Building abroad

School of Architecture graduate students travel to Denmark on an alumnus's dime to learn about infrastructure and society.

From the outside, the concrete Bagsværd Church looks like an industrial factory made from a series of stacked rectangles. A few steps closer into the courtyard, views of the clouds entice you, and it feels warm and bright. Inside, the curved concrete roof modulates light and mimics the form of the clouds. You’d barely know that one wall separates this serene sanctuary from a busy road and another bustling day in Copenhagen.   

"For three days, I was back in school with students. I got to learn, but I’m not responsible for having any completed work."
- Todd Rubin

The church, designed by Jørn Utzon in 1968, is just one of the many structures that 20 Syracuse University first-year architecture graduate students experienced on their trip to Denmark from Feb. 23 to 28.

“Of the many amazing buildings we saw, the church was a real standout,” said Brett Snyder, an assistant professor who accompanied the students on the trip. “A few simple materials created a real masterpiece.”

This journey was unique compared to the School of Architecture’s other study abroad experiences because it was sponsored by an architecture alumnus, Todd Rubin, '04. About one year ago, Rubin, now the vice president and minister of evolution at his family-owned company, The Republic of Tea, developed the idea of the Rubin Global Design Studio trip. He foresaw it as a crucial part of the graduate students’ curriculum.

Following graduation, Rubin said, he wanted to remain connected to the university, so he joined the school's Advisory Board. But he said he wanted to do more than just what was required to be a board member.

“I knew that my minimum gift required by my board membership couldn’t do something as big as I wanted to do,” Rubin said. “I wanted to make sure that I would be able to see the gift I was giving in action.”

Rubin based the idea for this excursion off a trip to Israel that his parents sponsor for young Jewish professionals in Rubin’s hometown of St. Louis, Mo. every year.

“It’s not just a free trip to Copenhagen though,” Rubin said, “It’s about how the students will now come home and apply it to their curriculum.”

After spending last summer working closely with School of Architecture Dean Mark Robbins and the Development Office, Rubin said he knew that he wanted to embark on this experience alongside the students. Having already traveled to more than 20 countries himself, Rubin also wanted to go somewhere new where he could learn just as much as the students would.

“I wanted to be like a fly on the wall,” Rubin said. “For three days, I was back in school with students. I got to learn, but I’m not responsible for having any completed work,” he said chuckling.

Rubin said that the most inspirational moment of the trip for him was realizing what an opportunity he was providing for these students.

“Some people may say their first trip outside of the U.S. was to Mexico or Canada,” Rubin said. “But not many can say their first international trip was to Denmark. That will be very memorable for them.”

Nate Russell was one of the students for whom the trip was his first abroad experience. He said he felt embraced by the people of Denmark.

“I’ve never met people so eager to use English in my life,” he said.

All semester, the students have been looking at different types of social organizational networks and at the designs of banks as symbols of stability in our post -financial crash economy. Professor Francisco Sanin and assistant professor Snyder chose Copenhagen as the destination for the trip while taking into consideration the students’ areas of focus.

“In Denmark, under a social democratic model, there is a great deal of attention brought to sustainable development in terms of the social environment and technology,” Sanin said. “There is an extensive use and support for public infrastructure and biking lanes, for example.”

To experience this connectivity for themselves, the students and faculty spent six hours one day biking around the city in 30-degree snowy weather. Snyder recalled seeing many unexpected things on the daytrip, such as a trampoline built into the sidewalk.

“It was just this kind of moment of joy in the city where you wouldn’t normally find it,” Snyder said. “These little moments from something as simple as a trampoline have made people see the city in a different way,” he said.

Snyder said he is an avid biker and felt safe enough in Denmark to bike without the helmet he normally wears.

Danielle Lax, a student on the trip, said she feels the infrastructure reflects the personalities of the Danish. “Things that totally wouldn’t be allowed here because of safety laws are commonplace there,” Lax said. “There aren’t railings on the harbor, so a certain number of people fall in every year. But they just accept it and climb right out of the water.”

Now that they have returned, the students will transfer all that they’ve learned about the infrastructure of Copenhagen into their current projects.

“It was amazing to see how happy the people really are in their communities," Lax said. "We as architects try to put that into American architectural buildings, but it’s not quite as successful here yet.”

Rubin, the alumnus who funded the trip, will visit Syracuse on April 28 to review the students’ final projects. He plans to have the Global Design Studio take place every semester, he said. But next time, someplace a bit warmer.

“The next destination will be one on the cutting edge of architecture, but that also is steeped in architectural history,” Rubin said. “Some destinations in mind include Brazil, Chile, Cuba - anywhere south of the Equator.”

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