Letters from a traveling Architecture Student

October 24, 2013 — 38 Comments

23 years ago, as a fourth year architecture student, I spent the Fall semester traveling around Western Europe soaking in all the architectural wonders I could find. I was 22 years old and had done very little traveling of any kind … through the good graces of my parents, The University of Texas School of Architecture, and Virginia Tech, I was able to travel extensively at an age when I was barely prepared to do much of anything in the real world. Most of what I learned from that time (other than I didn’t know how to spell) didn’t have as much to do with architecture as I anticipated … I grew up.

Bob Borson memory box

The image above is my “box” of stuff … the stuff I will look through when I invariably end up in some institution with no visitors. This box is full of memories about things I know my brain will eventually fail me and I will forget. I was digging through this box to find a particular letter from my Mom that I wanted to re-read and as I sorted through the contents in this box, I came across the letters and diaries I kept from the time I spent in Europe. Talk about a time sink, it’s really difficult to ignore these things once they are right there in front of you. I thought I would pull some out and share them to show just how different things were back in 1990 –

No internet … Research meant going to an actual library and sorting through the card catalog and the Dewey Decimal system so you could pull out books.

No email … you wrote letters. Can you imagine?!?

No cell phones … if you wanted to make a call, you used a pay phone. Have you ever used a pay phone in Europe to call someone in the states? It required stacks and stacks of coins, arranged like little soldiers waiting their time when you would feed them into the pay phone slot.

air mail envelope from Europe

My mom saved all the letters I wrote her and gave them back to me as a remembrance of the time I spent in Europe. This is an envelope from one of the letters I sent. Think it was a nice touch to write “Starving Child” in the return address slot? Probably not …

Airmail Letter from Europe

This is one of the few dozen letters I wrote home. It is written on the thinnest paper you can imagine and with the smallest handwriting ever because mailing a letter from Europe cost a lot of money to a student who was counting their pennies (or pence, pfennig, lire, etc.). I’m not entirely sure my parents could even read this letter.

It is amusing to read about the items that I thought were newsworthy as a 22-year-old. Down at the bottom of this letter, I briefly spoke about the time I spent staying at Le Corbusier’s Sainte Marie de La Tourette which as it turns out is still one of my favorite buildings of all time. Actually staying in that building for a few days added an entirely different sensory level to my knowledge. I even sketched the floor plan of my room at the bottom. (You can click this image and a new window will open up with a larger version of this letter will open. Click this new image again and it will get even bigger.)

Spiral Pad diary from my time in Europe

This image is from a spiral notebook I kept – it was a daily diary of what I was doing, the money I was spending, and generally what I was thinking about at the time. It is equally parts fascinating and painful to read. I flipped to the page when I was in La Tourette so there would be some continuation/ comparison of what I wrote in a letter to my parents versus what I thought I would like to remember about my time spent here. I didn’t know this would become such an important building to me at the time, the experience of staying there contributed to the reason I am so found of this building.

Postcards from Europe

I also have the post cards that I sent home. The ones above are a two-parter that cost me almost $8 to mail (the exchange rate in 1990 was kinda rough on the US dollar). These post cards are fairly amazing as points along my personal timeline. I wrote about my visit to the Berlin wall – which had fallen in 1989 but most was removed in 1990, the year I was in Europe. I also briefly told my parents of some trouble I ran into on the train – it was much worse than I let on in these postcards. It’s a fairly amazing story but I think I matured about 4 years during a 20 minute window when I was kicked off a train in East Berlin, lost my passport (which I recovered that 20 minutes later from East Berlin Police who were hiding it from me) and had to sleep in a Red Cross shelter.

Good times.

Bob Borson letter from Europe

Finally, I thought I would include a letter I wrote from my spiral notebook that covers several cities but recounts the story of when I was in Budapest and our group got caught up in the middle of revolt, an uprising, maybe an attempted coup d’état … whatever it was, it was pretty serious. You’ll have to read the 4-page letter above to get some of the details but I’ll tell you that it involved being trapped on a bus for almost 2 days, the KGB, a small piece of salami, and driving through a corn field to escape. It’s another great story and life experience and I have it recorded very unceremoniously on paper from a spiral bound ledger.

