February 6, 2015




Every few years, professors Peter Cohan and Jennifer Dee lead a group of architecture students across the Nordic wilderness via bus, train, ferry, bicycle, and foot.  Even though winter is here, the Architecture in Scandinavia 2014 program (indexed on various social media as #cohandeenavia) is still very fresh in our minds.  Over about two months from mid-June to early August, we visited and studied hundreds of landmarks of the built environment in Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

Those fortunate enough to participate in this pilgrimage have returned with incredible memories, SD cards full of photos, new culinary preferences, and changed attitudes about the art of building.  Maybe the most important takeaway, however, is one that occupied most of our time during building visits.  As students of architecture, we sketch…because sketching talks.


Experimental House, Alvar Aalto, Muuratsalo, Finland

The most efficient, illustrative, and elegant means of both conveying and understanding architectural ideas is through drawing.  Each site visit began with one student providing a description of the architect and building history, massing, circulation, structure, and materials.  After rarely brief elaborations from our learned instructors, the ravenous students upended the spaces, voraciously searching for a famed detail or the perfect photo, while trying to experience the work in every possible way.  Students lay on the floor for new perspectives, sprawled across pews or benches, looked underneath, spun around, did laps, and ran their hands over every surface.  Following a period of information gathering, critical seeking, and impression making, fleeting memories were turned into lasting ones on paper.


Details from the Villa Mairea, Alvar Aalto Noormarkku, Finland


St. Mark’s Church, Sigurd Lewerentz, Bjorkhagen, Sweden


Lunds Kunsthall, Klas Anshelm, Lund, Sweden

Each new space offered endless subjects for recording.  Wooden handles, steel railings, concrete benches, and grassy courtyards offered their forms, textures, and materials for our interpretation.  Architects’ intentions slowly became clearer as we spent time dwelling on the spatial and material consequences of their decisions


Clockwise from top left: Experimental House, Lunds Kunsthall, Villa Mairea, St. Mark’s Church

On other occasions, sketches were used as a way to capture moods and memories.  Between maps of the city, landscapes, and quick sketches from weekend getaways with new friends, many of us filled multiple sketchbooks over the course of the summer.


En Plein Air sketches (left: Södermalm, Sweden, right: Suomenlinna, Finland)


left: Djurgärden, Sweden, right: Óstra Stendörren, Sweden

Sketching forces us to distill.  From a multiplicity of scales, materials, and perspectives, the individual must select what matters most.  Each of us chooses a different angle.  No student makes exactly the same notations.  But no matter what the focus, the one language all architects use is the sketch…and our summer in Scandinavia provided the opportunity for one long, fantastic conversation!



Doug Brandon, Claire Shigekawa Rennhack