|Grande Salines in the town of Salin-les-Bains|
Given this splendid experience, certain realizations come to the fore that seem to either reinforce some of my own beliefs while reintroducing me to things I've long forgotten:
There is no better way to travel through Europe than by car. Traveling strictly by rail limits visitors to experiencing mostly the centers of larger towns and cities and narrow vistas of the landscape. The most beautiful views and scenic outlooks I drove through were completely inaccessible by rail. Renting a car is far cheaper and allows one much more flexibility in planning or following an itinerary. I had the option of taking the high-speed-train directly from the airport to Lyon, but the ticket prices were so high that two of them would have covered the car rental for an entire week. We would have never made it to our final destination by rail anyway since rural rail stations are few and far between. Highway driving in France is quite nice, since they bypass the major cities and are well maintained due to the toll revenue they collect. The numerous signs along the way that point to major landmarks and attractions and there are well appointed rest stops. And contrary to what most rail champions Stateside will tell you, most Europeans rely on cars for almost all travel, with sole exception for those who live in cities big enough to provide urban rail and bus systems. I can't tell you how many times when I was a much younger traveler how ignorant my native hosts were about using the local train and bus system due to the fact that it had been a long time since they had last used them. Once they could drive, they never went back.
In France, living freely here is in truth more about plugging into a sophisticated yet intransigent way of life. In the land of the 35 hour work week, managing your time wisely is important. Life here forces you to conform to sort of predetermined routine-when to work, when to play, when to shop, etc. All businesses are closed on Sunday; All offices and retail that are don't serve food are closed between noon and 2pm. The whole country shuts down the month of August. Your foreign credit card will work in most places, but not for the most essential transactions, such as buying gas or paying the toll. If you are the spontaneous type and prefer to live outside the agreed parameters of French life, endless frustration awaits. If, on the other hand, you agree to this order and adjust accordingly, harmony and a refreshing simplicity awaits. The risk is that life becomes quickly predictable and less serendipitous. Add to this a social welfare system that allows everyone to live in relative comfort and health and thus allowing a sort of stress-free existence, and the inevitable result is a sort of boredom. It's no coincidence that the French are among the largest consumers of anti-depressants per capita.
|It doesn't get any better than this- historic street in Besancon|
Masonry exteriors are a good thing. In Europe, there is a clean break between everything built before 1930 and everything built after. Buildings built before that date would be what we would consider as "traditional', in that it uses a classical proportioning system that governs the size of all elements which are closely tied to long established practices in masonry construction. Even if the façade did not use masonry and used stucco instead, there is an obvious sense of heaviness and permanence. Buildings built after that date are all about accentuating the thin but long-spanning structural frame made possible with concrete and steel. Cladding becomes a matter of lightly protecting this frame, either with glass, aluminum, or thin terracota, cementitious or phenolic panels. Even if natural materials are used, they are reinterpreted to conform to a machine-like smoothness and accurate dimensions. This obsession in processing natural materials to precise man-made specifications has the effect of alienating objects to natural surroundings. The expression, "...as if a UFO landed here" is a really an exaggerated way of saying that something doesn't belong to the prevailing natural order of a place. To rationalize that highly abstract building is natural is to argue that humans' understanding of nature is itself highly abstract, and that one kind of construct is not in any way truer to nature than another. But that's one of the most intractable problems of Modernist creations, is that it requires sophisticated rationalization to justify that something is 'just right' for the time and place. Most traditional design doesn't have that problem, appearing as if it were simply an organic extension of a place.
Air conditioning changed the way we build as well as raised our preferred comfort level. Europe's mild climate is pleasant enough to make one forget about air conditioning until the occasional heat wave occurs. At that point there is no recourse to such unbearable heat and humidity and one has to put up with it. While in the southern US a house is expected to be completely sealed to retain the cool and de-humidified air, the European house breathes through lots of operable casement windows. The difference in conditions between inside and outside are minimal, as small insects, dirt and dust blow in throughout the day. More food can be stored absent refrigeration, which results in stronger smells coming out of the kitchen. In larger scale construction, the lack of a robust air conditioning system means no furring or dropped ceilings, and thus the chance expose the structure and the underside of the roof deck, which allows the designer more freedom to create beautiful ceilings. The drawback is that there is nothing to collect and filter dust and grime floating in the space over time, which then collects onto the structure and becomes difficult to keep clean. Architecture of the "high-tech" style, with its celebrated steel framing and sophisticated glazing systems suffers in particular, and many of the once gleaming train stations and airports built in this style are looking pretty drab and filthy. Thanks to the almost mandatory use of air conditioning, US construction seems to be significantly driven by the mechanical engineer and, to the frustration of many architects, must design around their needs. This leads to more generic ceilings, simpler detailing and tighter non-operable windows.
