November 28, 2012

Study Abroad Berlin Turns 10

Rolf Backmann in Berlin.

Berlin faculty member answers questions about Study Abroad Berlin and his favorite quirky town in the Swiss Alps

Q & A with Architecture Study Abroad Berlin’s Rolf Backmann

‘Tis the season to celebrate, and Wentworth’s department of architecture has its own cause célèbre this month:  the 10-year anniversary of the architecture study abroad program in Berlin. Berlin-based architect Rolf Backmann has helmed the program since its inception, serving as a one-person college campus director, housing officer, administrator, professor, and dean of students.

As part of the anniversary celebration, Backmann—who’s also a founding partner at the firm Backmann-Schieber—will travel to Wentworth in early December to lecture about an idea called contextual architecture. For Backmann, the concept of designing architecture in a way that enhances the surrounding home environment is the most important lesson to learn while abroad. It was the subject of Backmann’s upcoming lecture “Vrin: A Contextual Phone Booth” in Blount Auditorium on Dec. 4 at 5:00 p.m.

We reached Backmann at his office in Berlin to learn more about his lecture, the study abroad program, and how he keeps it all together during the busy semester.

What is unique about Wentworth’s architecture study abroad program in Berlin?  

We offer a normal, very regular semester in a completely different context.  Students are getting two architectural electives, which are enriched by visits and travelling. They get to do an architecture studio project, but they also learn European construction methods. They have the advantage of being trained in the metric system, which probably helps a lot if they want to get a job at an international working firm. On the one hand, we try to provide the students with a normal, Wentworth-feeling in Berlin. On the other hand, we hope to provide for them a completely different and broader experience of life.

Where do the students travel to?

The two architecture electives are always related to travel. In one course called “Urban Design Analysis” we are traveling to Prague, Rome, Venice, and to German Hamburg.  Before we leave, students have to prepare a big presentation on the cities. Then during the travel we have all sorts of visits and guided tours. Students have to sketchbook, and then when they return to Berlin, they have to create an analysis booklet on the relationship between buildings and public spaces.

The subject of your lecture is a small Swiss mountain village called Vrin that you say embodies contextual architecture. How does it do so?

Vrin is a very small village at the end of a valley high up in the Swiss mountains. The phone booth there was designed by an architect called Gion A. Caminada. Caminada was born and still lives in this village. There was once no phone booth in Vrin. So, Caminada designed the phone booth in a contemporary way but one that related to the traditional style in Vrin. He had the local workers in Vrin building this phone booth. In the end, Swiss Telecom just brought the phone and put it in this phone booth, but all this money stayed in Vrin. And then after this, there came other projects, which I’m going to talk about during the lecture. But the concept was to keep the context intact with little projects. And this is why Vrin is so extremely exciting.

What are your favorite memories from the last 10 years?

I really enjoy seeing the students grow personally. Many who travel to Berlin have never left the U.S., and when they go home, they return with broader horizons. This is what I enjoy the most. Students often tell me at the end that this study abroad program has changed their lives. 

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