I love that I have these documents, and I don’t think that having these in email form would allow the stories to contain the same sort of power. I have already spent a considerable amount of time thinking about how I can expose my daughter to the experiences of traveling but it will never be like it was for me in 1990. Writing letters, looking for working pay phones, not having a smart phone in my pocket where I could look up any translation or bus schedule I wanted. There is unquestionably some old-timers nostalgia to this – I’m quite sure that my challenges have simply been replaced with new challenges, I just don’t know what they are, not without having to go through it myself.

Architecture students should definitely travel … I think every student should do some traveling. Learning is certainly a great by-product of the experience, but so is growing up.


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  • Rebecca Warren

    This is awesome. I’m a student at Virginia Tech and just got back from traveling on the same program! It was seriously an eye-opening experience and I agree it’s completely necessary for a growing architecture student.

    The cities we hit on the trip included:
    Berlin, Nuremburg, Munich, Bregenz, Basel, Troyes, Paris, Barcelona, Nimes, Firminy, La Tourette, Laussanne, Como, Verona, Florence, Venice, Sienna, and Rome. I also went to London, San Sebastian, Bilbao, and Madrid on an independent part of our trip.

    We spent 3 nights in La Tourette and I could go back and spend a month. Incredible.
    Thanks for sharing, it’s awesome to see how similar and different two architect’s experiences can be traveling the same places so many years apart.

    • what a cool trip – I was there from August through December. Is the University of Texas still a part of that trip at all? The Univ. of Texas part was UK, Ireland and Scotland for 4 weeks, then on to France for a few weeks then we met up with the VaTech folks. The last month was also independent travel – our group trip did not go into Germany.

      • Rebecca Warren

        No, I haven’t heard of UT being a part of the trip any time recently, and we didn’t meet up with any of their students on our trip. That would have been very interesting though to be able to work with students from other programs and learn about their architecture views and teaching philosophies.

  • Halo Stone Designs

    This is awesome Bob. Thanks for sharing!

    So cool to let the internet read inside your memory box! 🙂

    • Thanks – in the end, we all have shared experiences that bring us together

  • Sergio Andres Uribe Saavedra

    Hello Arquitecto!

    I am Sergio, from Colombia. I always read ur articles and i feel the same as everybody here: ur site is Gold for everyone who love the world of Architecture. Thx for share it with us.

    My english is not very good, so i just stay quiet… but today i wanted to say THANK YOU… is amazing to enjoy your memories, your work, your life.

    I will stay here, quiet, reading ur posts… because i´ve found in a foreign language all the things that really are the spirit of Architecture.

    Thx Arquitecto… My respect and admiration.

    • Hi Sergio – thanks for taking the time to leave a comment – and I think your English is just fine!

  • Inna

    hello! i gotta say im so happy that i found your blog. i found almost all the anwers i wanted to know. thank you for helping people like me. (sorry if my english is not so well, it’s not my first language)
    I would be really grateful if you could help me a bit again. I currently study at school (9 grade). The question ‘who i am going to be’ has been worrying me for last two years. i always thought that my future profession is something connected with economics, finances or buisness. i am really good at math, actually, but now i started to think seriously and i understood that i dont want to spend my life dealing with numbers. so i found out that architecture might be perfect. I liked the idea of being an architect, i always respected them but i had decided that i am not talented, artistic or creative enough. i like sketching, i dont like dealing with paints etc. i think i can draw well. how can i understand that being an architect is my dream? thank you.

  • Cathy S

    my parents also made sure i got to travel during architecture school, and Virginia Tech CAUS found a university in Australia that would let me be an exchange student. it was great. i only stayed 1 semester, but traveled during the weekends and breaks, and afterward took the train along the coast for 3 weeks. amazing adventure!
    last night, i flew in to DCA for a visit with family, and Mom had pulled out several postcards from a trip i took to Europe in high school. too funny reading what had been important to me back then, with little diagrams explaining things too. good timing for your article today!

