Q&A with 2012 DMSAS Fellow Mark Elliott
One of four recipients of the DMSAS Traveling Fellowship in 2012, Mark Elliott, now in his final year at the University of Maryland, spent ten weeks interning at DMSAS and took his fellowship travels in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. Mark returned to DMSAS earlier this month to present his work abroad to the office and we took the opportunity to catch up with him about the trip and what he’s been up to since last summer.
Why did you choose your particular destination(s)?
I have been interested in urban design and public spaces for some time. I noticed that as architects, we tend to be more familiar with the public spaces of Italy and France than those of Germany. World War Two had a huge impact on the present form of German cities, and I wanted to look specifically how cities destroyed by the war rebuilt their urban squares.
Some fellows have done photographs, hand-sketches, watercolors, or even 3-D models of the buildings and spaces they’ve visited. What techniques did you use to document what you saw, and how do you think they helped you to understand the architecture?
Because I was trying to understand more than just individual works of architecture, my method of study was based around spending a lot of time just hanging out in squares and their surrounding city centers. I tried to observe how people used the spaces, attempting to get a feel for the rhythms and unique characteristics of each square. I documented them with photographs and hand sketches. The act of drawing on site helped me connect with the spaces and the surrounding architecture in ways that I couldn’t have through the lens of a camera alone.
What was your favorite building, place or space?
I would probably have to say Dresden. Its historic center is so dense with beautifully restored buildings that work together to create a stunning skyline of spires and towers from across the river. The areas just outside the center demonstrate the bleak urbanism of Soviet-dominated East Germany in great contrast to the renewed beauty of the historic area. As part of East Germany after the war, reconstruction efforts were only focused on a handful of monumental buildings. With German reunification in 1989, the city chose to rebuild large sections of the urban fabric in a very traditional mode, in contrast to most cities in West Germany which chose the symbolism of modernity and a break with tradition. Dresden is a fascinating case study of traditional building, because it respects the most important areas of the downtown, such as the Neumarkt and restored Frauenkirche, while introducing select modern facades and modern details in sensitive ways.
Was there any architecture that was particularly moving/inspiring/depressing or that resonated with you emotionally?
Looking at reconstructed historic cities, I came across many places that provided extreme contrasts of new and old that were particularly poignant. The image of the Ulm Cathedral and Stadthaus by Richard Meier comes to mind as an image that says so much about how we shape our cities. Those images that show buildings from different ages juxtaposed in the modern city can be both moving, inspiring, depressing, or all three, depending on one’s interpretation. To me, those images are inspiring for the way they capture the layering of history that makes cities such rich and stimulating places to experience life.
What story about your travels have you repeated the most?
In Salzburg, Austria, after documenting the absolutely stunning collection of linked Renaissance squares in the city center, I set off to track down locations from the filming of “The Sound of Music.” The abbey and exterior of the Von Trapp house are still there, complete with the country road that Maria strides down, guitar case in hand, singing “I Have Confidence.” If you’re a fan of the movie, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. The scenes shot in the city as the children sang “Do-Re-Mi” included the Mirabell Gardens, the cathedral squares, and some stunning overlooks of the city skyline from the heights above. The Austrians (who apparently are not huge fans of the American film) don’t make it easy to find the exact spots, but that makes finding them even more fun and rewarding.
How did the architecture you experienced influence projects you’ve worked on in school or this office?
Based on this trip, I decided to do my Master of Architecture thesis project on the topic of public squares. I am investigating how public squares can be introduced as part of a pedestrian-oriented network to revitalize the downtowns of mid-size U.S. cities, using Richmond, VA as a case study. The many squares I studied over the summer now serve as a great pool of precedents from which I can draw as I move forward with the design phase. European precedents for squares present challenges because of the many social and cultural differences in the U.S., so the adaptation of principles to the American urban environment will be a major theme of the thesis.
What was the most valuable lesson you learned during your ten week internship with DMSAS?
While working at DMSAS I got to talk with Jeffrey Loman and learn about his techniques for working with traditional media. Seeing the drawings he was producing and the beautiful renderings around the office reaffirmed for me the value of hand-crafted drawings in this computer age. Even though computer drawings and renderings are faster and more efficient, I don’t think they can totally replace the actual hand of the artist. Even though I probably do not possess the skill to be a master renderer, I want to continue fostering my hand-drawing skills as an analytical design tool.
What was your favorite souvenir of your travels, either purchased for yourself or something chosen as a gift?
My favorite souvenirs were absolutely free! They’re the filled sketchbooks that I brought home at the end of the trip. I find that nothing helps me remember something better than drawing it, and I’ve started to really enjoy being able to look back at sketchbooks from previous trips. The sketchbook becomes very much like a diary for me when I travel. I make notes to myself, jot down things I want to do and see, and record my thoughts in a stream of consciousness way through writing and sketching. I remember exactly where I was sitting, what the weather was like, and all sorts of other details when I look back at a drawing.