How to visit—and really understand—a new city like a local.

The rise of the smartphone has made it easy to pretend you’re not a tourist. A befuddled backpacker with a clunky camera on his neck and a guidebook on the table, holding a map upside down? Not something you see so much these days, because the functions of those objects have all been absorbed by our handsets.

If you want to feel like a local in a new city, however, it’s time to pick up a book again. Specifically, an architecture guide. Don’t let the name turn you off; there is no jargon in these tall, narrow paperbacks. Sure, they’ll tell you who designed which structure. But more often than not, they answer a more fundamental question that I find myself asking every time I’m in a new place: What is that thing? Why was it built, and when, and for whom? Providing this context is the core purpose of the architecture guide, and it unlocks a deep sense of where you are.

In Rio, for example, I bought the Rio de Janeiro Architectural Guide at the Livraria da Travessa. Between its thick purple covers are notes on more than 700 buildings, written by a team of eight, and more than 400 photographs. Like most volumes of its type, it’s best used not for planning, but as a companion to be called on when you come face to face with something that makes you look twice. Although I did let the book lead me to the Ministry of Education and Health, Brazil’s first experiment in modernism. The book details the contributions of now-famous designers Lúcio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer, and Le Corbusier, and treats readers to some lines of verse about the building from the poet Vinicius de Moraes (who later wrote the words to “The Girl From Ipanema”):

Geometric shapes 

On a music score

Aesthetics and silence 

Of a space created!

More often, though, I flipped the Rio guide open when something caught my eye— for example, a spiral staircase at the Museu de Arte Moderna, so exquisitely placed it seemed to have been cut from the floor above and lowered into position. This was the work of Affonso Eduardo Reidy—a famous photograph of him climbing it during construction looks like a still from The Fountainhead. Later, marveling at the sinuous patterns on the sidewalks along Copacabana Beach, the book popped in again: This four-kilometer-long mosaic was designed by the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, and has a claim to be the largest mosaic tile panel in the world.

Obviously, there’s nothing new about this—young aristocrats on the Grand Tour were expected to see a city’s great buildings, and visitors’ maps of the 19th century were often superimposed with sketches of churches, palaces, and other structures that were not to be missed. Such rote, checklist tourism has been boring visitors for as long as there have been visitors. Upon reaching Palestine in the 1860s, Mark Twain wrote in his travelogue The Innocents Abroad, “If all the poetry and nonsense that have been discharged upon the fountains and the bland scenery of this region were collected in a book, it would make a most valuable volume to burn.” In Paris, Twain dutifully saw the Old Masters at the Louvre, but he had more thoughts (and more fun) seeing the can-can, and much more concern with women’s mustaches and how hard it was to find soap than with Haussmanian architecture.

Things were no different in the United States, where government buildings, grand hotels, parks, and rich people’s houses were always on the list of “sights.” As the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce described its didactic aims in 1915: “We shall tell you what to seek and how to find it, and possibly what it may mean when you have found it.” Modern-day guides will drag you from building to building as much as they’ll tell you where to eat and sleep.

A good architecture guide, however, isn’t a preachy who’s-who or a stylish shortlist in the style of a Wallpaper guide. It’s an omnibus. It opens with a short introduction that explains how the city grew, outlines its commercial priorities and aesthetic proclivities, and chronicles periods of boom and bust. From there follows a lifetime of local knowledge. In Guide to the Architecture of London, by Edward Jones and Christopher Woodward, which I picked up last year at the London Review Bookshop, the National Gallery gets the same column inches as Lubetkin and Tecton’s Penguin Pool at the London Zoo. Many of this book’s 1,000-plus entries are simply titled “House” or “Offices”; there are notes on viaducts and avenues and red telephone boxes and unnamed apartment buildings, all the unsung vernacular that gives a city its special rhythm. There is no better way to spend an afternoon in London than riding on the top level of a double-decker bus with this book in your lap.

