Cullen Sayegh Bio
From a young age, I was surrounded by a dramatically mountainous landscape and a built environment that simultaneously worked within and against it. Principal among these human interventions were the mighty dams and reservoirs of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA holds an indelible place in my childhood and my subsequent path towards studying architecture. Many hours were spent on Douglas Lake, an impoundment of the French Broad River, plying the calm waters with kayaks or lazily floating in the summer’s humidity. Despite the dramatic forty-foot drops in water levels during the winter, my brother and I managed to entertain ourselves in the exposed clay embankments as they slowly revealed themselves with each passing day. This was the perfect time to hunt for the sunglasses that had accidentally fallen off the dock in August. I did not realize it then, but the TVA system’s fourteen reservoirs, fifty dams, and countless electrical infrastructure exacted a profound influence on my life. While my interest in the built environment did not singlehandedly develop from the TVA, it certainly helps explain my roundabout path towards it. As a first-year undergraduate who was deeply interested in the region’s past, History was a logical pursuit as I began my studies at the University of Tennessee; however, I switched into the five-year Architecture program following my freshman year, beginning with the accelerated summer program. Through my study of architecture, I began to see how the built environment can synthesize seemingly disparate subjects into a cohesive object in the landscape. My interests tended towards the larger built environment as a physical manifestation of cultural values. Through a teaching assistantship in an Architectural History course, I began to speculate on large scale built environments’ impact on defining historical and contemporary communities. During a semester spent designing a high-speed transit system for Pittsburgh, I found that my designs not only seek architectural solutions but also beg contextual questions about planning and its consequences for regional identity. With memories of Douglas Lake in mind, I was able to explore identity and place further after being awarded the Aydelott Travel Award, a regionally competitive fellowship open to undergraduate and graduate architecture students in the southeastern U.S. I sought to investigate how massive infrastructural networks are utilized by singular, iconic works of architecture to augment each building’s specific cultural intent. I structured my Aydelott proposal to visit four constructed building networks located in Norway, France, China, and Cambodia. Despite their apparent differences in use, age, and culture, I found that all four sites actualized societal values—from the right to free, public access in the fjords of Norway to the highly private, introspective gardens of Suzhou, China.