Spring Break Redefined: Rice University Students Alex Gregor and Peter Stone Discuss Academic Travel

Jul 01, 2011

Spring break in Mexico is a bit of a salacious stereotype for college students, but a group of students at Rice University recently did things a little differently. As it turns out, it's possible to go to Mexico for spring break and make important academic strides at the same time.

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By Sarah Wright

rice students in mexico

Alex Gregor and Peter Stone are undergraduate architecture students at Rice University. This spring break, Alex and Peter went to Mexico City with some of their professors and fellow students. Rice's architecture program takes a thorough approach, lasting for a total of six years, during which time students earn both a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture (B.A.) and a Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch.) degree.

The trip to Mexico was more academic than recreational, though both Alex and Peter clearly had a great time. We asked these students about their experience in Mexico City and their tips for making academic travel both effective and enjoyable.

Study.com: You took a trip to Mexico City with some of your classmates and professors this spring break. What made you decide to do this instead of doing something more traditional for spring break?

Alex Gregor: The trip was organized as a part of the studio. Really, we were going to Mexico City to test hypotheses made during preliminary research of Mexico City. My focus was on icons in Mexico City, the role that an iconic building can play in defining a neighborhood and how and why certain iconic buildings or areas, say a particular streetscape, act within a city to create a sense of identity and place.

Peter Stone: The trip was a part of our curriculum, but had it been optional I certainly would have decided to go. You get to see a place entirely differently when you go there with a purpose. It was travel where you keep your eyes open both because you want to and because you are actively looking. It is somewhat like reading a book for a class as opposed to for pleasure. You pay a bit more attention, read closer, take notes and get more out of the experience. As architecture students, our note taking happens in our sketchbooks, and what you can see in a place where you actually sit down and try to draw it is many orders of magnitude away from what you can ever notice with a camera.

Study.com In an article for Rice News, you describe the trip as a 'research expedition' rather than a 'mere field trip.' What kind of research did you engage in on this trip?

AG: In addition to the research on the role and development of icons in Mexico City, the trip was also to influence the semester's studio project. For this project, we were prompted to create an iconic cultural center that would stand out and celebrate its form in conversation with the city as it exists. This meant taking an in-depth look into the workings and atmosphere of a specific few blocks in the downtown colonial Zocalo district, and developing an understanding of what we wanted to achieve through an iconic operation of our own design.

PS: We came to try and understand architecture as a truly global field. The underlying principles of design we learn as students are, in a way, as universal as those underlying chemistry or biology. Yet when they are applied in the real world, the context of place has a major impact on how to operate and apply those principles. Globalization and the increasing interconnectedness of our world means that when we graduate, we will almost certainly work on commissions and projects across the globe. In Mexico, we learned how to operate in a foreign place, how to distill culture quickly so that we can actually inform our work with the context it will be inserted into. This is not something specific to architecture; where you are working has an incredibly potent effect on what you do, no matter how lofty and universal a field may claim to be. Ignoring this can leave anyone quite unprepared.

Study.com How did the trip to Mexico relate to what you're studying at Rice?

AG: There was a pretty direct relation. Graduate and fifth-year undergraduate studios do site visits every semester. A graduate studio accompanied us on this trip to Mexico City. Traveling under the influence of prior research makes architectural site visits and travel incredibly helpful in developing a smart answer to a studio exploration.

PS: We had to design a Cultural Center for the Americas in the historical center of Mexico City itself. The trip was split between visiting and documenting the physical site where our project was located, and meeting and talking to real architects practicing in Mexico. We visited architecture offices, and even toured a cultural center under construction that was quite similar to our own project. This gave us precedents to work from and context in which to situate our work.

Study.com What did it feel like to take a look at architecture through the lens of another culture? Did you learn anything new or unexpected?

AG: As someone who has grown up in major cities like New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Houston, I had many preconceptions about what Mexico City would be like. Mexico City seems to be very European compared to Houston, where work and play are clearly separated. In Mexico City, I was surprised but excited to see people eating dinner after work at 11 at night. There was a real almost limitless energy in the city that didn't have time to go to bed. It wasn't rowdy, but rather elegantly done. People took ownership of the entire day and put it to use. This mentality seemed to permeate our own schedules as we went about our research, and allowed us to watch how people used the city after business was over.

PS: Seeing another place allows you to really look back and notice things in your own home that you take for granted and miss all the time. For example, in Mexico City there are different regulations for stair hand rails, and it is surprising how distinctly obvious this little change is to someone unknowingly used to the standards in the U.S. The things you learn are simple and concrete like this, allowing you to see from new perspectives.

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Study.com Did this trip give you a desire to engage in academically focused travel in the future? Do you have any specific plans to do so?

AG: Architectural travel has this romantic image from the modernist movement, where Le Corbusier travels around the world in a grand tour, developing a worldwide manifesto. This opening of one's mind to the cultural practices in other societies was considered instrumental to the development of effective architectural design. Now, we have Google, and we can be anywhere in the world in 20 hours. The busiest architects may spend half their lives on the road. What is important to note is that the architectural scholar of any age is constantly involved in interpreting the environment in which he or she exists, and compiling a mental, if not physical, record of experience. Because architecture deals with the way we live, work and play, any and all travel can be architectural travel.

PS: Of course, it was a great experience. After my senior year I will travel somewhere to work on a preceptorship for a year before returning to Rice, where I might even finish my degree in Paris.

Study.com Do you think it's important for college students to travel in order to do research, rather than just staying at school and using the library? Why?

AG: Yes, for sure. As a theoretical project, as almost anything we do in school will be, we will need to set up your knowledge base before going through on your design. While anyone can do their research with books and computers, doing so sets up an abstract world for your project. With personal presence, where we can operate as a pedestrian in the situation, the research we produce will bring a problem one step closer to an accurate answer. Travel can be extravagant, but emphasizing the role of the traveler as capturing and digesting details that can be worked into the architectural argument makes it worthwhile.

PS: Travel teaches students things they can never learn in a library, and makes the things they can learn from a book far more satisfying.

Study.com Similarly, how do you think it helps to have a specific academic goal in mind while traveling for study?

AG: This is incredibly important for someone like me who is easily distracted. By setting up to explore specific scenarios and spaces in the city before I leave, I can play off my misconceptions from before with the local atmosphere and in that method find what actually excites me about the city and enriches my response.

PS: If you have a focus to direct your energy towards, you will be surprised how much energy is there once you have the chance to leverage it. You learn more from travel and from research together than you could have from either independently.

Study.com Even if the main focus of an international trip is on research, chances are that you'll also want to go out and have a little fun. How did you balance work and play while on this trip?

AG: The culture of relaxation and entertainment in any city is vitally important to the population. The expression of the city's energy on 'play' can be iconic in many cases. Immersing oneself in the beat of the city can really translate to an understanding of the way people will interact with architectural interventions.

PS: You never stop paying attention, drinking in as much of a city as vibrant as Mexico City as you can when you are having fun as you spend towards your goals when you are working.

Study.com Do you have any advice on getting the most out of both studying and relaxing for students who are planning to study abroad or take research trips?

AG: Traveling as an architect means becoming a selective sponge to the information that surrounds you. Keep some method for interpreting what you see and noting down what you wish to remember. I fill sketchbooks everywhere I go.

PS: Don't try to plan everything out: you can't, and you don't need to. Arrive with the flexibility of mind to discover things as you go, and see where you wind up.

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