The form may have reached its apex in the hands of Ian Nairn, whose passionate, eccentric guides to London and Paris have become cult objects since their publication a half-century ago. Here is how Nairn described the Place de la Trinité in Paris: “one of the best in Paris, a compendium of all the things that make the city unforgettable… a good deal of traffic but not too much, big cafés, a public garden immediately underneath the church, and everyone using their city—the park benches house lovers, tramps, knitting mothers, and grandmothers who are beyond purling even the simplest jumper. It is as near pure urban freedom as anywhere in the world.” Throw away your Lonely Planet.

Rio de Janeiro Architectural Guide, Nairn's London, and Nairn's Paris.
They won’t disappoint.

More famous is Nairn’s London, which he described as a series of short essays on the 450 “best things in London,” including quite a few bad things. He surveyed landmarks but also pubs, described walls “like old gorgonzola” and noted that the elephant sculpture on the Albert Memorial had “a backside like a businessman scrambling under a restaurant table for his cheque book.” Among those to fall under his spell was the film critic Roger Ebert, who spent many visits guided by Nairn’s London and later wrote, “He seemed to be standing beside me, chatting about the building we were both looking at, and yet when I looked at his entry with a writer’s eye I was astonished to find how brief it might be, and how it did not seem to contain an unnecessary word.” Ebert so loved seeing London with Nairn in his pocket that he convinced Penguin to reissue the book, and eventually wrote its introduction.

In Chicago, my girlfriend and I froze our hands and strained our necks tramping up and down the canyon of skyscrapers on LaSalle Street with Judith McBrien’s Pocket Guide to Chicago Architecture, picked up nearby at the Dial Bookstore. The book seemed to identify virtually every structure in sight as a one-time world-record holder in some engineering feat or another. Marina City, for example, was once the tallest concrete and residential structure in the world. It’s all very Chicago.

The Windy City takes pride in its reputation as an architectural showcase, but just as interesting as the city’s design history is its commercial and industrial trajectory. Chicago’s
Goth Target,” for example, was originally built by Louis Sullivan as the nine-story department store Carson Pirie Scott & Co., selling everything from lamps to lingerie. The nearby Fine Arts Building, which may be the country’s most eclectic assemblage of workshops and studios and shops under one roof, was once a Studebaker factory and showroom. Those changes are representative ones that tell you something about the history of the American city—and nothing says I belong here like calling something by what it used to be. (Best not to call the world’s ex-tallest building the Willis Tower.)

Finally there are the offices, and it’s here that an architectural guide most obviously veers away from—and outperforms—a traditional guidebook. On the one hand, vacation is about getting away from the office, but on the other, cities have until recently derived both their civic identity and their architectural fabric from the firms that call them home and spend their profits to make a mark on the skyline. The granddaddy of all the architecture guides is Robert A.M. Stern’s New York 1960, a nine-pound, 1,376-page doorstop which, with its encyclopedic authority on hundreds of subjects, doubles as the disjointed history of the postwar metropolis. It also makes clear that New York office buildings were totemic expressions of the day’s premier designers—and, by their names alone, offered a survey of the mid-century New York City economy.

The role of the urban office building may be changing. For one thing, today’s tech giants are leaving little built legacy, preferring to renovate and occupy older spaces, as Google did with New York’s Port Authority building or Twitter with San Francisco’s old furniture mart, or camp out in the suburbs, like Apple. As the urbanist Stephen Smith put it a few years ago, “Perhaps unique among New York’s large industries, the tech and creative tenants that have become the darlings of the current market cycle are leaving very little behind for future generations to admire.” For another, many big firms are shuffling their office portfolios as they try to figure out what the future of work looks like.

Many people, of course, are perfectly happy to go around eating and shopping and seeing a show and visiting the museum and couldn’t care less which megacorporation built that big boxy white building, or that everyone hates that it has no corner offices, or that the luxurious marble facade nearly came crumbling down and had to be completely replaced at enormous expense. But that is exactly what I want from a trip. I want to know about the boondoggles and the scandalous demolitions and the gems; the engineering follies and the perfect streets; the gargoyles and the starchitects and the bars with walls like old gorgonzola.

Oh, and a good meal—but for that I’ve got my phone.

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