Do you know how high school students deciding on their future goals, plans or even more immediate plan such as university major? It can be a stressful, scary and also the most exciting time for their lives. Meet Nicole Cao who went through those those feelings, and how her trip to Germany solidified the decision to study Architecture. Here is her story…
I remember the exact moment where I made the decision only because it was so spontaneous. For someone who takes a decade to decide what kind of cheese to get on their sub, this was particularly strange.
There wasn’t a hint of doubt or hesitation when I decided to do a foreign exchange year.All I knew was that I wanted to get away.
“What do you want to do when you’re older?”
It was the beginning of grade 11, my classmates were busily discussing their post-secondary aspirations: business, engineering, medicine, etcetera.
“What do you want to do when you’re older?” I had been running from the dreaded question my entire life, and my time was starting to run out. It seemed the more research I did on possible careers and undergraduate programs, the more lost I became.
As someone who’s into math and art, architecture seemed like an obvious choice, but I still couldn’t make up my mind. I wasn’t sure if I was cut out for using fancy protractors, drawing straight lines, and making detailed technical blueprints.
My artwork always featured things that were alive (animals, portraits, plants) with emotional qualities.
” how could I devote my life to sketching out inanimate buildings?”
I needed more time to explore and think before I could make a confident decision. At the time, I couldn’t imagine how much a year could change my perception. Fast forward eight months and a pile of paperwork later, I’m picking up my luggage at the Frankfurt International Airport.
My first host family is just beyond the gate, holding a big welcome banner with my name on it. We greet each other, and they start speaking to me in very fast German.
“It only took a few seconds for me to realize that Rosetta Stone and Duolingo had failed me miserably…”
1. The realization hit me hard; I have no clue!
And so the adventure begins.
A new country, a new language, a new culture. A fresh start. The unfamiliar environment excited me. Learning became a part of everyday life. Whether they are:
- new German vocabulary,
- taking the trains in new city
- how to make rhubarb jam,
As the months passed, I slowly developed a “sense” for the language in a variety of ways: conversations with strangers, listening to music, and reading graffiti.
I became independent of English during the third month and my confidence increased along with my German proficiency.
“Hiding in my reserved introvert shell just wasn’t an option.”
Throughout my year, I was constantly aware that my time was limited. Hiding in my reserved introvert shell just wasn’t an option. I learned to become more assertive and proactive. I joined the rowing team, did horseback riding lessons and even danced in the school talent show.
I pushed my capabilities and learned many things about myself, including the fact that I’m definitely no prima ballerina. Despite the range of available activities, my favourite pastime was simply exploring every nook and cranny of the country.
2. My architecture education starts in Germany…
Luckily for me, my first host family was full of avid travellers.
They were eager to share with me the many wonderful landscapes of Germany. I adored the traditional half-timbered houses that crowded the streets of each city’s “altstadt” (German for “old city”).
The variety of patterns and colours made them unbelievably charming. I felt as if I had stepped into one of my favourite fairytales or Disney movies.
Germany is famous for this type of architecture. These houses, built in the middle ages, have stood through war and survived modernization. Strolling along the quaint cobblestoned streets I caught an intimate glimpse into another time period. Each house was a physical testament to centuries of history and, they were very much real.
Who was the first inhabitant of this 400 year old house? What did they do all day? How did they think? What did they believe? Did someone in the 1400s park their horse where that BMW is now?
Germany captivated my imagination. Many German cities are associated with classic childhood bedtime stories. The story of the pied piper who lures rats and children with the music of a magic pipe is set in the real town of Hameln.
The city centre and dedicated museum are decorated with statues of rats and pipers in tribute to this story. The tale of the four animal musicians takes place in Bremen, and this classic Brothers Grimm fairytale is celebrated in souvenir shops and artwork all around the city.
It’s interesting that folklore and tangible locations can be connected in a way that makes you wonder if magic and mysterious phenomena really did exist. It was all part of the charming character of Germany that amazed me.
Along with the well-preserved historic buildings, today’s Germany has made huge advances in architecture. Modern buildings like the Elbphilharmonie stand in stark contrast to the medieval villages and castles.
Germany’s physical environment seemed to embody its cultural development and progression. How did these changes occur? I began to wonder how people, culture, time period and environment affected each other. I began to see how a space is very much a reflection of its inhabitants, past and present.
These initial questions soon lead me to discover the power and emotional impact of architecture.
3. Architecture can make you feel
Compared to other forms of art like film or paintings, buildings and architecture always seemed to lack emotion and narrative.
“I just couldn’t see any emotional connection between people and a pile of neatly arranged bricks.”
This church was one of the final projects of Barcelona’s celebrated architect Antoni Gaudí. It has been under construction since 1882 and is to be completed by 2026, exactly 100 years after Gaudí’s death.
After touring Europe, I had seen countless churches (and I mean countless) of all different styles, but the Sagrada Família deviated from all my expectations. At first glance, the church’s exterior was rather strange, exhibiting many Art Nouveau elements typical of Gaudí’s unique architectural style.
The odd cone-shaped spirals adorned with strange holes reminded me of corn cobs. The rough carvings created a chaotic effect and everything seemed to muddle together. I was not at all prepared for the shock I would receive upon entrance…
All I remember is the multicoloured light streaming in through the stained glass, impressing vivid, swirling patterns over the walls, and graceful columns that reached towards a grand and mesmerizing ceiling.
I could only stand and stare at its grandeur, feeling rather small and insignificant in its presence.
And in this moment of awe,
“I understood first-hand the emotional impact the built environment can have on people. This complete physical immersion was more poignant, overwhelming and interactive than any two dimensional drawing.”
For me, Antoni Gaudí has designed a powerful personal experience that has remained long after his death.
Architecture wasn’t just about creating a practical space, it was, at its core, art. Returning home awestruck, I knew what I wanted to do next.
“So for those of you who also can’t make up your mind, I urge you to seek out new experiences, wherever and whatever they might be. Take the time to observe and reflect, never dismiss an opportunity. You never know what you’ll discover about yourself…”
My return to Canada felt like waking up from a dream.
Despite leaving the stress-free life of exchange behind, I was excited for the future. I felt refreshed and ready to take on the next challenge: university.
I knew exactly what I had to do, and I was eager to start my new journey towards architectural education.
There is still so much about architecture and design that I need to learn!