As an architect I have privileges. My work takes me to some of the most beautiful cities in the world. But what I find most unique about being an architect isn’t necessarily in the act of traveling, but the friends and colleagues I find in the places where I land. Whether it’s a fellow architect, city planner, historian, artist, craftsmen antiquarian, stone connoisseur, or just an impassioned resident, there is always a guide. Mind you these aren’t just your everyday guides, but people who live and breathe the very stones of their city.
After a talk in Chicago, several old colleagues and a few new friends and I head off to a nearby restaurant to celebrate the evening. After a bottle of wine (or two) conversation begins to shift from comparing offices and the challenges of our work in the design world, to our passions in life. It never fails that some resident doesn’t ask, “Oh, have you seen this yet? If you haven’t you MUST before you leave!” (Never mind it’s midnight and my flight leaves at 6am). As tabs are settled and guest who stayed longer than promised scurry for the L and back to waiting spouses and babysitters, there is always the one or two that can’t let you leave without a proper introduction to the hidden gems of their city. “Why don’t I walk you back to your hotel?” Michael (one of Chicago’s most accomplished classicist) offers. Soon, the route to the hotel has changed to “something you must see”. Around a corner, modestly occupying the street is a simple but beautiful rectory. A building easily missed in the bustle of the day. Howard Van Doren Shaw’s precise proportions are festooned in ivy, leaded glass windows glowing softly from behind. Around the corner, I follow Michael to an arcade, where the bones of its ribbing lead us inside to a small and peaceful courtyard. The central fountain suddenly refocuses the world around us. To one side, Shaw’s rectory; to another, a delicate gown of leaded glass cloaks the parish hall; and to the other, Cram, Ferguson, Goodhue’s masterpiece the Chapel of the Fourth Presbyterian Church, with it’s unassuming and “inventive confidence” as Michael puts it- the chapel’s tracery carved out of limestone as though it were ivory, glowing in the night. Then, my host quietly directs me to look up. There, framed by the small and intimate cloister is Chicago’s skyline, skyscrapers of a 100 stories on all sides stretching into the night sky- contemplative, yet breath-taking at once.
I have been fortunate to have many moments like an early morning sunrise illuminating the narrow white-washed streets as our footfalls echo off the walls of Arcos de la Frontera, a small hilltop town of the Pueblos Blancos of Spain; or, feet throbbing at 3 am, as a resident architect directs us to an untouched cobbled enclave in East Berlin; or, a Florentine squeezing us through the iron gates of the gardens of Villa Gamberaia where he and his sister once played as children “oh, how the Romanians just don’t know the art of clipping the boxwood like the old man who used to keep the garden…although, he used to drink a little too much.”
Or, an artist friend guiding a small boat (rather poorly, I might add) down the canals of Venice to paint the pink patina-walled canals next to the small marble clad church of Chiesa Santa Maria dei Miracoli to name but a few. Then there’s the Parisian, fanatically regarding the joinery of the doors he had built for the Palais Royal, “Would you care for your picture taken on the Minister of Culture’s sofa?”
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