A Day in Berlin

Some of you may wonder what life is like as an American student studying abroad in Germany. I can’t speak for all, but I can offer some insight as to what my day-to-day life is like. I guess I should forewarn you that there isn’t anything particularly special or interesting about tackling the mundane and quotidian chores that one must do every day to simply exist (as a functioning member of society). Though, at the same time, life here in Berlin is somewhat different compared to what it is like in the states, (at least my daily routine has changed) and I suppose I should share some of these things.

A TYPICAL WEEKDAY usually ends the same way it begins… That was probably a very confusing way to start off a paragraph now that I think about it, but what I mean to say is that for breakfast I usually eat a nutella and peanut butter sandwich, always toasted. And after dinner, I eat the same delicious, gooey, mess of a sandwich. Now I know what you’re probably thinking, that’s not healthy at all! And you’re right, it absolutely isn’t, but it sure beats eating cornflakes for breakfast. (I’m actually quite surprised I haven’t gained any weight from this habit). Cereal here in Berlin is different from the states, as in you don’t get the same brands. This is probably due to laws in regards to what can be put into food and I’m sure American cereals break all of the German standards. But I digress. I am a man of habit, when attending Cheshire high school I ate a bagel every day, in Boston I would start my day with oatmeal before classes, here in Berlin I toast up some bread and lather it with peanut butter and nutella. Yum.

AFTER BREAKFAST I have a daily forty minute commute (sometimes twenty five minutes) to my classes. The public transit here is fantastic. During rush hour the trains are usually split by five minutes and are also timed with trains on other lines, making transitions all the more smoother and efficient for commuters. Back in Cheshire I would walk to school whilst in Boston for co-op I would ride my bike, often faster than the T. Here in Berlin, the public transit is so user friendly that anyone can become confident after riding the train just a handful of times. I know that if I were to come back to Berlin I would have no problem navigating around the city using public transportation.

ONCE I ARRIVE with my friends at school, we either have studio, history, or sustainability. I believe I’ve already given descriptions of each of these, but just to jog the memory, studio is where we work on a semester long project, which for this semester is a baugruppe housing apartment. History is all about Berlin from the years 1815-2015. Sustainability is where we learn about building efficiency in its parts and in the larger scale of cities and nations. We go on a lot of field trips for the latter two classes and so sometimes we don’t go to class but instead meet at a site in Berlin for lecture.

IN THE CASE where we don’t have a field trip, I usually hang around in studio for a couple of hours to do some homework, but mainly to use the wifi. We don’t have that luxury in the apartments and so to maximize our intake of digital media we stay in studio for a little while longer. It’s a precarious thing to balance, procrastination and productivity, since the studio has free wifi, yet closes at 10pm on weekdays and is also closed all weekend. It’s almost as if we have no choice but to be productive whenever in studio. It seems to me that this lack of wifi has altered the way I procrastinate or recreate. Instead of binge watching Netflix or scrolling through the depths of buzzfeed, archdaily, or facebook, I now play guitar more often, now that the weather is nicer I play ping-pong outside the apartments, if it’s the weekend I may go out and travel. These are all things I’m happy to trade wifi for, and I think they are ultimately better alternatives too.

RIGHT AFTER I come back home I usually change my clothes, plug in my earphones and march off to McFit, the place where I get rid of my mcfat. I don’t want to come off as one of those guys that post about going to the gym all the time, but I do go to the gym when I can. Honestly it’s been a bit disappointing not being able to have a regular routine since some weekends I am unable to go because of field trips or independent traveling, or recently because of all of the papers and presentations I had to work on, which made me have to skip a couple of days at the gym to finish in time. Back in Boston I was able to go six out of seven days in the week, but here I average around three to four. At least it’s enough to negate all of the peanut butter-nutella sandwiches I’ve eaten.

I ALMOST FORGOT LUNCH. Just to quickly mention, for lunch I usually pack a sandwich. But that is never enough since I usually get hungry by 10am and I still have to wait until 12pm to eat. So I compensate with an added Doner Kebab. These things are delicious, and you all know my love for them already. But recently I’ve decided to take a break from Doner since I have somehow actually gotten tired of eating it. It’s time for me to taste what else Schoneberg (the town where our school is located) has to offer. Seeing that I’ve managed my money quite well, I don’t need to eat so cheaply and can afford a few nice lunches out here and there. Just last week I had a delicious lunch at an Indian restaurant called Mela, just a few buildings away from studio. I will most definitely be eating there again!