  • Tim Barber

    Happy to see that my school Va. Tech was mentioned in your blog! (74′ – 79′) Travel was always a big part of the culture at Tech. I never traveled, but I was always aware that Tech had many connections in Europe. I agree your travels were more for maturaty than architecture. My brother-in-law was in the Army for 27 years and had several stints in Europe. My three children spent several summers with their cousins, once stationed in Germany and once in Belgium. I think it was a priceless experience for them. We laugh now as they took a three week “tour” with a youth group (3 vans of about 12 kids per van) across the US several summers after they had spent time with their cousins. While many family had children nervious as this was their first time away from home, hungs and crying everywhere, my kids were all smiles because to them is was a vacation! The more we see and absorb the more we can appreciate what we have and what has been. I did get to go to Europe twice also, but only for 2 weeks at a time, not the whole summer like my kids.

  • Kevin Keller

    Love this post! Both times I studied abroad (2009 & 2012) I never thought about writing letters with a global phone and email. I should’ve, though, because fountain pens and letter writing is my favorite hobby. Plus, I could have a box to rummage through one day like yours. I don’t even have the emails I sent my parents anymore…Anyway, love the bus story. The only interesting country-wide event from my time abroad in Prague was Prohibition. They started it only 2 weeks into our term because many people were either dying or becoming seriously ill from tampered alcohol. Needless to say a bunch of college-students were not happy about no more alcohol…

    • Prohibition? [shudder]

      Lucky for me that I didn’t have a choice to write those letters and postcards, I doubt I would have thought how they would live on beyond their initial reading.

      Thanks for the comment – cheers

  • Aimee

    Thanks for this post! I’m actually an architecture student currently studying abroad in Paris, and our class just took a trip to Barcelona for the week. Yes it was warm. Yes we looked at Gaudi buildings (and parks). Yes we also did an assignment on the city plan and the intersection bit you mentioned in your letter home.

    Your post reminded me to keep sending postcards home and to continue writing in my journal and sketching in my sketchbook, so thanks! I just can’t get enough of this time abroad but it is going by so quickly…

    • You will look at those postcards and sketchbooks from time to time for the rest of your life. If you ever have kids, they will probably look through them as well. Keep it up, you’ll be so very glad you did years from now.

      • Cathy S

        live it up! see everything you can! don’t forget to sit at a fountain or park bench or cafe table and just watch the world go by, too.

  • nathan

    “You’re just going to drag me all over Europe looking at stupid architecture. No way, you go for a week by yourself and get it out of your system, then I’ll come meet you”.

    Best argument my wife and I ever had.

    • Hah! That would never happen in my house – either way, if a trip to Europe looking at architecture is involved, no matter how it happens, everybody wins.

      • Scott

        Hello, Bob! Let me jump in and say I love your site, loved this travelogue, love your raised-eye photo that reminds me somehow of John Belushi. Anyway, I have engaged an architect here in Maryland to design a house for me and I have a few questions about “process” that I would love to ask. Sure there’s nothing new in my inquiries, but I am out of trust and out of options at this end. How can I speak with you? Your thoughts?

  • Judit

    Hi Bob, I am an architect from Hungary and I really like your blog! It was interesting to read the part about Budapest and that you were stuck in a traffic jam! Just after I got my architect degree 5 years ago, we decided to go to Graz and then to Salzburg with my friend (also an architect). But there was a train strike so we missed our connection on the border. We had to take a room for the night because we couldnt get any further. Another friend of mine decided to visit me by train in Switzerland this year and her train was 5 hours late due to the snow. (Venice is really amazing. Next year it is Biennale again!) Greetings,Judit

    • Hi Judit – thanks for the kind words, I really appreciate them. My wife has been clamoring to take a family trip to Venice, maybe I can convince her to go next year and I can experience the Biennale!


  • Mark Wilson

    Great stuff. University of Georgia had a summer study abroad program in Cortona, Italy. Couldn’t attend, but still wish I had.

    You’re right that the letters wouldn’t have had the same power if in an email. Your box of stuff is full of significant ingredients that make the soup called Bob Borson. Really enjoyed the reading. Thanks.

    • Thanks Mark – that box is a black hole of memories. I know that I had better reserve about 3 hours if I ever pull it out because everything in there is worth looking at again (and again).

  • Great post, really great. I still remember payphones and the Deutsche Mark, but I didn’t start travelling during that time, still I was collecting old payphone cards when I was a kid – they had art on them at times.

