An Intensive Architectural Expedition Through Europe

School of Architecture students see a staggering 100 buildings on two-week study abroad trip

Students in Ruhr Museum Essen Germany

Students on the longest free hanging escalator in Europe at the Ruhr Museum by Dutch architecture firm and Pritzker Prize winner OMA - Rem Koolhaas. (L–R) Yubo Shen, Chao Chen, Vincent Meade, Liu Chunyao, Misch Alvarez, Nick Manderscheid (AIB), Fikret Cihan Asena, Reid Schultz. Courtesy of Mark Mueckenheim.

For graduate student Michelee Alvarez, the significance of last summer’s study abroad trip to Europe became clear during a walk through a wheat field on the very first day. “We get off the bus and we’re in the middle of a wheat field, all the wheat is dry and it’s quiet,” she recalled.

After landing in Frankfurt, overnighting in Bonn and traveling by bus to a tiny German village, Alvarez found herself on a path leading to the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel. The tiny structure designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor marked the first stop on the School of Architecture’s tour of Germany, Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Led by Graduate Director Mark Mueckenheim, a group of eight students visited 100 buildings in two weeks. 

“It transformed I think from just an academic tour to where we really felt like we were on a pilgrimage,” said Alvarez. “Walking through the wheat field you hear the buzz of the insects around you ... it was idyllic.”

The trek from the bus to the chapel took about 15 minutes. Ten minutes in, there wasn’t a building in site. “Then you take a turn,” said Alvarez, “and you see there are people from all over the world who have come to see this teeny tiny little chapel, and you walk in and you have goosebumps. From there on, every structure, whether it was something you personally enjoyed or not, it was something you appreciated no matter what.”

From libraries to cathedrals, museums and concert halls, the group witnessed an incredibly diverse array of buildings, gaining invaluable knowledge as they touched the stones of ancient churches, examined the brickwork of mid-century masterpieces, and walked through extraordinary modern spaces. Armed with a 570-page tome detailing each structure on the itinerary (the culmination of the first five weeks of the seven-week course), they arrived well prepared for an intensive architectural expedition.

“In architecture, this kind of teaching is very important for the students,” said Mueckenheim, who planned the trip with the help of the Academy for International Education, a German non-profit that organizes study abroad programs. “I don’t think any other school in the United States has a program like this—where you visit so many buildings in such an intense period of time. It’s important to find things that separate us from other architecture schools and I think this trip achieves that.”

Spijkenisse Library _ Netherlands

“Book Mountain” Library in Spijkenisse, the Netherlands by famous Dutch architecture firm MVRDV. Courtesy of Mark Mueckenheim.


Students visiting the Bruder Klaus Chapel in Germany. Courtesy of Mark Mueckenheim.

Museum Display

Students are studying a display in the Folkwang Museum by world famous english architect David Chipperfield. Courtesy of Mark Mueckenheim.

Student sketching Kolumba Museum Cologne

Students sketching and discussing the work of Pritzker Prize winner Peter Zumthor in the courtyard of his Columba Museum in Cologne, Germany. Courtesy of Mark Mueckenheim.

Cologne Cathedral

Colognes 12th century cathedral, here the students attended a breathtaking guided tour of the roof definitely a highlight to remember. Courtesy of Mark Mueckenheim.

Design School Zollverein Essen Germany 2

Students sketching inside the Design School Zollverein bei Japanese architecture team and Pritzker Prize winners Sanaa - Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. Courtesy of Mark Mueckenheim.

Mueckenheim organized the itinerary around a densely populated region of Europe, where a concentration of groundbreaking architectural works have recently sprung up. Contemporary masterpieces from world famous architects like Tadao Ando, David Chipperfield, Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas, Jean Nouvel, Kazuyo Sejima, Ryue Nishizawa and many more dominated the trip, while eminent historic structures like the massive 12th century cathedral in Cologne or the octagon of the 8th century Aachen basilika offered a more historical context.

“It’s amazing to stand in a building and use that building as a classroom,” said Mueckenheim. “You can point to the big picture and say we experienced this amazing space and how the building is organized, and then you can point to a corner and say look how the architect solved this little detail, see how it relates to the bigger picture. You’ll never get this immediate physical link in a classroom.”

While the trip began with contemplative serenity at the Bruder Klaus Chapel, it quickly shifted into high gear, launching the group into a fast-paced schedule jam-packed with bus rides, building tours and a rainy bike ride through Amsterdam.

“A local architect guided us past about 20 buildings,” recalled graduate student Steven Schultz. “We covered a lot of ground and it was fun to see everybody out on the bikes in the rain.”

While the group enjoyed tours of private buildings not normally open to the public, they also appreciated being out in the city experiencing local urban life. They found the Rotterdam Market Hall especially appealing with its bustling energy and sense of community. “On paper we kind of dismissed it,” Alvarez said. “Then we go in and it was just ... the hair stands up on your arm. It was amazing, like a party, there were people meeting for dinner and people tasting food. It was so much different than what we had assumed.”

Alvarez said she and her fellow architecture students were constantly comparing the assumptions they made in the classroom with the real life experience, and that being able to witness these buildings first hand offered invaluable lessons. 

“It’s important to experience the things we’re doing in architecture school,” she said. “You can’t design a building without understanding how it will affect the individuals inside and the community around it. If we can continue having programs like this, I think the entire student body will be impacted in a really positive way.”

Students in Paris

The students and Mark Mueckenheim finally arriving in Paris the last stop almost at the end of their journey. Courtesy of Mark Mueckenheim.