There are many lessons we learn in school and work. Some are harder than others and most will make us better professionals. But Places teach us all the skills we need to change the world. This is just a tiny account of how Place can change the world by inspiring those who will.
- St. Peter’s in Rome taught me how larger than life spaces created to honor the divine can inspire people to aim high and have a purpose.
2. Luis Barragan’s buildings and beautiful gardens at El Pedregal showed me how the spirit of Classical architecture can instill beauty even in the most Modern of designs.
3. The historic center of Quito was for 40 years a continuous lesson on how cultures can come together to create an impossibly beautiful, timeless new form of art and architecture, despite their differences.
4. Byblos is a fantastic beach town with narrow, shady streets where I learned by looking at a Phoenician-Roman-Islamic-Templar-Ottoman-French ruin of a single, layered structure, how principles of city-building have been present through history in different cultures.
5. A ray of sun shining over a marble baptismal font on a side chapel of St. Marks in Venice moved me to tears and taught me how solitude, contemplation and the divine can be summoned by design.
6. Cordoba’s street orange trees and its cathedral built on top of a mosque built on top of a church will overwhelm anyone, myself included, into the realization that every great city has several layers of meaning piled on top of each other.
7. Cutting wood in a state-of-the-art woodshop in a historic railroad shed, walking on rehabilitated late-19th century streets, and having coffee in a repurposed Masonic temple in Savannah showed me every single day, for five years, how to keep the spirit of a historic city alive while transforming it into a state of the art laboratory for learning.
8. Riding a bike through Amsterdam’s crooked streets and quaint bridges and seeing uneven old houses, with not a single right angle, was a lesson on how “quirky” is imperative to be a lovable city that people can bond with. Because, you know, we’re not perfectly symmetrical, either.
9. Shady pedestrian alleys with tea merchants, independent fashion houses, hidden cafes and design studios in Taipei, right around the corner from the world’s second tallest skyscraper, showed me how cities do not have to lose scale when they go big.
10. Missing the Empire State Building while walking five times up and down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan taught me that tall buildings can be beautiful, if the street wall is designed to human scale.
11. A parking fee of €150 and a parking ticket of €50 to store a car while I walked everywhere in Bologna, taught me how cars can be optional if urban design accommodates walking, provides shelter for the weather and makes each walk different and fun.
12. An early morning lamb tagine with couscous, the best damn lamb tagine with couscous EVER, in a Berber village on the road between Tetouan and Tanger reminds me always of how local food is the soul of a place, and the part of the place’s soul we can actually take with us as a reminder. No, I have not been able to reproduce the lamb tagine.
13. Happy children jumping into a fountain and splashing in the Römerberg in the warm Frankfurt summer made me realize how rebuilding a city’s soul by reproducing its destroyed urbanism is possible, regardless what Preservation Commissions and Academics say. And that the concern about “historicism” in urbanism is bullshit.
14. A balcony overlooking the Alps right before dusk, with cowbells keeping everyone awake and old streets barely illuminated by faint streetlights reminded me how rural places can be urbane in Lausanne
15. When I decided to make a journey to the place my family name originated outside Aretxabaleta, Guipuzcoa I kneeled on a pew at the village chapel and looked out to the mountains and the geraniums hanging from the window sills. I saw home. That is how I knew that Place travels through oceans and is reborn whenever two people decide to rebuild it.
16. Watching a Boca Juniors fan insult the entire family of a River Plate fan just like their fathers and grandfathers had done since they came from Ukraine or Italy over a century ago, and in the same historic coffee place, I realized what makes up pride of place. They hugged afterwards and kept drinking together.
17. Walking down streets with alabaster curbs lined by grand old mansions in Liege is fascinating. They were dusty and tired after not housing any more distinguished guests or hosting lavish parties for decades, but still shined and stood dignified as testimony of how the love with which a place is built remains long after the place decays.
18. A Flamenco singer in Triana can teach all that one needs to know about how a city is, its music.
19. An evening learning how a restaurant in Madrid has been making cochinillo with the same recipe in the same ovens since the 1700s, will show you how a city is, its food.
20. Learning the sad way how politics kills trust, destroys families and chokes dreams in Havana, but at the same time preserves buildings and is met by a fierce defense of tradition taught me about the value of time standing still.
21. After spending almost every summer in Miami as a child, and then going back as an immigrant decades later, I learned about the power of public art to repair urban tissue and prepare it to become a living city again.
22. Someday I will write a manual on how to barter and purchase kilim rugs from merchants at the Istanbul Egyptian Bazaar. It will include a detailed description of miles of alleys with textiles, lamps, sweets, spices, soaps, food, coffee and backgammon. It will help me remember how cities evolve over time and become stronger by keeping trade alive and adapting, not destroying what works.
23. Not the most beautiful, but always the most delicious, a week in Bogota is how we learn that in a great city there will always be an excuse to have a beer and relax with great people without the need to go to “attractions”. The most special cities are those built for locals and not tourists.
24. A walk on the streets of Ravenna, past a vocal ensemble singing in public, merchants shouting at each other from their storefronts on both sides of the street showed me how narrow streets create better neighborhoods and add to the drama that keeps cities interesting.
25. Carlo Scarpa, just like our friend Luis Barragan from earlier in this story, was a good Modernist. He gracefully intertwined contemporary design in the Castelvecchio in Verona to teach newer generations how modern adaptations of historic buildings can be among the most beautiful things in the world.
26. I learned how the number of bakeries is a metric for a good city in Paris. No explanation needed. Just Paris. That tells enough of a story.
27. A shot of Palinka with a vendor at the Budapest Central Market, after a Roast pork leg taught me about the wonder of local food systems and how it all meets in public markets.
28. Shivering from the cold in a Stockholm Spring is bad. Feeling inadequate as locals in T-shirts, shorts and sundresses dismissed the weather because dining out was so much fun, taught me that the cold is not an obstacle for outdoor dining if there are friends, drinks and good heaters.
29. Rotterdam, where I lived for a year, is not known for its quaint urban spaces, but for its progressive, modern city building. Good places were hard to find when I was there, but every place had several trucks where you could get local delicacies: lumpias, kebab and shawarma. A good supply of street food and people gathered around it can make any place seem warmer and more beautiful.
30. I had the best pastrami on rye in a single-table deli on a side street in Detroit. This is where I learned how it is the tiniest of small businesses that will guide recovery, no matter how big the challenge.
Bonus: Fried calamari, rice and wine in a tent in front of the Mediterranean teaches many things. The greatest lesson, from Valencia, one of the greatest cities I know, is how to embrace the shores and create public spaces that strengthen the bond of land and water.
Bonus 2: A $3 bag of the most delicious Xiaolompao from a street vendor in Taipei told me all the possible lessons about pride, identity, fearlessness and attachment to place.
Christopher Alexander wrote “The Timeless Way Of Building” where he spent much of his time trying to define “the quality without a name”. He insists we’ll know it when we see it. I like to think the lessons that I’ve learned from looking at places are part of that Alexandrian train of thought.
The most important lesson is that Place teaches us manners and history and respect, it shows us what dignity is and how the design of buildings and public spaces can channel it. Place demonstrates what the human scale is and how it makes us happy. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are taught by Place.