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New York State of Mind - a Year with Steven Holl Architects

A ‘Year Out’ is effectively a gap year that most Architecture students take after the first three years of School to get some practical experience in the construction industry, anywhere in the world. I was lucky to spend the year working in the New York studio of Steven Holl Architects, the designers of the new Glasgow School of Art building.

While still in Glasgow, I was convinced that Steven Holl’s studio would be quite large, and it came as a surprise when I found out that there’s only thirty people in the New York office: the output and the global impact of the practice seems to be that of a much bigger firm. During the placement, I learned that Steven is actually quite passionate about keeping the studio compact – this way, he can take part in all aspects of the design process, and the team stays flexible and very focused. This also means that the bars of responsibility and what’s expected of each person are set extremely high – making it a demanding, yet very inspiring place to learn!
Working in this fast-paced environment meant that the majority of my time was spent in studio, with a traditional NYC food delivery dinner at the office becoming the norm rather quickly. Quite a few Saturday mornings began with a “Theory Hour” where ongoing projects were analysed from a philosophical point of view, and compared to the works of recognised masters from the past. In general, the line between office hours and other events with my colleagues was often rather blurred, and I spent a lot of time learning about Architecture and the City both in studio and during some of the events/exhibition visits where we went as a group. The learning outcome of this year is truly invaluable, and the more time passes the more I realise how much I’ve actually developed.

In the brief periods outside the studio, I have been trying to make the most of my time in New York City. Whenever I had a chance to get out of the subway rush and spend some time walking and looking around, I felt I was really learning about the spirit of the place – not just the sights, or the neighbourhoods around my home/ work, but the way the different parts of the City interact and make up this vibrant metropolis. Being able to discover NYC slowly is a true luxury, and I’m really grateful for this unique chance. After several months of wandering, allowing myself to get lost and then found again, after linking everything together in my head, I feel I understand the city quite well and that it really helps me develop as an Architect. This understanding was put to a good test during hurricane Sandy, and the following days without electricity in several parts of the city – walking to my home in Brooklyn from the office in the Chelsea neighbourhood of Manhattan, among whole blocks of pitch-black skyscrapers, without any phone signal or people to ask for directions, was quite an experience. Following this, the City seemed really familiar, and the year in general has made me rather attached to NYC and all its unusual aspects, and I’m sure I will be visiting on many occasions in the future.

One of the more memorable trips outside the city was the pilgrimage to Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright. Located about 360 miles (600km) from NYC, the two-day trip involved a whole variety of experiences, including two days of eating at Diners only (due to the lack of choices along the way); a real US motel experience near Pittsburgh; the surprise of meeting US people who had not met anyone from outside their state; and the realisation of how huge the country actually is. The best part of the trip was obviously the destination: what used to be a private retreat of the Kaufmann family and has now become a major sightseeing destination with guided tours running every 15 minutes. The building was indeed a bit smaller than what I had expected from photographs – especially the rooms with the famously low Frank Lloyd Wright ceilings – but the amount of carefully considered details and the variety of architectural experiences for a structure of this size was overwhelming. In general, I found the building extremely impressive, and much more inspiring than the already breathtaking photographs and descriptions suggest. Taking a two day journey to spend two hours at the destination was very much worth it.

Every bit of my New York experience was really intensive, and after leaving the US I needed quite a bit of time for everything to settle down. Now that some time has passed, I realise what an incredible year of learning it has been, both personally and professionally. This amazing experience has also reaffirmed my belief in the importance of travel, and visiting specific buildings, cities or countries in person – it is truly the best way to develop, learn about the wonders of the world, and lead a fulfilling life.

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It was truly a journey of self-discovery and of learning and reaching my limits both physically and emotionally. I would love to go back to India one day…

Jess Barber, Oxford Brooks, 2005

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