AS FOR DINNER… I am almost always the one that cooks. There have been a handful of occasions where my roommates have cooked but for the most part I do most of the cooking, and they do the cleaning. It works best since I know how to cook good food, and if I am going to cook, I may as well cook enough for everyone. No matter how delicious of a meal I cook, and how full I am afterwards, I must always, finish it off with a peanut butter-nutella sandwich. It’s really like a ritual at this point, and perhaps too recurring of a theme for this self-aware blog post.

IF IT IS A FRIDAY, things are usually followed with night activities and friends. I think that’s the most appropriate and minimalist way I can put that and I’ll leave it at that.

ON THOSE GROGGY weekend mornings I force myself out of bed in an effort to be productive. This usually means taking a walk to Kremanski, the haven for all things wifi and coffee. There in the back lounge I can be found staring at my computer doing research whilst sipping a cappuccino. Though, with wifi also means distractions so I may be more likely checking email, using facebook, or chatting on skype. If I want to get work done for studio, I’ll probably just sit in the apartment and listen to music, muting out the outside world while I focus on my work.

FOR THE OCCASION when I am not employed and toiling away, when my time management seems to work out, I am out and about in the city and exploring new places. As it was this past weekend’s case, I was gallivanting around Berlin for Easter, which I will go into more depth with another blog post.

When In Rome

Do as the Romans do… and make sure you eat cacio e pepe and gelato!

For the last week or so Aaron and I made last minute flight purchases to go out to Rome for the 26th-29th of March.

We were embarking on a traditional architectural pilgrimage to Rome. Perhaps we will each write a new manifesto for architecture. Probably not, but we were complete tourists with our cameras slung around our necks and our maps in our back pockets.

We had debated on getting a roma pass or something of that nature to facilitate travel and entry to all of the museums. But being students, and rather cheap ones, we figured our feet would suffice for transportation and that we could find enough free sites to keep ourselves amused.

For the first day our route was pretty much like a drunkard’s meandering trail from the Roma termini to St. Peter’s Basilica. Rather than go straight through the dense historic (well all of it is historic) center of the city we went around, going first North then East. We saw so many things, it’s rather hard to recount. Santa Maria Degli Angeli e dei Martiri, Bernini’s Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria, the U.S. Embassy, Villa Medici, the outside of the Ara Pacis, Castle Saint Angelo (the inside is really cool!), these are just a few things we saw on our first day just wandering around the streets of Rome. Once we arrived at St. Peter’s Basilica we realized how long the line is just go get in, and so we decided to try again the next day.

Our plan of attack for the next day was to try and get into the Coliseum, Palatine Hill and Roman Forum, make our way through the historic center to the Pantheon, and then get to St. Peter’s early enough to wait in line and get in. Upon arriving at the Coliseum we found out that it would also be a long wait to just get in. We decided that the line outside wasn’t so bad so we tried to wait for fifteen minutes. It moved along pretty well and we got within the first arcade, but to our dismay we found that we were only halfway through since the line kept going once you got inside! Already committed we were pouting as we slowly approached the ticket counter. But all of this was worth it as we emerged out into the sun on the other side and saw the glorious ruin.

The palatine hill and the roman forum were equally impressive, if not better. I personally enjoyed the palatine hill most out of the three since the architectural ruins were not only interesting, but also showed a harmony with the landscaping too. On our way to the pantheon we saw this huge white structure that took it to a whole another level with the concept of plynths, the Piazza Venezia. It’s completely free to go inside and look out from the high balconies. Although there is an elevator to go higher up, you do need to pay for that. But, as we are cheap students, we opted out and moved on to the Pantheon.

Being an architecture student I have seen the Pantheon before in various history classes, but seeing it in person is completely different. The building is absolutely massive and dominates the piaza that it sits in. As with most attractions in Rome, it was absolutely filled with tourists. Luckily, Aaron and I are pretty tall and so were able to get some pretty decent pictures of the dome.

Finally we made it to our last destination, St. Peter’s Basilica. All we had to do was wait to get inside. The wait wasn’t so bad though, the sun was shining and the people watching was enough to keep us occupied until we got to go inside. Speaking of which, the interior is also incredible. It is no wonder that everyone wants to be like the Romans. Everything they every constructed was beautiful and simultaneously massive.

Obviously anything that I have written does absolutely no justice to the experience which I had in Rome, so luckily I have some photos to help show off just how amazing the weather was and how impressive every single building was.

AEG Turbine Factory

As my reader you may remember an old post long ago about Peter Behrens and his AEG Turbine Factory in Wedding.

