Origins of Modernism: We Must See The World

By COD 2013 Berlin Conference Scholar Sarah Corbitt, Assoc. AIA

This is the first of ten articles about the AIA Committe on Design: Berlin: Origins of Modernism conference that I’ll be posting over the coming weeks. 

Travel for the Architect Intern (and for many of us) is a rare and precious thing – travel is fretted over, budgeted for, and dreamt about. Architectural travel can be hard-won, with friends and family competing for limited vacation hours, significant others seeking out either camping opportunities or sitting-by-the-pool escapes or anyway, something different than work. And, architects’ brains get filled up with the daily-ness of life – construction details, toilet room plans, budgets, door hardware schedules, being late for Thanksgiving because of that DD pricing set…

But studies show – I’m too busy to read them, mind you, or even articles about them – that our brains are more productive, and happier, when supplied with adequate sleep, time off for diversion, walks in the woods, stimulation and inspiration. When you need a vacation, you need an infusion of those elements. And how to get them? Consider the recent AIA Committee on Design Conference in Berlin, Germany.

Design Spirituality & Brain Recharge

A Committee on Design (COD) conference offers an encapsulated, curated, direct and smart infusion of big-D Design. The schedule for the Berlin Conference reads like a program for a pilgrimage to some of design’s most holy sites:

Bauhaus Dessau, by Walter Gropius, 1925 – 1926

Bauhaus Berlin, by Walter Gropius, 1976 – 1979

The Jewish Museum, by Daniel Libeskind, 1992 – 2001

Unité de Habitation, by Le Corbusier, 1957

Einstein Tower, by Erich Mendelsohn, 1919 – 1924

[Pause for Reverence]

The existence of these very buildings – the evidence of such accomplishments of human capacity to build and refine – is a gift to the world. I never thought I’d see the Einstein Tower in person, even though it’s in a perfectly accessible Western European nation, with easy access to a major airport. I dunno – it just hadn’t made it onto my list of what was possible.

But I am here to tell you that the experience of standing on a hill with about 80 other design professionals, suddenly realizing that the Einstein Tower is RIGHT THERE is the closest I’ve come to a pilgrimage. The realization of THAT BUILDING, settling in, and then seeing it, and then looking, and waiting, and considering it, with peers, is something precious and rare. It was one of the many times during the Conference when my breath was caught in my throat, and the pure physical presence of a building left me humming, electrified.

Appropriately, since it’s a German noun, the Origins of Modernism COD Conference was a visual record of gesamtkunstwerks. Translated, gesamtkunstwerk is an artistic work whose form is both unified and resolved – something elevated, in which every inch of the artwork expresses a larger idea. It’s comprehensive, complete, multi-disciplinary and approaching perfection. We see many buildings in our lives, but only a few are gesamtkunstwerks. There were many on this conference, and being reminded so exquisitely of why we do what we do was refreshing and energizing.

Seeing total-artwork-buildings with others, especially a large group of like-minded people, is also rare. We are hurried in our daily lives, with few chances to get together en masse. The communion of our profession can be missing in our practice, as deadlines and ‘fires’ appear unbidden on our calendars. Moreover, the group attending the COD conference was about 100 people of varying ages – we had one very special guest over the age of 90 (he missed last year because of heart surgery but trooped through the rain with the rest of us this year just the same). Our conference was a pleasantly mixed group of men, women, commercial and residential architects, designers, spouses, and even one teenage daughter.

If the first building was a fire in the wilderness, then the first building, of course, was a site for communion. It’s worth taking time to find that again when we can, and especially with our peers and our elders in the profession. Communion is well-served, too, by getting together and having nothing due – just seeing things together, traveling together, seeing, talking about it, and laughing.

But What About The Money?

Setting aside the spiritual and professional aspects of the Origins of Modernism Conference, I wanted to delve deeper into the cost differences in traveling on your own, and attending a COD conference (there are two COD conferences per year; one domestic, one international).

Below is a chart that compares the costs of this conference with doing the same trip on your own. To make the fairest comparison, I kept the flight and hotel costs the same. There are numbers below which can fluctuate – travel costs, for example, depending on how much public transportation you’re able to take. Dining costs may vary, too, according to your inclinations. The car rental cost listed below is just an estimate – there are certainly much more expensive cars out there to rent; there may be much cheaper cars as well. And I did not list gas. Ticket prices could also vary – you could hold out for free days or free nights or weekends, or just see the public areas of a facility. The number I used below is based on access to everything we saw on the Origins of Modernism Conference, again, for fair comparison.

Then, there are hard costs to quantify. Having local experts on hand versus doing research on your own is hard to compare. For the comparison, I estimated two hours of research and reading to prepare for each day of the conference, and put the cost of one research hour at $75. That’s probably conservative, but would vary depending on your knowledge and efficiency.

Another cost which I could not estimate is the value of having local contacts, getting local guest lectures, meeting local architects (some well-known), being invited into private houses, and getting back-of-house and off-hour access. How to put a price on that? Fifty dollars a day doesn’t seem enough – maybe $100? I didn’t add this cost in, but it was meaningful to have these connections.

The Conference also contributes Learning Units towards the attendee’s license renewal – something traveling on your own won’t provide. That benefit is also hard to quantify, so it’s one of the costs left out in the calculation below. But if it could be figured in, it would show an even greater return on investment for attending a COD conference.

In sum, my comparison of the Origins of Modernism Conference to the same junket had I taken it on my own is that doing it on my own is a bit more expensive, is a lot more work, and of course would be much more solitary. That’s fine – there are reasons why self-designed and self-executed travel is attractive, too (namely, flexibility and moving at your own speed).

By signing up with the AIA for this COD conference, I had:

  1. Ease;
  2. No research required in advance, no preparation;
  3. To just show up and get on the bus;
  4. Communion with like-minded experts and like-minded peers;
  5. Conversation with locals, and local experts;
  6. Frequent morning lectures to start off the day, with elegant coffee breaks as well to discuss the lectures;
  7. Curated & inspiring sites arranged according to a cogent theme;
  8. Earned Learning Units towards license renewal.

My final analysis: register now for the New York and London conferences. It is worth your time and money.


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