In every city, there are many cities

Artist and writer Austin Kleon wrote a blog post recently entitled “The art of finding what you didn’t know you were looking for”. A concept which should be familiar to everyone of a creative disposition. In it he discusses the importance of keeping your archive of inspiration, interesting finds, ideas and unfinished work in a deliberately semi-chaotic state. The theory being that if your filing system is too regimented or structured, you won’t stumble upon things that you had forgotten about and which might prove to be useful in shaping future projects.

If, what Kleon describes is a handling strategy for re-finding past influences and inspiration, I wondered what strategies might exist for finding new influences and inspiration when you need them. I thought about my own work and realised that I have two strategies:

The first is to do with books, or more specifically, libraries.

The second is to do with cities.

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Although libraries are perfectly structured in familiar ways, they can become semi-random providers of inspiration if approached correctly. At a simple level, a seemingly aimless shuffle along unfamiliar aisles will invariably lead to areas of interest; a subject that is new to you, a never-heard-of author, a description of a way of doing something that had never occurred to you - the key is to find ways of steering clear of known subjects. Also key is the fact that it is a real, non-digital experience, occurring in real time, around real people, within physical surroundings (hopefully good architecture).

City visits seem to work for me in a similar way. I don’t need to spend very long in a new city, walking the streets, riding the transport systems, visiting landmark buildings, before my mind is racing with new ideas. But it doesn’t need to be a new city, a familiar one will do. You just need to find new ways of experiencing it; visit an unfamiliar area, try different times of day, get up high or, perhaps try to imagine how the city is experienced by other people. 

These approaches have worked for me on many occasions. I think it has something to do with new perspectives and the unfamiliar.

They seem to work best when you’re really up against it. In fact, the more up against it, the better. Properly stuck is good. Or at least totally frustrated that your work is nowhere near as good as you’d like it to be and you only have a short period of time to meet the deadline. That’s the time to stop. It always pays off. 

Here’s a tale that links both of my strategies. 


Towards the end of my architectural studies I joined a field trip to Vienna. We hired a clapped-out double-decker bus and travelled overland through France, Germany and Austria. Prior to the trip I was in the university library working on my latest design project. I took a break, went for a stroll and found myself, unusually, in the literature section. Enjoying some discoveries from various European regions, it occurred to me that I should select one 20th century novel for each of the countries I was about to visit. For France I chose Alain Robbe-Grillet’s ‘Le Voyeur', for Germany, Thomas Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain' and for Austria, Robert Musil’s 'The Man Without Qualities’.

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The following year I returned to help lead a similar field trip to Venice. This time, of course, I headed for the Italian literature section and this led me to Primo Levi ('The Wrench' and 'The Periodic Table') and Italo Calvino ('If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller' and 'Invisible Cities').

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Thirty years later I can report that all of these books have continued to be companions on my journey, constantly influencing my ideas and philosophy. I can state this as fact as I know it to be true but if you were to push me, I would probably find it difficult to give you specific examples.

However, it is Calvino’s book 'Invisible Cities’ that is most relevant in the context of this article. In it Calvino describes a fictitious encounter between the explorer Marco Polo, and the ageing emperor Kublai Kahn. Polo is apparently describing the wondrous and fantastical cities in the outer reaches of Kahn’s expanding empire. Kahn marvels at the descriptions provided by Polo but points out, after many tales, that he has said nothing about Polo's home city of Venice. Marco Polo replies: “Every time I describe a city, I am saying something about Venice”.


If I was to sum up what I’ve learnt from all of this, it would be to say that it caused me to recognise the immense power of narrative, not just in writing, but also in my chosen fields of architecture, urban design and place-making. Or, to put it another way, narrative serves as a powerful reminder that what is most important in architecture is not buildings, or spaces, or materials, or craft, or ideas, or even creativity. 

It's people.