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Tour de force

In 1911, a young architect returned from his travels with a head dizzy with ideas and notebooks brimming with sketches. “I saw the grand and eternal monuments, glories of the human spirit,” wrote Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (aka Le Corbusier), with the kind of hyperbolic optimism reserved for those at the brink of their career. Journey to the East documents Le Corbusier’s Grand Tour through Europe. He recorded Acropolis ruins, mosques and white-washed villages alike with a deft hand—abstracted, these are the forms that would constitute the building blocks of his designs in the decades to come.

A century later, architectural grand tours might seem like a throwback to a more classically European canon, especially as students and professionals are as likely to go abroad to Rotterdam, Netherlands; Tokyo; and Mexico City, Mexico, as they are to visit the masterpieces of Venice, Italy; Paris; and Istanbul. This past summer, designer Thaddeus Jusczyk not only embarked on his own tour but also reinvented the practice. He looked at an older route for inspiration, the Silk Road. For eight weeks he traveled from Xi’an, China, to Venice along the extensive network of Eurasian trade paths. Although the road is known for commerce—the shipments of spices, textiles and jewels—Jusczyk’s travels tracked cultural exchange through building ornamentation.

Jusczyk, 31, received his MArch from MIT two years ago and is a staff architect at Shepley Bulfinch. The firm’s recently established Howe Traveling Fellowship funded his trip. The fellowship, awarded to Shepley Bulfinch employees with the hopes of deepening individual’s appreciation of world architecture, was set up as a tribute to the legacy design principal Sandy Howe, who passed away in 2009. “Sandy was a strong designer and interested in buildings that are beloved by its users,” recalls Elise F. Woodward, a principal at Shelpley Bulfinch who was instrumental in setting up the fellowship. Jusczyk’s proposal, rich in both architectural history and cultural investigation, stood out to the selection committee from 17 other entries. Winners are asked to keep sketchbooks of their travels, which will be preserved in the firm’s archive.

Xi’an, in central China, is the traditional terminus of the Silk Road. Jusczyk began at the end of the line and worked his way toward Italy, passing through central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Turkistan and Turkey along the way. (He skipped over certain chunks for political reasons.) “I was looking for architectural mixing and mashing along the trade route. In the middle of China, the architecture is what you’d expect, lots of flying eaves, but there’s also influx from the Muslim world,” he says of Islamic domes and tile work that’s woven into the urban fabric alongside contemporary Chinese development. In Tashkent, Uzbekistan, he found Soviet-era apartment blocks ornamented with filigreed brises-soleil that seem to be an unlikely combination of Corbusian’s Unité-style housing and Byzantine filigreed facades.

Jusczyk blogs travel notes and photographs of buildings, bazaars and an amazing variety of bowls of noodle soup on his site, The Long Road to Venice. However, his road to Venice goes back to when he was in high school in Baltimore, and a picture of Basilica San Marco in Venice captured his imagination. “It is childlike fantasy of what a building should be—a fairytale building,” he remembers. The opulent structure, with gold onion domes and ornate arches, is a symbol of the city’s wealth and power built on trade. Today, his interest in the building is neither nostalgic nor formal but, in a circuitous way, a continuation of “Hotel Archiphilia,” his thesis research at MIT (for which he received the School of Architecture and Planning’s Rosemary D. Grimshaw Award). “My thesis in school was about a love hotel—in Asia, that’s a space for a couple to be in for an hour. Visitors are influenced by both the building and their fantasy,” Jusczyk continues. “Design doesn’t exist in a vacuum; I’ve always had an interest [in] how people interact with architecture.” Case in point: Crowd Farm, a 2007 project he created with James Graham when they were both MArch students at MIT, uses people moving through urban space and interacting with objects to generate power. When he thinks about the crowded bazaars he’s visited, he can’t help but think of how the shoppers and hawkers might create energy.

The beauty of traveling alone, especially in the tradition of the Grand Tour, is that one’s journey is always unpredictable. Going beyond the decorative facades and delving deeper into the cultural histories of the places he visited, Jusczyk oscillated between the sacred and the profane, and back again: from packed trains and souks overflowing with unknown food and rich textiles to religious spaces designed for transcendent worship. “I was sitting in a mosque and prayers started, and the voices totally filled the space and echoed throughout,” he said, almost at a loss for words to describe a moment of architectural and cultural immersion. “I was in the space when it was being used for what it is supposed to be used for. It was a stunning experience.”

Mimi Zeiger founded loud paper, an architecture ’zine and now blog, in 1997. A Brooklyn-based freelancer, she writes on art, architecture and design for various publications including the New York Times, Dwell, ReadyMade and Architect, where she is a contributing editor. Zeiger is the author of Tiny Houses (Rizzoli, 2009), and her latest book is Micro Green: Tiny Houses in Nature, (Rizzoli, 2011).

Top image: Uzbekistan, Samarkand – pilgrims visit the tomb of Qusam Ibn-Abbas from across Central Asia. Photo by Tad Jusczyk.