Well we went on another excursion and got special access to enter his more famous AEG building, the Turbine Hall. As opposed to the former one that I wrote about, this one is still in use by Siemens to create large turbines. We were only allowed to take pictures of the exterior but the inside was even more impressive than its sister building.

Inside we saw giant sized turbine engines being manufactured from a single blocks of metal. It was like carving a sculpture, but instead of marble these were made of steel. The margin of error for these awesome machines is less than a millimeter, like 1/100th of a millimeter. Otherwise the entire machine is ruined. The size of these things dwarfed us as we walked past them.

It’s a really amazing structure and the engineering inside is quite awesome. It was a real treat that Jan was able to pull some strings to get the class to go inside.

Hansaviertel

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For this excursion we went to go and see West Berlin’s response to East Berlin’s propaganda architecture on Stalinalee. The West held an IBA competition for a masterplan on the edge of the Tiergarten for some new housing. Many famous architects came to compete and put down a new modern housing building for the reconstruction of Berlin.

When one looks at a model of the Hansaviertel, it’s hard to determine what the underlying logic was for the urban planning. The buildings range in heights from one-story bungalows to eight story high-rise apartments. These are all zoned for the most part to be grouped with themselves, save for a few stragglers. However the way these groups are grouped among others and their context is still ambiguous.

Yet when I walked through this particularly urban housing complex I got a rather suburban impression similar to the one I found with Bruno Taut’s Hufewiesen. This is probably from all of the trees winding roads in the site, a condition from being placed in the Tiergarten.

Nearly all of the buildings are still being used for their original purpose. The houses are still occupied today and owned by individuals while only a few are still up for rental. The library and arts centers are still used today and are popular locations for Berliners.

Perhaps the saddest part of the complex is the former exhibition building that served as the entrance to the Hansaviertel. It has since been repurposed into a burger king, clearly not the vision of the original architect. Thankfully the rest of the complex has remained relatively unchanged and is now protected as a historical site.

Stalinallee (Now known as Karl Marx Allee)

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For a history field trip we went to go see a an example of communist propaganda architecture from the DDR. In order to show off to the world that the DDR was strong they created new housing along a major street and named it Stalinallee. It is a particularly interesting street since it shows the trajectory in communist building for mass housing. In the beginning they recycled the brick left over from the destruction of Berlin after WWII. After the structure was completed they finished the facades with stone in a fashion that is similar with the architecture found in Moscow (neo-classical). This was all done in order to show that East Berlin was in a better economic position than West Berlin.

However, as time went on, building housing in this fashion became too expensive and so a new system of building was used, the platenbau. Platenbau is the use of pre-fabricated concrete slabs in the construction of a building. This is a cheap and quick method of construction that doesn’t require specialized work from masons. And on this very street there is a point where the neo-classical architecture ends and a type of modern architecture begins. Yet, it wasn’t until East Berlin began constructing their platenbau that West Berlin started building their own propaganda architecture in an IBA competition called the Hansaviertel.

Efficiency House Plus

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On Wednesday we went on a tour of an experimental housing project funded by the government. The house serves as a study of how different technological systems can be used to create an energy “productive” house; one that has a net gain in the energy that it produces in comparison to the energy it consumes annually.

For the house to be tested a family is selected from a group of applicants who are also interested in this type of housing. Fortunately for us, the man of the household was able to give us a tour of the house before going off to work that morning.

The house is basically divided into three different sections, the front is a charging port for a hybrid-electric car and an electric motorized bicycle. The middle part of the house is the “energy core” where all of the computerized monitoring happens and where all of the mechanical systems are located. The back of the house is given up living space and the second story is where the bedrooms are. On the exterior of the house the roof and southern façade are completely given up to photovoltaic panels, which serve to power the house. Just north of the house is a detached buffer battery that stores excess power from the solar panels before giving off the excess to the grid.

While the government is able to monitor the daily activities of the inhabitants through the energy data that they give off, the users themselves are also able to monitor themselves so as to be as conservative as they want to be in their consumption of energy.

The entire project is very interesting and is an example in forward thinking sustainable architecture. Personally, though, I found it to be too heavy handed with the high-tech gadgets. The most interesting part for me was in the wall section and in the construction of the building. It is intended to be a temporary structure and so to minimize waste wood construction was implemented. For insulating the exterior wall an organic cellulose based insulation was used with an extra layer of hemp insulation. I find these types of alternative materials in the design of the building to be interesting since they are renewable and natural while achieve the same insulation ratings as their synthetic counterparts.

