2 December 2016

See the Local Architecture


When you start talking about travel, what other people think about is largely dictated by their own experiences: some people may think of beaches, others might think of sidewalk cafes or famous monuments. Perhaps some people will think of the mysterious songs of other languages being spoken or the vibrant colors of open air markets. People might think of cities, too: about streetscapes that are in some ways familiar, but in other ways, completely foreign. Those streetscapes are shaped by the architecture of the place you’re visiting. At home or abroad, the built environment shapes a great deal of our experience. When we’re at home and accustomed to its form, our experience is shaped subconsciously, but when we’re abroad, those forms are unfamiliar, and it’s easier to notice their cumulative effect.

Travel Tip: See the Local Architecture

In every place, the architecture varies as time progresses: in the United States, the tight brick buildings of cities initially dominated the architecture, set apart from the small, wooden frame houses of rural residences. But after World War Two, the suburbs came into being, ushering in with them new architecture. The mass produced wooden frame houses of the suburbs developed on their own, fed by a cheap lumber supply and bourgeoning automobile infrastructure. That mass-produced architecture spread into highway-side shopping centers and commercial development, while in the cities, steel and glass took the place of brick. Today the American suburb has gone the other way, looking for the classic in brick and wood, awnings and columns, a “custom” look that still features the cost benefits of mass production.

Travel Tip: See the Local Architecture

But that’s just the American built environment; it’s obviously different elsewhere. For example, European cities tend to have older stone buildings, or more adventurous modern buildings, and the scarcity of land means houses in European suburbs are more constrained by space and resources. Or take Mexico, for example, where there are few great forests so the housing stock is different. In the colonial centers, it’s all stone, either mined or salvaged from the ruins of pre-colonial civilizations. But in the newer parts of towns, in the suburbs, it’s nearly entirely concrete, either cast or block. Concrete, of course, imposes entirely different constraints on house designs—think straight lines, if you do it economically. I love the Mexican suburbs because they’re so drastically different than American suburbs. To walk a suburb in Mexico—say, in Merida, where the pictures in this post were taken—is to examine a parallel universe of architecture.

Travel Tip: See the Local Architecture

Me? I love this examination, this process of discovery. For me, it’s just a long walk, really, looking at house after house, noting the common elements, the aesthetic touches, determining what’s done out of custom and what’s done out of necessity. The choices a culture makes when building their homes reveal a lot about the culture: you can glean information about the terrain, the environment, the family structure and home life, and the idea of wealth and success, as well as aspirations just from the shape of homes in a neighborhood. Each culture has a different approach to housing, and as each culture develops and communicates with other cultures, this approach changes as well. Walking outward from a city center—transitioning through the eras of history, moving through neighborhoods—is instructive and enlightening for me, and so when you talk about travel, I think about the architecture of the homes.