The Polysensory Perception of Space

By Christian Nielsen-Palacios | March 22, 2021 |

In 1977, after my third year in architecture school, a friend and I convinced our parents to send us to a  three week immersion course in German (which we were already studying) and then we traveled all over Germany for 10 more weeks.

The course was in Würzburg, were the famous Baroque architect Balthasar Neumann lived and practiced, but that’s a tale for another time. Soon after our arrival, on a very hot summer day, we went to Nuremberg, home of St. Lorenz, a medieval church in the gothic tradition. Entering the building we immediately felt the dramatic change in temperature on our skin. We could hear the faint murmuring of nuns and others praying in the distance, and see the light filtering in through the stained glass windows. It was our first experience of a gothic church, and the sensory overload was so powerful that I told my friend “if they start using incense, I may have a heart attack.”

A few years later, a professor made a comment the exact wording of which I don’t remember, but it was something along the lines of “Is the Guggenheim Museum (or St. Lorenz) still ‘architecture’ after midnight, when the custodians turn off the lights?” This made me decide to explore the non-visual aspects of architecture for my thesis. I wanted to learn if there were features we could include in our designs that would make visitors to our buildings experience even a fraction of the pleasure I felt in that gothic church. My thesis was therefore a building for a fictitious non-profit for “the blind”. I enjoyed researching the available literature (in 1981, pre-Google!) and coming up with solutions to problems of my own creation (as one member of the jury pointed out,) but isn’t that the purpose of a thesis?

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The A.R.E. exam in the old days

By Christian Nielsen-Palacios | February 16, 2021 |

The Architect Registration Examination (ARE) is a series of tests required in the United States in order to obtain a professional license as an architect. It has existed for decades, as a method to ensure that those of us in the profession are properly qualified by a combination of education and experience to safely practice architecture.

I took it in 1990. At that time, applicants had to work for someone else for at least three years, and keep track of the hours they spent in various types of work, such as design, drafting, writing technical specifications, engineering, designing exterior areas, etc. Then, you had to take and pass 9 separate exams, including design, structural knowledge, legal issues, professional practice, building code and handicapped accessibility, and a sprinkling of history of architecture.

It was given once a year, a grueling 3-day affair. Four exams on Thursday, four more on Friday, and the dreaded design project all day Saturday, which few people passed the first time.

Our office was so busy that I had not been able to prepare by reading the study guides some of my colleagues had lent me. I considered not going, but these friends suggested that, since I had already paid, I should go, take the exam, and just see what it was like. Then I could study and take it again the following year. So I did.

My friends also told me to make sure I drew exactly what was required and no more, since the reviewers would not even look at your drawings if one was missing. My test was a law office somewhere in Texas. They emphasized how hot it was, so I put all the storage, mechanical rooms, and restrooms on the west side, so the required elevation drawing was a plain rectangle (no windows or doors) that took about 10 seconds to draw.

To my pleasant surprise, when the results arrived a few months later, I had passed 8 of the 9 exams! I failed one of the structural engineering tests, scoring 2 points fewer than required to pass. I contacted them to see if that score could be reconsidered, and they told me “sure, but it has already been scored by three separate people, you have to come to Albany, pay $20, and realize that we have never amended a score in 200 years.” Which was interesting, as the ARE did not exist back then. So, I decided to wait and took the one test the following year, when I was able to spend a few hours studying.

No such exam existed in my native Venezuela. I graduated Saturday, and Monday I had my own firm. But what a great education I had!

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Compare and Contrast

By Christian Nielsen-Palacios | January 10, 2021 |

Remember when you were a kid and you received a magazine, or a section of the Sunday newspaper, that had one of those puzzles where you were to find several differences between two apparently identical pictures?

I enjoyed doing those, and still do.

As an adult, in my late twenties, I studied architectural history at Cornell University. In those days, most lectures required the use of a projectionist to stand on a platform at the back of the classroom and operate a set of two slide projectors, to insert and remove slides according to a preestablished plan by the professor.

Perhaps because of that system, most exams in the program included at least one “compare and contrast” question, where we were to analyze two buildings in terms of their similarities and differences. I discovered that as a good study method.