I have recently written a paper on sustainable architecture and I actually refer to this housing case study. If any of you would like to read it feel free to send me an email and I can share it with you.

Overall, this is a great project as it helps to inform the public about the need to promote sustainable architecture practices so as to reduce the amount of energy our buildings consume.

It’s Spring!

When I got back from Taiwan, Berlin greeted me with fantastic sunny weather! Everyone was out and about in the city.

In the winter most stay indoors, as is the case in any northern city, like Boston. In fact, Berlin has an annual film festival called the Berlinale, which happens in February, a perfect time to stay indoors and watch movies. But now that Spring is finally here people are starting to leave their homes and enjoy the weather. It’s really nice to see people chatting over coffee outside of cafes, seeing others stroll along the streets window-shopping or exploring the flea market. With even more people outside on their bikes and feet it really encourages us to go outside too.

Even though we had a mild winter compared to Boston, everyone is really excited for the nice weather. I myself am super excited because that means I can finally wear my shorts!

Also, I have officially become a regular at a particular café and I no longer need to make an order. Seems as though I’m finally being absorbed into the Berlin community. No complaints here!

Taiwan pt. 4

On Thursday my sister and I joined our aunt to the nearby temple/cemetery to visit our late grandfather. It was nice to climb up the mountain a bit and get away from the urban environment for a while. The atmosphere of the temple is very relaxing.

Once we came back down from the temple and visiting some more family we caught up with our dad and went out for lunch. My sister wanted to treat everyone out for a nice meal so we went to this place called Kao Chi. It was nothing short of amazing. We got braised pork belly, tofu soup, steamed cod, pan fried pork dumplings, whole fried shrimp, tofu noodles, and red bean filled buns for dessert. At the very least I can share some photos with you.

After successfully eating yet another satisfying meal my dad wanted to show us an old historic street in Taiwan where I could look at some old urban architecture. It was actually really interesting since it is something we don’t particularly study in our history course. We do study Asian architecture, but it is mostly focused on the Japanese modular pavilion typology and the Chinese use of symmetry in urban planning. The architecture my dad was showing me however is only a hundred years old, during a time when Japan was occupying Taiwan. It was a lot of fun since my dad was really excited to show me all of this and because he would tell me as much as he could about how the architecture functioned socially and urbanistically, since he used to live in a similar building when he was a boy. Every building would have a portico that connected to the portico of its adjacent buildings. That way the main street would be used for the transit of horse or oxen lead carts while pedestrian traffic would be sheltered under the public space of the apartment buildings. The first floor consists of an open space in the front and a kitchen in the back. This allows the owner to have a space for their own business, whether it be a shop or a restaurant. The upper floors have a similar open plan layout but are used for bedrooms. To the back of the house is a courtyard that allows light to enter from both sides of the building. Each building adheres to a strict height limitation, giving a nice regularity to the street. At the same time the unique ornamentation of each building also gives variety and “spice” to the urban environment. It was especially interesting because there were a lot of Japanese and even European influences in some of the architectural qualities of the buildings.

Once I got my fill of history and architecture my sister and I returned to Neihu so that we could catch some of the fireworks being lit for the lantern festival. From far away it sounds like a downpour of rain hitting a singular spot on a street far away. When we got closer we saw a crowd of people in the street and some flashing light from around the corner. Eager to get a closer look and a good picture my sister and I push ourselves to the front of the crowd. Behind the smoke and above everybody’s heads I saw men dumping box after box of Chinese firecrackers on an oversized iron lantern. While I was ignorantly taking pictures, a tide of people began to recede from the iron lantern. Not knowing why, until it was too late, they lit the fuse. Put poetically, the explosion of fireworks was like a roaring dragon belching out flame. Put realistically, it was really scary! I tried to brave the detonation by holding one hand to my ear and the other holding up my camera to take pictures. But I was quickly broken by the shear volume of the sound blasting in front of me. This was only made worse by the blinding light from the explosion and the towering mushroom cloud above. My ears reverberated with the violently shaking medium that had the burden of carrying this immense sound. Cowering, my sister and I backed away in a weak attempt to escape the sound. By far it is the loudest thing I have ever heard in my life. I luckily had my noise canceling headphones in my backpack so I plugged those in and was ready to take some proper pictures.

