Building Context

For all the fun and learning that travel brings, coming home is a good thing. Sometimes we learn about home most when away.

There is a French word, dépayser, that I love, for the feeling one experiences when being away from home. Literally, ‘to remove from one’s country’, it means ‘to get a change of scenery’, but also, ‘to disorient or confuse’. For all the fun and learning that travel brings, coming home is a good thing. Sometimes we learn about home most when away.

New Haven CityscapeNew Haven Green and beyond. Photo: Karin Patriquin


When I look out my office window to the New Haven Green and beyond, I often think of similar cities in my travels; places where the basic features may be similar but the architectural landscape is very different. I think of cities on the coast of Finland, founded on industry and trade by sea. I think of the coast of Portugal, a vacation spot for the Romans, then a fishing and trade stop. Though these areas have similar geographical features and similar resources for building materials to those around New Haven, their cultural context is different enough to have created very different architectural landscapes.

Images from Finland's CoastWood culture, Finland. Photo: Karin Patriquin


In Finland, where I spent 4 months in the midnight sun, there were a few towns the size of New Haven, with a port, manufacturing industries and access to the Baltic Sea.  Here, industrial buildings are of brick. The smaller buildings are of wood with the blood-red stain similar to that in early New England houses and barns. Finland’s forests have been meticulously maintained in the last few centuries and the country’s wood building culture is very strong, its craftsmen very creative.

images from Alvira, PortugalAlvira, the Algarve, Portugal. Photo: Karin Patriquin


In the Algarve in Portugal, where I visited with family this year, Alvira stands out as a beautiful port town with Phoenician, Roman, Moorish and Christian roots. Here, the local material is a mud-based brick, finished with a white wash or ceramic tile, and the traditional roofs are of cane. New buildings are built with the traditional materials and styling, and the creativity is in the ornamentation – ironwork and tile work.

As designers and architects, we are always building in a context. Sometimes one needs the perspective of other places to understand one’s own.