Later, as a project manager in several architectural firms, I had the responsibility of coordinating the drawings and specifications developed by multiple talented colleagues. Probably because of the “too many cooks” issue, it was, and is, common to see discrepancies between drawings. What one specific person or drawing says may not match exactly what is on another drawing. It doesn’t necessarily mean that one option is better than the other, just that they cannot both be correct in the same set of documents.  If a drawing says, “remove existing beam”, and several sheets later, details say “protect existing beam to remain”, only one of those otherwise valid options can be correct.

That Quality Control work is what I have been doing the last several years, both as an architect and as a proofreader of translations. Who would have thought that the training I received in my childhood would have been so critical to my professional development?

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Spanish ‘dialects’

By Christian Nielsen-Palacios | December 15, 2020 |

I have always been interested in languages. My father spoke several, and my mother was fluent in English. When I was 9, we lived in Denmark for a year. Learning English was required in school in Venezuela, and I also took a bit of French in college. At the same time, as an extracurricular activity, I signed up for evening or weekend classes in Japanese and German. Later, Italian.

Japanese was particularly difficult, because if I missed a lesson due to a required university project, I could not rely on my knowledge of other languages to catch up. So, I took and failed basic Japanese TWICE.

With German, I was more successful, and in the summer of 1977 I somehow convinced my father to send me to Germany for 13 weeks, starting with a three-week immersion course in beautiful Würzburg, also the ‘home’ of Balthasar Neumann’s architecture (but that’s another story.)

I spent those 13 weeks with one of my best high school and university friends, Gonzalo, who shared my love of languages and architecture.

One day, after checking in at the youth hostel in Munich, we took off to go visit their famous Science Museum. Two young women from Canada, our age, were also walking there, so we started chatting. They told us they were majoring in German and Spanish, and that the previous semester, they had taken a class focusing on the differences between the language spoken in the various Latin American countries (I don’t like calling them “dialects”). Obviously, we asked them what they were told about Venezuelans. They said they were taught that we Venezuelans…

* Speak very fast,

* Hardly move our lips,

* Omit the S at the end of many words, and

* Always say NO twice.

To which Gonzalo instinctively responded “No, no, no, no. That’s not true.”

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Coffee, tea and regional pride

By Christian Nielsen-Palacios | December 6, 2020 |

A recent post in FB about what people have for breakfast in different countries brought back some memories, which will probably require this to be my first “long” blog (90 seconds to read rather than the usual 60.)

My dad was a tea drinker. He would make a full teapot (porcelain, of course), with loose leaves. No tea bags for him! He would then drink one cup, plain, and the rest would be thrown away. My wife also drinks tea, more than coffee, but adds milk to it (!) and has dozens of tea types on hand. I only drink tea when I am sick, so I guess I took after my Venezuelan ancestors.

In Venezuela, there are three main ways to order coffee: “negrito,” “con leche,” or “marrón.” (small black espresso, “with milk” or “brown”). Of course, you can get fancy and insist on dark brown, etc. or order one of many other options (hacer clic aquí,) but those three options cover 90% of circumstances.

When I moved to the US, early morning classes required coffee, to stay awake. I discovered “jumbo” size coffee, and wondered how Americans could drink such awful, watery swill, by the gallon. This was before Starbucks became ubiquitous all over the country, requiring a dozen words in Italian to order coffee. In my opinion, if you need more than five words to order coffee (dark roast, cream, one Splenda) it’s not for me.

In 1987, I went to Italy to study Baroque architecture with a group of Cornell University students and faculty. We started in Rome, where breakfast was included in the price of the hotel. The first morning we were served a beverage that we thought was coffee, but was apparently “orzo” a cheap decaf substitute made from roasted barley. When you added milk, it turned gray instead of brown. I could not stand it. For a week I became a tea drinker, at least until we made it downtown and had a delicious, genuine Italian coffee.

We then went on to Turin. For breakfast, they served us fantastic coffee. I used my not quite fluent Italian to tell the waiter how much we appreciated it after our terrible experience in Rome. Little did I know that regional pride is such an important part of life in Italy. We were pleasantly surprised when the waiter returned with complimentary espressos for everyone at my table, to the consternation of those sitting elsewhere: “What did Christian say? Why are they getting free coffee?”

If you are ever in Venezuela, please ask your waiter to serve you a cup of “the black Arabian nectar mixed with the pearly liquid from the bull’s consort.” Or perhaps just a “marrón.”

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