The importance of place

(Photo: Claudio Calligaris)

Architecture professor Avi Friedman worries that we’re so focused on making our surroundings purposeful, we’re forgetting how to infuse them with the charm required to make them livable

What is it about some places that leave them seared in our imaginations, while others are so forgettable? In his latest book, A Place in Mind: The Search for Authenticity, McGill architecture professor Avi Friedman, M’Arch'83, the co-founder of McGill’s Affordable Homes Program and a recipient of the United Nations World Habitat Prize, has set out to answer that very question. From a street market in China to his childhood home in Israel, Friedman travels the globe, collecting the puzzle pieces that make up a livable, likable city – pieces he says we have been quick to discard as our cities have grown more suburban and impersonal. Writer Christopher DeWolf, BA’06, recently spoke to Friedman about the book.

You talk about finding a sense of place, but what is that exactly? And how does thinking about cities in that sense change the way we relate to them?

When you come to a place, you need to recognize that many of your observations will most likely be personal. It’s very hard to claim that everybody has the same perception or feeling of places where they are. But in general, when you come to a place that engages you, that has a story to tell, that inspires a certain feeling that you haven’t felt in other places, you recognize in your mind that it has a special sense of place.

What I did in the book was I broke the city down into fragments, all of which are parts of what make somewhere a nice place to live. I wrote abut them in isolation, but when you put them together, you get a very good place. For instance, walkability. When you walk from place to place you get a very different perception than when you see the city through the windshield.of your car.

Most people in Canada and the United States now live in suburbs – have we lost our sense of place?

We know to measure the amount of highway miles that have been added in cities, but we are not so good at measuring the social erosion that has happened. Over time, many of the social magnets or special places have been stripped out of our communities. You see reduced play spaces. Markets have been replaced by large supermarkets. We pay a heavy social toll for their disappearance. In the case of children, they end up having not as many social skills, obesity is very prevalent, they spend most of their time watching television or playing on the computer.

I remember designing a project in one Canadian town and a city councillor came to me and said she had not seen her neighbour in three months. I said, “How come?” and she said, “Well, I wake up in the morning to go to work, I enter my garage, get in my car, drive to the garage in my office building.” This lifestyle leads to no social relations among people.

Early in the book you describe a scene in an Italian town, inside a restaurant, where nothing seemed planned or choreographed. Initially you’re wary and annoyed about having to share a table with strangers. Then you notice the charm of the scratched-up wood tables and the centuries-old exposed brick and stone on the walls and the wonderful aromas from the cooking. You strike up a pleasant conversation with the other people there. You have a good time. New spaces in North America seem to be very restrictive in the way they can be used. Is this coming at the expense of spontaneous urban life?

Absolutely. I think that in the past few years we have attempted to introduce spaces with purpose and we ignore the spontaneity that in some places may arise. If you go through history, there is no doubt that many famous squares in the world have been designed, but often they have been the outcome of spontaneous tendencies of people who went there, worked there, and did things that planners cannot foresee. They have their own spark.

You speak fondly about markets. What is it that you like about them?

I enjoy markets that have been features of their neighbourhoods for decades or perhaps centuries. You can tell that they are buildings that are not only designed to function as markets but have all these other elements that make places work very well.

Markets are very engaging because they work on your many senses – you see amazing colours, hear so many noises, smell the food. You get to rub shoulders with people. You are surrounded by so many things that grab your attention.

Each market provides a different sense of excitement. I remember walking in the spice bazaar in Istanbul, where the scent is so strong, or the market in the old city in Jerusalem where you can hear people singing. They all challenge your senses. I do not get the same feeling in a mall or a supermarket.

Speaking of markets, in one chapter of the book, you describe your experience of walking through a street market in Dalian. What did you find happening in China?

When I see the direction that China is following now, I have to say with a great deal of sadness that the Western model, the American model, has become so powerful a force that even countries with rich urban cultures are abandoning them. When I was in Dalian I was stunned to see the amount of traditional homes, beautiful courtyard buildings, that had been cleared to make way for tall buildings like hotels and so on. But it’s the places in the world that have been frozen in time that interest people. People come from all over to visit Tuscany, the hill towns that have not changed in three or four hundred years. Many of these kinds of places are rapidly disappearing. We are in danger of seeing authentic places vanishing.

You also touch on another phenomenon in the developing world – shantytowns. In one part of your book, you marvel at how a slum in Tijuana has many of the elements of a good place, despite being very poor and having been built by its own residents using scavenged materials. Now that much of the world’s population lives in places like this, what can we learn from them?

There’s a tendency around the world for people to believe that the government has to provide homes for poor people. When I was in South Africa recently, however, I realized where they are being housed – in these huge townships that are very poorly designed and built, with single-family homes on large plots, which creates this huge urban sprawl that does not have the corner stores and social spaces like that.

In a shantytown, there are certain things that happen by force of nature – the scale, the way homes are placed and so on, that leads them to be lively places. If those principles can be studied and replicated, and people can be provided with the ability to house themselves, with government support in terms of providing infrastructure, the likelihood of obtaining nice places is greater than when people are placed in awkward, poor-looking environments that will never have the chance to have the kind of pull that these other places have.

When you go for a stroll around the city, which places have the sense of place you’re looking for?

I like the older parts of Montreal. I love the Plateau. I spend a lot of time walking there and I think it is one of the nicest neighbourhoods in Montreal. If I go out I will go to a corner café, to a place where people are sitting around, where storefronts are accessible. When I first came to McGill, I was fortunate enough to live right in the McGill Ghetto and it’s a very nice place to be a student, because it has a good atmosphere and everything you need.