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Sussing Out a City's Personality

Feb. 18, 2016

Understanding the dialogue between design and dwellings

If there's one thing you can usually be certain of, it's that at any time I will be traveling. I love it, and my little roll-and-go carry-on has been my travel companion for the last 8 years exploring the world with me.

Currently, I'm in my childhood hometown of Pasadena, Calif., with my family. And as he's done since I graduated with my masters of art in decorative art history and theory, my dad is pointing out everything from family heirlooms to the crown molding in the house we're renting for the week, asking if I can determine the date and what I can tell him about the design.

It's a fun game we've been playing for years. However with my increasing travel schedule, I'm finding I do it on my own whenever I step into a new space, and I'm fascinated in seeing how the personality of a city can be tied in to its historical aesthetic.

My favorite example would have to be Chicago, a city that I have grown to love immensely throughout my half-dozen trips there, but fear my California blood will never allow me to actually move to. (Winter and I don't mix.) Having lived in New York, it's easy to see how Chicago would have a bit of a chip on its shoulder about the attention the Big Apple receives; after all, they rushed into the skyscraper era neck-in-neck, blossoming with Art Deco stylings and continuing to build on themselves over the last century. Chicago has every bit of boasting rights in being titans of architectural ingenuity as New York does.

But while New York has grown and changed, demolished and built up again, Chicago has embraced its Art Deco roots. I chuckled to myself then Instagrammed the hell out of the Shake Shack I stumbled upon downtown the last time I was in the Windy City. At that moment it seemed to make so much sense to me that of course a burger joint in Chicago would be in a perfectly polished wooden space installed in the 1930s. Chicago, with it's clean, effortless style, and pride in its history. The type of city that appreciates its brunches and late nights on the town, but it's not going to get sloppy about it.

Maybe it's just me, but watching the people of Chicago bustle to and from work feels like an echo of the buildings surrounding us. Everyone's moving forward with purpose, but not quite as frantically as in New York where the streets swell with people all trying to get some place *now*; where nothing is quite good enough because something new is just around the corner.

Of course, both have a very different feel and look from what I consider my hometown of San Francisco. Every time I go back, it's as if the city has changed again, growing up as fast as technology will allow; its buildings painted by individual whim rather than collective inspiration mirroring the inhabitants whose style from day to day depends on their mood rather than office code. And, again, all these differ from Miami, a city that stretches out along the beach in the sun, and whose buildings were constructed to hold in their inhabitants during the quiet day and transform into a bustling outdoor party during the night.

Which brings me back to my current stay in Los Angeles. While downtown seems to always be in the midst of a construction face-lift, the sprawling suburbs hold tightly to their early-to-mid-20th century buildings like an aging actress who is constantly recounting her golden days on the silver screen. But while Tinseltown is slowly losing its hold to newer, more scenic spots like Toronto, there's something so stunning about the old Hollywood glamor that Los Angeles refuses to give up and build away from that ensures it always has a place at the award banquets.

I love that history and aesthetic is able to give cities their own personality. When you travel as much as I do, it's comforting, like meeting someone over a meal and being able to tell their temperament in that short period of time. And I think the buildings cities choose to keep, tear down, or build up says a lot about them.

I urge all of you as you go to a new place to approach the city as a personality to suss out. Even if you aren't able to pinpoint historical styles, question yourself, "What does this look like, feel like, act like?" It's a beautiful dialogue with design, in a potentially different manner than some of us may be used to.

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