Master of Architecture
Bruce Lonnman traveled to France, Italy, and Switzerland.
Bruce Lonnman traveled to France, Italy, and Switzerland.
Raul de Armas
Being selected for the travel fellowship was a special honor, and it was a privilege to be in the first group of award recipients (1981). Cornell was one of a handful of architecture programs in the US selected by the SOM Foundation to compete for a new student travel fellowship award. I was selected by my program to enter the first round, essentially a portfolio evaluation. At the time, I was in year one of the Urban Design Studio directed by Colin Rowe. Another student, Larry Mitsch, was selected from the Architecture Design Studio led by O. M. Ungers. Both of us were invited to an interview in New York City at the office of SOM. I remember being led into a small, dimly lit conference room with a table around which several partners of various SOM offices from across the country were seated. Edward Bassett, distinguished partner and architect from the San Francisco office, led the discussion and asked me right off why I was interested in the award and what I might hope to achieve from it.
My intention for the travel was to spend as much time in Italy as possible and visit most of the important cities throughout the central region, with Rome as a base. Prior to the interview, my proposal was more of a traditional grand tour of the masterworks of the Renaissance. However, I realized this might not have much appeal to the committee deciding the award. Thinking about modern architecture and its profound impact on the city, I decided to focus my study on urban space and the vertical defining surface, the facade. I would visit the major urban spaces of historic Italian cities and try to better understand the role of building facades on the definition, organization, and quality of space.
Having visited Paris a few years before during an undergraduate study program, I decided to return and begin the travel tour from the city of light. With the help of a friend in Paris I found a discarded car that I purchased and had repaired. I managed to obtain French plates and with my international driver's license I was ready to begin the journey. Having wheels made a huge difference in mobility and freedom. The schedule was flexible and the car boot was a perfect locker for camera equipment, books, maps, clothing, and any souvenirs collected along the way. I spent most of the month of June in Paris, after which I made a slow journey to Rome, passing through France, Switzerland, and northern Italy. I arrived in mid-July and settled into a pensione in the Centro Storico. With the extreme heat and practically no tourists, the streets of Rome in August were deserted. It was the perfect setting. The entire old city was like an empty open-air (and quite hot) museum. About this time, on a tip from one of my former professors (Leon Satkowski), I inquired about residence at the American Academy of Rome. My university affiliation and the SOM Foundation award seemed to open the door and I was offered a stay of two months as an Affiliated Fellow beginning in October. Before that, I departed Rome for a tour of the central hill towns lasting about one month. It was during this trip that I visited some of the great Italian urban spaces outside of Rome such as the Piazza Grande in Arezzo, the Piazza della Signoria in Gubbio, and the important piazzas in Florence, Sienna, and Pienze. I also made a special pilgrimage to the Villa Imperiale, a somewhat neglected garden villa that I had seen documented with sketches sometime before by the architect Romaldo Giurgola. I returned to Rome for the last few months of the travel fellowship where I was able to spend time at the American Academy and use it as a base for further explorations in Rome and throughout the region. The Academy offers lodging for mainly Rome Prize recipients who are artists, musicians, writers, historians, and architects. The experience of communing and sharing a passion for the eternal city with the Academy Fellows was rewarding and probably the most memorable part of my travel. On one eventful day, Robert Kahn approached me about making a one-day tour of all the built works of Francesco Borromini in Rome. This was the idea of his mentor and resident architect at the Academy, James Stirling, who would join us. Being the only one with a car, I was the driver with Big Jim riding shotgun. So inspiring and incredibly exciting to explore the work of the great Roman architect of the seventeenth century with one of the master architects of our time.
After returning to the US, I was invited by the SOM Foundation to attend an evening ceremony in New York City. The event was at the University Club and a dinner was served in a large room on the second floor that had one enormous oval-shaped table with seating for about thirty. Many of the committee members, SOM partners, and school heads were in attendance. It was a fantastic occasion and an opportunity to thank the SOM Foundation for the award. One of the highlights of the evening was a tour of the Stanford White-designed library. I walked through the room with the other guests that evening admiring the craftsmanship and detailing. The impression was similar to my discovery months earlier of the Alessandrina Library of the Collegio della Sapeinza in Rome designed by Borromini. Two great works of architecture separated in time and place but of the same spirit and tradition.
The immediate impact of my travel study in the months following was a renewed appreciation for the on-site visit. Active engagement with exceptional architecture leaves a life-long impression. First there is the sensory experience of the space itself, the impression of light and sound and scale. Up close one is confronted with the significance of material, detail, and dimension. Taking measurements became something of an obsession for me. Connecting the proportion and scale of a site, building, room, or element with a dimension provided a kind of authentication of the design. Indirectly I was becoming sensitized to relationships between space and proportion, scale and function, material and construction.
My basic tool kit for each building visit was a tape measure, an 8 1/2 × 11 bound sketchbook, pencils, and a camera. I usually began by constructing a somewhat accurate (in proportion) plan, followed by a section/elevation, sometimes an axonometric, and occasionally, a perspective sketch. Some sites required extra time, depending on the complexity and size. Or even a second visit. Drawing a building enhanced my observation and helped to initiate analysis. Besides revealing basic spatial and formal relationships, an overall plan or 3D provided an all-encompassing view of the building and context. The effort in drawing freehand was an especially important practice for me, refining a skill that I later found to be of immense value as a designer and later, in education, as a design critic.
Throughout the travel I photographed extensively. Looking back at this time, one carried film (which was not cheap) so there was a certain selectivity in capturing an image. A tripod and a wide-angle perspective correction lens were essential to avoid distortion and achieve a high-quality image. Besides capturing the color, texture, lighting, etc. of architecture, the photograph supplements the documentation by offering a realistic view that is closer to the actual visual experience.
In retrospect, I have no regrets on the choice I made of topic or destination for my SOM Foundation fellowship. As a student of urban design, Rome was confirmation of the coherence and unity that architecture, or more specifically, contextual spatial design, provides the city. Admittedly, there is no scarcity of great individual building design in Rome. But one begins to appreciate that many of these outstanding works of the renaissance and baroque are so tightly embedded in a continuous urban fabric that often only their surface (facade) is revealed. In actuality, they collectively conform to a complex and nuanced urban realm that is richly articulated and spatially conceived.
Department of Architecture
retired as Professor of Practice from the Chinese University of Hong Kong where he taught design studio and building technology (1998–2020). Previously, he taught in the US at the University of Kentucky, Ohio State University, Syracuse University, and Georgia Tech, and in the UAE at the University of Sharjah, where he also served as the department chair. He completed degrees in Architecture at Syracuse University (BArch) and Cornell University (MArch), where he also studied Civil Engineering (BS Engr and M Engr). Lonnman's training as a structural engineer provided insight into the role of structure in architecture, which he pursued in research, teaching, and practice. Influenced by the contributions of the group known as the Texas Rangers, Lonnman developed further a pedagogy for basic design that has a foundation in spatial and contextual design. His publication, Abstract Composition and Spatial Form (China Architecture and Building Press, 2020) is a teaching manual summarizing this approach. Lonnman has also written articles on design-build and structural models in education. As a registered architect in the US, he has been associated with several architectural practices including those of Werner Seligmann & Associates, Joel Bostick Architect, Geoff Nishi Architect, and URS Consultants (Columbus, Ohio). Independently, he has participated in numerous design competitions and was selected as a finalist in the Evanston Library Design Competition (1991), the International Design Competition for David's Island NYC (1997), and Weaving New City Fabric Design Competition Hong Kong (2012).