Much of American architecture might look dull, but it is often more functional and easier to use. Case in point-Charles De Gaulle Airport (CDG) is a collection of architecture an planning experiments gone awry in one way or the other. Charlotte Douglas Airport desperately needs updating, but wayfinding is much more straightforward and the public spaces and concourse a bit more generous. Terminal 1 at CDG seemed really cool when I was a kid, with its crisscrossing escalators floating in the main lightwell, but its circular plan has proved far too inflexible to growing passenger traffic over the years. Terminal 2, with its curved concrete shell roof, is looking really old and dirty, and has clearly not adapted to changing security protocols since 9/11. Maybe it's my increasing dependence on suburban comforts taking over, but big spaces where hundereds of people either sit on the floor or loiter, or queue behind ticket kiosks that barely work don't meke me appreciate that kind of hustle-and-bustle of big city life. Sure American airports are comparatively placid, even somewhat sterile, but for the most part, they're ocmfortable and easy. Returning home, the clarity, space and charm of the Austin airport was a welcome relief the flamboyant and confusing CDG.
In the realm of private residential architecture, the US has everyone beat when it comes to function and convenience. Most private houses in Europe follow the timeless formula of fitting all rooms within a masonry box topped by pitched roof (hipped roofs are common warmer regions). From a formalistic standpoint they allow lots of flexibility at the urban scale, forming elegant blocks and streetfronts, and offer a range of housing types, as entire levels can be rented out as flats. But the twentieth century house has changed a lot, mainly due advances in mechanical systems and appliances. Plumbing has now become standardized to such a degree that bathrooms can be organized as cohesive units. Kitchens are now designed as a system as well, in which the optimal distances between the stove, fridge, oven and sink have become standard. I have yet to stay or live in a European house that incorporate these kinds of improvements I have long taken for granted. The kitchens in the nicest homes are haphazardly layed out, the cabinets are shabby, there is very little counter space, and the appliances are relatively small to nonexistent. Bathrooms often have the same problems, in which sinks, tubs and toilets are afterthoughts. They are usually shared, meaning that I don't recall any bathroom located adjacently to a bedroom for exclusive use. Storage spaces hardly exist, even as the average European, just like Americans, have continued to accumulate more stuff over the course of their lives.
The post-War suburban ranch home and subsequent American styles have proved to be eminenty flexible in adapting to a rising standard of living. Its use of an open, asymmetrical plan ensure that there will be a direct transition between dining, relaxing and sleeping while maintaining a division between public, private and utilitarian areas. Clearances moving through are maintained, so you are not left dodging furniture sticking into hallways. This is hard to accomplish with a rigid rectangular plan that characterizes most European homes, even those in semi-rural, semi-suburban locales where there is presumably a bit more space. Everything must be crammed in, resulting in tight and steep stairways, small bedrooms, and shared bathrooms. One anecdotal example of this was when I stayed with friends in Germany who lived in a four-story Swiss-chalet style house. I had lived an entire year in that house as a teen and thought it was pretty big. When I returned fifteen years later, the owners had added an expansive glass-enclosed "winter garden" space to the back. I noticed that everyone who still lived there spent their entire day in this new living room, due to the generous amount of space and the abundant light. Suddenly the rest of the house, which once was lived in all of its nook and crannies, was mostly vacant as they had all coalesced into the new living room. All the older rooms in the house looked tiny and dark in comparison. My four-year old refused to sleep in the house's tiny bedrooms, opting instead to sleep in the new "winter garden" instead.
|La Tourette Dominican monastery|
in Eveux near Lyon.
|View from underneath monastery|
|Director's House at the Royal Saltworks|
Nicolas Ledoux, 1779
|Main Entrance to Royal Saltworks|