Spotting two excited, but mostly startled and disturbed, Americans, a news team approached me and my sister to get a few words from us about our first experience seeing the iron lantern be lit. Looking back on it, I was probably too disoriented to be at all coherent. On top of that I spoke in English, so anybody who was watching television at that moment was probably getting a good laugh out of me. It was both a terrifying and terrific experience. Next time I’ll bring some ear protection, but anyone who goes for his or her first time must definitely try the deafening experience without ear protection to really get the overwhelming sensation of this event.

Taiwan pt.3

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On Wednesday we had a much more relaxed day. Instead of running around finding great places to eat we instead ate some fantastic homemade food with my dad and aunt’s cousins and their family.

Allow me to say a few things about Asian culture. It is customary for relatives in the older generation to give money in red packages to those in the younger generation, usually just to children, when seeing them during a holiday. Since my sister and I are rarely in Taiwan our older family members still think of us as young kids and so insist on giving us “red packets.” Since we’re both in our twenties this can be a rather awkward situation and no matter how much we say no, the red packet always ends up in our hands. I should also mention that it is customary to put up some resistance when being given the “red packet.” But we really didn’t want the red packet, and our aunt didn’t particularly like that they were handing it to us either. Before we knew it, our aunts came at one another, fist to fist, in front of me and my sister, fighting over the transaction of said “red packet.” In fact, I bet an entire Asian kung-fu action drama could be made based on this little Asian tradition, but I digress, and I exaggerate only a bit.

Anyways it is both an endearing and strange tradition, one I don’t fully understand the mechanics of yet, but as a half-Taiwanese person, I try my best to just play along.

Once we were done catching up with relatives we went back to our Aunts house to rest a bit before accompanying my sister for a presentation she prepared for a group of athletes and triathletes in Taiwan. The title of the even was: “Taiwanese Beauty Comes to Talk About Ironman Championship Experience” – a bit grandiose for my sister since she tries to be humble about that kind of stuff. Anyways upon arrival, my sister was immediately recognized, unsurprisingly, and we were most graciously welcomed with hot tea and cakes, for free might I add! I told my sister that she was basically a god to them so she better not mess up the presentation. I can be quite comforting at times. But all jokes aside, my sister had an excellent presentation and the Q&A afterwards was really engaging once the audience got comfortable speaking in both English and in Chinese.

Now that the blog has officially become about my sister (just this entry) I’ll just conclude by saying that I’m really proud of how far my sister’s dedication to triathlons has taken her and I wish her the best in all future races.

Taiwan pt.2

The next day my sister and I got to spend some quality time with our father. My sister, Winona, being a triathlete, had to get her morning workout in so I accompanied my aunt to the local outdoor market. Close by to the market is a nice lake/park and so we went and walked around there for a bit. A pavilion made solely out of bamboo was the one thing that struck my fancy most so we went and checked it out.

Shortly after we returned to our aunt’s house we went to go get sushi with our father. But before we went to get sushi, since my dad now knows about my interest in architecture, he made sure I got to go see the Taipei 101 tower. In Western culture, usually you order your own dish for yourself when you go out to eat. But in Asian culture you order a lot, you share a lot, and you eat a lot. Usually you don’t take a lot of pictures, but I did, yet my computer somehow lost them during the transfer from my camera so I apologize of robbing you all from looking at the stack of 40 plates of sushi we ate. Literally, the three of us ate 40 individual plates of different samples of delicious sushi.

After overdosing on sushi from lunch we waddled down the streets of Taipei in search of wifi and coffee, a perfect marriage if you ask me. I must say it’s quite different being twenty now, walking around Taiwan with my Dad compared to when I was five, six, seven, years old. Then I was a child going to Chinese summer school and had to be taken care of. Now I’m a young man and my Dad doesn’t really need to look after me. Now it’s more of just having fun with his son and daughter and less worrying.

Okay, moving on from all of the sentimental stuff. Whilst surfing the internet and sipping on coffee my sister got in touch with one of her friends from when she studied in Taiwan and so made plans for everyone to go eat a little dim sum together. Afterwards my Dad would go teach class while Winona, her friend, and I would go to the night market on Rahoe Street in the Songshan district of Taipei. Wanting to let the food we ate just thirty minutes ago settle a bit more, we did a lap around the market first. But as we passed by the stalls our appetite began to return and we were seduced by all of the delicious aromas surrounding us. Once we finished our lap we raced to all of the places we had walked by earlier, grilled squid, boar sausage, chicken sausage, Malaysian waffles, cream filled waffle thingies (I don’t know the name but it’s super good), and more. Stuffed once again for the third time that day we made our way back to the MRT (Taiwan Subway System) and went home.

So if you take anything away from this entry, if you go to Taiwan, you go to eat!