment: Masters students only travel for research to places where PhD students have already established a network in the previous years; they do so for two to eight months; they co-author most of their papers with their local informants, and write in other languages if necessary; and they devote a good chunk of their travel to research that directly addresses requests made by the communities visited. Back in Rudolph Halls, on the other hand, it feels as if our work hasn’t committed to learning much from these forty years of criticism of the “scientific-” and “academic-tourism” in Anthropology, Cultural Geography, and Development Studies. [12]

All this is not to suggest we shouldn’t travel, but rather to take a step back and reflect on the way we do so. Being transient is a specific mode of relating to a place. I initially found “transient solidarity” to be a contradiction in terms: How could one be in solidarity while not “staying with the trouble”? [13] But we might now need to restructure the “terms,” especially since so many of us are, and will be, ever more transient: drifting by places, peoples, cultures, and, importantly, struggles. The reciprocal construction of not only knowledge but also design—and its proper acknowledgment [14]—may be a way to engage with architectural student travel; an engagement necessarily lengthy and laborious.

[1] Not all of the critical points here are applicable to Yale’s Travel Week; I am also drawing on five years of work experience as a researcher putting together trips for academic institutions (including the Bartlett, AA, Cambridge, ETH, KTH, TUM, and Columbia) visiting Athens for studio travel/ projects between 2015 and 2019. Also, many thanks to Chong, Audrey, Sarah, Clare, and Josh for our discussions on the matter.
[3] Hans Klein-Hewett, and Ann M. Gansemer-Topf, “The Savanna Studio Travel Experience: From My Backyard to Broader Benefits,” Landscape Journal 40 no.2 (2021): 37-52. See also: Arthur Rice, “Studio Abroad: Understanding the impact of International Design Studios on Developing Designers,” Landscape Review 9 no.1 (2004): 30.
[4] Interestingly, the research I cited above concerns a semester-long traveling studio and backs its claims largely from literature on study-abroad programs—which are always lengthier than a week.
[5] I read the absurdity of the events surrounding the 2022 Greenland travel less as a matter of “bad admin” or “bad luck,” and more as the result of a rather generalized culture of traveling, operating in the retinal afterimage of a constructed tourism imaginary of quiescence—and desperately trying to cope when the afterimage breaks down. For the Greenland adventure of the respective 2022 Yale studio see Signe Ferguson, “Climate Change Blues,” New York Review of Architecture.
[6] Vivetha Thambinathan, and Elizabeth Anne Kinsella, “Decolonizing Methodologies in Qualitative Research: Creating Spaces for Transformative Praxis,” International Journal of Qualitative Methods 20 (2021): 1-9.
[7] Le Corbusier, Journey to the East (MIT Press, 2007).
[8] From 2012 to 2019, more than 20 (mostly architecture schools) along with various art institutions (including Documenta) “traveled to Greece” at the peak of what some called the country’s refugee crisis, and after years of economic recession, in an effort to encourage “Learning from Athens.”
[9] Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, (Zed books, 1999).
[10] Amelia Moore, Destination Anthropocene: Science and Tourism in the Bahamas (University of California Press, 2017). For the intertwined identities of the tourist and the researcher see Mike Crang, “Tourist: Moving places, becoming tourist, becoming ethnographer,” in Tim Cresswell, and Peter Merriman (eds), Geographies of mobilities (Ashgate, 2011): 205-24. In the Galápagos, visiting scientific researchers have literally shaped its territory, from Darwin onwards; see Elizabeth Hennessy, “The Politics of a natural laboratory: Claiming territory and governing life in the Galápagos Islands,” Social Studies of Science 48 no.4 (2018): 483-506.
[11] One of the first works to problematize short-term fieldwork in the context of global development was Robert Chambers, Rural Development: Putting the Last First (Pearson Education, 1983).
[12] This mismatch between discourses in the architecture/ design realm and those in the humanities/ social sciences is a serious disciplinary issue that begs for more research.
[13] Besides the classic reading of Donna Harraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016), see also Charles Hale (ed), Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship (University of California Press, 2008).
[14] For the current directions in the history of science, exploring the cultural and geographically reciprocal construction of knowledge (and the often inadequate acknowledgment of the complexity), see Kapil Raj, “Thinking without the Scientific Revolution: Global Interactions and the construction of knowledge,” Journal of Early Modern History 21 (2017): 445-58.

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Volume 8, Issue 03
December 2, 2022