    Concerning your daughter, she’ll just start travel earlier and still have the same preocupations. I did a year abroad in the US with 17 and there was internet and even Skype I think and it was still great. But you should definitely give her a sketchbook and pencil for every trip – that’s definitely something unchanged.


    • Thanks Jan –

      Because of my trip in 1990, I had a conversation with my wife about how I thought the experience changed my life and that I wanted to make it a priority to expose our daughter to different cultures as soon as possible. As a result, she’s already left the country a few times (she’s 9), her first was a trip to Paris when she was 5. Up next is London in Spring 2014 (I’m already starting to do my research on things – churches – I want to show her.

  • Marc

    Great blog today. I also traveled Europe during my Junior year at Virginia Tech. It is a time in my life that made me who I am today and I will never forget the memories!

    • So far you are the 5th person who has told me that they also went on this trip – I think it’s pretty amazing that so many of us have shared experiences like this. We should get together at a national AIA convention and swap stories!

      • Marc

        Definitely. Virginia Tech has an awesome study abroad program!

  • kerry hogue

    great experiences. I am envious. Unforturnately I had to scrape by to attend college, even though my parents sacraficed to pay the freight, I did not have the opportunity to travel abroad as the finances would not permit. My summer jobs with architectural firms provided my spending money through the year. Your treasure box is fantastic. Well saved.

    • I was very grateful for the opportunity that my parents provided – but I’m pretty sure this was the cheapest semester I ever spent in college. I was limited to $300 a month in expenses and the cost of the trip was just over $5,000. It was a terrific deal made even better that I didn’t have to pay for it myself. (Thanks Mom and Dad)

  • architectrunnerguy

    Great post Bob. Having been to Europe many times since the ’80’s somehow I think the isolation made necessary by the current technology back then made the experience far richer.
    For years we hosted a French high school student over a summer. And the American experiences of those in the ’80’s, where a phone call was used only in the case of a real emergency and the receipt of a letter from parents or boy/girlfriend was a BIG DEAL, seemed richer than those of the mid nineties. The daily (or even hourly) communication with those back home detracted greatly from the total immersion type of experience of those that came earlier.
    And we still try to duplicate that when we go over there. Just got back from a two week trip to Sicily and for the enitre time there was no internet and the cell phone was left at home.
    Being a Va. Tech grad, I rmember the vibrant study abroad program they had, at the time (’70’s) based in Salzburg. You referenced Va. Tech in your remarks and noted it again in one of your letters so what was the connection with UT?

    • I believe the joint program was really established because one of the Assistant Deans was a Va. Tech grad and he got it set up so that if there were any seats left over, they could be filled with Univ. of Texas students. As I recall, the number of slots varied from year to year and from the UT side of things, there was fierce competition to get accepted. Our grades and design skills were heavily scrutinized to determine whether or not we could afford to be out of the real studio environment and allow to self study for a semester.

      When I went, the travel was almost continuous although there were extended stays in London (2 weeks), France, Barcelona, Rome all at a week, and Lugano twice as a base camp of sorts where we had extended stays for 2+ weeks. Our time in Salzburg was minimal and I think I went there outside of scheduled group activities.

      Not being able to contact whomever whenever certainly did force you into making your own decisions and having to live with the consequences.

  • Robert Moore

    My mother passed away last year and among the things she saved were the cards I sent from Europe,1981.

    • Sorry to hear about your mother.

      I can imagine that the postcards she held on to are amazing – even better that you now have them, probably brought back some great memories

  • gt

    Wow, amazing to have these letters… We’ve crossed paths that year, as our family was migrating from east to west in Europe, thanks to the events you’ve witnessed. As a seventeen year old, my attention was on the general level of wealth, incomparable to our little Balkan country… architecture came a bit later… Vienna in 94, La Tourette and Ronchamp in ’96….
    Good times indeed!

    Btw, they ripped you off on the postcards. FF 3,20.- (the postage) would’ve been about 50 cents american back then.


    • I always wondered why did they have to use so many stamps – half my postcard was covered!

  • Jan Bodenstein

    Love from Germany, Europe