We’re beyond excited to spotlight an interesting twist to your typical city guides found on the internet… created by none other than a fellow Dame Traveler! Virginia Duran is the author and founder of Architectour Guide, a series of city guides that have no photographs, only sketches. As an architect, she is passionate about urban planning, buildings and the unexpectedly beautiful stories behind them. Over the past ten years, she has visited more than 40 countries and created 35 guides – which can be downloaded for free on her blog.
Tell us a little bit about yourself!
My name is Virginia, and I am an architect from Madrid, Spain. About three years ago I decided to give myself the opportunity to work full time on a crazy little dream of mine called Architectour and it’s been the best decision of my life. Every couple of years I relocate to write and illustrate a new city guide. I’m currently in London and my next project is New York.
Why do you travel? What do you seek each time you hop on a plane?
I’ve always been very passionate about travelling because it meant I could study in person the buildings I was researching. You can hear a thousand things about a place but it’s not until you visit in person that you can truly appreciate the details for yourself; and this is especially true with buildings. Every time I travel, I map the city’s architecture and this means I’m a bit biased towards destinations. My preference is to visit places with an interesting built history. My mission is to map the world’s architecture and traveling is the means to accurately do this.
What inspired you most about architecture? Were you always interested in it?
Buildings are everywhere. Humanity needs shelter to survive and we have more than 10,000 years of built history. Yet, we build based on profit and aesthetics. This fact has always fascinated me, since I was a child. Architecture, like Medicine, is a vital discipline to our well-being and what inspires me the most is the huge potential it has to cure, improve and give hope to people. When done right, buildings can have such a positive impact on its citizens. Next time you wander the streets of a delightful city, try to figure out why it feels so great.
What are some things you think most people do not know about architecture? Are there any misconceptions we should know about?
One funny thing about architecture and non architects is that everybody knows when a building is good, regardless of formal education on the subject. You might have an opinion on what it looks like (is it charming? Pretentious? Too modern?) but you definitely know whether it feels right or wrong to be in it, because you’ll choose to spend time around it or not. Why is Rome such a nice walkable city? Why is London Eye always packed despite being considered an ugly landmark? You might not know the technical details about it but you know for sure which places or buildings are great contributions to a city. People might not be aware about it but everybody has a little architect in them.
When and how did you fall in love with travel?
During my university years, I was very privileged to have studied in Madrid, Chicago, Rome and Shanghai. One day, as I was walking towards the Colosseum (Roma Tre’s faculty of architecture is just behind), when I realized that I was living and traveling simultaneously. “What is the definition of travel?” I thought to myself, “Are there multiple definitions?” At that point I realized that for me the concept was broadening up, I was able to see the city I was living in as both a place where I was living and discovering every day too. And then I fell in love with traveling and seeing where we live as an exciting and stimulating new background.
Tell us more about your Google Map project!
While I was living in Chicago I created my first Google Map. It was meant to be private, for my friends and family when they visited. Somebody at a party said to me “Ah, you are Virginia of the Maps” and it didn’t stop there “Your maps could be better,” he added. I didn’t take it personally and I included photos, a description, opening times and exact location. The Google Map project continued growing with every city I visited, I also uploaded a PDF with that information to the blog so anyone could print it and sometimes it even featured addresses in English and the local language (in China this was so helpful). Thirty maps later and more than 100,000 downloads I decided to take the maps to the next level. A small community of travelers and me started figuring it out through my blog what could be done with these maps. Julius, a traveling app, was born and I was accepted with this idea in a startup school. Long story short, people who have a true passion for traveling prefer books over apps. And thus Architectour Guide came to life. The project became a successfully funded idea through Kickstarter on June 2017 and the first book of the collection, London, was published in January 2019. I’m very excited about the next ones: New York and Paris.
As an artist, what sort of scenes, landscapes or architectural styles do you love the most to illustrate?
Imagine a chaotic city with that one skyscraper pinching the sky, their rooftop bar and stylish signature drinks. Sketching those stunning panoramic views with a cocktail and good company is a personal favourite. Here in London, I tend to bring my Moleskine for dinner as there’s always a nice skyline to draw from a new angle. Black and white is my favourite.
All that said, my guilty pleasure is to draw churches. There’s something soothing in sketching classical façades of religious architecture – order, symmetry, predictability. I love it.
Where have you traveled to thus far?
Europe, North America, South America, Africa and Asia have shown me some of their best rooftops, foods and people. I’ve enjoyed every second in Shanghai’s busy streets. Visited every Frank Lloyd Building in Chicago. And Illinois. I’ve marveled at Thailand’s natural landscapes, Chile’s highest mountains and breath-taking Norwegian fjords. Every time I discover a new city and country I open my eyes and ears and slowly listen to what these places have to tell me. Surprisingly, similarities appear and even the most remote places on the planet could learn from another on their antipodes. Hopefully, we’ll be able to transfer skills and knowledge from one place to another and use this traveling for making the best connections.
Where is your favorite place in the whole wide world?
Can I choose more than one? Is that cheating? Three places immediately come to mind with this question: The Signature Lounge at the Hancock Tower in Chicago, the side that overlooks the piano restaurant downstairs and Chicago’s best skyline views. The little courtyard of the ABC Museum of Illustration in Madrid, a superb refurbishment of an old beer factory by Aranguren and Gallegos. And last but not least, an inspiring building by Richard Rogers whose beauty can’t be appreciated by everyone: Lloyd’s Building.
What inspires you most when you travel?
Being able to see in person how people behave in their built environment is inspiring. Especially when people customize public spaces. Southbank Centre has recently opened a new area for the skaters that occupied their basement. At the beginning, they tried to kick them out. But it didn’t work. Fast forward more than a decade and a reputed architect was appointed to create the extended wonderful space where they can spend more time. When I travel, I seek these projects because they not only tell me everything about a city, they also teach me valuable lessons on what can be achieved. #Architectureandpeople is my thing.
How has a life of travel changed you?
Traveling has taught me to listen more and talk less, in the broad sense of the word. I seek the stories of others, their opinion about places and the history of the city. My trips have changed the way I perceive myself too. My problems have shrunk by learning more about the struggles and aspirations of other people. This is very positive as I’ve learn to relativize my worries and always put things into context. On the other hand, travel gives me hope. By seeing with my own eyes how societies can be respectful, rebuilt and connected, I have become a lot more hopeful than what I used to be in the past.
What is your “hidden gem” you’d only want other Dame Travelers to know about?
I have many hidden gems in each map but I’ll share one of my favorite places in London with you: The Great Conservatory at Syon House. It was the first conservatory to be built of metal and glass in such a scale and it was completed in 1827. The architect, Charles Fowler, went on to construct great things after this successful and pioneering design such as the present Covent Garden (1830). If you can, visit it during a sunny day, the place is really special.